Rave Reviews by Jean E. Eustance
Agatha Christie is a popular subject for biographies. Who can resist an English author with more than 80 books to her credit? Also, the woman who invented Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple had a mystery of her very own, the eleven days when she disappeared in 1926.
The newest biography, published in 2018, is by Laura Thompson. Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life is upstairs in the adult part of the Pine Bush Area Public Library, in the biography section.
It is a long book, turning over all the stones in the mystery writer’s life, and also looking at the books she wrote. It does go into detail, perhaps a bit too much, in the 485 pages of text.
She was born Agatha Miller in 1890, in Devon, in England. She grew up and married Archie Christie. Her mother had warned her against him. Agatha began to write mystery stories under her married name. Eventually “A new Agatha Christie” came to mean a new murder mystery. Her publishers depended each year upon “A Christie for Christmas.” In later years, how she must have hated to have to retain the last name of her ex-husband.
Her first book was The Mysterious Affair at Styles, starring her creation, Hercule Poirot. Agatha and Archie bought an ugly house outside of London, near a golf course, and named their house “Styles” after the name of the house in the book. She went on and become famous as an author with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Agatha had been very close, emotionally, to her mother, Clara Miller. When Clara became ill, and died, it just about wiped Agatha out. She went to her mother’s house in Devon, to clear out a lifetime of stuff—treasures and junk, and it was torture to get things sorted and thrown, or given away. Ashfield was the house where she had been happy, and now the center of her life—her mother—was gone, gone, gone.
Into this maelstrom stepped her worthless husband, Archie Christie. He had been neglecting her and their daughter so that he could go play golf in Sunningdale, near London. He strode into her family home, and instead of helping, he announced that he wanted to marry his golf partner, Miss Nancy Neele. The world fell away from underneath Agatha’s feet, and yet Archie could not figure out what the fuss was all about. He thought she should just give him the divorce he wanted.
What followed was the central mystery of Agatha Christie’s life. She disappeared for eleven days, and was later discovered living quietly in the Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, in Yorkshire. Her husband had been under suspicion of committing murder, and crowds of people had helped search the downs near Newland’s Corner, in Surrey, where her car had been found. She must have walked or gotten a ride to the train station several miles away. She must have gone to London, and from there to Yorkshire.
No one thought of this near Sunningdale, where Archie and Agatha lived. Down there, it was definitely “The Mysterious Affair near Styles.”
Laura Thompson wrote, “From the first, Deputy Chief Constable Kenward was convinced that Agatha was dead and that her body lay near the site of her car…From quite early on, the newspapers knew what was in Kenward’s mind. They sensed that he was itching to cuff the hands of that arrogant Colonel Christie…it was the possibility of wife-murder that kept the story bubbling so fiercely.”
I have read four biographies of Agatha Christie, and each one has a different “take” on why and how she disappeared. Laura Thompson says that Agatha sent a letter to her brother-in-law, Campbell Christie. The letter said that she was going to a spa in Yorkshire. Thompson believes that Agatha thought Campbell would tell his brother, and that Archie would come to her in Yorkshire. She wanted to get her husband back from the clutches of Nancy Neele, and thought that this would do it. It didn’t quite work out. There was a lot of misdirection and false clues and it was as if They Do It With Mirrors.
Agatha was found alive and reasonably well in Harrogate. She had registered at the hotel under the name Teresa Neele, using the same last name as her husband’s mistress. Archie whisked Agatha to her sister’s house near Chester, and from there the family issued the bulletin that Agatha Christie was suffering from amnesia. The press was incensed. They felt that they had been made a fool of by a woman who wanted free publicity for the mysteries she wrote, by creating a real-life mystery. Agatha was mentally fragile, and did not take kindly to newspaper reporters ever after.
Two years later, Archie got the divorce he had wanted so badly and he married Nancy Neele. Agatha was struggling to write, and having a hard time finishing The Mystery of the Blue Train. She went on a vacation: she was going to the West Indies, when friends told her she must go to Baghdad, and she did. You could say she did what one of her books said, They Came to Baghdad.
She visited the excavations of the ancient city of Ur, where Mr. and Mrs. Wooley were digging up the past. Mrs. Wooley was a thorny woman who ended up being a main character in Murder in Mesopotamia. (Never rile a mystery writer. You might end up as the corpse!)
Mr. and Mrs. Wooley invited her to return to Ur, the next year, and she did. Then she met the man who had been missing from the excavation site during the first year: Max Mallowan. He helped her get home, on the Orient Express, when her daughter was seriously ill.
Later Agatha wrote Murder on the Orient Express, because this would be the ultimate “closed circle” mystery. The killer had to be one of the people on the Calais coach—there was no getting on or off a train stuck in a snow bank. It couldn’t possibly be—all of them? Could it?
David Suchet, the actor who portrayed Hercule Poirot on public TV for 25 years, said that Max Mallowan was “the love of her life.” The way he tells it, they enjoyed each other and were wonderfully in love for years and years and years. I am going to agree with David Suchet.
I will not agree with Laura Thompson who says that the marriage was really about companionship, and not about true love. Laura Thompson goes into too much detail, digging in where I certainly do not want to look.
Agatha Christie died at age 86 in 1976, because Death Comes as an End. Laura Thompson should have ended her book directly After the Funeral. I did not need to know that Max Mallowan went on to marry another woman after Agatha’s death. That just felt wrong. That felt like it was a Crooked House.
Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life is a huge book, and I found it easier to dodge around in it, reading this part and that, than to slog all the way through it from page 1 to page 485. It was such a huge book, you might be glad to draw down the Curtain.