Agatha Christie: Part Two

Over A Century Of Love (Which When She Was All About Murder Seems Weird…)

On the edge of a sleepy village in Oxfordshire, not too far from the River Thames’ meandering path towards London, lies St Mary’s Church; the graveyard overlooking the fields of the surrounding countryside. At the far end of the yard is a headstone on which are written the names Agatha Mary Clarissa Mallowan and Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan, for not far from this here, from 1934 to 1976 lived one of the most read writers in the world.

It was only on a trip to Vienna, where I just missed out on visiting the grave of Beethoven, that I realised the people who I admire from throughout history can still be respected by a visit to where they lie. I lived abroad for many years, but being English and therefore enwrapped in its culture to a large degree, the majority of the writer’s graves I’d like to visit were over here. On my return to Britain a few years ago I made a list of the places I wanted to go. Cholsey, Oxfordshire is not too far from where I lived so of course I wanted to visit Agatha Christie, (elsewhere I’ve discussed my visit to Jerome K Jerome who is buried not to far from the Mallowans, and so the day was a sad but literary one).

No one else was about the quiet spring day I arrived. To be honest I’d been before one cold January Saturday but had lost the pictures so on a warm afternoon in spring 2020, with lockdown easing and the need to finally get outside and be somewhere interesting, a return visit to Jerome and Agatha was made (as well as a trip to Wallingford which is lovely).

The fact is that Christie’s books have for over a century constantly and consistently been published, read, adapted, quoted, praised and loved more than we can accurately identify says a lot. In fact January this year, 2021, saw the one hundredth anniversary of her first published novel in the UK The Mysterious Affair at Styles and since then the appreciation has been non stop.

Even if someone has never read a Christie novel they know the short cuts her name means in cultural terms and conversations, they know the tropes, ‘I’ve brought you all together to this room…’, ‘In the library with the lead piping’ etc. (See my previous blog for a beginner’s guide if you want to get started and don’t know how.) I grew up knowing from a young age what it was all about although I was born a few years after her death, however it wasn’t until the mid eighties that I properly experienced one of her stories.

Elsewhere on here I’ve talked about my love of Doctor Who, when in the late eighties it was moved to week nights it would be followed by the BBC adaptions of Miss Marple. Don’t tell anyone but I used to tape Doctor Who off the telly to watch again, (I still have the tapes though I’ve not seen them in decades – I have the DVDs) and I’d start recording before the episode started so I wouldn’t miss a second of it, therefore I had the still and the announcement of the Miss Marple story that would follow, of course at the time I stayed and watched it even if I didn’t record that. However as some of them were the same format, a story split over a few weeks it all seemed natural to me this was the way to enjoy the story.

Joan Hickson as the definitive Miss Marple

I don’t care what anyone says – Joan Hickson IS Miss Marple, no one else will EVER be good enough. I’ve not watched the ITV versions for this reason (and also because apparently they mess with the plots too much and even put her into stories that Christie didn’t write for her). As a rule I don’t watch adaptions of books I’ve read so I’ve given a miss to the David Suchet Hercule Poirot ones despite the fact that from all accounts they are very good, however since I watched Joan Hickson before I read the books I can continue to enjoy watching these brilliant screen plays, yes I now have them on DVD.

When it comes to watching Christie’s works of course the one MUST is seeing The Mousetrap. When you feel it’s safe to do so I highly recommend you do. I was very pleased to make it until I actually saw the brilliant production in St Martin’s Theatre in London before I found out who the murderer is. Don’t leave it too long and take the risk, find out the way nature intended! The fact the ending is not general knowledge says to me the respect her work is given.

It’s a bizarre thing standing at the grave of one so famous from history and someone that I admire (I try not to use the word “hero”, it never means what I want it to), especially when you are there alone. Just me on a warm spring day looking at the last resting place of someone so brilliant. I don’t believe in any way she’d have heard me if I’d said anything, which I didn’t – to me she’s gone – but standing there I was still very very grateful to her for the hours and hours of joy she brought into my life and continues to do so.

