It’s long been the case that behind many of the most popular mystery novels sits a strong and wildly talented female author pounding away at her keyboard, prolifically churning out hauntingly complex human puzzles. The reasons women long ago emerged as a dominant force in this most unladylike of genres are anyone’s guess. An innate fascination with the sources of violence often turned upon them? An aptitude for charting the emotional underpinnings of pathology? A keen radar for knotty social dynamics? A high tolerance for uncertainty?
Whatever the case may be, this week's flurry of news of projects originating from female crime writers proves that literary matriarchy remains as potent as ever. First, came word that Chloe Moretz had joined the cast of the Charlize Theron-produced adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places followed by the announcement that WME, the powerhouse agency launched by Ari Emanuel, has acquired the Agatha Christie estate.
Moretz, best known as the edgy ingénue in “Kick Ass” and “Hugo,” has emerged as Hollywood’s young female answer to Johnny Depp. She’s already banked leads in no fewer than five films due to hit theaters in 2013, including the titular tormented teen in Kimberly Peirce’s “Carrie” remake. And after dwelling in dark places for much of her career, she’s a natural fit to play the shady anti-heroine in Flynn’s neo-gothic tale about a woman tormented by the suggestion that her metalhead brother may have been wrongfully convicted of massacring her family in its rural Kansas farmhouse. The story strongly echoes the groupthink themes underlying the “Paradise Lost” series of documentaries chronicling the witch hunt that landed the recently exonerated West Memphis Three in prison for decades.
Flynn’s taste for macabre irony, however, can’t be chalked up to the violently unforgiving times in which we live. Some ninety-seven years earlier, Agatha Christie began writing equally twisted amorality tales, expertly combining sex, death, and deception into her compulsively readable whodunits. Christie, who holds the title of bestselling novelist of all time, was prolific in the extreme, producing over sixty mysteries and many more plays, short story collections, and romance novels over the course of her life.
However, the central mystery surrounding Christie’s work has less to do with the contents of her books than with Hollywood’s relative indifference to her trove of international bestsellers. It’s been nearly twenty-five years since the last studio production of one of her novels: 1989’s “Ten Little Indians,” starring Donald Pleasence and Frank Stallone. And with that b-level ensemble, there was little chance of doing justice to her most beloved novel. What’s more, over the years her vast oeuvre has yielded only bonafide classics: Sidney Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express” and Billy Wilder’s “Witness for the Prosecution.”
Perhaps all of the attention surrounding Flynn’s work in the wake of Gone Girl, last summer's official literary sensation, served as a reminder of an underserved audience of mystery buffs yearning for the emotional complexity that’s become a hallmark of literary thrillers written by women. Either way, it can only be a good sign that WME laid down the cash for a majority stake in the rights to Christie’s work. Here’s hoping for a second Christie-inspired crime wave. Anything less would be criminal.