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Agatha Christie and the golden age of detective fiction
Agatha Christie and the golden age of detective fiction

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Agatha Christie and the golden age of detective fiction


English Literature reached new mass audiences in Britain in the first decades of the twentieth century, as widespread literacy, and a lack of competition from other media – cinema and radio were in their infancy – encouraged commercial diversification and the development of popular genre fiction. When we think of literature as a popular cultural form, Agatha Christie (1890–1976), Britain’s pre-eminent crime fiction author after the First World War, is a landmark figure. In terms of both the volume of sales and translation into other languages (over 100), her work is unparalleled in the history of publishing. As Charles Rzepka puts it, Christie is ‘not only the most prolific and popular author of detective fiction in the twentieth century, but the world’s best-selling writer, ever’ (a record which remains intact at the time of writing) (Rzepka, 2005, p. 156).

In this free course you will focus on one of Christie’s most important works: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). This novel arguably marks the crossing of a threshold for Christie and for the genre of detective fiction. It was published in a period of literary modernism, during which a highbrow engine of literary innovation was running, ostensibly separate from Christie’s world and her readers, who may be identified as part of the mass reading public outlined above. But there are key connections to draw between the middlebrow world of detective fiction and the formal experimentation that characterised more avant garde literary works in the era. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd certainly makes a case for that. In terms of history and context, Christie brings a British provincialism to the fore which, as you will see, provides a deceptive and disarming setting for the novel. Just beneath the novel’s surface, the aftermath of the ‘Great War’ and evolving attitudes to both reading and writing emerge in surprising and profound ways.

This OpenLearn course is an adapted extract from the Open University course A893 MA English Literature Part 1 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Taken together, the sections that follow offer a multifaceted perspective on Agatha Christie and the ‘golden age’ of crime fiction, and give you some insight into the texts, teaching material and critical approaches you might encounter if you were to study A893. Because A893 incorporates some critical discussion of literary adaptation this course also invites you to think of Christie’s detective fiction in one of its adaptations.

Reading guidance and spoiler alert

If you have chosen to read the suggested set text, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, you should complete your reading now before continuing. The critical discussion that follows will assume you have read Christie’s novel and are aware of the identity of the killer. Plot spoilers also apply to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’.