..with the Candlestick


For me most of my memories of Autumn have to do with reading, usually some sort of comfort novels or History texts. Novels for me do not get much more comfortable then the works of Agatha Christie. I realise, with a modern urban pervert’s eye, that the books are a sort of gooey, safe simulation of both life and death, but that just makes me like them all the more.

Though they are ostensibly mysteries, as soon as you open one you know what will happen, chapter by chapter. That is part of the the authoress’ insidious charm.  I am pleased to note that Dame Agatha and her works are beginning to come again under the glass of at least popular scholarship.

While I do not agree with all of the positions taken by the author of this new biography, I find the sheer banality of her subject’s life to be fascinating, and strangely mysterious.

The following book review is reposted from The Times.

Agatha Christie’s anti-novels

Laura Thompson
An English mystery
533pp. Headline Review. £20.

Between 1920, when she was thirty, and her death in 1976, Agatha Christie published seventy-one full-length murder mysteries. She also brought out five collections of stories, two volumes of poetry, a number of successful West End plays and a couple of autobiographies; five non-crime novels by her appeared under the name of Mary Westmacott. In some years there were several publications; between 1939 and 1946 there were nineteen. By 1950, she had sold a total of 50 million books and she is still the bestselling author in the world. It seems reasonable to wonder where it all came from.

Laura Thompson has been given full access to the unpublished letters, papers and notebooks kept at Greenway, the house in Devon that Christie purchased in 1938 and later turned into a family trust to avoid tax. There Thompson discovered a lifetime’s worth of old exercise books, scraps of paper, receipts, banker’s orders, souvenir menus and family albums. She also discovered that Christie, who never dated a letter, falsified the details of her life in her memoirs and lied about her age on her marriage certificate. But in any case Thompson’s biographical method is not organization but evocation; rather than order the material into a chronological narrative, she wants us to know what her Agatha feels and offers novelistic insights into her state of mind. “Her life, on the surface, was as grey and dreary as a prison exercise yard, her mind a prey to a daily succession of torments” is how she describes Christie’s reaction to her divorce from her husband Archie sometime in 1927, an important event in Christie’s life, the facts of which remain uncertain.

Facts are further confused by Thompson’s way of moving between events in the life and quotations from the fiction. Christie’s love of her childhood home, Ashfield, is illustrated at length by her characters’ mourning for a variety of comfortable houses; her painful experience of love is shown to be re-enacted again and again by her heroines; and her difficult relationship with her daughter Rosalind, briefly dealt with, bears fruit in the many unattractive, even murderous, children in her books. More experimentally, Thompson wonders if the cool, attractive Katherine Grey of The Blue Train might have “hankered after” Archie Christie, and concludes that “her instinctive sense of self would have come to her rescue”. From time to time there is an imaginative reconstruction of an episode, with dialogue, or a dramatization of a key moment with a lavishly deployed present tense.

After a while, one recognizes the voice. Perhaps as a result of reading so many of the books and letters, the biographer has adopted her subject’s rhapsodic manner and cosily secure judgements. Places are “magical”, people “fiercely independent”, a dog is “desperately highly strung”. Christie’s youth in Torquay was “the life that any normal healthy girl would long to live”. Max Mallowan, who became her second husband, “divined the vulnerability within”. Thompson borrows Christie’s emphatic italics (“Agatha enjoyed Poirot but she needed Miss Marple”) and her use of runs of rhetorical questions: “Why had Agatha allowed her looks to go, after all? Did she not realize that a man wanted beauty in his wife?”.

In many ways, this old-fashioned emotional idiom, though it does not offer much in the way of insight into the woman beneath, seems to suit the story of Agatha Christie’s life, both in outline and detail. As described by Thompson, it very much resembles an Agatha Christie novel. There was an idyllic childhood; Agatha was a girl who could sing beautifully and whose fair hair was so long she could sit on it. A romantic marriage in 1914, to a First World War pilot, was followed by an unhappy period as a golf widow in Sunningdale; her husband’s lover was pretty Nancy Neele, who worked as a secretary in a firm with the resonant name of Imperial Continental Gas Association. The second marriage, to a man fifteen years younger than her, led to archaeological expeditions to Nimrud in Iraq, in the 1940s, where she cleaned the newly dug up ivories with face cream. Her acquaintance seems to have included a number of charming spendthrifts, war widows, grave professors and beautiful but lethal women. And all the while the books grew steadily more successful.

