The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 16, 2000

Why do it to the whodunit?
By V. Gangadhar

TIMES change and I guess even crime fiction cannot escape these changes. Take the case of St. Mary Mead, the small village featured in many of Agatha Christie’s mystery novels. It was quiet, the people knew each other well but it had its own dirty secrets and passions. The person who knew them all was Jane Marple, the elderly, pink-cheeked spinster who helped the mighty Scotland Yard to solve many crimes in the region. Her approach was logical and simple, "Human nature being what it is....". Jane Marple was able to find parallels from her village with those who figured in the cases she handled. She was an immortal creation of Agatha Christie.

Agatha ChristieIn a distant London flat, known for its proper porportions, former Belgian police officer now turned private detective, Hercule Poirot, often wondered why hens did not lay square eggs which would have satisfied his passion for order and perfection. If Marple was simple, Poirot was flamboyant. He had an egg-shaped head, sported an enormous moustache, hated dust on his immaculate clothes, drank sweet ‘sirop’ and tisane. Poirot solved murder cases by the dozen, not by chasing criminals and shooting at them, but sitting in his armchair and using his ‘little, grey cells’. God forbid, he was not a man of ‘action’.

Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot may soon disappear from the crime scene. The family members of Agatha Christie whose books had been outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, recently decided that the time had come to modernise her works. Obviously, the family was inspired by the example of Shakespeare whose plays had been ‘adapted’ for modern stage and screen presentations. In fact, Hollywood came out with a blockbuster, Shakespeare in Love which revolved around a fictitious plot.

  Film producers, over the years, had been waiting for the day when they would be able to modernise the hugely popular Christie whodunits. Marion Rosenberg, Agatha Christie Ltd’s representative for film and TV rights in the US was visibly excited by the family decision to modernise the works. Christie’s grandson Nathew Pritchard who bcecame a millionaire after the writer had bestowed on him the collections from her long-running play, Mousetrap said that the novels had immense potential for the 21st century when handled by imaginative filmmakers. "If Shakespeare can do it so can we," Pritchard said in a press interview. "You can’t get left behind. My grandmother was quite innovative and would not have any objections to her books filmed to suit modern audiences."

I am not so sure of that. Agatha Christie was a traditionalist in her approach to writing. Would she approve of modernisation where the focus would always be on violence, sex of all sorts, brutality, serial killers, bizarre characters, torture and endless physical action aided by modern scientific gadgets. Look what happened to poor James Bond. Today’s Bond movies are far removed from the characters created by Ian Fleming. They had been taken over by the special effects teams whose efforts cost the producers millions of dollars. Would Agatha Christie approve of the transformation of her beloved St. Mary Mead into a modern Las Vegas and Jane Marple portrayed as a sexy, young woman wearing revealing clothes and hiding a deadly gun in her bra? Or Hercule Poirot who had a ‘peculiar’ relationship with his friend, Hastings?

As a loyal Christie fan, I shudder to think what will come out of this modernisation. For years, I had visualised the existence of St. Mary Mead and its people described by the novelist — the gentle Vicar, his attractive wife Griselda, the old pussies who gossiped all the time about maids who wore short skirts and had unsuitable names like Helen. The village had its share of retired Colonels who had done duty in India and were always married to much younger women. It was in this atmosphere that Jane Marple thrived. She was very much part of the Old Pussies gang and gossiped avidly because the information thus gained helped her to understand the people. If you understood human nature properly, half of the battle in solving a crime was over.

Christie’s crime fiction was the thinking man’s favourite kind of reading. Detectives did not run around, shouting, screaming. Hercule Poirot after talking to people involved in a murder case, sat down, closed his eyes and used his little grey cells. His eyes became green and ‘voila’, the solution was there before him. Remember Cards on the Table, an excellent example of the thinking man’s crime fiction. Four people are playing bridge and one of them gets murdered while the others are immersed in the game. Poirot solves the case by studying the scores of the bridge game because these gave him clues on the working of the murderer’s mind.

He uses the same strategy while solving the ABC Murders where a shrewdkiller makes use of scapegoat and almost gets away with a series of murders. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had been acclaimed as a crime classic. The identity of the murderer comes as total shock. And who can ignore, the chills of Ten Little Niggers where ten people gather on a deserted island. One by one they die and there is no survivor. But then who was the murderer? Which modern writer had produced a better thriller?

There is every reason to plead for the survival of the thinking man’s crime fiction. Among the moderns, P.D. James is simply brilliant though her books have a brooding presence of evil. They are a bit more than the usual whodunits. Even today, there is definitely a readership for the old, classic detective story and its film version. James’ novels had been made into successful TV serials, without any significant changes.

Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler and others. How much we had enjoyed their books? The Humphhrey Bogart movies on the Chandler novels are popular even today. Raymond Burr, the American ‘heavy’ was pitchforked into stardom with his portrayal of lawyer Perry Mason created by Gardner. Years later, the TV producers produced scripts based on the characters created by Gardner. Burr again played Mason, but these were not a patch on the earlier, genuine works of the author. So much for modernisation!

I guess the Christie family had succumbed to greed. They are sure to receive huge amounts for allowing TV producers to play havoc with the original stories. The old world charm, the distinct characterisation, the subtle sense of humour...all these will be sacrificed to violence, fast action, gadgets and kinky sex. Oh, poor papa Poirot and poor auntie Jane. You won’t like this one bit.