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The Everlasting Appeal of Agatha Christie

The author’s signature whodunits are everywhere, from Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot to ‘Glass Onion’ to the latest season of ‘You.’ What is it about the genre that attracts storytellers over and over again?

Netflix/Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

Every year, You becomes a new show. In its first season, the Lifetime-turned-Netflix hit was a thriller about an obsessive romantic who stalks, courts, and eventually kills his prey. To simply repeat this plot would risk reveling in gendered violence; over time, You could echo its antihero’s bias rather than undermine his many delusions. To avoid that trap, Season 2 switched coasts and flipped the script, unmasking its love interest as a crazed killer in her own right. After that reveal, Season 3 was a twisted riff on Desperate Housewives with some Silicon Valley satire to add local color.

For Season 4, You relocates to London—and becomes an Agatha Christie–style whodunit in the process. Having burned all his bridges in America, serial killer Joe Goldberg has decamped for the U.K., which should be nirvana (you know, the opposite of Anavrin) for a former bookstore clerk who once followed his crush to a Charles Dickens festival. But just as Joe settles into life as a humble professor, courtesy of a stolen identity, his posh colleague turns up dead in his flat. It’s up to Joe to find the real killer among the victim’s social set, which includes an aristocrat, an art gallerist, and the proprietor of a Soho House–like club. Being a reader, Joe is self-aware enough to see exactly what has befallen him. “Shit,” he seethes via voice-over. “I’m in a whodunit—the lowest form of literature.”

He’s not the only one. Part 1 of You’s latest adventure—Part 2 premieres next month—arrived on its streaming service just a month and a half after Glass Onion, the second film to star Daniel Craig as a modern-day, southern-fried Hercule Poirot. The actual Poirot, as played by Sir Kenneth Branagh, can still be found at the box office, where A Haunting in Venice will round out Branagh’s trilogy of official Christie adaptations this fall. And on HBO Max, you can stream See How They Run, a meta murder mystery set behind the scenes of Christie’s play The Mousetrap. Not all of these stories’ detectives are as reluctant or resentful as Joe. But each is explicitly riffing on the same shared inspiration, more than a century after Christie entered the detective genre she came to define.

To say Christie is back in the zeitgeist is to imply that she ever left. A running joke, and potential motive, in See How They Run is that (in real life and the movie) the official film rights to The Mousetrap are conditional on the play winding down; instead, its West End run has extended for 70 years, long enough for producer John Woolf to pass away and leave the rights to his son. (In keeping with the film’s self-referential streak, this dilemma also explains why See How They Run is not a straightforward take on The Mousetrap.) To date, Christie is outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible. Beyond her vast body of work, her influence is apparent everywhere from Adrian Monk to Gosford Park.

The latest crop of Christie homages is a testament to the writer’s enduring appeal, but also to the flexibility of the format she perfected. The whodunit has its tropes—the eccentric investigator, the isolated country estate—while acting as a vehicle for whatever social commentary, colorful characters, or cultural references its current steward wants to infuse it with. “With the whodunit, I’m always looking for the genre to place inside that genre to actually make the car go,” Glass Onion director Rian Johnson told The Ringer in a conversation last month. “And the whodunit element is almost laid on top of it as an extra layer.” The whodunit can accommodate anything from a takedown of tech billionaires to a theatrical farce to an allegory of romance gone wrong, all while its most classic example remains beloved enough to inspire a box office hit. And while the genre has never gone out of style, the whodunit’s latest peak is an opportunity to appreciate both the form and its undisputed master.

Before she decided to make a season of TV in Christie’s image, You showrunner Sera Gamble wasn’t much of a fan of the mystery writer. Neither was Mark Chappell, the screenwriter of See How They Run, who preferred the hard-boiled noir of authors like Dashiell Hammett or noted Christie hater Raymond Chandler. Michael Green, who penned the scripts for all three of Branagh’s Poirot movies, had an aversion to Christie’s work so intense it verged on personal animosity. “As a young kid, I watched [the 1978 film] Death on the Nile on home video and was so terrified by it that I actively avoided reading her for years,” Green says now. “Watching Death on the Nile was the first time I ever faced the idea that people kill people on purpose.”

But just like Goldberg, these writers had to get up close and personal with Christie’s oeuvre for a crash course in what makes the whodunit tick—and, in some cases, so hard to pull off. Gamble got the idea for You’s latest iteration from power producer Greg Berlanti, who codeveloped the show and still has dinner with Gamble before each new season to brainstorm big-picture ideas. Berlanti had recently spent time in London, and while he didn’t anticipate Christie-core becoming a full-blown trend, he thought both the setting and its associated style would suit Joe’s journey. Besides, Season 3 had ended on a cliffhanger as Joe followed his latest obsession to Paris. London was just a train ride across the English Channel away.

After some initial reluctance, Gamble found herself drawn to the idea of casting Joe in a cat-and-mouse game. “Part of what I think is so fun about this particular genre is that it invites a lot of quirkiness in the protagonist,” Gamble says. “It’s very much about the little mannerisms and quirks of your main character.” Poirot is persnickety, exacting, and a fan of dramatic facial hair; Miss Marple is sharp, inquisitive, and a loner by nature; Joe Goldberg is dogged, derisive, and convinced of his own righteousness despite the skeletons in his closet. As a killer on the hunt for a killer, Joe follows in the footsteps of iconic antiheroes like Dexter Morgan. But for You’s particular purpose, he’s able to put longtime skills like stalking to new use—and give the audience a (temporary) break from Joe idealizing yet another innocent woman. This time, the titular “you” is more like a peer, taunting Joe via anonymous text as he scrambles to suss out their identity.

