From Queen of Crime to Queen of the Classroom: a new series of simplified, abridged Agatha Christie novels are set to introduce non-native English speakers to the glory of the British murder mystery.
Publisher Collins has cut down 20 of Christie’s detective novels – including Poirot’s first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Miss Marple’s debut outing The Murder at the Vicarage – by 60%, simplifying the language and adding character notes and glossaries. The books are aimed at “upper intermediate” English language learners, and are intended to ensure that “studying English is as captivating as it is educational”.
“There’s a high awareness of Agatha Christie out there but a lot of non-English speakers would find the originals too difficult. The language is quite archaic, the plots are quite difficult, with loads of characters,” said publisher Catherine Whitaker. “Her grammar is quite complex – which it would be – when you’re speculating you need to use more complex grammar.”
Keen to keep the flavour and style of Christie’s novels as much as possible, instead of taking the usual approach and having the adapter read the original and rewrite it in simple language, Collins decided to work with abridgers and specialist English language editors to create their new versions.
“The plots are too complex and it wouldn’t have felt like Christie [if the original was rewritten in its entirety]. The estate wanted a very strong flavour of Christie, and for them to be as close to the original as we could get them, so we employed the kinds of abridgers we use for audiobooks. They did an initial abridgement, but it was still too difficult, so we then had the language edited,” said Whitaker. “Very rarely have we cut a character – occasionally there’s a little plot deviation we could do without, but all the characters really need to be there otherwise there aren’t enough people to speculate about whodunit.”
In the original Christie opening to the Hercule Poirot novel Appointment with Death, Poirot overhears the line “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”. “The question floated out into the still night air, seemed to hang there a moment and then drift away down into the darkness towards the Dead Sea,” writes Christie. Before going on to reminisce over a story about Anthony Trollope, Poirot “paused a minute with his hand on the window catch. Frowning, he shut it decisively, thereby excluding any injurious night air!”
In Collins’s new version, the question becomes “Don’t you agree that she’s got to be killed?”, with the simplified edition continuing – with no subsequent Trollope reference – “The words seemed to hang in the still night air, before disappearing into the darkness. It was Hercule Poirot’s first night in the city of Jerusalem, and he was shutting his hotel-room window – the night air was a danger to his health! – when he overheard these words.”
While Orion provoked outrage in 2007 with its “compact classics” – abridged versions of the greats criticised as “for modern audiences who are too busy/stupid to read the real thing” – Whitaker says the Collins adaptations of Christie are “a very different” proposition.
“They are for a completely different audience. Our books have been abridged not because language learners are too ‘busy or stupid’ but because extensive reading in a foreign language is hard and the more the plot moves along and you get hooked by the story because you understand what you are reading, the better,” she said. “Also, readers like this are often used in schools as part of an English course so there isn’t the time to read very long texts because the class will also be developing their listening, speaking and writing skills and students will be expected to do their reading in their own time with all the other homework they have.”
Whitaker is now looking at abridging and simplifying other HarperCollins texts – the publisher’s authors also include JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis – but she would not elaborate on which were being considered. “Obviously we’ve got the classics – the list goes back a long way,” she said. “We are looking at doing this for all sorts of books but we started with Agatha Christie because we know that even if people haven’t read her books, they are very well aware of the settings of the novels.” Christie’s books have sold over a billion copies in the English language, and another billion in more than 100 foreign languages, according to HarperCollins.
Can you abridge an Agatha in 100 words? Post your version below …
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