- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006


Among the many mysteries in the world of British crime writer Agatha Christie is how she came to be the biggest-selling fiction author of all time.

Thirty years after her death on Jan. 12, 1976, British linguistics experts reckon they have solved part of the puzzle as to how she came to sell an estimated 2 billion books worldwide.

In a recent study, they identified her simple, mesmeric style as the chief suspect in the case.

Roland Kapferer, who led the project undertaken by experts from London, Birmingham and Warwick universities, said her gripping style made her books “unputdownable.”

“It is extraordinary just how timeless and popular Agatha Christie’s books remain,” he said.

Miss Christie, author of “Death on the Nile” and “Murder on the Orient Express,” was a success from the start when her novels first appeared in the 1920s. Sales records soon tumbled.

She wrote 80 novels and short story collections and 19 plays. Her work has been translated into more than 70 languages and is outsold only by the Bible and William Shakespeare, according to Chorion, which owns her property rights.

In her prime, Miss Christie was rarely off the best-seller lists, with her British publishers promoting the availability each year of a “Christie for Christmas,” where regular characters Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot turned up in locations the author had visited.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, “whodunit” expert Miss Christie is the best-selling fiction author of all time — and the popularity of her novels seemingly transcends language and cultural barriers.

She is one of the best-selling authors in Japan and is the most popular author in France, outselling second-placed French literary hero Emile Zola by nearly two to one.

In Britain, where Chorion is campaigning for Miss Christie’s works to be studied in schools, some feel there is no mystery about her style at all.

The late British novelist Anthony Burgess, author of “A Clockwork Orange,” accused her of flimsy characterization and cliche.

The Oxford Companion to English Literature accuses her of having “undistinguished style” and “slight characterisation.”

Mr. Kapferer’s study, however, unravels the style that sustained her success.

It found that as Miss Christie’s novels reach the plot denouement, sentence structures become less complex, increasing the reader’s excitement level, stimulating the brain’s natural opiates.

She used everyday English and avoided clever wordplay to force readers to concentrate on the plot and the clues.

Miss Christie would make use of connected words that convey a common, unconscious message, such as “I’d rather die than go swimming,” “grave mistake” and “good grief” in the same passage to conjure up the specter of death.

The study also found that she frequently used a dash to create a faster-paced narrative and long, mesmerizing sentences like a hypnotherapist would use.

“These initial findings indicate that there is a mathematical formula that accounts for her phenomenal success,” Mr. Kapferer said. “I am convinced that our research has come one step closer to defining what it means for a book to be unputdownable.

“Our next step is to seek to replicate these experiments with other leading authors to discover whether their writings cause similar neurological activity among readers.”

However, Miss Christie’s secret as to how she done it may never be completely revealed, he warned.

“Whether Christie herself was aware that her words contained such powerful neural triggers is another matter for debate and may well remain an enduring mystery in itself.”

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