In detective fiction, criminals come and go, but the detective is our constant companion. This can make the whodunit as much of a character study as it is a mystery and can elevate performances like Craig’s Benoit Blanc to cultural icons in the space of two movies. “The specifics of the investigator become really endearing,” Green observes. “That is much of the appeal to be with a Jessica Fletcher, to be with a Monk, to be with a Poirot—because we know their foibles, idiosyncrasies, and oddities that make them tick, make them interesting, make them funny, make them fussy.” In Green’s own Poirot films, starting with Murder on the Orient Express and continuing through Death on the Nile, the mechanics of Christie’s plots are left largely intact. It’s Poirot and the suspects he encounters who get extra embellishment: a backstory about Poirot’s service in the First World War, an added emphasis on the looming specter of the Nazi regime.

For writers tasked with starting from scratch, the challenge of crafting a detective story proved more daunting. “When I tried to do a whodunit, I gained a lot more respect for [Christie], because it was not as easy as it looked,” Chappell says of penning See How They Run. It’s difficult to stay one step ahead of audiences so steeped in the style’s tropes; even if you haven’t read a word of Christie’s prose, you’re familiar with the archetypes she helped infuse into the collective consciousness. Thanks to its premise, See How They Run invokes these tropes explicitly—so explicitly that Christie herself, as played by Scottish actress Shirley Henderson, appears as a character in the film’s final act. And if you’re going to put words into the master’s mouth, they’d better be up to her standards.

“It is both a complicated plot puzzle and also a complicated psychological puzzle,” Gamble says. When breaking the season, the You writers room talked themselves in circles trying to anticipate what the audience would figure out on their own and balance misdirection with good-faith clue giving. (Though one advantage of the Netflix binge model is that You’s fan base won’t have weeks to spin out their wildest theories about the identity of the so-called Eat the Rich Killer. Even if some do outsmart the writers, everyone will be on the same page soon enough.) Eventually, Gamble and her colleagues gave up on trying to trick their viewers and instead tried to center the season’s central relationship: the one between Joe and the murderer he has more in common with than he’d like to admit. “By the end of it, I think we all could really understand why it’s so durable,” Gamble says of the Christie whodunit. “But let me say again: really fucking hard to do.”

Joe may look down on the rich elitists he keeps falling in with, but his reflexive disdain for the whodunit makes him guilty of his own kind of elitism. (In addition to his many crimes.) “We loved the idea of Joe as reluctant detective,” Gamble says. “Agatha Christie is the bestselling novelist of all time. So why would Joe Goldberg like that? He would dismiss it immediately, and then he would get his own lesson in being a snob.”

For all her success, Christie still bears some of the stigma that faces most crime writing, which is seen more as disposable pulp than serious literature. Her astonishing productivity—she often published multiple books a year—can lead to the impression that Christie was more a conveyor belt than an intentional author, and her sentence-level writing is remembered as workmanlike at best. But spending so much time with Christie’s work and voice has made converts out of some former skeptics, if not You’s amateur sleuth.

“She doesn’t get as much credit as she should for excellent prose,” Green argues. “Probably because she has a fair amount of un-excellent prose that was just pro forma. But when she invested the time, she could knock the shit out of it.” Green points casual fans wanting to deepen their knowledge to Christie’s short stories, plus her memoir—one of two autobiographies—about life with her second husband, accomplished archaeologist Max Mallowan. For his part, Chappell is fond of The Murder on the Links, which pairs the Belgian Poirot with a French friendly rival as they attempt to crack a killing on a golf course.

Even repetition, or just adherence to a template, can be a virtue in itself. There’s a comforting rhythm, and finality, to the classic whodunit: A detective arrives; evidence is collected; suspects present themselves; a culprit is identified. “What’s nice about the whodunit is that it’s a game, but it’s a game that has rules, and the world makes sense,” Chappell says. “Each character has a motivation that is clearly defined; at the end, somebody comes along and thankfully explains everything to everyone.” It’s a refreshing counterpoint to the messy, open-ended nature of our everyday lives.

A shared structure still allows individual examples to shade between the lines. Green compares Christie to “a great jazz musician,” an artist able to improvise her way from set starting point to fixed destination. Her many disciples have simply followed suit, filling an empty vessel with their own sensibilities. The latest season of You is still very much a season of You, filled with ill-advised hookups, sideswipes at social media, and equal-opportunity judgment. But its updated-yet-familiar shape breathes new life into a show now reaching middle age—a time when other shows might tire themselves out or jump the shark.

In fact, aping Christie helped You double down on what the show already does best. When everyone the audience meets is a potential murder suspect, the writer is free to play up the least flattering parts of the characters’ personalities, ignoring more modern concerns such as “likability” or long-term potential. “For me, I think the deepest pleasure is about how much fun you can have with the characterization of every person in the story,” Gamble says of the whodunit. “You can be honest about how people are. You don’t have to make them heroic, and you don’t have to make them TV-ish. You can absolutely skewer them.” You has always understood what Joe simply can’t: that as loathsome as his latest companions may be, the biggest monster is in the mirror. But Joe would never blame himself, making this particular whodunit a search for a scapegoat.

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