Reading Agatha Christie books at an early age inspired me to learn French. Hercule Poirot was Belgian, not French, but Christie’s books were sprinkled with enough French phrases to intrigue me. I don’t recall if Poirot ever said, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” but it seems appropriate here. The phrase, loosely translated, means, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
In the year since I last wrote a guest blog for Katie, a lot has changed in my life, including two biggies: I’ve moved back to Chicago after 20 years in Cincinnati, and I’ve become a grandmother. But other things have not changed: I’m still a struggling, unpublished writer and I’m still in awe of Dame Agatha Christie, whose sales of two to four billion books in over 100 countries—second only to Shakespeare—earned her the title, “The Queen of Crime.”
What was Agatha Christie’s secret to success?
Last year, a rereading of Agatha Christie’s Autobiography led me to write a blog I called, “What Would Agatha Do?” I don’t want to bore you by covering the same ground, but I recently saw a television special called The Agatha Christie Code, which I found fascinating. Forgive me if I drop in a few lines of backstory (you might get an idea why I’m not published yet . . .).
I’m an obsessive reader, and my favorite genres are mystery and romance. While rereading some Agatha Christie books recently, it struck me that they were about the same length as Harlequin category romances. Both as a reader and a writer, I was astounded to make that connection. Unlike romances, Agatha Christie’s mystery books are stocked with enough characters to fill a small parlor—which frequently happened at the end of her books, when the detective Explained All. In addition to the detective, the police officers the detective would outsmart and the occasional sidekick, Christie’s books include enough characters to keep readers guessing—and constantly revising their guesses—as they attempt to figure out “whodunnit.” How did Agatha Christie flesh out so many characters and drop so many clues with such a small word count?
Writing by the numbers?
Thomas Jefferson said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do,” and Dame Agatha seems to have mastered that talent. I may have noted Agatha Christie’s talent for packing a lot into relatively short books, but a team of professional linguists in England took their curiosity about Dame Agatha’s way with words to a whole new level. As discussed in The Agatha Christie Code, linguistic experts from three British universities believe a mathematical formula can be used to explain her phenomenal success. One report notes:
Christie uses literary techniques mirroring those employed by hypnotherapists and psychologists, which have a mesmeric effect on readers. It could mean the structure of her novels creates physiochemical responses which cause people to seek them out again and again.
Another report summarized the findings featured in The Agatha Christie Code. Dr. Pernilla Danielsson focused on Christie’s use of plain language, noting her use of “said” almost exclusively, and her use of common, everyday language, which leaves readers free to focus on the plot. Another of the researchers, Dr. Richard Forsyth, looked for patterns in her writing, to see if it was possible to predict whodunnit. He made several discoveries about her books that Dame Agatha was probably not even aware of:
- If book is less than 55,000 words, it’s nearly always a female killer
- If book is over 71,000 words, nearly always a male killer
- Kind of transport first used in book: road=female, air or water=male
- Lot of “a” and not many “I” probably male
Secret formula vs. good writing
While the scientific methods reportedly used in this research have been questioned (and extensively mocked) in print and online, I still find it interesting. Many of the writing techniques mentioned in the television special would be easily recognizable to anyone who writes for a living. The PR team promoting the show hyped it up, but basically they were describing good writing.
I realize today’s sophisticated readers may find Agatha Christie a little tame. Some even describe her writing as “cardboard.” But for someone who only started writing on a dare from her sister, Agatha Christie still managed to outsell Conan Doyle and just about everyone else writing in her time—or anytime. There may not be an actual Christie “code,” algorithm, or magical formula, but if there’s a magic formula to becoming a bestseller, it would be worth a fortune. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are soon TV shows called The J.K. Rowling Code or Fifty Shades of Code.
I’m not saying it’s impossible, but so far it seems these scientists are mining fool’s gold. As a struggling writer, I’d rather believe Agatha Christie just had a way with words. Cardboard? Not to me. I’ve read about a million of her words, and I’m not bored yet.