DECATUR, GA. — QUESTION: Which female detective in fiction is tough, tenacious, cynical, single, and unsurprised by the worst in human nature? Is it Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone, who wears blue jeans and an attitude? Sara Paretsky's Chicago sleuth V.I. Warshawski, who mouths off to cops? Nah. They're tough, but not as relentless as this one. And you needn't peruse only the contemporary ranks of women. Answer? It's the grandmother of most current female sleuths, Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple, who started sleuthing back in 1930. You know, the elderly lady who knits pink fuzzy things, dresses in tweeds and twin sets, and never, never speaks impolitely.
And yet one suspects that Kinsey and V.I. could only stand aside in deferential respect if Miss Marple clip-clopped her way (in sensible shoes) down the mean streets of today, showing them a thing or two about murder, mayhem, and other timeless aspects of the human condition.
Sept. 15 marks the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Agatha Christie. The celebration (and there are events worldwide, from rides on the Orient Express to birthday parties in book stores) provides a perfect opportunity to ponder just how ageless - and popular - her mysteries are.
About her popularity, there is no denying the statistics. Consider: Christie books have sold over a billion copies in the English language alone, and another billion in foreign languages (the latest count is up to 103 languages). When 33 of her titles came on the market last year for paperback relicensing, Harper Paperbacks paid a record $9.6 million for the rights. She is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, and with her sales increasing daily, some contend she now outsells the Bard.
And that's just her books.
The Queen of Mystery extended her kingdom to the theater world, too. Her ``Mousetrap'' is the world's longest continuously running play. It opened in 1952 and still plays in London to packed houses. Christie herself, always modest about her own talents, estimated it might last eight months. (Her grandson, Mathew Prichard, who today is chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd., was given the royalties to the play as a ninth birthday present.) And her ``Witness For the Prosecution'' was both a successful play and movie.
OK, OK, but why? Why is she still so popular? Why are readers still turning to fuzzy Miss Marple and fussy Hercule Poirot when today's mystery fiction offers so many other, hipper choices? The last decade, after all, was dubbed the ``Golden Age of Mysteries,'' according to a recent Publishers Weekly article.
Some reasons are obvious - at least to her millions of fans. Naturally, there are Christie detractors, readers who couldn't possibly like anything beloved by the masses. But since they're in a minority of such reassuringly small proportions, they can be cheerfully ignored.
AGATHA CHRISTIE was a demon plotter. Her stories involved intricate clues, enough herrings to fill the Red Sea, and motives aplenty. One need only read ``The Murder of Roger Ackroyd'' to appreciate her genius. This is the novel, published in 1926, that made her famous. Its resolution had readers astounded, and critics crying foul play - meaning Christie didn't adhere to a code followed by most mystery writers of providing the readers with enough clues to solve the crime. Did she? Read and decide for for yourself.
Other titles generally considered among her best are ``Murder on the Orient Express'' (with a caveat from ``The Agatha Christie Companion'' that ``if one is not prepared to believe impossible things before breakfast, one should not read Christie''), ``A Murder is Announced,'' and ``Ten Little Indians'' (also known as ``And Then There Were None,'' and originally as ``Ten Little Niggers'').
But not even the most ardent fan will say that all her books are wonderful. Several, especially those written in her later years, come close to being really pretty awful. One certainly couldn't recommend ``Elephants Can Remember,'' which Christie wrote when 82. Among her own favorites, by the way, were ``The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,'' ``The Pale Horse,'' ``Moving Finger,'' and ``Endless Night.''
Another reason for her enduring popularity? The characters she created, and the cozy worlds some of them inhabited. Spend a day fighting corporate madness and freeway traffic and just see if St. Mary Mead doesn't seem like heaven. Many readers brew a pot of tea and sink with nostalgic pleasure into any book featuring Miss Marple; others love the posturing of Hercule Poirot and his logical conclusions. And if some of us are put off by the twitterings of Tommy and Tuppence, others are fond of their, um, spirit.
But the most enduring legacy left to us by Agatha Christie must be her vast, unerring, and compassionate understanding of human nature. That's why it doesn't matter if her characters live in cottages instead of condos, or travel in buggies instead of BMWs. Styles and clothes and settings might change, but human nature never does. People are and always have been good and evil, forgiving and revengeful, naive and calculating. Those feelings and impulses - and human beings' need to act on them - are timeless and universal. And by the looks of everything 100 years later, so is the appeal of Agatha Christie.