An Agatha Christie Obsession
Agatha Christie is in the news. Not just for the upcoming Sir Kenneth Branagh film"A Haunting in Venice," based on Christie's Hallowe'en Party, but for the new statue being unveiled in Wallingford, UK, her home for the last forty years of her life, on Sept. 9. You can read more about the town and Christie's connection here.
My first encounter with Agatha Christie was at the age of ten. That first book was Murder at Hazelmoor, which I read again later as The Sittaford Mystery. Many of the Christie novels had a different title in the U.S. than in Britain and I occasionally started a new book, only to discover that I had already read it. By the time she died in 1976, I had caught up with all of her published novels and eagerly anticipated the final two, written in the 1930s to be published after her death—Curtain and Sleeping Murder.
Over the ensuing years, I read Come Tell Me How You Live, her story of living on archeological digs in Iraq with her seccond husband, Max Mallowan, when it was republished. It reawake a desire I had to be an archeologist after reading The Source by James Michener many years earlier. Christie used these experiences in Murder in Mesopotamia and An Appointment with Death as well as short stories and her one historical mystery, Death Comes As the End, which takes place in Ancient Egypt..
There are the plays, not only "The Mousetrap" but "Spider's Web," "Black Coffee," and many others, making her the most successful woman playwright in history. Seeing "The Mousetrap" in London in the 1980s was a highlight for me. Of course I also saw as many of the films and television productions as I could. And the machine continues to grind on. Novelists have been publishing their own take on Christie's disappearance in 1926 and there have been several movies as well.
Years ago I read Janet Morgan's Agatha Christie: A Biography. Lately I've been listening to the audiobooks as well as reading several recent biographies. The first was Agatha Christie by Lucy Worsley and currently Agatha Christie by Laura Thompson. Both books take a psychological look at Christie, but while Worsley spends time on the mental instability in Christie's family and her preoccupation with houses, Thompson shows how Christie used her own experiences to create her fiction.
Most readers pick up Christie for the puzzle. That was the allure of Golden Age mysteries—not the setting or the characters. And Christie's books are concise. Most of them are int he 260-page range. She did not succumb to the lure of writing longer books over time. I'd been rereading because I'm fascinated in how cleverly she puts together her plots, something I appreciate more and more now that I am an author myself. But Thompson has made me rethink Christie's achievements.
Christie uses memories of her own life to create her stories. Knowing more about her life gives insight into the stories. Take this little exchange from Evil Under the Sun, certainly based on her childhood home at Ashfield in Torquay.
“Imagine my childhood. No, you can’t! You’re not English!”
Poirot asked: “Was it a very English childhood?”
“Oh, incredibly so! The country—a big shabby house—horses, dogs—walks in the rain—wood fires—apples in the orchard—lack of money—old tweeds—evening dresses that went on from year to year—a neglected garden—with Michaelmas daisies coming out like great banners in the autumn….”
Poirot asked gently: “And you want to go back?”
Rosamund Darnley shook her head. She said: “One can’t go back, can one? That—never. ButI’d like to have gone on—a different way.”
Poirot said: “I wonder.”
Evil Under the Sun, pg. 30
For Christie, writing could give a sense of going back, going home.
Writing as Mary Westmacott, Christie used romantic suspense to write thinly veiled stories that contained much of her own life, Unfinished Portrait is particularly biographical. (You can check out the documentary, "Unfinished Portrait" on Britbox,)
But all the Westmacott books deal with love and it's loss, the bonds between husband and wife, and the even stronger bond between mothers and daughters. This last bond, which figured so strongly in Christie's life, shaped her relationship with her first husband and daughter.
But these themes also show up in her mysteries. They are reason for murder as well. Money is frequently a motive, and Christie knew what it was like to be obsessed by money and insecurity after her father lost the family business as well as being caught in poor investments. But it is never just about money. Two of the titles that deal with these themes include Death on the Nile and Sad Cypress, which deal with destructive love. But many others have portraits of mothers and daughters, especially mothers who won't let go of their daughters.
Christie also portrayed the perfect married couples and she began doing this even before her divorce from Archie Christie in 1926. Tommy and Tuppence are the best example. Tommy embodies all the qualities that Christie most desired in a man, especially romance. From The Secret Adversary to Postern of Fate, Tommy and Tuppence always choose each other. Her adventure stories, like The Secret of Chimneys, with the romance between Anthony Cade and Virginia Revel, also highlight the perfect man and a woman much like the young Agatha..
The woman whose work is only outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare, Christie offers something for everyone--diversion, puzzles, brilliant plotting. But for readers who want to go deeper, Christie also exposes the human condition through her own experiences, transmuted by her words, into something universal.
Links for Agatha Christie readings
Agatha Christie by Lucy Worsley
Agatha Christie by Laura Thompson
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