More than 30 years after her death, in January 1976, Agatha Christie is news once again. HarperCollins – with whom she first signed a three-book deal back in 1924 – is about to publish Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, a hefty volume that details, exhaustively, the contents of the 73 extant notebooks in which she sketched out plots for her detective fiction.
In fact, there is nothing very “secret” about Christie’s notebooks, which were first analysed by Janet Morgan in 1984, and later in my own biography in 2007. But they have rekindled our interest because they hint at answer to the central mystery, the question asked by her friend Allen Lane in a BBC broadcast in 1955: “How on Earth is it done?”
Christie wrote more than 90 books, which have sold an estimated four billion copies: more, as the familiar phrase has it, than everything except Shakespeare and the Bible. “The disappointing truth is that I haven’t much method,” Christie told the BBC, almost apologetically. As well as scribbling ideas in her notebooks, and on random scraps of paper, what she found most productive was to walk around the countryside, talking aloud to herself, thinking through her plots. And then came the finished product: smooth, seamless, deceptively simple, with the authorial presence barely visible.
She would have rued the publication of the notebooks, that is for sure. She gave away nothing; and that was how she liked it. Only in the six straight novels that she wrote between 1930 and 1956 did she reveal anything of herself, within the protection of a pseudonym. She was devastated when her secret identity, “Mary Westmacott”, was exposed in 1949, even though the novels received reviews that most authors would have been glad to claim. The pseudonym, like the facade of “Agatha Christie” that she wrapped around herself, was a means to keep the world at bay.
It was not always that way. Yet as a slim and lovely girl, Agatha had enjoyed life to the full. She was born in Torquay in 1890, to an upper-middle class family; her father was a gentleman of leisure, born and bred in New York, while her mother was an unusual woman who encouraged both Agatha and her older sister, Madge, to express their creativity. Madge’s stories were published in Vanity Fair. Agatha, “the slow one”, yearned to sing Wagner’s Isolde. Only when the dream of opera died did she turn her hand seriously to writing.
She was encouraged, too, by her first husband, the glamorous Archie Christie, whom she married on Christmas Eve, 1914. It was a love match; its sad story haunts the pages of every Mary Westmacott novel, and its shadowy memory is glimpsed in superior Christies like Death on the Nile, Sad Cypress, and Five Little Pigs.
In 1926, Christie’s beloved mother died. While she was in the throes of terrible grief, Archie told her that he wanted a divorce. Faced with the massacre of the life she had known and trusted, thinking as “Agatha Christie”, yet not fully in her right mind, she plotted the flight to Harrogate that became known as “the 11-day disappearance”. She did not intend to create a national mystery: she believed that she could disappear and make her husband come to rescue her. She had never expected the affair to be covered in the newspapers with an almost tabloid frenzy, or the accusations of having staged a stunt.
Nor did she ever fully recover from this cruel exposure to the public glare. As her friend, the historian A L Rowse, put it, the crisis “left its traces all through her work. It also made her the great woman she became.” Having previously viewed herself as a merry amateur, she became a professional writer; so formidably prolific – she would regularly produce three books a year – that it is hard not to think that her real existence was taking place inside her head.
So, as her fame began to flower, in the 1950s, she grew concomitantly reclusive. She became incredibly sensitive about photographs, rarely venturing outside her homes in Wallingford and Devon, except to travel every winter to her second husband Max Mallowan’s archaeological dig in Iraq. There she would slip quietly to her hut and conjure her “unreal” – yet somehow very alive – version of England. Her publicists despaired: “Will Agatha Christie ever consent to be interviewed?” asked her American agent. She became, in fact, her image: a cosy grey-haired matron, sitting by a fireside, in a world that was eternally 1932.
This image has such resonance that it has become the very embodiment of classic English mystery fiction. At the same time, it led to Christie being criticised as a reactionary, devoid of depth and remote from reality. In later works, such as the undervalued 1970 novel Passenger to Frankfurt, she was prescient enough to realise that the modern sensibility – with its cult of youth, its politicised thinking – would become increasingly inimical to her highly structured morality tales.
She would have been surprised and delighted, then, by the enduring quality of her fame. Her clever brain is at the heart of a veritable industry, including even a reincarnation on Doctor Who. It is soon to receive a further boost with the appearance on ITV of Julia McKenzie as an excellent new Miss Marple; Hercule Poirot, of course, has been played by David Suchet since 1989.
Both the Poirot and Marple series are hugely successful, broadcast in countries as remote as South Korea; Japanese television even produced an animated version of the two characters. There have also been more than 30 films of Christie’s books. Meanwhile, The Mousetrap, which opened in 1953, has played more than 23,000 performances and will seemingly stop only when the world itself ends.
Her critics have called Christie a purveyor of mere puzzles, of “animated algebra”. Yet if she were only that, it is impossible that her books would have endured as they have. She had an intrinsic wisdom – a grasp of human nature – that informed the geometry of her plots and made them profoundly, morally satisfying. Such a quality is not to be found in the pages of her notebooks. It lay within the woman herself: the mystery within her mysteries.
By Laura Thompson, author of ‘Agatha Christie: An English Mystery’ (Headline, 2007)
[http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/6073273/Agatha-Christies-private-life-would-have-stumped-even-Poirot.html via Ken Why]