At first glance, Kemper Donovan’s backyard bungalow seems perfectly normal for this Santa Monica neighborhood, but a few clues suggest otherwise.
A map of the English county of Devon. A copy of the “Poisoner’s Handbook”. A professional looking microphone perched on a wooden desk. And then there’s the huge portrait of Agatha Christie hanging next to the guest bed.
If you use your little gray cells — as Christie’s fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot liked to put it — you might deduce that this is where 43-year-old Donovan records the long-running podcast, “All About Agatha.” In it, he and co-host Catherine Brobeck set out to read and categorize all of Christie’s 66 mystery novels and discuss them comprehensively.
For six years, thousands of Agatha Christie enthusiasts around the world have downloaded the podcast for what one listener described as a “happily geeky” take on the crime queen’s extensive canon. In addition to crime novels, Christie has written 14 short story collections, two memoirs, over 20 plays, and six non-detective novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.
Donovan and Brobeck happily discussed all of this. As ‘agathologists’, they have lectured at Cambridge University on the collective catharsis of denouement – when the detective gathers everyone into the living room to reveal the murderer – gave media interviews on the stream constant new Christie adaptations, and have become beloved mainstays of the close-knit community of ardent Christie fans and scholars.
Today, the podcast averages just under 100,000 downloads per month with most of its listeners in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Germany and Scandinavia.
The co-hosts were often at odds. Donovan was an avid Miss Marple fan; Brobeck has always been Poirot. You could almost hear Brobeck’s eyes roll every time Donovan attempted a sentence in French or read, again, Christie’s autobiography. But even when they argued, they made each other laugh.
Then, suddenly and tragically, Brobeck passed away last November, just days after her 37th birthday, from a previously undetected genetic condition. Hundreds of listeners have reached out to Donovan to express their shock and grief. Many felt they had lost a friend.
By the time of Brobeck’s death, she and Donovan had explored 60 novels. With only six remaining to review, Donovan decided to continue the podcast.
The last episode of the novel “All About Agatha”, released in September, was devoted to “Curtain”, the last book published during Christie’s lifetime. It included a full recitation of Poirot’s “obituary”, which made the front page of The New York Times in 1975, and several passages from the book “Poirot and I” by David Suchet, the British actor who played the detective for 25 year. on the beloved ITV series.
This podcast lasted 3 hours and 49 minutes, the longest episode to date. As the project drew to a close, the episodes grew longer and longer. Donovan and I grew up in the same New York City, and we’ve been close friends since high school, so I know he can talk at length. But it was clear that something else was going on besides his natural chatter.
When I asked him, he admitted he couldn’t help it.
“For many reasons, I don’t want this to end,” he said.
It’s tempting to say that Agatha Christie is having a moment. This year alone saw the release of Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of “Death on the Nile”, Hugh Laurie’s TV adaptation of “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” and a new biography by British historian Lucy Worsley, “Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman.” A new collection of short Miss Marple stories written by some of the leading mystery writers working today was published in September.
But as any Christie follower will tell you, Agatha Christie, who died aged 85 in 1976, is still having a good time. His books have sold over 2 billion copies worldwide. (She was second only to the Bible and Shakespeare.) Her play “The Mousetrap” opened in London’s West End in 1952 and ran until it was closed by covid-19, making it the oldest coin in history. It reopened in May 2021.
What accounts for its enduring appeal?
The answer, said Mark Aldridge, historian and author of “Agatha Christie on Screen” and “Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World,” is simple.
“He’s a genius,” he said. “And I’m not being reductive in saying that. People think she had a business trick or a nice secret, but the truth is, she’s just brilliant.”
For John Curran, author of “Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making”, the key is its accessibility.
“She tells a very good, intelligent story, and she tells it in a readable way,” he said. “Readability is my #1 factor for Christie’s success. She had the talent, and it’s a very underrated factor.”
This is also a topic that appeared on the podcast.
