Agatha Christie is the most popular novelist of all time, having sold 2 billion books. When WORLD reviewed the new television adaptation of her "Miss Marple" series-in which the detective is a little old lady in a tiny English village-we liked it ("Mystery!" April 2, 2005).
But as they say in mystery writing, things are not always as they seem.
The review episode provided to WORLD ("Murder in the Vicarage") was different from the one that prompted WORLD subscriber Chris Measley to take issue with our positive assessment. Mrs. Measley, an Agatha Christie fan from Jefferson City, Tenn., noticed that the TV version of "The Body in the Library" changed the book in a way unforgivable in the mystery genre: It gave the story a new ending with a completely different character revealed as the murderer. Worse, the new solution to the mystery hinged on a homosexual affair, with a flashback showing two lesbians kissing beside the sea.
"One of the reasons I have always loved Agatha's books is because they are free from the bad language and anti-Christian beliefs found so abundantly in other mysteries," Mrs. Measley said. "I don't want to see this genre ruined for the next generation."
Presented with evidence of a literary crime, Mrs. Measley started some sleuthing of her own.
She compared each of the four televised versions to the novels upon which they were based. She found that two of them added homosexuality to the stories. The other two added heterosexual material not in the originals, including a reference to a passionate affair that prim and proper Miss Marple supposedly had when she was younger.
In the meantime, Mrs. Measley's husband gave her a boxed set of the four new TV dramatizations of another of Agatha Christie's detectives, the retired Belgian police investigator Hercule Poirot. And two of those injected homosexuality into the plots.
This was akin to discovering the second murder in an Agatha Christie novel. But when the crime is repeated, that means more clues. Mrs. Measley noticed that all four of the episodes featuring homosexuality had the same director, Kevin Elyot.
So she investigated Mr. Elyot. A Google search identified him as an acclaimed writer and director in England's gay theater scene, the author of the award-winning play My Night with Reg. So Mr. Elyot injected his particular interest into his adaptations, completely changing the author's original intention.
Detectives know that the trigger man, while culpable, may not be the only killer. Who paid the hit man? Who profited from the crime? Was there a larger conspiracy?
Mrs. Measley kept digging.
When Agatha Christie died in 1976, her daughter, Rosalind Hicks, took over management of her literary properties. She was a fierce defender of the integrity of her mother's works, forbidding any unfaithful or immoral adaptations. When a movie company in 1995 wanted to place a Christie story into a contemporary setting and add references to incest, Hicks and her lawyers stopped that project dead in its tracks.
But when Hicks died in October 2004, the management of the estate fell to her son, Agatha Christie's grandson, Matthew Prichard. "If Agatha Christie is to be as popular in the 21st century as she was in the 20th," he said, "we have to be open-minded about interpreting stories in modern ways."
"Previous Marples were rather pious and judgmental," said Damien Timmer, who heads the new TV project. "Ours isn't."
Agatha Christie's Marples were indeed morally directed. So in what sense are the new versions still Agatha Christie mysteries?
"I love that she does not need sex, violence, and bad language, like most modern writers of fiction, to tell a great tale," said Mrs. Measley, citing the books' Bible quotations and the detectives' reflections on God and on right and wrong. "Agatha was a gifted moral writer and her future impact is being sabotaged." And yet, in one sense, her legacy lives on in Mrs. Measley's own literary detective work.