According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Agatha Christie is the best-selling book author of all time, with approximately four billion works sold worldwide. Only Shakespeare and the Bible get better distribution. The Bard, of course, pretty much sells himself. As for the Bible — well, that author has some rather unfair competitive advantages.
Christie wrote short stories, plays and romances for more than 50 years, but is best known for her series of mysteries featuring detectives Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot. Miss Marple is a personal favorite of mine, an elderly spinster and amateur detective who lives in the English village of St. Mary Mead. A devotee of gardening and knitting, Miss Marple possesses a keen mind and a preternatural insight into the darker side of human nature. St. Mary Mead has an alarming homicide rate, relative to its demographics, and Miss Marple is forever solving murder cases that leave the local police baffled.
Miss Marple stories have a reputation, richly deserved, for being delightfully addictive. I once spent a summer with my aunt in Florida, convalescing from a traumatic college break-up, and read nothing but Agatha Christie for three months. Good medicine, by the way. Hard to wallow in self-pity when the Vicar just got stabbed in the tea parlor.
Anyhoo, all of this is by way of introduction to a marvelous new DVD set out this week from A&E Home Entertainment: Agatha Christie: Poirot and Marple. This 17-disc, $135 box set collects more than 35 hours total of various British TV productions featuring the two detectives, with David Suchet and Joan Hickson starring in their signature roles.
How many murders, the prospect of an Agatha Christie video game, and why this is a particularly welcome break from crime procedurals, after the jump...
For those counting at home, you get a grand total of 21 murders solved. Christie fans will recognize some of the famous cases presented here: The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, Death On The Nile, and The Mirror Crack'D From Side To Side. Many of these stories have been adapted into feature films over the years, as well as stage plays, radio dramas, et cetera and forever. (Here's a thought: Why not a Miss Marple video game? Virtual knitting, head-to-head gardening...)
I've been dipping into the box set for a couple of weeks now, and am pleasantly surprised at how surprisingly pleasant it's been. These professionally executed (heh), densely plotted murder mysteries have a kind of calm and classy BBC-flavored appeal. It's a distinctly different experience than watching our contemporary iterations of the murder mystery on network and cable TV.
I'm not particularly prudish, but today's television crime procedurals are only getting weirder and more gratuitously graphic. I saw a rerun of some CSI incarnation a few weeks back and was astounded. Something about a black-market surgeon, a botched sex-change operation, a trail of gynecological gore and even more extreme elements that I can't figure out how to euphemistically phrase.
So I'm enjoying my time with Mr. Poirot and Miss Marple — plenty of labyrinthine whodunit fun, without the grisly forensics and bodily fluids. It's all about plot and characterization and who poisoned whom.
The only problems: The collection has no significant supplementary extras, and episodes lack closed captioning, which can be a problem with the various European accents and generally muddy sound transfer. But image quality is just fine, and besides, Christie's stories have such sturdy narrative armature that you could mount a production with sock puppets and it would still be fun. Good, clean homicidal fun.