“Agatha Christie’s real mystery is, ‘Why her? ‘” Donovan said.
Donovan’s theory is that there is something almost archetypal about his work. “It’s on the same level of mythology,” he said. “You can come back to him again and again like you do with myths and fairy tales.”
Love triangles featured frequently in books like “Death on the Nile” (ranked 9) and “Five Little Pigs” (#1), just as they do in myths. And, like many myths, his books presented a specific moral.
Donovan believes Christie’s primary concern was not revenge, but the pursuit of the truth. His books rarely ended with tales of the killer’s punishment, instead focusing on the freedom given to innocent protagonists when the truth comes out.
But this perspective is a work in progress. “That’s the million dollar question, and I want to try to answer that question, basically for the rest of my life,” he said.
Donovan and Brobeck were voracious and precocious readers and both devoured Christie’s novels as children.
“Catherine learned to read when she was 4 and quickly moved past mysteries like the ‘Nancy Drew’ series,” Brobeck’s mother Linda Brobeck said. “There was nothing outrageous about Agatha Christie, so she started reading them.”
Although they both retained a fondness for Christie, they quickly moved on to other literatures. Catherine Brobeck studied Russian in college so she could read Tolstoy in her native language and more recently worked on a guidebook to Joan Didion’s Los Angeles. Donovan, a self-proclaimed Anglophile, wrote his undergraduate thesis on Wilkie Collins, a 19th-century author considered by some to be the inventor of the detective story.
They met in Los Angeles in 2008, when Donovan began dating Brobeck’s college friend Adam Milch, whom he later married. When the conversation turned to “Anna Karenina”, their friendship was cemented.
In 2016, Donovan, who previously worked as a manager for screenwriters, published his first novel, “The Decent Proposal,” a contemporary love story set in LA Brobeck, also a writer, made ends meet as an assistant. in an entertainment law. Desk.
One evening, Donovan and Milch had a suggestion for Brobeck: podcasting. She was smart, funny, educated and she loved to talk. The ultimate phone friend.
Brobeck liked the idea, but she didn’t want to do it alone. Donovan recalled a comment he once made to her about how the TV series Poirot had taken a tonal shift in recent seasons, becoming less glittery and darker. Brobeck understood instantly.
And so that night, they hatched a plan for what became “All About Agatha.” And if it stopped being fun, they agreed they wouldn’t feel guilty about abandoning ship.
Brobeck’s caveat was that they were at least trying to make it to ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,’ (ranked #3), Christie’s sixth novel and the first of what fans consider the gems of Christie’s Crown, which also include “And Then There Were None” (No. 2) and “Murder on the Orient Express” (No. 7).
They graded each novel on a series of categories that included plot mechanics (how the mystery is crafted) and credibility (whether it could happen in real life). Among the other criteria was a category called “characters in a series”, which allowed them to examine how effectively Christie wrote recurring characters like Miss Marple and Poirot.
A category called “setting and tone” gave them space to discuss how it evoked the setting of the mystery, as well as their overall feelings about the book – whether they had trouble reading it or couldn’t. put it down.
They would also deduct points for what they called “stuck-in-time portrayals” to recognize Christie’s xenophobic, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and ableist passages. (She also displays a particular distaste for non-traditional families.)
“Books are messy like humanity is messy, and it’s an acknowledgment of that,” Donovan said.
When the podcast started, Brobeck lived in an apartment near the grove and Donovan had a condo in Santa Monica near the beach. To avoid the traffic, they decided to record by phone. (It was a Los Angeles-based podcast after all.)
To improve the sound quality in these early days, they both recorded in closets. But despite these failures, Christie’s scholars immediately began to listen.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is exactly what I want,'” said Sophie Hannah, British poet, novelist and author of a new series of Poirot novels licensed by the Christie’s estate. “It was a podcast hosted by two people who not only love Agatha Christie as much as I do, but wanted to talk about her in detail.”
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