Agatha Christie: An English Mystery
by Laura Thompson
Headline Review £20, pp534
If you read lots of literary biographies, as I do, you can't help but feel that the available pool of subjects is distinctly puddle-sized. A few writers die every year, which is helpful, but not all of them, alas, are worthy of their own book. Meanwhile, all the meatiest names have already been done. So what is the restless biographer to do? Go back, that's what: try someone who was last 'done' a couple of decades ago.
Laura Thompson's previous subject was Nancy Mitford, whose biography had already been ably written by Selina Hastings, and she made a decent go of it - even if it wasn't exactly crammed with revelations, and even if her style was, at times, on the toothache-inducing side of syrupy (Nancy herself would have honked like a drain at its worst excesses). Emboldened by this success, Thompson has now tried the same trick again, with Agatha Christie, who was last the subject of a biography (by Janet Morgan) in 1984.
Thompson clearly feels that she brings a fresh eye - and a special passion - to the already thoroughly picked-over life of the world's bestselling crime writer. But perhaps her publisher is worried others may not agree. The people at Headline have certainly gone all out to sell it. Subtitled An English Mystery, its cover boasts that it was written with 'unique' access to Christie's diary, letters and family, and inside the dust jacket we're promised not a biography but a 'full-scale investigation'. As for its author, she is no mere writer; she has turned 'detective'. As I read, I kept picturing Thompson in a trench coat, pacing a library in which could be found not only dusty notebooks but the body of a stout, middle-aged woman in a fox stole, graduated pearls and bucket hat.
Christie, of course, did not die a violent death (though her reputation has been murdered a few times, notably by Michael Dibdin in J'Accuse on Channel 4), nor was her life especially eventful. She was born in Torquay in 1890 and grew up surrounded by servants. She made an unhappy marriage, had a daughter, became a successful writer, got divorced, and made a happy, if unconventional, second marriage. She died in one of her several grand homes at the age of 85. To what 'mystery', then, does the book's subtitle refer?
There are two. The first, and most obvious, is Christie's infamous 10-day disappearance in 1926, when police dredged ponds in search of her body and the Daily News published pictures of her as she might look in disguise, only for her to turn up in a Harrogate hotel, alive and well and wearing a lovely new georgette frock. The second is the mystery of her success. Though there are people (I'm one of them) who still love Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers, Christie has outlasted and outsold both of them, the same way she did all her Golden Age contemporaries. A billion copies of her books have been sold in English alone. Why? We can't look to Christie for answers: she hated interviews, and was not much given to literary introspection. But go back to the novels, and you won't be any the wiser. As a child, I loved Christie (this, perhaps, is why I think of her stories as children's books) and as I was reading Thompson's massive volume, I dug out my old paperbacks. How mystifying. Bereft of description and characterisation, even her famous puzzles seem silly now: it was Norman Gale in the 18-seater aeroplane with a blowpipe! (Death in the Clouds).
When it comes to Christie's disappearance, Thompson does a fabulous job of getting inside her head, imagining her racing thoughts as she abandoned her car by a North Downs chalk pit and headed on a train to Yorkshire ('In the ladies' room at the Army and Navy she washed her hands and tidied herself. She looked respectable again, not a fugitive at all ...'). Archie, Christie's ex-soldier husband, had revealed he was in love with another woman, and wanted a divorce - and this, coming hard on the death of her adored mother, pushed her to act desperately, and stupidly. The amnesia story that Archie later concocted for the benefit of the press was, it's fair to say, total rubbish. Nor was her disappearance, as has been suggested, a publicity stunt.
But while Thompson is sympathetic ('No writing for now. Just this story of her own, whose ending she did not know'), Christie comes over as a woman used to getting her own way. This wasn't a nervous breakdown; she simply thought that Archie would come running. Thompson is in a bind here because - a little in love with her subject - she wants to defend Agatha from the silted weight of the gossip of the past, and thus maintains that because Christie had written to her brother-in-law explaining her plan to go to Yorkshire (he'd thrown the note away, and had neglected to contact Archie immediately, as she'd intended him to do), she had not really disappeared at all: she had simply done as she said she would. The trouble is, this is not wildly exciting. So Thompson clutches at straws. 'The facts may now be known ...' she writes. 'In the end what is left is a story. A mystery story. Her finest, because it cannot be solved.' What does this mean? Hasn't Thompson just done exactly that?
