Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life
by Miriam R. Kramer
Dame Agatha Christie’s books are often listed right after William Shakespeare’s works and the Bible on the list of the bestselling works of all time. How did a modest puzzle maker and writer who called herself “lowbrow” create a template for the twentieth-century mystery novel and achieve worldwide fame in her lifetime? Why has she maintained her reputation as the world continues to read her works widely forty-five years after her death? Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life by Laura Thompson provides a few clues while examining the mystery of Agatha’s life.
Thompson focuses more on Agatha Christie’s mental processes than traditional biographical details throughout the book, exhibiting an admirably thorough and convincing reading of her works while offering her own interpretation of Agatha’s much-heralded disappearance for eleven days in 1926. She does establish Agatha’s base for her imagination in her childhood at Ashfield, her beloved house in Torquay, Devon, England.
Agatha Miller was born in 1890 and grew up there as a very happy child with little formal schooling. As the youngest sibling in her family, she grew up like an only child in a structured, middle-class life near the seaside, free to dream and imagine her life while surrounded by her parents and the kind of competent, respectable servants who populate her novels.
The first twelve years of her life gave her the warmth and stability to bear the turmoil that occurred after her father, Frederick, died of a heart attack. Her mother, Clara, had to decide what to do with Agatha as they faced precarious financial straits and the possible sale of Ashfield. Agatha went off to a pensionnat, a kind of finishing school, in Paris, briefly considering singing as a profession, and then went with her mother to Cairo as a debutante, since coming out was far less expensive abroad.
When Agatha met Archibald Christie in 1912, her fate was determined. A penniless pilot, lean, single-minded, and attractive, he excited both her love and her imagination. She never felt as if she could solve the puzzle of his personality, which was a characteristic of her nature. As Thompson indicates, Agatha loved not getting to the bottom of mysteries in real life.
While Archie went off to World War I, they became engaged. She joined a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), serving as a trainee nurse who dispensed medications. Here Agatha grew to know the nature of the poisons she so liberally used in her later works while she waited for Archie to come home.
At this point Agatha was a romantic young woman full of notions, but also open to the dialogue in the conversations that swept around her. Married to her sense of story was this unconscious absorption in her characters’ voices. Their veracity lent her plots substance and minimal but impactful clues to their types and humanity.
After they married, she and Archie set out upon a life together, living in London and traveling around the world to former and current British colonies for a year when Archie got a limited job to do so. Their trips to South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States fed her love for travel. Agatha always kept in mind the view of a rather conservative British public, which pops up in her characters’ voices sometimes: “British is best” or “British is good enough for me.” Such characters represented many of her readers.
Yet her fans fall under a very big tent. She often reveals the aforementioned characters as xenophobic or easily taken in by Hercule Poirot, for example, who turns the dial up on his “Frenchified” foreign image to get such bigots to take him less seriously or confide in him. They cannot even remember that he is Belgian, not French. After all, what’s the difference? Therefore, Agatha’s attitudes are always hard to ascertain. Sometimes her characters are of the people, but the outsider also features prominently, and they are sometimes one and the same. That, in many ways, is one secret to her everlasting popularity. So many of us look like we belong and never feel like we do, and most of us present a mask to the world.
When she and Archie returned from their voyage, Agatha started writing mysteries as a way of competing with her older sister, Madge, who had written a play that was being put on in London. Her first mystery, and first Hercule Poirot book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was a cleverly plotted book that finally got her into print as a detective fiction writer while creating perhaps the most famous detective, aside from Sherlock Holmes or her own Miss Marple, in the history of mysteries. Miss Marple first appeared in a book of short stories, The Thirteen Problems, seven years later.
