“But how do you know that Hercule Poirot was from Brussels?” Anna, a member of the studio audience for World Book Club on BBC World Service (7 January, 2pm), was apologetic, yet insistent, with her question. Eventually, Agatha Christie’s great-grandson James Prichard admitted from the stage that in all of the Belgian sleuth’s many adventures, his creator never actually gives away his birthplace – although “he did live and work in Brussels, that is true”.
Sadly, Anna was denied a second chance with the microphone. She was owed a bit of gloating for her correct deduction, I felt.
This month, the book club – which has been running since 2002 – tackled Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, before assembling at the Bibliotheca Wittockiana in Poirot’s adopted hometown to discuss whodunnit. As well as questions from the audience in Brussels, others were sent in from listeners in places as far apart as London, Michigan and Cape Town. They were put, by presenter Harriett Gilbert, to Prichard and his fellow panellist Sophie Hannah (the latter being the author of two Poirot “continuation” novels, sanctioned by the Christie estate).
The show likes to broadcast from sites of literary significance – an episode on JD Salinger was recorded in the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where (before he retired to New Hampshire to become a recluse) the author liked to have lunch.
The Belgian episode was gloriously geeky: World Book Club listeners really like to explore the minutiae of the month’s text – so of course Tiffany from South Africa wanted to know whether Christie deliberately selected her characters’ names to reveal their moral worth. Should we assume that Samuel Ratchett is evil because of his harsh consonants? No, recommended Prichard: apparently his great-grandmother mostly picked up names for characters by eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations.
Like much of this radio station’s output, World Book Club has a global audience, and its format actually allows you to hear from people all around the planet. It is heartening, on a dreary January day in Britain, to know that someone in Somaliland is turning the pages and tuning in, too.
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief