Not Lost in Translation

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Reading these graphic novel adaptations of Agatha Christie crime novels is like rediscovering an old friend

You cannot avoid magniloquence when you talk of the Queen of Crime. The numbers themselves are staggering. Over a billion books sold in English and another billion in more than 44 foreign languages across 100 countries. More than 2,000 characters over 80 crime novels and short story collections, plus 19 plays. As certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, she is the bestselling novelist of all time. Agatha Christie’s crime stories, published over 50 years from the 1920s to the 1970s, have not only endured in their original forms (and never been out of print!), but have also been adapted innumerable times as plays, television series, movies, radio shows and audiobooks.

You would imagine that telling and retelling a story so many times would wear it a little thin. But it’s like meeting an old friend after many years. They seem so familiar, yet you are surprised and a little betrayed by any change. This was specially true when I saw the HarperCollins series of graphic novel adaptations of Christie’s books, priced at Rs 250 each. The sly, meticulous mysteries are much loved and a part of our memories of adolescence, even if tempered by a frission of discomfort with the snobbery, sexism and racism reflected from that era. The format of the hardcover graphic novels reminded me of other childhood cronies, Tintin and Asterix. These books were originally published in France as bandes desinnées, or ‘drawn strips’, in the Franco-Belgian comic book tradition, with vivid humanism and meticulous research resulting in a realistic feel, and visually, clear strong line work of uniform weight. Combining this visual style with Christie’s quintessentially English tales is like fortuitously bumping into many old friends, all in the same room.

The covers, designed by Nina Tara, are fresh, festive and attractive, yet have the appropriate noir feel. I’d imagine that they would appeal to both children and adults with their bright colours and vintage feel reminiscent of Saul Bass’s movie posters. When I saw a pile of these books with different coloured covers done in a similar style, my inner graphic designer coveted the whole collection immediately.

But the real treat lies inside these lust-inducing covers. The enduring success of these stories is a tribute to the universal appeal of the characters, ingenuity of the plots and the essential whodunit puzzle. Christie wrote timeless stories filled with tension. These have been brought to life with sumptuous full colour art work over 46 glossy pages for each of the books by different artists. The use of different illustrators adds a unique flavour to each mystery. The artist Solidor, who illustrated Murder on the Orient Express, was briefly a student of Hergé, the brilliant Belgian comics writer and artist, best known for the Tintin series. Hergé pioneered the Ligne clarie (clear line) drawing style which is perfect for creating a nostalgic period feel. It is characterised by simple uniform lines, giving equal attention to all the details in a frame, strong colours and cartoonish characters against a realistic background. The overall effect is not three-dimensional but flat, which has its own charm.

Of the other artists, Marc Piskic’s drawings remind me of sepia-tinged photographs, rendered in delicate desaturated watercolours and exquisite detail. In the series, the attention paid to getting the details right is impressive and essential. Steam trains at railway stations, English country houses and cliff-top seaside homes, scenes set in parlours, on voyages, in exotic Mesopotamia—are all rendered in a historically accurate and apt European style. It was also fascinating to examine a much-loved and represented character such as Poirot rendered by different artists, and to compare their visions of him with the one in my head.

Ironically, these books are retranslated back into English from the original French graphic novels, which were themselves comic book adaptations of English crime stories. Typically, stories of this type do not lend themselves to a visual format easily, as the tension and drama are created in prose and comics rely on action and visual incidents. The dialogue can seem a little choppy; French phrases and exclamations are littered through the pages of essentially English crime stories, and a few nuances are missed. But you have to remember that these are adaptations, not meant to replace the original books. In fact, the relationship between the books and these graphic novels is symbiotic, presenting old Christie readers with the stories in new forms and hopefully introducing new readers to their joys.