IT'S NO MYSTERY Town of her birth celebrates Agatha Christie's centenary


Torquay, England Mysterious events are occurring in this seaside resort on the southwest coast of England: murder weekends in local hotels, the World Clue Championships, the annual conference of the Crime Writers' Association.

It's all in celebration of the birth in this Devonshire town 100 years ago of a local girl who went on to become the world's most famous detective writer.

A few clues to her identity:

*Her books have sold over a billion copies in English and another billion in translation in 44 different languages.

*She is author of the world's longest-running play, "The Mousetrap," now in its 38th year in London's St. Martin's Theater.

*She herself was at the center of a mystery when she disappeared from home after discovering her husband was having an affair. After a nationwide search, she was found in a hotel in the north of England -- booked in under the name of her husband's mistress.

*Two of the best-known sleuths in crime fiction are her creations: Miss Marple, the quintessential old English lady, her fluffy absent-mindedness hiding a shrewd brain; and Hercule Poirot, the persnickety Belgian detective with an egg-shaped head and waxed mustache.

She was, of course, Agatha Christie, the queen of suspense, who a century after her birth on Sept. 15, 1890, and 14 years after her death, remains a best-selling writer.

"The centenary is planned as a celebration and an acknowledgment that reading is meant to be fun," says Mathew Prichard, the great lady's grandson. "That is why her books and plays have remained so popular."

Mr. Prichard is now chairman of Agatha Christie Limited, the company that jealously guards his grandmother's literary efforts and good name. Its directors, who include Mrs. Christie's only daughter, Rosalind Hicks, last year gave the go-ahead for a centenary celebration.

The centenary was launched, appropriately enough, with a mysterious blood-curdling scream. Journalists invited to a champagne reception at London's Brown's Hotel had their conversations abruptly interrupted by a woman's loud and chilling cry.

"We are determined this year to pay tribute to my grandmother's imagination and to her dedication to her profession," began Mr. Prichard.

The main celebrations, which will conclude tomorrow in Torquay, have included special showings of her films and plays, lectures on her works and a special trip to Torquay by the Orient Express, the train that was the setting of her tale "Murder on the Orient Express."

Collins, Agatha Christie's main publishers in the United Kingdom since 1926, are issuing six special centenary hardbacks, the titles chosen by the author's daughter. They are also reissuing her entire 78 crime works in paperback in a special centenary collection.

A new rose has been named after her, Madame Tussaud's has updated her wax figure, and specially designed souvenirs are on sale. Around the world, Crime Writers' Associa

tions and college literary groups as far apart as Mexico, Brazil and Czechoslovakia are holding conferences to discuss her works.

Perhaps the biggest mystery about all this is why Agatha Christie enjoys such international popularity so long after her death.

Judged against the more sophisticated detective novelists of the 1990s -- P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, to name but two -- her characters can seem cardboard-like, her knowledge of murder weapons (apart from her expertise in poisons,

gained as a pharmacist during World War I) superficial, her plots often far-fetched and her denouements too dependent on coincidence.

Brian Stone, Agatha Christie Ltd.'s literary agent, admits that sales of her books were falling when he took over in 1978. He persuaded reluctant television producers to film some of her stories. The first, shown in 1980, was an immediate success. Other series quickly followed. The Agatha Christie phenomenon was rolling again.

Nostalgia plays a large part in it, I suppose," he says. "The programs reflect an era which was slower and had a certain amount of style. That's attractive in this insecure age."

Last year at an auction in New York, publishers Harper and Row paid $9.7 million for the American paperback rights to 33 Agatha Christie titles. Says Mr. Stone: "With that sale, I realized that Agatha Christie was up and running again, and very much in demand."

Agatha Christie, he might have added, continues to make a killing.

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