When I was asked to consider writing a series with Agatha Christie as the detective, my first response was to say no. Firstly, because I’ve never written historical fiction before – all my previous work happens firmly in the present, with Sister Agnes my detective nun working in a homeless hostel in London, and Berenice Killick being a senior police officer based in Kent. And, secondly, because Agatha Christie is a real person, and I thought, how can I write fiction about someone who actually existed? It seemed to me an almost insurmountable difficulty, to have one character based on fact in a story which is otherwise peopled with fictional beings.
But what I hadn’t realized was what a great source of inspiration this tension would become. In my Sister Agnes novels, there usually comes a point when one of the characters says, ‘if this was a story, then it would all be simple, but of course we’re stuck with this being real life.’ It is an idea I have circled throughout my work, the nature of the ‘real’ within fiction, what it is to tell the True Story – and the Agatha Christie series has been a wonderful opportunity to explore that.
The historical setting, too, has opened up all sorts of possibilities. Again, I was, at first burdened with the sense of having to get things right; but the research has been enormous fun. Reading copies of the Times for 1925, I have become aware of how different the world was then.
Concerns about the instability of Germany or the upheavals taking place in Russia are buried among endless accounts of foxhunts and the boat race results from minor public schools. And the ease with which a death sentence could still be passed in the courts gives an edge to a story about the unmasking of a murderer.
Sister Agnes tends to find herself at the centre of the crime; and for D I Berenice Killick it’s her job, to investigate a killing. But with Agatha as detective, I’ve tried to echo her own methods. In the Miss Marple stories, it is as if the detective is sitting with us, the reader, in an armchair, and the murderer somehow does all the work – and all Miss Marple has to do is watch, and observe, and finally tell the story of what really happened. In the Agatha stories, I’ve tried to evoke the same feeling. Agatha is drawn in reluctantly; it is her natural intelligence, her grasp of human nature, and her observation of how people behave, that wins the day.
There is a moment in the latest Agatha Christie story, the second in the series, where someone accuses her of playing parlour games in her work, of not reflecting the real damage, the grief of murder. And in reply she says she makes no great claims for her work. ‘People enjoy detective fiction,’ she says, knowing that after the horrors of the First World War, which she too witnessed, she understands how her readers want calm, and order, and justice.
Only Agatha Christie can write an Agatha Christie story. But writing her as a character has been an opportunity to reflect on what it is to find the truth within fiction – as well as to pay homage to the mistress of the craft of crime writing.
Hidden Sins, the latest in the series, is published by Endeavour Press.
Murder Will Out, the first, was published December 2014.
The Sister Agnes novels are published by Allison & Busby
Dying to Know, featuring D I Berenice Killick, is published by Endeavour Press.