Agatha and Archie had a daughter, Rosalind, and moved to a golfing community near London, Sunningdale. They were able to get a mortgage on a home they called “Styles” after the home in her first mystery novel. In 1926, though, Archie presented Agatha with the equivalent of an ultimatum, telling her that he had fallen in love with another woman, Nancy Neele, and that he wanted a divorce. He did so soon after her beloved mother’s death, while Agatha was grieving deeply. Agatha, still romantic and in love with her husband despite their increasing distance, was devastated.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Thompson’s biography has her imagining Agatha’s trajectory as she left her daughter in the hands of a trusted servant. In a state of shock, she then drove her car to a quarry. At that point Agatha disappeared to her husband and the public. Thompson imagines Agatha on the brink of suicide, finally deciding to disappear in a confused bid to get Archie’s attention. She presents Agatha’s desperate emotions and actions as she detaches from her own identity, pretending to be a Mrs. Teresa Neele.
In essence, Agatha reacted psychologically to stress by taking on another personality. Mrs. Neele travels to the Harrogate Hydro Spa in northern England as a widow from South Africa bearing the last name of Archie Christie’s future wife-to-be. In the mean time, the world looked for the author Agatha Christie, increasing her notoriety. As a private person, she regretted the scandal she created all her life.
Many of her mysteries’ characters don disguises or take other names: her life bled into her writing in this regard. Ms. Christie decided to escape her anguish physically and psychologically in lieu of suicide, creating a temporary persona to relieve her suffering.
Thompson offers a different perspective on Agatha’s disappearance than those offered before. From her research she believes that Agatha meant to jolt Archie into returning to their marriage. She hated the idea of divorce and had begged him to stay for Rosalind’s sake. Immediately after she left, she sent Archie’s brother, Campbell Christie, a letter telling him where she was, but it went astray when Campbell did not receive it on time. He did not believe it when it finally arrived. Therefore Agatha simply stayed at the spa, paralyzed, watching her disappearance became newspaper fodder and a public relations nightmare. When Archie eventually found her, they both pretended that she had suffered from amnesia to excuse her actions. The public, which by now had a sense of ownership of her disappearance, had an understandably hard time believing this account.
In this way Thompson describes Agatha’s emotional reasons for her disappearance, and the break between the idealistic romantic Agatha had always been before her divorce and the damaged, more guarded woman who survived that turmoil. Her second marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan, although described as a very happy one, was safer. They were good friends rather than people desperately in love.
Agatha needed security in marriage, however, so she took care not to let her husband, thirteen years younger than she, stay alone and get into trouble with other women. She went on expeditions with him to Iraq and many other places in the Middle East to keep him company and write. In this way her daughter suffered for attention. Agatha was a loving daughter and wife, but a more complicated mother, who related less to her down-to-earth, pessimistic daughter than her beloved mother, Clara. Until Clara’s death and beyond, she remained much more fond of being a daughter than a mother.
Laura Thompson spends a good amount of time focusing on Agatha’s mindset and psychological outlook, in contrast to Jared Cade in his book Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days. She counters his arguments and claims one by one, in particular some of his assertions about Agatha’s motivations for disappearing and the way in which she did it. She also disputes his claims of information gained from Agatha’s friend’s daughter, Judith Gardner, calling them spurious. For example, she points out that other than such assertions there is no evidence that Max Mallowan indulged in love affairs later in life, for example with colleague Barbara Parker.
Having read Cade’s book some time ago, I see how they approached Agatha’s life very differently. Cade focused strongly on chronological events and Agatha’s relationships with others around her, including her many friends throughout her life. Thompson also speaks of Agatha’s relationships with her close family and husbands, but discusses her individual psychological development from childhood onward much more extensively. She shows handily how Agatha revealed personal details and romantic, ineffable attitudes much more in her novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott than she ever did in the tightly constructed, more detached detective novels that catapulted her to worldwide fame.
Thompson mostly ignores Agatha’s strong relationships with her sister, Madge, and many friends, including Nan Kon, who features prominently in Jared Cade’s book. She does not always deny them, but they rarely feature prominently. Which biographer is correct? In any case, Thompson’s omission is perhaps a weakness in this otherwise very worthwhile account. In Cade’s version of her life, Agatha seemed to be a good, generous friend to many.
