The International Agatha Christie Festival: Celebrating the queen of crime - Hindustan Times
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The International Agatha Christie Festival: Celebrating the queen of crime

ByTeja Lele
Sep 11, 2023 08:12 PM IST

The 33rd edition of the IACF, that’s on until September 17, delves deep into the best selling novelist’s world

Very few of us are what we seem. - Agatha Christie

Portrait of Agatha Christie on a British postage stamp (spatuletail/Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Portrait of Agatha Christie on a British postage stamp (spatuletail/Shutterstock)

So said the Queen of Crime and then went on to spin countless stories of intrigue, trickery, murder, and more.

Born in Torquay, a seaside town in Devon, UK, on September 15, 1890, Agatha Christie is the best-selling fiction writer of all time. Her novels have sold more than two billion copies and she’s best known for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, and The Mousetrap, the world’s longest-running play.

“Agatha Christie’s work includes 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.” (Jelena990/Shutterstock)
“Agatha Christie’s work includes 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.” (Jelena990/Shutterstock)

The first Agatha Christie festival was held in Devon in 1990 to celebrate the author’s work, life, and legacy. It has grown significantly in size and stature since then. This year, the International Agatha Christie Festival (IACF), that began on September 8 and goes on until September 17, will delve deeper into her world with a personal and literary perspective.

To be held at numerous venues with a Christie connection, the 2023 festival, funded by Arts Council England, offers more than 30 events, including workshops, parties, cultural talks, performances, and more. They will take place mainly at venues in Torquay, including Torre Abbey Museum and The Grand Hotel, with other events planned across Torbay.

The audience at the International Agatha Christie Festival 2022 (Courtesy IACF)
The audience at the International Agatha Christie Festival 2022 (Courtesy IACF)

The idea, according to IACF, is to “celebrate Christie in the place of her birth on the English Riviera, and explore the area’s literary and geological heritage”.

Mark Aldridge, an academic and Agatha Christie historian, has been participating in the festival since 2017. “It’s always a great event. For me the best thing is the atmosphere; it’s just great to have so many fans together enjoying the work of Christie,” he says.

The easiest way for amateur sleuths to unravel the mystery of Christie’s life in Torquay is to follow the Agatha Christie Mile, which was launched in 1990, Christie’s centenary year.

Starting at the English Riviera Visitor Information Centre, the mile takes you to Beacon Quay and Beacon Cove, where Christie learnt how to swim, Royal Torbay Yacht Club, where her father was a member, and the Imperial Hotel, which featured in Peril at End House, The Body in the Library, and Sleeping Murder. The mile also includes the Agatha Christie Gallery at Torquay Museum, which offers a recreation of Poirot’s study and lounge, the Strand, where a young Agatha would have gone shopping with her mother, the Agatha Christie Memorial Bust, installed to mark her birth centenary, and the Princess Gardens, which find mention in The ABC Murders.

There’s still plenty more to do at the festival.

Matt Newbury, Programme Director, IACF, feels the event, which began in the centenary year of Christe’s birth, with a local offering guided tours around Torbay, has had quite a journey.

“It is now much more of a literary festival with numerous fun events as well. We want to recreate the cosy, vintage period. This year, we are hosting a fringe festival for six days and a four-day core festival,” he says.

Fittingly, the fringe will be kicked off by an unusual event – crime writers who moonlight as a musical band.

Newbury says he’s excited to have such a fun event opening the 2023 festival. “The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers play songs about murder and death, and cover everyone from The Beatles to The Clash, via The Jam, The Pretenders, and Elton John,” he said, adding that it promises to be a “night of killer tunes”.

“A Taste for Crime is a fun evening that combines sampling wine whilst solving a mystery.” (Courtesy IACF)
“A Taste for Crime is a fun evening that combines sampling wine whilst solving a mystery.” (Courtesy IACF)

Before the murder on the dance floor, the band will host A Murderous Afternoon Tea, offering a traditional English tea with scones, cream and jam, cocktail sandwiches/rolls, cakes, savouries, tea/coffee, and mystery, of course.

Newbury, a lifelong Agatha Christie fan and author of Agatha Christie’s Devon, a guidebook to exploring the locations from her life and work, says many places around Torbay are connected with Christie and that this is the best part of the world to host a festival that promises “something for everyone”.

Other events include a treasure hunt to mark 70 years of The Mousetrap, for which 70 mice will be hidden around Torbay, ahead of the show, the A B Sea Murders, a boat trip around the Bay, passing beaches Christie featured in her works, and A Garden Party to Die For, which unveils Christie’s use of potent and poisonous plants and her time as a pharmacist in Torquay.

Movie screenings are also part of the programme. (Courtesy IACF)
Movie screenings are also part of the programme. (Courtesy IACF)

Then there’s the Agatha Christie Underground Film Festival with movie screenings in the caves that inspired The Man in the Brown Suit. A Taste for Crime is a fun evening that combines sampling wine whilst solving a mystery; What’s Your Poison will be a chat about cocktails in Christie’s work. Agatha’s Adventures in Archaeology will focus on her travels abroad and excavations at archaeological sites that led to intriguing settings and unusual plots, and Christie on the Shelf promises an interesting talk on books that every Christie aficionado should have on their shelves.

