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Who killed the fun in Agatha Christie’s novels? (Spoiler: academics)


Novelist Agatha Christie

When I was contemplating the field of study I wanted to pursue in university, many people advised me against undertaking an English degree, on the assumption that being required to forensically pick apart books I had great fondness for would ruin my enjoyment of them, or of reading generally. While I found that premise to be untrue (becoming a critic has had a much more deleterious effect on my ability to enjoy much new writing), I was never presented with a formula that purported to be able to solve whodunnits for me.

But that is exactly what a clutch of academics has done with the mysteries of Agatha Christie. A group of so-called “experts,” convened by a British television channel (naturally), has come up with a data set that apparently is able to determine who the killer is in Christie’s work.

From The Guardian:

The research, commissioned by the TV channel Drama, analyzed 27 of the prolific writer’s books – 83 were published during her lifetime – including classics such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. The experts concluded that where the novel was set, the main mode of transport used, and how the victim dies were among the key clues.

The analysts’ “Whodunnit formula” also includes variables such as the chapter in which the killer is introduced and which of Christie’s detectives is doing the investigating. (They restrict their analysis to books featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple; apparently the Tommy and Tuppence mysteries either don’t rate, or don’t fit the formula.)

According to Dominique Jeannerod, of Queen’s University in Belfast, an examination of Christie’s word choices and approach to characterization also indicates that the gender of a killer can be predicted by the way the author writes about him or her: “We found that, generally, for example, she employs more negative sentiment when the culprit is female, whereas a male culprit has higher levels of neutral or positive sentiment.”

Of course, this is impossible to prove in at least one of the books analyzed: Murder on the Orient Express. (If you don’t know why, I’m sure as hell not going to spoil it for you.)

This project is apparently meant as a “celebration” of Christie’s 125th birthday, which occurs next month. Though how bleeding a mystery of much of its enjoyment by trying to make it cleave to a mathematical formula could possibly be seen as celebratory is a mystery even the mighty Poirot might have difficulty solving.