Enthralled by Christie

Hemavathy and her collection. — Sunpix by Zulkifli Ersal.
Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie

DAME Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie (1890-1976) was a prolific writer, who was once listed in the Guinness World Records as the best-selling novelist of all time.

Often called the queen of crime, Christie is considered a master of suspense, plotting, and characterisation.

Best known for writing 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, Christie also wrote six romance novels (under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott) and 16 plays, including the world's longest-running murder mystery play, The Mousetrap.

Most of her works have been adapted for stage and television, and even on the silver screen, the most recent being Murder on the Orient Express, one of her more well-known books starring her most famous detective Hercule Poirot (played by Kenneth Branagh in this film).

This Belgian detective is one of Christie's most long-lived characters, appearing in 33 novels, one play (Black Coffee), and more than 50 short stories published between 1920 and 1975.

Other popular characters from her books include the shrewd and sensible Miss Jane Marple, and the fearless Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.

In 2013, the Christie family gave its backing for the release of a new Poirot story, The Monogram Murders, written by British author Sophie Hannah, which unfortunately could not recapture Christie's magic.

While researching for this story, I was referred to the Agatha Christie Literary Club (a closed group) on Facebook.

It was originally founded in June 2016 by some US-based members. The group is currently run by Hemavathy (Hema) D.M. Suppiah, who only joined last Dec.

Hema says she initially wanted to start a similar book club herself, but "somehow, I was convinced to take over the running of the club after the original group from the US left".

She adds the club is now completely overhauled.

There have been many new applications to join the club, but not all are accepted as the group wants only applicants who are genuinely interested in being a part of the club.

"I have been running the club since Feb 26, and our first discussion was held in March," says Hema (above).

Each month, members are assigned to read one of Christie's books, and an online discussion would be held on the last weekend of the month.

In Sept, it was The Murder at the Vicarage, Oct was Hallowe'en Party, and Nov was Murder on the Orient Express.

On when she first picked up a Christie book, Hema says: "I remember it vividly. It was in Oct 1995 when I was in Form Two. My father was a member of the Royal Ipoh Club and every month, he would bring back a few library books that had been set aside by the librarian.

"There were three books that I wasn't allowed to read until the last day of my exams. The titles were Cat Among Pigeons, The Pale Horse, and The Murder at the Vicarage."

The first book that Hema picked up was The Murder at the Vicarage.

"I knew from the first page that this would be my favourite author and I would love her work forever. I just knew it," says Hema who deems herself lucky to be able to connect with an author so quickly.

She adds that she took about 12 to 13 years to finish Christie's entire body of work.

"I got [the books] from libraries, bookstores and second-hand bookshops. My parents also helped. For my 21st birthday, I received 21 Agatha Christie books."

Hema has now amassed about 100 books, both written by Christie and written about her.
As for the monthly book discusssions, Hema explains: "I realised that there's no use in having a [book club] if we are not discussing her books.

"Because it is an international group, we have to set the discussion [to cover all time zones] – on the last weekend of every month starting from 8am on Saturday to noon on Monday (Malaysia time).

"Members can pop in any time they want to and have a lively conversation."

Hema says it is interesting to see how people relate to the plot and characters based on their different backgrounds and points of view.

Hema also enjoys watching films and TV adaptions of Christie's books. "I have my favourites and I like those that have been adapted as faithfully as possible".

However, she understands that these adaptations take certain liberties to make them more marketable.

"I don't think it is in any way disloyal to Agatha Christie because she was very much a woman of her time, and she understood you have to write what can be sold. She was a brilliant marketeer and brilliant at sales."

Hema also doesn't believe that people will rush out and buy Murder on the Orient Express just because of the movie.

On her part, she prefers to read the book first before watching the movie and hopes this iconic story will be the catalyst for people to start reading Christie's other works.