"The creation of a bestseller does not follow an exact pattern, or patterns, any more than does the making of a successful man." - Frank Luther Mott, Golden Multitudes
As Frank L. Mott describes in the previous quote, a step-by-step formula for writing a best selling novel does not exist. Rather, it is the combination of several factors that lend to the success of a novel. Each bestseller presents a unique grouping of criteria that spark reader interest and render it a chart-topper. In the case of Agatha Christie's Sleeping Murder, looking at the various elements that lend to its popularity helps one to appreciate some of the factors that designate a book a bestseller.
Seldom are bestsellers touted for their literary merit; rather, they, in some way, touch the reading public. Sleeping Murder was not lauded as a great work of literary genius. In fact, the majority of reviewers found that it , not unlike most of Christie's later works, was "not among her most skillful," (Lambert 1) and "compares less favorably in style and suspense with other classics" (Brown, 47). However, despite lukewarm reviews, Sleeping Murder enjoyed seven weeks at the top of the New York Times' bestseller list in 1976 and remained on bestseller lists for a total of sixty-two weeks. Its accomplishment with the American public was not a result of great writing but instead, due to an effective incorporation of several crucial elements that helping generating a best selling novel.
Sleeping Murder falls into the highly popular literary genre classified as mystery or crime fiction. The plotline revolves around the Halliday couple, Giles and Glenda, who upon moving into a new home, stumble across a murder that may have occurred twenty years prior. With the help of detective-in-disguise, Miss Jane Marple, and several disturbing flashbacks, Glenda eventually discovers that her stepmother had been murdered in the very house within which she now resides. The theme of murder-in-retrospect was common to Christie novels, one where "simultaneous forward movement and backwards movement" (Wagoner 70) define much of the action.
However, more importantly, Sleeping Murder conforms to the formula of the puzzle story, a mystery genre which first flourished during the period 1920-1945, a time referred to as the Golden Age of mystery fiction. According to a definition given Michael Grost, author of the Classic Mystery homepage, these "[puzzle] mystery plots tend to be extremely clever puzzles, with tricky, surprising solutions" (http://members.aol.com/MG4273/classics.htm). It is this trickery for which Christie is most popular for as one online fan notes, "She has wonderfully tricky plots - particularly the way she never fails to surprise without misleading" (www.kewl.comdre.~grovesc). In Sleeping Murder, Christie's formulaic style rings true for its plot is marked by Christie's traditional 'red herrings,' the false clues that lead the reader and the detective astray. For example, in Sleeping Murder, there are several suspects including a shifty ex-lover and a manic salesman, who are introduced in order to draw suspicion away from the murderer, the victim's own brother.
Since the blossoming of the puzzle mystery genre during the Golden Age, the reading public's interest in the crime novel continues to increase. Four of Christie's earlier works including The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, And Then There Were None and Peril at End House were all listed on the 'Better Sellers List' during the years ranging from 1924-1940. In 1936, Daphne du Maurer's Rebecca, a mystery/gothic novel garnered the title of a bestseller. The demand for the mystery novel grew and Agatha Christie satisfied this entreaty, producing eighty mystery novels over the course of fifty years of authorship. Mystery readers' favor has swayed over the years in terms of specific mystery genre; however, Christie's popularity remains steady. According to Alice Payne Hackett, "Agatha Christie is the only exception of the simple whodunit that hasn't been replaced by a spy story" (110). Tribute to Hackett's statement is the fact that in both 1975 and 1976 Christie's novels, Curtain and Sleeping Murder, became bestsellers - almost fifty years following her first publication.
How does one explain the consistent and obvious popularity of the morbid genre of the mystery novel? The public's interest in mystery may be explained by human nature's "curiousity in regards to the state of evil," (Mott 262). In some ways, the gruesome or frightening nature of the crime novel provides a type of escapism for the reader. Author James D. Hart provides additional psychological explanation for the success of the mystery. He writes, "the opportunity for a man baffled in business or a woman frustrated by a reduced budget to inflate the ego through exhibiting greater intelligence than the conventional Watson?these may have been a subconscious reason why many turned to the detective story" (258).
Christie's works provide for this type of evaluation of evil and its nature through the questions raised through her characters' voices. Christie "displays a personal sense of what she calls 'evil', of murder as an affront and a violation and an act of cruelty" (Lambert 1). For instance, in Sleeping Murder, Miss Marple offers her own insight as to the nature of man in the following comment to Gwenda: "'So many people may be lying. And so many people usually are?though not always for the reasons that you'd think. Some people don't even know they're lying'" (Christie 221).
Within the category of the mystery novel, Sleeping Murder can be further classified under its utilization of the female lead. Like many other best selling novels including Pollyanna, Valley of the Dolls and the majority of Danielle Steele novels, Sleeping Murder has a strong, prominent female protagonist. Christie's elderly Miss Jane Marple, even with her old-fashioned mannerisms and habits, voices a clearly independent, feminist voice. As one fan noted, "The essence of Miss Marple is the complete, perfect incongruity between her intellect and her appearance" (www.kew/comdu/~grovesc). To readers in 1976, amid the ongoing Women's Rights Movement, a character such as Miss Marple was surely viewed in a positive light. In fact, Sleeping Murder marks a truly remarkable and unique feature of Marple's character for it is the first time, within all twelve of the Miss Marple mysteries, that she engages in physical intervention with an assailant.