Before perusing this biography, I started re-reading Agatha’s mysteries in March as a way of escaping the pandemic. Occasionally I re-read her when I need comfort reading. I believe one of her great strengths is her way of portraying conversation, particularly with her dry, sometimes straightforward and sometimes sense of humor. She captures the voice of the person on the street, the good servant, the upper middle-class family member, the ne’er-do-well black sheep of the family, and even the upper class close to perfectly. Both Thompson and Cade sometimes fail to note how alive her writing is as a result.
That being said, Ms. Christie does sometimes waver badly when it comes to depicting national or racial types. Some of her characters would now be seen as racist stereotypes. She had unfortunate tendencies to exaggerate and stereotype people as a Latin type, or a Jewish type, or an Eastern European refugee type, for example. Not all of her writing maintains the same level of quality, either. She has some silly early detective writing, such as the novel The Big Four, that aped Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlockian melodrama. Other novels show, even within the detective genre, sophisticated romantic yearnings, the desperation to which people can sink, and complications within the human spirit.
So why is it worth reading Laura Thompson’s biography? Why do we still pay attention to someone who painted in broad brush strokes that sometimes register to the contemporary ear as deeply offensive? One answer is that Agatha is inconsistent and purposefully untrustworthy in creating such stereotypes. She would sometimes undercut such images by showing that one of her characters is playing a part, causing those around them to misjudge them. Therefore, a reader cannot always trust her seemingly casual bigotry.
She always keeps us on our toes until Miss Marple, Poirot, or her other set characters solve the crime. Miss Marple herself generally leads law-enforcement and other prominent characters to misjudge and underestimate her as an older, unmarried woman. Therefore, Agatha even undercuts the ageism displayed by her police detectives and others who discount Miss Marple’s mental acuity to their own chagrin.
Agatha Christie’s popularity remains because human beings are messy and life does not tie up with neat endings. Certainly her own did not. She maintained a love for Archie Christie all her life, faithfully keeping all his letters in a briefcase, while also loving her husband, Max Mallowan, and putting Archie behind her in other ways. In her mysteries, on the other hand, murderers show a limited set of motivations. Only certain people have both the motivation and the circumstances to commit their crimes. Unlike real life, the vast majority of her killers get what they deserve.
Her plots are ingenious puzzles, and the world loves a puzzle. Her universe features clearly cut righteousness and wickedness. We also love her characters: their familiarity but also the way any of them could be made unfamiliar. Her innocent-looking detective Miss Marple, a fluffy old lady with pink cheeks, believes inexorably in evil. She and Hercule Poirot also recognize patterns within human nature rather than the facades that cover up such patterns. They or other problem-solvers reveal the recognizable licentiousness, cold calculation, or desperation percolating in the lives of more than one innocent-looking suspect.
It is therefore a mistake to focus on her characters as cardboard cutouts, despite the way she recycles some of the same tropes: the faithful servant, the femme fatale, the dry, careful lawyer, the female companion. Their simplicity is deceptive and sometimes ill-served by their televised versions. Agatha also builds real characterization, however limited, through their conversations more than inner monologues, but they are no less recognizable and sometimes more easily digestible as a result.
As Laura Thompson points out, Agatha Christie’s own life could be shambolic, despite her notable career as a prolific and diverse writer. She had complicated relationships and took paths she never completed. Agatha knew that shades of grey are the norm. In her detective novels she distills that knowledge, simplifies it, and uses sleight-of-hand while showing us afterwards how she did the magic trick. In wrapping up the plot and punishing the perpetrators, she provides vicarious satisfaction and catharsis, deceiving simplicity, and a moral certainty that most of us do not know in real life. In the end it is no mystery that her knowledge of human nature and way of arranging its facets so cleverly is the key to her continued, and well-deserved, success.