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Agatha Christie: Part One

Where To Begin?

Generally there are three authors I turn to when in need. That is the need to read something but don’t know what as well as something not too heavy going: James Herriot, Gerald Durrell and Agatha Christie. Fortunately between the three of them they wrote a lot of books. The most prolific was or course is Agatha Christie. With over seventy novels and lots of short stories there is plenty to keep a fan going; but this of course can be a bit disconcerting for a newcomer. I had read one once on holiday in Nice, France. I’d run out of the books I’d taken with me and there was a small English section in a second hand bookshop, I say small I think it was a shelf. There was not much on it that grabbed my attention but I saw a copy of this Murder On The Orient Express and thought I’d give it a go… I loved it.

Later in Ireland, where I was living at the time, I went to Easons (a chain of bookshops) and decided to buy another, the shelves was crammed with what appeared to be hundreds of different novels and I felt a bit lost. They were all the Signature editions, beautifully designed covers with simple images, so spent some time looking at them hoping to find the one I was going to buy. I don’t read the back of books, as mentioned elsewhere as I want no spoilers, but this can create something of a challenge. In the end I went with By The Pricking Of My Thumbs as it was a Shakespeare quote. I’ll admit I was somewhat disappointed when I read it because neither her great fictional detective Hercule Poirot, nor the wonderful Miss Marple appear in the book, instead were a couple I’d never heard of, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. The novel was enjoyable but it wasn’t the typical “I have brought you all into this room to announce who the murderer is” style I was hoping for for a second read. Still a good book, but maybe one for later on the list of reads; you don’t want the genre subverted when you are starting off.

The fact is with over seventy novels to her name she was brilliant enough not to keep writing the same tropes and so amidst all the posh country houses and bodies in libraries she creates other styles. Adventures across the deserts, isolated islands where everyone is murdered and solving cases from many years previous, to describe a few, she really goes for it.

Of course nothing is perfect and there are maybe some attitudes her characters have that today we would probably highlight a bit more as being “very not ok” and I think it is worth pointing that out as sadly some mindsets from years ago were not as they are today.

So what books would I recommend for someone wanting to start out? Personally I like her Miss Marple novels the most (I’ll do a Part Two more about this and adaptions etc) and surprisingly she only wrote twelve of these (plus short stories). I’ve read all but one (I’m savouring it as I don’t want to run out, therefore The Murder At The Vicarage may not be read for a while). Of the eleven I have read they are different enough for each one to stand out, and I’ve enjoyed them all but I would recommend A Murder Is Announced to begin with. It’s a clever concept as the murder really is announced beforehand and it’s nice to see Miss Marple put all the pieces together as the plot goes along. Once you’ve read this one, honestly take any of the others you will enjoy them.

“In an English village, you turn over a stone and have no idea what will crawl out.
Miss Marple”
― Agatha Christie, A Murder Is Announced

As for Hercule Poirot, there are… well the number of novels is debatable as some may not include plays etc, but over forty is a safe statement, so more than half Christie’s out-put. Of course Murder On The Orient Express is the obvious starting point for many, but actually I’d save that one for a bit later. I’d suggest Evil Under The Sun to begin with. It’s that traditional set up of a group of almost isolated people and one of them is murdered, you are left guessing who of the others did it and there are many possibilities.

“There is no such thing as a plain fact of murder. Murder springs, nine times out of ten, out of the character and circumstances of the murdered person. Because the victim was the kind of person he or she was, therefore was he or she murdered! Until we can understand fully and completely exactly what kind of a person [she] was, we shall not be able to see clearly exactly the kind of person who murdered her. From that spring the necessity of our questions.”
― Agatha Christie, Evil Under the Sun

What is interesting is that in both the Poirot and Marple ranges Christie uses her hero characters in different ways, in some they barely appear whilst in others the plot revolves around them, and then there is everything in between. This is brave and clever, but again if you are picking up a book in that range for the first time expecting Jane Marple to be central to it all and find she just appears near the end it might be a bit confusing.