A special event is planned to increase local participation: the Wagatha Mystery, a Tail of Murder – a dog walking murder mystery that invites owners to sniff out the clues!

“The Agatha Christie Sea Swim celebrates Christie’s love of sea swimming.” (Courtesy IACF)
“The Agatha Christie Sea Swim celebrates Christie’s love of sea swimming.” (Courtesy IACF)

The Agatha Christie Sea Swim celebrates Christie’s love of sea swimming, and takes participants on a one-mile “sightseeing swim” between two of her favourite beaches. “Participants are encouraged to enjoy the scenery whilst raising money for Rowcroft Hospice,” Newbury says.

Mark Aldridge reveals that he’ll be taking part in the All About Agatha panel, in which he’ll help to choose Christie’s best short story alongside other experts and fans. “I’ll also be speaking at Greenway, Agatha Christie’s Devon home, on 15 September, her birthday, and then giving a talk about the Miss Marple films the following evening,” he says.

Greenway is an isolated estate in Devon where Christie spent nearly every summer from 1938 until her death in 1976. The National Trust property offers fans a glimpse into the author’s life and is sure to prompt a question on why she set three of her books – Five Little Pigs,  Dead Man’s Folly, and Ordeal by Innocence – in this area.

The festival includes numerous high-profile speakers, including authors Ann Cleeves, Robert Thorogood, and Sophie Hannah, and performances of Christie’s plays and poetry.

Actor David Suchet, who played Hercule Poirot in the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989–2013), photographed on August 12, 1992. (CapturePB/Shutterstock)
Actor David Suchet, who played Hercule Poirot in the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989–2013), photographed on August 12, 1992. (CapturePB/Shutterstock)

The Festival Lit-Hop, a literary take on the traditional bar crawl, will make its way to quirky venues around Torquay harbour, and offers readings, poetry, music, and a lot of fun, while Christie and the Clerics will focus on how she drew characters like a vicar or clergyman from reality and used them to showcase her philosophy of human nature.

Not to be missed is Walking in Agatha Christie’s Footsteps, an award-winning walking tour that reveals her life story: from growing up in Torquay, meeting her first husband, her work as a nurse during World War I, her journey to becoming an author, and how she drew inspiration from her time in Torquay and later in the Middle East, and, of course, her mysterious 10-day disappearance in 1926.

Christie often turned locations she knew into fictional places of murder and intrigue, and many of these are dotted around the English Riviera, essentially the Torbay area and including 22 miles of the gorgeous South Devon coastline.

The locales include Burgh Island, a unique Art Deco hotel located on an island in South Devon. In the 1930s, it attracted the rich and famous, including Christie, “who was given a purpose-built writing retreat” and gained inspiration for at least two books, And Then There Were None and Evil Under the Sun, from the island.

Giles Fuchs, the owner of Burgh Island Hotel, believes her stay must have given her “the idea of an island as the perfect location to commit a crime. It also creates that tension because you can’t actually get off”. The plush hotel offers bedrooms named for Poirot and Marple.

Christie also took people she knew or met off the streets and marched them straight into her books. “Plots come to me at such odd moments, when I am walking along the street, or examining a hat shop...suddenly a splendid idea comes into my head,” she wrote in her autobiography.

The author’s body of work has ensured that she engages readers of all ages. Her books continue to be made into movies and TV series. Coming up this month is Kenneth Branagh’s moustachioed Poirot as he unravels a spooky mystery in A Haunting in Venice, which is based on Halloween Party.

“Coming up this month is Kenneth Branagh’s moustachioed Poirot as he unravels a spooky mystery in A Haunting in Venice, which is based on Halloween Party.” (Official Poster Art)
“Coming up this month is Kenneth Branagh’s moustachioed Poirot as he unravels a spooky mystery in A Haunting in Venice, which is based on Halloween Party.” (Official Poster Art)

Meanwhile, The Mousetrap, which opened in London’s West End in 1952 and is celebrating its 70th year, is now making its way to Broadway.

Her influence on authors is also visible when you step into bookstores and see Sophie Hannah’s new Poirot novels, Marple, The Christie Affair, and many “cosy” murder mysteries.

Aldridge, who has written Agatha Christie on Screen, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, and Agatha Christie’s Marple, says the reason the author continues to hold generations in thrall is simple.

“Her plotting is so strong that the books can hook any reader. It doesn’t matter if you’re in England in 1930 or India in 2023, you can immediately recognise situations and relationships, because her writing is so relatable and fascinating,” he says.

He suggest his favourite books that could perhaps be ideal reading material before taking off for the festival. “The ABC Murders, which is about a murderer who seems to pick their victims based on their names, and A Murder is Announced, an excellent study of post-war Britain – and an excellent mystery, too!”

Yes, it’s time to head for the English Riviera and partake of afternoon tea with a side of mystery.

Teja Lele is an independent editor and writes on books, travel and lifestyle.

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