She is calmer when she describes Christie's second marriage, to the archaeologist Max Mallowan, who was 14 years her junior and almost certainly a virgin when they married in 1930, and this approach bears fruit: their relationship comes over as, by turns, peculiar, necessary and loving. Thompson mildly defends Mallowan of the charge that he was a fortune hunter; in any case, Christie, so bruised by the failure of her first marriage, wouldn't have cared if he was (though her cash was undoubtedly useful as he dug away in Iraq and Syria). She thinks, also, that he probably did not have an affair with Barbara Parker, who helped to organise his digs, and who became his wife after Agatha's death.
But then Thompson turns her attention to the second mystery of Christie's life - her success - and she simply goes to pieces. She is quite daffy about her subject's prose. She quotes the novels (where they touch on something experienced by Christie in life) reverentially, as if they were Wharton or Eliot, not the result of the hack-work that meant Christie could write one and sometimes two novels a year for five decades. She repeatedly tells you how brilliant this or that book is - and what she admires is not Christie's way with riddles, but the stuff nobody else can find in her books: insight, motivation, deep emotion. Five Little Pigs, to take just one example, is 'a mystery resolved into simplicity by an understanding of human complexity ... a beautiful process, and a beautiful book'. Thompson devotes a whole chapter to Christie's writing, and it makes for bewildering reading. Her passionate analysis - no, she was not anti-Semitic; no, she was not lacking in imagination - is absolutely, and stubbornly, at odds with anything else on the subject that I've ever read (even PD James, an admirer, concedes that, in Christie, 'we're not dealing with reality'). I wonder.
Agatha's family has always been protective of her reputation; did the relatives require signs of true fandom before they would hand over those diaries? I hope not. But I will say this. Whether by accident or design, something of the oddly pale quality of Christie's fiction has leached into Thompson's own book. Agatha Christie, as she appears here, is as elusive as ever - which is, I'm afraid, exactly the way she would have wanted it.
Life of crime
Agatha Christie has been translated into more languages than Shakespeare.
Christie dedicated The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side to Margaret Rutherford, who portrayed Miss Marple in four films.
On publication of the final Hercule Poirot novel in 1975, the fictional Belgian detective was given a front-page obituary in the New York Times.
She said: 'An archaeologist is the best husband any woman can have: the older she gets, the more interested he is in her.'
They say: 'She has her cards and she shifts them with those cunning fingers until, of course, the reader sees the kind of trickery she operates.' - PD James
The works of Dame Agatha Christie are still a part of popular culture. In a writing career lasting more than 55 years, she wrote 72 novels (66 mystery novels and 6 romance novels) and 15 short story collections—a body of work that remains unparalleled in any genre, except perhaps by Stephen King.
What made Agatha Christie’s stories stand out?
What made her stories stand out were, of course, the characters. She created memorable and dignified characters which any class of readers could relate to. Her most memorable and popular characters, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are great examples of her skill to develop “high society” characters with mainstream appeal.
Agatha’s novel, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” (published in 1920) introduced the character Hercule Poirot. Poirot, a Belgian private investigator, appeared in thirty-three novels, one play, and over 50 short stories from 1920 to 1975. Miss Marple, an elderly woman who used her amateur sleuthing skills to solve crimes, appeared in 12 of Agatha’s mystery crime novels and 22 short stories. Miss Marple often worked beside Poirot on tough crime cases.
Agatha regularly looked for “creative inspiration” by studying the people around her; however, her chosen genre, the murder mystery, stunted her writing process because it was difficult at times to put reality into fictional environments; for example, she sometimes had trouble using attributes of acquaintences to do things she couldn’t imagine them doing, like murder, and this often caused writer’s block. To overcome this obstacle, she would develop many characters from scratch. She would note physical appearances of strangers whom she saw and met in public and then would use their likeness and subtle mannerisms to develop relatable characters for her mysteries.
