When I was growing up the concept of Young Adult fiction did not exist (nor did Young Adults, as an actual thing!), so I progressed straight from Enid Blyton to whatever my mum was reading, which included (thankfully for my future career) Georgette Heyer, Barbara Cartland (something she still denies), Mary Stewart and crime of the cosier variety, which meant primarily Agatha Christie. In fact, in my late teens and early twenties, I devoured almost every book Agatha Christie wrote, including those she published as Mary Westmacott. Me and my mum would swap them between us, vying to discover whodunnit first, and endlessly dissecting the plots. Then I got a bit up myself reading-wise, and entered my ‘literary’ phase and didn’t read any Christie for decades.
The recent first-class BBC adaptations of some of the stand-alone Christie books such as The ABC Murders and And Then There Were None prompted me to delve back in selectively, but I have not read Poirot or Marple in a very long time – and I’ve never been fond of any of the TV or film adaptations of them. More recently, I have been re-reading Lord Peter Wimsey and remembering my early love of crime from the golden age, so when Lucy Worsley brought out a biography of Agatha Christie, I had it on pre-order – not least because Worsley is one of my auto-buy historians.
Agatha Christie, A Very Elusive Woman is what I think I’d call a revisionist biography, in that it sets out to review and analyse some of the myths that have sprung up about Christie’s life (which has happened to a degree because access to her archive has been closely managed by her family). Most importantly, Lucy Worsley offers a very different slant on the ‘big’ event of Christie’s life – her disappearance. Ms Worsley, as you would expect, has consulted every source she could lay her hands on, including the extensive archive of letters, notebooks, photos etc which Christie’s family have in their keeping. She is a first-class historian with a painstaking approach to sources, to cross-checking, questioning and re-investigating, and as a result does indeed present a quite different Agatha Christie than the one that we have come to accept. Is it the real one? She concludes that we’ll never know, that Christie was a master of deceit and deception in her private life as well as in her writings. How she reaches that conclusion makes for a highly readable and entertaining biography, so I’m not going to spoil it.
I loved this book – of course I did! Whether you want a new take on Christie’s life or a better understanding of her books, or if you are new to both, I’d highly recommend a read. I particularly enjoyed the insights and connections that Worsley makes between Christie’s books and her personal life. Why did Jane Marple come into being so late, and why did her initially acerbic, rather unlikeable character soften? And Poirot? He served so many purposes in his long career, at times slick, at times troubled, at times on the verge of badly written, but all of this is placed in a fascinating context that made me jump onto Amazon and download some of the books.
And so began my Agatha Christie reading binge. My revisiting of Miss Marple began with The Body in the Library. I don’t remember being much of a fan of Miss Marple back in the day, perhaps because she seemed so old and I was too young (and now what I’m thinking is, she’s only in her 60s, but she’s acting as if she’s 90). This time round, I liked her. There’s an edge to her that I hadn’t noticed in the past, a really sarky side, and a rather acerbic wit that I thoroughly enjoyed. Plus, this was a great murder (if there is such a thing!) and one that though I must have read it, I didn’t recall. I didn’t remember the plot of this book, and had much fun trying – and failing – to unravel it, enjoying myself so much that I jumped straight into more.
One thing though, has to be taking into account, and it’s the same issue I had when re-reading Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey books recently. There’s not so much racism in Christie, but it’s there, and quite a bit of outrageous snobbery. Christie’s world is staunchly middle-class, with servants who refuse to ‘keep to their place’ always suspect, and an awful lot of stereotypes who make your toes curl at times. But if you can see past that, then you’re rewarded with a really pacy book with some rapier-like wit that whisks you away from the reality of today’s world every bit as effectively now as it did when I first read them as a teenager.
