Queen of Crime is Still Knocking Them Dead
Who is the most popular novelist of all time, outsold only by the bible and Shakespeare? (Hint: It's a woman.)
The answer is no great mystery to fans of Agatha Christie who have purchased two billion of her books in some 45 languages. In a career that spanned more than half a century, the British author wrote a total of 80 novels and short story collections. Add to that a dozen or so plays, among them The Mousetrap, the longest continuously running play in theater. In 1971, she achieved her country's highest honor when she received the Order of Dame Commander of the British Empire.
Arguably, this amazing woman can be considered the most successful writer of all time.
So it was no surprise Christie topped the list of the most requested playwrights of Arts Center of Coastal Carolina audiences. As part of this year's People's Choice Theater Series, the Arts Center will present Black Coffee, February 5-24.
It has been 12 years since local audiences were treated to the deliciously perplexing Christie killer thriller, The Mousetrap, produced by the Arts Center in its opening season.
Black Coffee, her first play and the only one to feature her famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, promises to be just as much fun. In this potboiler, Poirot is put through his paces sorting through suspects to find the murderer of Sir Claud Amory, a renowned physicist who has developed a formula for an atomic bomb. Initially called to the scene to investigate the disappearance of his formula, Poirot arrives at Amory's country estate to discover someone has bumped off the scientist.
"If you enjoy a good mystery, you're going to love Black Coffee," said New York director Russ Treyz. "It's suspenseful right up to the end."
The youngest of three children born to an American father and British mother, Christie never attended school. A shy child, she turned to writing as a means of expression.
In 1914, at the age of 24, she married World War I fighter pilot Archie Christie and worked in a hospital and a pharmacy while he was off at war. Her experience became helpful in the future, as many of the murders in her books and plays, including Black Coffee, are carried out with poison.
Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, debuted in 1920. Christie was already a well-known writer in 1926 when her husband asked her for a divorce. She later married Max Mallowan, an archeologist who she met on a trip to Mesopotamia. Her travels with him to digs all around the world provided her with some of the settings for her novels, as well as the fodder for an entertaining non-fiction account of the many archeological expeditions she shared with him. She also wrote six romantic novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.
Black Coffee opened in London in 1931, but has never been produced on Broadway. According to theater legend, the play was blacklisted for a period of time since it dealt with sensitive security matters surrounding the development of the atomic bomb. (Interestingly, Christie wrote about the atomic bomb 15 years prior to the first actual testing of the weapon.)
Poirot starred in 33 of her novels and 54 of her short stories and this one play. Over the years, Christie became increasingly tired of Poirot, confiding to her diary that she was finding him "insufferable" at times.
"He's very meticulous," said actor Rick Ford, who is playing the crafty criminologist in the Arts Center's production. "But he has a huge ego."
But the Queen of Crime resisted the temptation to kill her detective off while he was still popular. She saw herself as an entertainer whose job was to produce what the public liked, and the public liked Poirot.
In contrast, Christie was said to be fond of other world-famous super sleuth Miss Marple. While Christie may have liked Marple best, Poirot's titles outnumber the Marple's by more than two to one.
In the '40s, Christie wrote two novels killing off these two great detectives, Curtain and Sleeping Murder. Both books were sealed in a bank vault for over thirty years, and were released for publication by Christie at the end of her life. Upon his demise, Poirot became the only fictional character ever to be honored with a front page obituary in The New York Times.
Fellow writer Brian Aldissonce recounted that Christie told him that she wrote her books up to the last chapter, and then decided who the most unlikely suspect was. She would then go back and put in both red herrings as well as clues to "frame" that person.
"Crime is terribly revealing," she once said. "Try and vary your methods as you will, but your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions."
Performances of Black Coffee are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday with Sunday shows at 2 p.m. Feb. 10, 17 and 24 and 7 p.m. Feb. 17 and 24. Tickets are $39 for adults ($36 for Feb. 5, 6 and 7 previews), $29 for children under 16 ($26 for the previews), and may be purchased at the Arts Center box office or by phone with a credit card by calling 842-ARTS (2787). Ticket prices include a $5 facility fee.