Additionally, in her role of the 'unofficial' detective, Marple picks up on clues that often male characters overlook. In this sense, Christie places females as equals, or even superiors, as in comparison to their male counterparts. Author Jaques Barzun offers another suggestion as to the popularity of feminine detective fiction, indicating that female reader may relate to the common tone of this type of writing. Barzun describes feminine detective fiction as typically marked by "household confusion" and "surprises and lucky recoveries, all of which are highly verbalized and widely communicated" (12). The effect of such writing produces a sense of familiarity for the reader and allows he or she to feel closer to the situation. Barzun's statement can be applied to Christie's novels, for many of Marple's observations are shrouded in references to everyday, domestic observations. For example, it is under veiled reference to her garden that Marple hints at the incestuous, interwoven nature of the crime committed, as follows: " 'Well, I try to do what I can in the garden. Sadly neglected. This bindweed, for instance, such a nasty stuff. It's roots,' said Miss Marple, looking very earnestly at the Inspector, 'go underground a long way. A very long way - they run along under the soil.'" (Christie 221).
The particular and specific nature of the setting of Sleeping Murder is another element that engages the reader's interest. To American readers, books set in Britain, such as Ian Fleming's best selling Bond novels, provide a certain novelty. The majority of Christie's settings tend to be foreign and romantic to the typical American reader which furthers the element of escapism through reading. However, in Christie's novels, not only are linguistic and cultural difference evident, but so are the stereotypical, old-world English villages within which she sets her mysteries. The depiction of her idyllic towns are a startling contrast to the undercurrent of evil that threads within the plots. For example, it is hard to imagine that a murder occurs at the Halliday's home which Christie quaintly describes as "on the outskirts of a still charming seaside resort?through the trees, a glimpse of a small white Victorian villa could be seen" (Christie 12). Christie's choice of setting further categorize her novels within the crime fiction genre. Sleeping Murder can be classified as an English country house or manor house mystery which "focuses on members in a close-knit group found in a country house or village" (www.MysteryNet.com). One of the attractions to this particular genre is that it allows the reader to have "a removed sense of escape from real-life murder and accompanying social ills" (www.MysteryNet.com). Thus, Christie's settings, described as places "where nothing ever happens, exactly like a stagnant pond" (Christie 23), must have seemed very appealing in contrast to the growing urbanity surrounding American readers of the late seventies.
Within the collection of Agatha Christie's crime novels, Sleeping Murder holds a very unique, individual position which differentiates it from every other in the series. Christie wrote the novel during the Second World War and deeded it to her husband, requesting it not be published until her death. Thus, the release of Sleeping Murder came just ten months after Christie died. The demand for Christie's last mystery was overwhelming, even prior to its release. In fact, Sleeping Murder set a record for its prepublication sale of the paperback rights for $1.1 million to Bantam Books. The timing of the book's release, closely following the event of the author's death, only increased book sales. The public's fascination with an artist's works following his or her death has been a noticeable, strangely morbid phenomenon over time. For example, JRR Tolkien's, The Silmarillion, was not a critical success but found its way to the top of the bestseller list perhaps due to its release following Tolkien's death.
Christie fans were already aware of the book's existence and thus, its release was eagerly awaited (Maida 118). There was a sense of mystery surrounding the novel simply because the public was unsure as to why Christie demanded the book's publication be delayed. Additionally, as Christie's last novel, the American public clamored for the book. One reviewer wrote, "The plot may be easy to figure out but it's the last Christie to be had!" (Prescott 96). US publishers, Dodd, Mead & Company capitalized on the fact that it was a last novel, headlining announcements for the book with the following tag: "This is Dame Agatha's last published mystery novel!" (Publishers Weekly, 30 August 1976). Her publishers also emphasized the fact that not only was Sleeping Murder Christie's final novel, but it was the last in the series featuring Miss Jane Marple. The idea of the last book of a series had previously proven its success when just the year before, Christie's Curtain, Detective Poirot's last case, became a bestseller. According to Patricia Maida, the public expected a similar ending to Sleeping Murder to that of Curtain and thus, "assumed she [Marple] would die but were surprised that she's permitted to live" (118).
One of the greatest factors that can effect the popularity of a book is the notoriety of its author. Once blockbuster novelists such Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and Agatha Christie establish their niche within the literary world, it is hard for their books not to succeed. Hart further clarifies this trend in explaining that "when a reputation has been earlier established, a loyal following amassed which is continually added to, it those who missed the first books that want to read the later ones [in order] to enter the discussions that follow the books' publications" (287). Christie has amassed a worldwide following, having sold over two billion books in over forty-five languages. She has been lauded "the most popular novelist in history" (www.MysteryNet.com), evident in the websites, books, movies, and fan clubs which are all dedicated to her.
While there is not any winning combination of criteria that designates a book a bestseller, Agatha Christie's Sleeping Murder could be a pretty accurate example. This book is a combination of all the right elements including a popular genre, a well-known author, serial characters, and good timing. Although not a critical success, in terms of being an "all-around" bestseller, Sleeping Murder can hold its own.
Barzun, Jaques. A Catalogue of Crime. Harper Row: New York, 1971.
Brown, Mary. "Sleeping Murder" Antioch Review. Spring 1976.
Christie, Agatha. Sleeping Murder. Dodd, Mead & Co.: New York, 1976.
Hackett, Alice Payne. Best Sellers in the Bookstores (1900-1975).
Hart, James D. The Popular Book. Greenwood Press: Connecticut, 1950.
Lambert, Gavin. "Miss Marple's Last Case," New York Times Book Review, 19 October 1976.
Maida, Patricia. Murder She Wrote. Bowling Green State University Press: Ohio, 1982.
Mott, Frank Luther. Golden Multitudes. RR Bowler: NY, 1947.
Prescott, PS. "Sleeping Murder" Newsweek. 27 September 1976.
Wagoner, Mary. Agatha Christie. Twayne Publishing: Boston, 1986.