We’ve been talking about plots this week—Jilly about what she likes; Jeanne, what she doesn’t; and Elizabeth, how many plot elements in a story are too many. In keeping with the theme (especially Elizabeth’s theme of murder mysteries), I found a great article by Dorothy Gambrell in Bloomberg Businessweek, of all places, that charted plot and character elements in Agatha Christie novels. It’s pretty cool.
I’ve read quite a few of Christie’s novels, and while I’m not a huge fan of her work any more, there’s no denying that she had a huge influence on the development of the mystery genre. So it was interesting and fun to look at these charts and see what characteristics Christie gave her killers, broken down by age, gender, occupation, method, motivation, and relationship to the victim—and how these elements changed over Christie’s working life. (I tried to post some of the charts, but alas—Bloomberg didn’t use a format that I could reproduce.)
For example, when Christie’s first books came out in the 1920s (her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, starring Hercule Poirot, was published in 1920 when she was 30 years old), her murderers were usually young (about half the time), male (two-thirds of the time), and secretaries (one-third of the time; her other favorite occupations for villains were actors, businessmen, doctors or health-care professionals, and servants or domestic help. “No profession” and “other” figured hugely, and at the end of Christie’s life, many of her villains were also “retired”). They had a work relationship with the victim (about one-third of the time) and poisoned (about half the time) or stabbed (one-third) their victims either to secure an inheritance (one-third) or to conceal their true identity (one-third).
(Poisons figured largely in all of Christie’s novels as the means to the end; as a young woman during World War I, she worked in the drugs dispensary of a Red Cross hospital. She learned so much about poisons there that when The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published, the Pharmaceutical Journal wrote a review of it.)
However, by the time she published her last novel (Postern of Fate in 1973), Christie’s villains were different. By then in her 80s, Christie wrote villains who were older or at least middle-aged (fifty-fifty split). They were still male by a two-to-one margin, but now they were either retired or had no profession (again, a fifty-fifty split). By then the victim was usually a family member (by a two-to-one margin) or a stranger, and the motive was usually jealousy (half the time; the other half was “other”). The killer still usually poisoned his victims (about half the time), but shooting and strangling were equally important alternatives.
One of the fun graphs showed how motive and method came together—so, for example, if revenge was the motive, then Christie’s villain chose poison by a three-to-one margin; the rest of the time, he stabbed his victim. But if the motive was money or jewels, the preferred method was shooting or striking with an object, followed equally by strangling or poisoning.
The charts are easy to read and they reveal probably more about Christie’s shift in outlook than anything else. Give her output (66 novels, 14 short story collections, and the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap, which ran in the West End from 1952 to 2020), I think the charts, while not exactly definitive, show Christie’s change in approach.
What about you? Are you a Christie fan? Has your writing changed over time? Who are your villains, and how do they do away with their victims?
Like you, I was a big Christie reader back in the day but not so much anymore. It’s interesting to hear how her worldview evolved over time.
For myself, I got such a late start as a writer there really hasn’t been time for much evolution. Two of my first three manuscripts were historical and now I write in the present. That’s really the only change I can think of.
I think it’s not much of a surprise that many people move past Christie; her first book came out 100 years ago! Things change. 🙂 Starting with writing styles and moving on to the geopolitical outlook.
I’d say that the main evolution that’s happened for me is that I’ve gotten better as a writer. I look back to the things I wrote 10 or 15 years ago, and the good stuff is still there, but the craft has definitely improved since then.
I love that this data exists, Kay. Thanks for sharing. I haven’t read much Christie, but now I feel compelled to pick one up, and maybe start keeping a spreadsheet of the murderers, victims, motives, and methods for the other mysteries I read.
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