Agatha Christie’s first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, could be called a book she was challenged to write. Her sister, Madge, was already a writer with some published pieces, including paid stories in Vanity Fair. But Agatha didn’t want to only write poetry and short stories; she wanted to author a book. A murder mystery.
“I don’t think you could do it,” said Madge. “They are very difficult to do.
I’ve thought about it.”
“I should like to try.”
“Well, I bet you couldn’t,” said Madge.
And the idea to write detective stories was planted. As they say, “challenge accepted.”
The Mysterious Affair at Styles takes the reader into a wartime murder solved by a Belgian refugee, Hercule Poirot. It was published in 1920 after the Great War was over. However, when drafting this story, it was still a time of war: her husband Archie was away serving in the RAF, and she was doing her part by working in a hospital dispensary.
So much happened after that first book.
I just finished reading Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman by Lucy Worsley (2022). It is a well-researched and engaging biography covering all aspects of Agatha’s life (including her much-publicized disappearance). But for myself as a writer, I especially enjoyed reading the descriptive information about Agatha’s writing life and the origin of her many books.
For her stories, Agatha wrote what she knew well, and that from her real life. Beginning with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her characters were created based on the family, friends, and even servants of the country house where she grew up. (She even used her beloved wire-haired terrier, Peter, in one book, Dumb Witness). Life’s experiences were often incorporated into her stories.
Throughout Worsley’s book, she describes the “Christie Tricks” Agatha used in her writing. While doing my best not to include spoilers here, know that to best describe these tricks will require revealing some details. But I will do my best not to ruin any endings for you.
11 Writing Tricks Agatha Christie Used in Her Books
The Mysterious Affair at Styles reveals the first trick – hiding an object in plain sight. It is by happenstance that the OCD-driven Poirot discovers the critical clue. It was ingeniously hidden by the murderer in an unexpected place in the house.
A second trick in Styles is the “hidden couple” – two people who thoroughly dislike each other throughout the story yet are revealed by Poirot as the duo who did the plotting – before the book’s beginning.
In one of Christie’s best books, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), a third trick is used. The story is narrated by the main character, a bachelor, the trusted Doctor Shepphard. He helps the famous detective Hercule Poirot, yet, through his narration, purposefully leaves out tiny yet key facts. If disclosed, the reader would see that those facts would have immediately revealed the murderer. Reviews of the book said that Christie’s trick was “unfair.” But readers loved that Agatha bent the rules.
In the 1930s, Agatha wrote some of her best-known books. This was after her acrimonious divorce from Archie Christie and subsequent marriage to the 14-years younger Max Mallowan. Some of these were set in more exotic locations due to travels with her archeologist husband.
Murder on the Orient Express (1934) was inspired by Agatha’s return trip from the Ninevah archeological dig in December 1931 when flooding held up the train for two days. She creates incredible characters based on the interesting people she meets on the train. The fourth trick was using details from a real-life crime she had read about in the newspapers: the kidnapping and murder of the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh. Other details in the book were thoroughly researched. For instance, to ensure the train stops’ timings given in the story were correct, she verified them from the 1932 timetable (and a second trip on the Orient Express).
Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) uses an archeological setting, a familiar scene from Agatha’s time with Max on a dig in the Middle East. Here Agatha employs a fifth trick – the planting of a clue. This may seem obvious, but not how Agatha does it here. She includes something ambiguous that the reader, unless observant, may miss. The narrator, Nurse Leatheran, uses a typically unfamiliar yet unexpected archeological term when describing items inspected by the dig’s director, Dr. Leidner. It later provides an “aha!” moment when the reader realizes its importance.
A sixth trick, like a bait-and-switch, is in The ABC Murders (1936). The reader is led to believe that a series of murders are linked to the alphabet. However, when an unsuspecting salesman is arrested, Poirot discovers that even he was almost led astray. (This book is also where Agatha explores a new field of murder, the serial killer.)
Another manipulation of the reader is a seventh trick Christie uses when describing characters by their appearances instead of their age, as seen in Murder is Easy (1939). The hero is a retired policeman who uses the slang term “an old lady” about a suspect. In fact, the suspect is revealed to be more his contemporary than his 28-year-old girlfriend.
