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100 Years After 1st Book, Agatha Christie Continues To Be Bestselling Novelist

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In October 1920, an English hospital volunteer won a bet by publishing her first novel. Her sister had said there was no way the writer could craft a murder mystery that stumped its readers even though they had the same clues as the story's detective. But, of course, Agatha Christie had done it.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Yes, she had. And today, 100 years after publishing "The Mysterious Affair At Styles," Christie continues to be the bestselling novelist of all time.

CHANG: Christie's iconic characters, cozy settings, clever plots and grisly deaths were hits from the start, said David Brawn. He's Christie's current publisher.

DAVID BRAWN: People were looking for escapism, I think, from the horrors of war and, weirdly, sought that in novels and stories about murders and mystery.

KELLY: Stories like "Murder On The Orient Express," "And Then There Were None" and "The ABC Murders" became instant classics. And her detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, became household names.

CHANG: Christie was quite the character herself. She was an expert in poisons - perhaps unavoidably - and pursued opera singing, archaeology and surfing.

BRAWN: Someone who spends all their waking hours thinking up plots about killing people, but doing it in a way that doesn't offend, shows that she was quite a fun person to be with.

CHANG: (Laughter) Andrew Gulli of the Strand, which continues to publish her short stories, says it's Christie's familiarity that sets her apart.

ANDREW GULLI: Anybody can become a criminal. Somebody who is seemingly normal, for various reasons, can just suddenly do something very, very dark and sinister.

KELLY: It's a trait that has allowed Christie to dominate the screen as well, with hundreds of film and TV adaptations, starting with the silent "The Passing Of Mr. Quin" - that was 1928 - all the way up to this year's highly anticipated "Death On The Nile," starring Kenneth Branagh.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEATH ON THE NILE")

KENNETH BRANAGH: (As Hercule Poirot) I am Detective Hercule Poirot, and I will deliver your killer.

CHANG: And on stage, "The Mousetrap" ran for 68 years on London's West End, making it the longest-running play of all time until it was felled by this year's pandemic. But fans keep reading the timeless books themselves.

BRAWN: There's something to be said about the mystery novel being something you can escape into. All good mystery novels end up with some kind of happy ending. Justice is done. The perpetrators are found out and locked away, and you've had a very enjoyable experience helping to solve the puzzles.

KELLY: So why do we all continue to turn to her tales of mysteries and death? Maybe Christie put it best herself - that is the secret of existence, she said; we're all a little mad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.