The most intriguing part of the life is, of course, the mysterious episode in 1926, when, having been told by Archie that he wanted a divorce, Christie drove off alone from their Sunningdale home, abandoned the car, then took a train to Harrogate where she registered herself at the Hydro Hotel as Mrs Neele (the name of her husband’s mistress, which she later gave to one of her intelligent police inspectors). She spent twelve days in Harrogate, shopping, lunching in tea rooms, having beauty treatments and even singing with the hotel’s dance band, while all the time following the story of the police hunt for the missing Mrs Christie in the Daily Mail and the Daily Sketch. It was a strangely unimaginative retreat, on which Thompson uses her dramatic-recreation technique, inventing dialogue and trains of thought. It is the incidental detail, however, that has the odd fictional quality. Christie left her car, with her fur coat and driving licence, on the edge of a quarry; it was found early the next morning by “a gypsy boy”. Ponds were dragged and the surrounding countryside searched by police and volunteers, because bungling Superintendent Kenward of the Surrey Constabulary was convinced that Archie had murdered his wife; sightings were reported all over the country (“Hatless Woman Met on the Downs”). Thompson makes much of the overexcited press coverage, the amnesia story the family stuck to, and the good effect the publicity had on sales.

She is also informative about the later years, covering Christie’s long-running troubles with the US and British tax authorities and the deal with MGM that led to clumsy Hollywood versions of the books, the disappointing Poirots of Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and David Suchet, and the very popular film of Witness for the Prosecution, which starred, improbably, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich. She is firm about the creaking attempts to grapple with the Swinging Sixties in the embarrassing Third Girl, and she quotes Christie’s US publisher’s privately expressed reaction to Postern of Fate in 1973: “It’s pretty ghastly isn’t it? Much worse than the last two”. Elsewhere, Thompson’s judgements on the books are simply partisan – “really quite beautiful . . . perfectly distilled meditations on human nature”, with “an almost mythic quality”. She defends Christie against charges of snobbery and racism, arguing that the novels only reflected the views of their day, though she prefers to consider a passing remark made in a letter – “Like all Dagoes, he couldn’t swim” – rather than address the casual anti-Semitism and xenophobia found throughout the early novels. Raymond Chandler, Michael Dibdin and Ruth Rendell are quoted as critics of Christie’s plotting and characterization; T. S. Eliot, A. L. Rowse and Michel Houellebecq are marshalled for the defence. But Thompson does not engage with the novels themselves.

In the abstract, these novels can seem intriguing; their sameness tempts one to deconstruct them as examples of a sort of anti-novel, in which certain elements – the village, the country house, the poisoned chocolates, the gentleman’s gun collection – are not meant to be considered as representing real life but are self-consciously manipulated for the reader’s pleasure. The many references the books contain to crime fiction and to contemporary real-life crimes, such as the Crippen murders and the Thompson–Bywater case, appear to support this, and Christie’s manifest lack of seriousness (which goes with an almost complete lack of humour) seems to suggest that she was playing a sophisticated metafictional game. It is also possible to say, as Thompson does, that the books fulfilled a need for representations of certainty or justice in the troubled twentieth century. But reading them brings one up hard against the realities of leaden exchanges and flat, repetitious description:

“When dinner was over they went to Mr Satterthwaite’s house. Mr Satterthwaite’s house was on the Chelsea Embankment. It was a large house, and it contained many beautiful works of art. There were pictures, sculptures, Chinese porcelain, prehistoric pottery, ivories, miniatures and much genuine Chippendale and Hepplewhite furniture. It had an atmosphere about it of mellowness and understanding.”

One can hardly bear to read on.

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