Agatha was intrigued with psychology, which shows in how she portrays Poirot. Not a usual detective, Poirot uses his “little grey cells,” or “the psychology,” to solve crime. “There is no need for physical effort,” he explains, “one needs only – to think.” The use of psychology to create intrigue can be considered an eighth trick in Agatha’s writing. Worsley shares a 1946 quote from Agatha: “With the passage of time,” she’d become more interested “in the preliminaries of crime. The interplay of character on character, the deep smoldering resentments and dissatisfactions that do not always come to the surface.” This is more noticeable in her character-driven detective novels, Five Little Pigs (1942) and The Hollow (1946).
Agatha used an actual kidnapping and murder from the headlines before, but a ninth trick was adopting ideas from contemporary news stories. Destination Unknown (1954) uses “echoes of two real spies.” The Mousetrap (1950) “picked up on the real-life tragedy of foster child Dennis O’Neill that emerged at the 1945 public inquiry into his death.” In The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), Agatha incorporated (unconsciously, is it said) the effect of German measles on pregnancies, which really happened to actress Gene Tierney. Tierney was infected with German measles and, as a result, gave birth to a disabled child. (The film from 1980, starring Liz Taylor, is a favorite of mine.)
Agatha used familiar places to create the settings for her stories, such as her Greenway home in Five Little Pigs. But to better understand what her characters could actually see, Agatha uses a tenth trick. When writing A Murder is Announced (1950), Agatha persuaded her neighbors to come into her drawing room and describe what they could see when the lights were suddenly turned off. She said, “What they do see and, even more interesting, what they don’t see.”
Finally, the eleventh trick is one that Christie used three times — recycling a good plot. She used an unreliable narrator or witness, as in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, again in The Sittaford Mystery (1931), and later in Endless Night (1967). Not that the reader would be able to tell.
Other Writing Tips to Learn from Agatha Christie
Reading Worsley’s biography, I discovered other good writing tips, not expressly called “Christie tricks.”
One is having an uncomplicated way to write down ideas. Agatha used “exercise books.” Today we may call these composition books: the smaller lined notebooks with thick cardboard covers and no spiral. Agatha used more than seventy of these notebooks, kept handy to record unexpected ideas she wanted to use later in a book.
Another is having a dedicated writing area. Agatha appeared to have the most extended and productive writing sessions when she had a designated place to write. At the archeological dig in Nimrud with Max from 1945 to 1957, she built “a small, square, mud-brick room” attached to the dig house where she would work every day.
And finally, read your writing aloud. This is a tip that has always been helpful to me, from blog posts to book chapters. While Agatha spent holidays at her Greenway home, a family ritual developed in which Agatha would read her latest book aloud to her family after dinner. It’s a good idea to test out a plot. (However, when Agatha read her stories, the proofs had already been finished, so it would have been too late to make any significant changes.) Reading dialog and descriptions aloud can help to see if the writing is smooth or if there are areas where the reader could get tripped up.
If you are an Agatha Christie fan, then you must read Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman by Lucy Worsley After reading this book (and after reading many Agatha Christie titles over the last two years) gave me a better understanding of how her writing evolved. Agatha was unafraid to funnel her real-life experiences and family characteristics into her books. She incorporated the excitement of her travels into her story locations and characters. Female characters were given center stage; some were even perpetrators of the crimes. She was nostalgic yet wove current-day headlines into her storylines.
Read my post “How I Spent an Entire Summer with Hercule Poirot”
about my Agatha Christie reading journey.
But Agatha was still imperfect. Many ideas and thoughts were given to her characters to say because they could simply be considered their flaws, not hers. She still used biased cultural descriptions in her writing, notably Jewish people, even after the war.
However, Agatha Christie’s writing is still well-loved and a standard for today’s detective-murder mystery. Her “Christie Tricks” continue to be recycled and reused. For authors, these tricks are still excellent formulas for mysteries and suspense novels.
Information for this article is from the book Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman by Lucy Worsley (2022). Lucy is the Chief Curator at the charity Historic Royal Palaces. She also presents history documentaries for the BBC and PBS. Also referenced was the official Agatha Christie website.
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