Agatha completed her first novel, “Snow Upon the Desert” in 1911 or 1912. She shopped it around to many publishers, only to receive rejection after rejection. Her first novel was never published. Her second novel, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” completed in 1919, was published several months later by The Bodley Head, an independent English publishing house.
What was Agatha good at?
Agatha was adept at combining period subject matter with delicate story development, creative plot structure, and psychology. This is evident in her novel, Curtain, her brilliant finale. Written long before her death and placed in a bank safe with instructions to be published only after her demise, Curtain is a masterpiece that utilizes the best of her talents.
The full title, “Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case” was written in 1941, thirty-five years before Agatha’s death. It was published for the first time in 1975, right before Agatha died in 1976. Her final Poirot novel, “Elephants Can Remember,” was released in 1972, succeeded by her last novel, “Postern of Fate” in 1973, after which she could no longer write due to illness. “Curtain” finally brings the Poirot character to a close—Agatha finally “kills him off.”
A common thread in many of Agatha’s novels was to develop a psychological struggle and to use topical references and brilliant characters who appeared to be crossing a stage. Her stories felt that way, as if you were sitting in an audience watching the most elegant play unfold before you. It’s not surprising that films and TV shows based directly on her works were filled with great actors playing crusty and snooty, yet relatable, desperate characters.
Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Agatha Christie as the best-selling novelist of all time. Her novels, collectively, have sold more than 4 billion copies. Her best-selling mystery novel of all time is “And Then There Were None,” which has sold over 100 million copies. Agatha is also the most translated individual author. Her novels have been translated into over 100 languages.
To avoid stagnation, Agatha developed a habit of writing more than one book at a time. Despite being raised by an affluent upper-class family in England, her language was always simple, using a writing style that every reader could understand and enjoy. Although simple in style, her intriguing plots and sub-plots challenged readers to figure out “who done it” before the story ended. Agatha cleverly paced material, allowing readers to move through stories at a steady or slow pace that enhanced the drama. She relied heavily on dialogue, a technique to vary the pacing of the story as well as to heighten suspense. The beginnings of her works are strong on description, which gradually drop off as dialogue and interaction between characters take over. With shorter sentences and sharp dialogue, she hurries readers along to what’s always a captivating conclusion.
Agatha preferred to plot her crime stories from the murder itself. First, she would plan out the mode of murder, the killer, and the purpose. Second, she would factor in the various suspects and their own intents. Third, she would concoct potential clues and diversionary tactics to pull readers in different directions. She restrained herself from including excessive misleading clues because it would stifle the plot.
Agatha devised her mysteries with intricate deceptions to manipulate readers’ thoughts and feelings and to make it more difficult for readers to solve the main mystery. She often used the same story-development formula for many of her crime novels: the main character—a detective or private investigator—either discovers the murder or a past friend, somehow associated with the murder, contacts the main character for help. As the story unfolds, the main character questions every suspect, investigates the location of the crime, and carefully jots down each clue, allowing
readers to scrutinize the clue and try to solve the mystery on their own. Just as readers build up clues and think they know who might have comitted the murder, Agatha kills off one or a few main suspects, leaving readers shocked and confused that they were wrong about the murderer’s identity. Eventually the main character gathers all of the remaining suspects at one location and reprimands the culprit, revealing numerous unconnected secrets along the way, usually lasting 20-30 pages.
Agatha Christie: An Autobiography contains her memoirs and her reflections on life, including her writing career. It is believed she began writing her autobiography in 1950 and eventually completed it in 1965. In 2012, U.S. publisher William Morrow Paperbacks re-published her 570-page autobiography as a “reprint edition.” It is available at Amazon.com.
It’s not a coincidence that Agatha’s most famous protagonist, Hercule Poirot, constantly referred to his approach to solving mysteries as using his “little gray cells,” a reference to his brain. Similarly, Agatha applied her “little gray cells” to the written page. She was an exceptionally smart and gifted writer, deftly combining sharp structure with a psychological spin that still feels fresh today. She refused to write down to her readers, but instead invited all types of readers into her stories. She left a library of work that’s both intelligent and timeless. A reader can pick up a book published decades ago and not feel any passage of time. Murder and good writing—a combination that made the “Queen of Crime” one of the best writers in history.