From the days of ancient Greece right up to the present day, people all over the world have been fascinated by crime stories. Authors including Sophocles, Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle are often cited as being among the finest writers of the genre – but none can match the best-selling novelist of all time, Agatha Christie.
Her 66 detective novels and 14 collections of short stories have sold about two billion copies. She also penned The Mousetrap, the longest-running show in the world which has played continually in the West End for 66 years. Her estate claims that only the works of Shakespeare and the Bible have been published more widely.
So it’s hardly surprising that an exhibition about the writer, Agatha Christie: Mysteries, Murder, Marple and More, at Pickford’s House in Derby has been extended until 26 January because it’s been so successful.
The tribute to Dame Agatha has been put together by Gale Goddard, a retired civil servant from Langham in Rutland. In 2005 she was watching a Christie drama on television, Five Little Pigs, and an idea popped into her head that she should start collecting photos of actors involved in TV productions and films.
Five years later she had her first exhibition, at the now closed Snibston Discovery Museum in Leicestershire.
“I had quite a lot of photographs,” she told me when I met her at Pickford’s House. “I also had some items from Greenway (the Christie family’s holiday home in Devon) which belonged to Agatha that she actually used herself.”
In 1926 Agatha Christie mysteriously disappeared after her husband Archie asked her for a divorce. She wasn’t found for ten days and two doctors diagnosed that she had been suffering from amnesia.
“I also had a few things to do with her disappearance,” said Gale. “I think then I could see the potential of a different type of exhibition and it’s really grown from there. I have these ideas and I just follow them through.”
Gale revealed that she was fascinated by Agatha’s plots and the suspense in her stories.
“I once read that she leads you to the murderer at the very beginning of the story and then everybody is under suspicion.
“I’m also interested in the psychology of murder, not the actual act of murder.”
During World War I Agatha Christie volunteered as a nurse at Torquay hospital. She then moved into a dispensary.
“I think she was in her element then because she learned a lot about poisons,” said Gale. “In her first book The Mysterious Affair At Styles, the way she described the poisons was so accurate that a pharmaceutical journal mentioned that she had a very good understanding of poisons and how they worked.”
Go along to Pickford’s House and you can learn all about Agatha’s writing and some of the characters she created. There are rare books as well as oil paintings of actors including David Suchet, Joan Hickson, Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov.
There are items that would be used by Agatha’s endearing Belgian detective Hercule Poirot including his black Russian cigarettes, cigarette case, hats and canes.
“If you look into the Murder On The Orient Express exhibition it’s almost as if you’re standing there or sitting in the train going along the journey not realising that murder’s at the end of it.”
The centenary of Agatha’s birth was celebrated with a bronze bust of her being erected in Torquay. A copy of the bust is in the Pickford’s House exhibition.
“This is an identical copy,” said Gale. “It’s made of clay but if the bronze one in Torquay were to be damaged, this is the only other copy because the mould was broken after this one was made.”
Many actors have portrayed Poirot on radio, television and film but Gale believes David Suchet was undoubtedly the best.
“He read all the books because he wasn’t familiar with them and made notes about the character.
“He played Poirot exactly how it should be. I’ve met David on a few occasions and when he’s in costume he doesn’t come out of the character until he’s finished filming.”
Another of Agatha’s enchanting characters is Miss Marple, played by Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury, Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie among others. But Gale’s favourite is Joan Hickson who she said played the character as she was in the books.
“If we go back to the very beginning, Miss Marple was a little old lady – she wasn’t particularly a nice person. But after a while Agatha Christie changed the character who becomes very observant. This is what Joan Hickson portrays.”
Gale is negotiating where Agatha Christie: Mysteries, Murder, Marple and More will go next. She’s pleased that it’s been extended at Pickford’s House.
“All I want is for people to come to the exhibition and enjoy it. Sometimes I just like to watch people’s faces. That’s all I want – I don’t want anything else from it.”
So will Agatha Christie’s popularity continue?
“Undoubtedly. We’ve had quite a few young people who’ve come to see the exhibition, so it’s nice that there’s another generation of people out there who are fascinated by her stories and her books.”
There are some remarkable exhibits, none more so than a picture of the first actress to play Miss Marple on stage. Who was it? You’ll be intrigued. You’ll have to go and detect who it was yourself.