Books: Dame Agatha: Queen of the Maze

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Dame Agatha Christie made more profit out of murder than any woman since Lucrezia Borgia. One estimate of her total earnings from more than a half-century of writing is $20 million. But the exact amount remains a mystery not likely to be solved even when her will is read. Her royalty arrangements and trusts would tax the brains of her two famous detectives, M. Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. In addition, Agatha Christie had already given away millions to her family. Her only grandson, Mathew Prichard, 32, was eight years old when she presented him with sole rights to The Mousetrap, the world's longest-running play.

It has grossed nearly $3 million since its London opening in 1952. Last week, before the play's 9,611th performance, the theater lights were dimmed in memory of the 85-year-old writer, who had just died at her house hi Wallingford.

The Christie output was torrential: 83 books, including a half-dozen romances written under the name Mary Westmacott; 17 plays, nine volumes of short stories, and Come, Tell Me How You Live, in which she described her field explorations with her second husband, British Archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan. The number of printed copies of her books is conservatively put at 300 million. New Guinea cargo cultists have even venerated a paperback cover of her Evil Under the Sun—quite possibly confusing the name Christie with Christ.

Her own characters were much less exotic: doctors, lawyers, army officers, clergymen.

Her stalking grounds were usually genteel English houses, and she rarely strayed. "I could never manage miners talking in pubs," she once said, "because I don't know what miners talk about in pubs." Dame Agatha herself looked as if she had been raised on a good golf course, although her main hobbies were gardening, and buying and redecorating houses.

Godlike Genius. In a Christie murder mystery, neatness not only counts, it is everything. As the genre's undisputed queen of the maze, she laid her tantalizing plots so precisely and dropped her false leads so cunningly that few—if any—readers could guess the identity of the villain. The reader surrenders to an enigma in which the foul act of murder seems less a sin against man or God than a breach of etiquette.

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