These are my two recommendations but if you have others put them in the comments. In the next blog I’ll write about some of the adaptions and her non Marple/ Poirot mysteries.

Buy A Murder Is Announced by Agatha Christie
Buy Evil Under The Sun by Agatha Christie

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Avoiding Spoilers

Don’t tell me anything.

Ironically there may be some spoilers in the following blog. Earlier this year I finally got round to reading Curtain by Agatha Christie. In general I love Christie’s books and with so many of them it took me a while to get round to Curtain. However there is something different about this particular novel.

Curtain is subtitled “Poirot’s Last Case”, and although it was written in the early 1940s the book wasn’t to see publication until 1975. This was deliberate. At the time of writing Poirot was already a success and so Agatha Christie wanted to have the ending of the range in place should anything happen to her (it was during the war and it’s been suggested this might have informed this decision). She did the same with Sleeping Murder for Miss Marple.

Regardless there proved to be many many more novels featuring Hercule Poirot to come which were written up to the early 1970s and so Curtain was locked away waiting for the right time for publication; this happened just before Agatha Christie died.

Because this is the final Hercule Poirot novel anything can happen. In any murder mystery books you don’t want to find out the ending before you get there, in this one it’s even more important as the stakes could be so much higher. Of course whether they actually are or not you need to finish the book yourself to find out, but just knowing this is the last one makes anything possible.

As a result it became an obsessive compulsion on my part not to find out anything about this book until I was able to read it. I’ve not been reading the Hercule Poirot novels in any kind of order, just as and when I found them in book shops, but I probably should have hunted this one down a lot sooner; I’ve spent years diving at the off button on the radio or telling my friends to stop talking just in case. Now I no longer have to do that, and it’s such a relief! (Also, if you haven’t done so already, go and see The Mousetrap at the theatre when things open up again, you’ll save yourself a lot of worry and it’s a really enjoyable play).

“I will not look through keyholes,” I interrupted hotly. Poirot closed his eyes. “Very well, then. You will not look through keyholes. You will remain the English gentleman and someone will be killed.”
― Agatha Christie, Curtain

This is just the tip of an iceberg when it comes to reading for me. I really don’t like knowing anything about a book before I read it. That might sound a little odd, but books are generally written from the viewpoint that the reader knows nothing about the world they are entering from the start and so the writer goes to the trouble of explaining it as they go along. It’s nice to see that work pay off. I won’t even read the back cover.

I’m fairly well read in the classics but you will find some shocking gaps in my knowledge simply because there are books I want to read that I’ve not got round to yet and so have been avoiding finding out any information about them. For example I know very little about the works of Charles Dickens, I’ve read a few, but for some of his great works I know nothing and want to keep it that way until I’ve found out by reading it from the books themselves.

Of course this raises the question, how do I know I want to read something if I don’t know anything about it? Well finding out some scant information is inevitable, but when I get to the point I ‘m interested that’s where I put the breaks on. As a result I find I’m reading a wide range of books. Once I’ve built a trust and liking for an author I can then happily go about just knowing the title of their other works to put add them to my “to read” list. Agatha Christie is a perfect example of this.

Of course knowing nothing about a book before I read it can lead to some interesting issues. It was only last year that I read To Kill A Mocking Bird and it wasn’t until page 23 that I realised for certain the protagonist was a girl! With a name like Scout you can see my problem and it was not clearly stated until around that point.

As it was it was interesting to see all the odd details that I did know come together. I’d known the general concept but was surprised by how late in the book it’s introduced or that it would be told through the eyes of a young girl. I’d known the names Atticus Finch and Boo Radley for years but had no idea what they represented. I think I enjoyed reading it far more because it was all a discovery for me.

I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Where possible I love picking up a new book turning to page one and learning the concept of the story as I read it. I’m the same with films and TV programmes. Of course this proves to be a difficulty when it comes to promoting my own books and I’ll speak about that in a future post, sorry for the spoiler.

Buy Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case by Agatha Christie
Buy To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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