A Cup of Coffee with Agatha Christie by Charles Osborne
Agatha Christie had made her debut as a crime novelist in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles in which she introduced her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. By 1930, Poirot had appeared in four more novels and several short stories. It was probably because of her dissatisfaction with Alibi, the play which someone else had made out of one of those novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, that Mrs. Christie decided to try her hand at putting Poirot on the stage in a play of her own.
That play, Black Coffee, was the first she had ever written. When she showed it to her agent, he advised her not to bother submitting it to any theatre, as in his opinion it was not good enough to be staged! However, a friend of hers who was connected with theatrical management thought otherwise, and the play was accepted for production at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, London, where plays were frequently tried out for the West End.
Black Coffee was a success at the Embassy Theatre in 1930 and opened the following April in the West End of London at the St. Martin’s Theatre, where it had a healthy run of several months. Poirot was played by a popular actor of the time, Francis L Sullivan. At Swiss Cottage, Captain Hastings had been played by the popular Shakespearian actor, Donald Wolfit. In the West End, Wolfit was replaced by Roland Culver. The Daily Telegraph thought the play “a sound piece of detective-story writing” and described Sullivan’s Poirot as “a loveable human being.”
My first connection with Black Coffee came a quarter of a century later, in 1956. I was at that time in my late twenties and earning my living as an actor. Engaged to play what used to be called the “juvenile-character” roles in a summer season of weekly repertory in Tunbridge Wells, I found myself playing an assortment of characters in thirteen plays by Terence Rattigan, Emlyn Williams, Alan Melville, Vernon Sylvaine, and several other playwrights. One of our most popular plays that season was Black Coffee and I received a very favourable review in the local newspaper for the authentic Latin temperament I displayed as a mysterious Italian, “the slick Dr. Carelli.”
It was another quarter of a century before I wrote my book, The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, which appeared in 1982. It was not until a year or two ago that it suddenly occurred to me how splendid it would be if I could give her admirers all over the world a new Hercule Poirot mystery, by turning Black Coffee into a novel. I suggested this to Agatha Christie Ltd., who control the copyright in her works. Without committing themselves, they agreed to let me try, and I set to work enthusiastically.
Turning a play into a novel is, of course, a much more complex business than simply adding “he said…” and “she said…” to the play’s dialogue. I had to describe the characters and the setting, and had to be careful to do so in the style of Agatha Christie, so as to make the finished book read like a new, original Christie murder mystery. I also found it necessary to write an opening chapter which is completely my own invention, with no parallel in the play, establishing Hercule Poirot in his London apartment before he travels down to the country at the behest of a famous scientist to help foil a criminal.
When I had finished writing the novel, Agatha Christie Ltd. greeted it enthusiastically. “The result,” Agatha’s grandson Mathew Prichard wrote in an afterword to the volume, “reads like authentic, vintage Christie. I feel sure Agatha would be proud to have written it.” I, in turn, am very proud to have had my work praised by such an authority!
Charles Osborne is a world authority on theater and opera as well as the author of The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie (1982). He lives in London.