Next in my trip down memory lane was The Moving Finger. A brother and sister move to a quiet country village. The brother has been badly injured and needs to recover, his glamorous sister is also recovering – from her latest love affair. But of course they don’t get peace and quiet, they get poison pen letters, a hotbed of gossip, a colourful cast of characters, murder and – eventually – Miss Marple. I have no idea if I’ve read this before though I think I must have, but I don’t remember it, and I don’t recall her preference for having her novels narrated in the first person by an observer. Having very recently re-read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (more of that in a moment), I was immediately alerted to the possibility of a false narrator. (Spoiler alert!!!) I was wrong, and I was wrong pretty much with every subsequent guess at whodunnit. For me, this is what makes Christie great -the way she makes you twist and turn with your guesses and makes you doubt your loyalties – and she does it really well here.
On the down side, and it is a big down side for a modern reader, there was so much horrible patronising of the ‘servant’ class in this book that I was gritting my teeth reading through way too many scenes, which is what brought my Goodreads rating down. I know, I know, they are of their time, and I can often ignore this with her and other of the crime writers of the golden age, but in this one – just way too much.
Next up in my Miss Marple-fest was the cold case, Sleeping Murder. Gwenda is looking for a house and she’s drawn to one that feels like home. But there’s no door where she thinks there should be one, the garden seems all wrong. And what did happen to the body she saw lying at the bottom of the stairs? Gwenda’s husband is determined he’s going to solve the mystery but of course, it takes Miss Marple to unravel it. I romped through this one. One thing that strikes me is how little time Miss Marple herself spends on the page, and how much time they have given to her as the central character in film and TV adaptations.
Since I was thoroughly enjoying her lurking presence and the impression you get of her watching others stumble about in the dark while she homes straight in on the murderer, on I went to A Murder is Announced. With the usual caveats about it being dated and a bit cringy in attitudes in places, this was another excellent bit of page-turning escapism. I love the way Christie uses Miss Marple to ask the questions we should be asking ourselves. We make assumptions based on the clues she strews about the place, we think we’re making progress, then Miss Marple tilts her head to one side like a bird, pauses in her knitting and says, ‘Do you really think so?’ Of course then we know we’re entirely on the wrong track but infuriatingly, Miss Marple rarely tells us what the right one is. And that’s the genius of Christie. There’s a reason she’s the best-selling crime writer of all time (she might be the best-selling writer, I’m not sure). It’s because these are real page turners with satisfying conclusions that don’t generate any angst.
I was bound to come across a Miss Marple that was a bit meh, and I found it in They Do It With Mirrors, which felt like it was just cobbled together with Miss Marple playing very little part. The fact that I kept forgetting who was who says it all for me. Okay, not great, and a clear signal it was time to have a break from Miss Marple.
And so on to Hercule Poirot and the absolute classic which really quite radically changed the genre, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, claimed (I think quite rightly) to be Christie’s piece de resistance when it came to Poirot.
Sadly, about half-way through I remembered whodunnit and why – presumable because I’ve read it more than one time in the past, and I can see why. It didn’t matter. This was an extremely enjoyable read, not least because Poirot is retired and devoting himself to growing marrows (!) so operating without Hastings who I recall I found as irritating as Christie herself did. I liked that Poirot is sort of risible, that he sees that in himself, and that as a result he’s totally under-estimated. There’s a ton of ‘classic’ Christie touches in this, the clues are there for you to see if only you look, and there’s a brilliant denouement.
For my next Poirot, I went back to his first appearance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Taking a step back to his beginnings from one of his major triumphs might have been a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, it was a page-turner, a great escapist read, but I felt it was very clunkily told. Maybe it’s just because I forgot how incredibly irritating I found Hastings, who is the kind of narrator/sidekick who makes you want to cringe with his assumptions and prejudices and his veneration of certain characters. It was a very early Christie, Poirot himself was still a work in progress, but this book decided me to leave him be – for now – and to return to my existing TBR pile.
Have you read any of these books? Do you have any similar recommendations? As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
These are my favourite recent reads. You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads.