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Queen of Crime's hidden talents revealed

Solving mysteries is the work of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple made famous by the creative hand of Agatha Christie; but few are aware of another of the author’s attributes – her astute business sense.

The University of Exeter holds a collection of correspondence, including letters to and from her agents and publishers, which clearly illustrates her ability as a tough negotiator in all aspects of her literary output.

As part of the official 125th anniversary celebrations of Agatha Christie, the University of Exeter is hosting a conference 13 – 14 April.  The ‘Hidden Horizons’ conference, which takes the original title of her play Murder on the Nile, will focus on Agatha Christie’s lesser known novels and her aptitude for business.

As consultant for a documentary on the legendary crime writer and a PhD student at the University of Exeter, James Bernthal is keen to provide a more rounded view of Christie. He said:“The business correspondence shows Christie’s skills as a negotiator. Throughout her career she meticulously looked after every aspect of her published work and was not afraid to stand her ground when she felt that her artistic vision was in some ways compromised. When the cover design for the novel Sad Cypress did not meet with her approval, she resolutely demanded to have it reprinted. Calling it “awful” and “so common,” she asked her literary agent, Edmund Cork, in a letter from January 1940 to “use all his influence” to convince the publisher, Collins, to take on board her own design suggestions. After all, she concluded, “I care about the appearance of my books.”

Bernthal added:“It is fair to say that an astute business sense is not something we think of immediately when considering women writers of the interwar period. But the material in our archives tells us that Christie, who was determinedly marketed as a holiday read, was a force to be reckoned with.”

A new BBC One TV series Partners in Crime is due to be broadcast later this year, with David Walliams and Jessica Raine playing married detective duo Tommy and Tuppence. This will be followed by a three part BBC One adaptation of And Then There Were None, her bestselling crime novel, with the script to be written by Sarah Phelps (The Crimson Field, The Casual Vacancy). This additional spotlight on Christie supports the need for her literary work to receive a greater critical response from the academic world on her merit as a novelist. 

The University of Exeter awarded Christie with an honorary degree in 1961 and scholars at Exeter, like Dr Vike Martina Plock, have continued to champion her work. Through detailed explorations of the characters in the books and the context of the writing, academics and students are able to build a picture of the writer and the time in which her work was written beyond the familiar cultural portrayals of her stories on the screen. 

English lecturer Dr Plock explains:“For too long Agatha Christie has only been seen as the producer of inconsequential, escapist fiction that evokes nostalgic visions of British traditionalism in the interwar period. The Hidden Horizons Conference at the University of Exeter will shed light on other aspects of her writing, emphasising the versatility of her prose and illustrating how successful she was in managing her career as a writer. We hope that this event can generate further academic interest in her work and that it will assist in strengthening Christie’s place in an expanding canon of twentieth-century British women writers who hoped to entertain but who also had significant things to say about the world in which they lived.”         

Date: 10 April 2015

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