The whodunit is back.
At least that seems to be the case in recent years with the success of Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot movies—the third one, A Haunting in Venice, hits theaters this week—Rian Johnson’s Knives Out thrillers, and even TV shows like Only Murders in the Building. But according to someone who should know, the great-grandson of legendary murder mystery writer Agatha Christie, the classic detective story subgenre has never quite gone away.
“I would say that the movie industry came to the game late,” says James Prichard, a man who is not only Christie’s descendant but also the chairman and CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd., which manages the literary and media rights to his great-grandmother’s works. “We’ve never gone away, we’ve been making stuff all through the last 10, 20, 30 years. But we didn’t make a movie for a very long time.”
Adaptations of Christie’s canon—which encompasses 66 novels and 14 short story collections, including 33 novels starring Poirot, the eccentric Belgian detective with the mustache to end all facial hair—have appeared with particular regularity on British TV and stage. But you’d have to go back to 1988’s cut-rate, Cannon Films production of Appointment with Death (starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot) to find the master sleuth’s last appointment with the big screen before Branagh came along.
That dry spell came to an end in 2017 with Murder on the Orient Express, in which Branagh directed an all-star cast, which included himself as Poirot and with perhaps the best mustache yet. It was a lavish, old-fashioned, largely faithful adaptation that was a surprise hit despite being a period piece and a classic whodunit, both forms perceived not to be in favor with modern audiences. That was followed by the equally elegant (albeit COVID-delayed) Death on the Nile in 2021, and now A Haunting in Venice.
“I take my hat off to 20th Century [Studios],” Prichard says about the now Disney-owned company that bankrolled Branagh’s first Poirot project. “They took quite a big risk with Murder on the Orient Express and invested a lot of money ahead of that curve. It’s incredibly enjoyable to see the rest of the projects, Knives Out, Only Murders in the Building, Murder Mystery from Netflix, there’s all sorts of things.”
A Spooky Season Murder Mystery
Prichard adds that from where he sits—atop the literary empire of the woman who is still the best-selling fiction author of all time—the genre has always been a viable one. “Book sales would tell you that the audience has always been there,” he explains. “It’s just that now, people have seen the success of all these pieces in the genre, and they’re tapping into it. And to me, the more the merrier, because I think it is a great format for a film or a TV series.”
Prichard is an executive producer on all three of Branagh’s films and sees himself as a “protector of the legacy” of his great-grandmother’s work. He says he’s been most heavily involved in the production of the films during early development, from the selection of the novel up through the stage in which the script is written and any substantial changes to the text are run past him for approval.
But he admits that he was surprised after they adapted two of Christie’s most popular novels in Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile that Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green came to him with one of her final and lesser-known Poirot books, 1969’s Hallowe’en Party, as the basis for what became A Haunting in Venice.
“Michael Green first spoke to me about Hallowe’en Party quite a few years ago and was wondering about it for the third film,” recalls Prichard. “And I, to be honest, didn’t really know what he was going on about. Then two or three years ago, I had a meeting with Michael, Ken Branagh, and [20th Century Studios president] Steve Asbell, and they explained the strategy and explained the thinking.”
What Green, Branagh, and Asbell told Prichard was that after adapting two outright Agatha Christie classics, they wanted to throw audiences a bit of a curveball. “I think they were looking for something different tonally,” Prichard says. “And Michael had a feeling that it would be quite fun to fold a little bit of the horror genre into these films. He felt that Hallowe’en Party was a good launchpad.”
The film moves the action from a country estate in England to Venice where a worn-out Poirot, having seen too much of the dark side of human nature, has retired from detecting and is living a quiet life on his own. He’s soon approached by an old friend, mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, portraying a character whom Christie created as a loose avatar of herself) to help him debunk a psychic named Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh).
Ms. Reynolds is holding a séance that evening at the gloomy palazzo of opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), whose daughter seemingly committed suicide some time earlier. The palazzo is said to be haunted by the ghosts of children who were treated brutally by doctors and nurses there when the building was an orphanage in the Middle Ages. When one of the participants in the séance is murdered, and an attempt is made on Poirot’s life, the detective is forced to solve the case, even as he begins to question his own judgment and wonder whether the supernatural may be involved.
“[Michael Green] was quite clear that he wanted to make some relatively serious changes, not the least of which was moving the story from an English village to Venice,” says James Prichard about the more extensive liberties that the filmmakers took this time around. “He also wanted to make some quite significant changes to the plot. But I bought into the strategy and I think our audience will be surprised. I hope they will find it refreshing. And I hope they’ll be as delighted as I am with the movie.”
Poirot’s last case?
If in fact audiences respond to the movie with their wallets, then of course the question arises of what comes next. There are 30 more novels in the Christie canon starring Poirot (that’s 18 more than the dozen James Bond books Ian Fleming wrote), not to mention a few dozen short stories. And some of the classics, like Evil Under the Sun and Five Little Pigs, have yet to get the Branagh treatment.
“We’ve had conversations all the way through about where we might go with this if we are so lucky to make more movies,” Prichard says. “I don’t like to get ahead of myself. I don’t like to tempt fate. I am well aware that this is a pretty brutal business, and you’re only as good as your latest film. So we will see. I have had conversations, particularly with Michael Green, but nothing concrete.”
If A Haunting in Venice is successful enough to lead to a fourth Poirot film with Branagh and Green, then Prichard does have some ideas of where he’d like to see the “Christie-verse” go next.
“I think it would be quite fun to go back from this departure and do a classic story,” he admits. “I have a slight hankering of trying to do the Hollywood version of the English country house murder mystery… But the other thing I’m very well aware of is that Ken and Michael are much cleverer than me and understand the movie business much better than me. They’ll have their own ideas, probably which are better than mine. So I look forward to those conversations. I just hope we get to make more movies because I think it’s great.”
A Haunting in Venice opens in theaters Friday, Sept. 15.