Unravelling Queen of Crime’s mysterious life
- Credit: Archant
What’s the best way to solve an Agatha Christie murder plot, which of her fictional sleuths had Suffolk roots and why did the author guard her privacy so fiercely? These questions and many more are answered in a book by long-time Christie devotee Cathy Cook. Sheena Grant went to investigate
FOR a woman so famous that almost 40 years after her death she is still described as the Queen of Crime, surprisingly little is known about the real Agatha Christie.
The author, whose legions of fans have included royalty and prime ministers, was a shy and private person who would rather observe others than command attention herself and was never totally at ease socially.
She remained modest, too: once saying that when filling out a form it would never have occurred to her to describe her occupation as anything other than “married woman” and predicting that within 10 years of her death everyone would have forgotten her.
She couldn’t have got the latter point more wrong. Her stories continue to entertain; and despite – or perhaps because of – the air of mystery that surrounded much of her life, Agatha Christie herself has continued to fascinate, too.
Cathy Cook knows that more than most. Her long-time interest in all things Christie first manifested itself in the creation of a website devoted to the author and has now resulted in the publication of a book. The Agatha Christie Miscellany examines everything from Agatha’s life and personality to her books (and there were a lot of them) and most iconic characters, offering a host of facts and trivia along the way.
“I suppose my interest is mainly in how she flummoxes you right to the end with the plots,” says Cathy, who lives in Bradwell-on-Sea and runs an internet-based finance company with her husband.
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“I do like a good crime novel and it is simply that I found her so clever in writing a plot you could never guess, with so many red herrings. That intrigued me. I came to it from an analytical point of view. She never focuses on characters or descriptions – she’s more of a puzzle-maker, twisting and turning the plot as she goes.”
Cathy’s interest in the author goes back more than 20 years and she set up her website – the Christie Mystery – five or six years ago. The success of that led to her being approached to write the book.
“I put my passion for the subject up on the website and it followed on from there,” says Cathy, who admits she thought long and hard before agreeing to take on the book.
“I work 9-5 with my husband and knew it would be a case of doing the book in my spare time. I was hesitant because of all the work involved, but then a friend said to me ‘Are you mad?’ and pointed out the number of people who struggle to get books published and here I was, being asked to write one by a publisher. When I thought about it like that I knew I had to do it and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Cathy’s knowledge of Agatha Christie and the meticulous way she has approached her subject would no doubt delight the author herself, whose eye for factual detail was well known.
In keeping with her analytical approach to Christie’s novels, Cathy has unpicked every whodunnit to come up with suggestions to help readers solve the crimes – without flicking to the final page.
“In some cases, it’s the most likely suspect who is guilty,” she says. “But it’s not fool-proof. She wrote so many books and there are so many variations that I think it’s fair to say she’s done almost every combination you could think of.
“But there are a few pointers about what to look out for. For instance, when a detective says something is really important, that probably means it’s not. And you need to pay attention to seemingly throwaway details, such as someone who steps out of the room for a few minutes. It’s the sort of thing you may not even notice on a first reading but it could be crucial.”
Cathy has also analysed the most “dangerous” rooms in a house as far as a Christie novel is concerned.
“The bedroom is the one to steer clear of,” she says. “There are more crimes committed there than in any other place. And as to methods of murder, because she was a pharmacist she liked poisonings, but there were also a lot of blunt instruments.”
In fact, Agatha Christie used her experiences as a medicines dispenser during the First World War to great effect. She employed poison as the method of dispatch in 83 stories and always checked out facts to make sure they were accurate – something that earned her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, a review in the Pharmaceutical Journal.
Despite the way she has deconstructed her heroine’s plots, Cathy still regularly re-reads and enjoys the books.
“She wrote so many (66 detective novels and 15 short story collections) that sometimes I will even forget who the guilty person is if I haven’t read a book for a while.”
For her, the appeal of an Agatha Christie novel lies in its simplicity and accessibility.
Christie’s books are very much of their time: a simpler era before the advent of forensic science, DNA evidence and criminal profiling.
The novelist was born into an upper-middle class family in 1890 in Devon. She was educated at home, something that was perhaps crucial in developing her powers of imagination.
“She had a brother and sister who were quite a lot older and who were off at school while she was at home,” says Cathy. “She had a vivid imagination and her mother encouraged her to read and write. She spoke of her imaginary friends in childhoood. The legend goes that her sister said ‘I bet you can’t write a detective novel where I couldn’t guess the end’, and that is supposedly how she got started.”
Agatha wrote her first novel when she was 25 and, after a couple of rejections, it was published in 1920. Crime fiction was very big at the time and Christie was a fan of Sherlock Holmes.
“I think she just fell into the genre,” says Cathy.
She also wrote six romantic novels under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott. Her second husband, Max Mallowan, once said that anyone who wanted to know the true Agatha should read her second romantic novel, Unfinished Portrait.
It may well have been good advice as, over the years, the author increasingly shunned publicity, becoming something of a recluse.
In the miscellany, Cathy writes: “She carried her craving for privacy to greater lengths than any other writer of her generation. She would not allow her publishers to give publicity parties or print a current photograph of her in her books.”
The catalyst that caused this already shy woman to retreat further from public scrutiny came in 1926 with an event that in many ways was to define her life.
Grieving the death of her mother and experiencing difficulties in her first marriage, to Archie Christie, Agatha went missing for 11 days, sparking huge press and public interest and a nationwide hunt that ended when she was found in a Harrogate hotel – booked in under the surname of Archie’s mistress.
“Although it was this notoriety that helped make Agatha Christie famous, she never recovered from the episode and turned overnight into a recluse,” writes Cathy in the miscellany.
She granted fewer than 10 interviews in her lifetime and then only to people who were certain never to ask about her private life or disappearance.
“There are different theories as to why she disappeared,” says Cathy. “The first school of thought is that she had amnesia, which is what she herself claimed. She said she completely lost her memory and found herself in Harrogate 11 days later.
“The second is that it was a publicity stunt to boost her sales and the third is that she was trying to get back at her husband, who was having an affair. I subscribe to the last theory, that she was trying to get back at her then husband, but the press got involved in a way she never expected.”
Agatha and Archie divorced in 1928. She may have hated fame and the intense interest in her personal life it brought but Agatha Christie never stopped writing.
“In the prolific phase of her life she was probably writing three or four novels a year,” says Cathy. “But then the taxman got involved and it became financially not viable to carry on like that. She had so many ideas. She used to get bored with detective stories, so would intersperse them with thrillers and romantic novels under the pseudonym.
“I don’t think she will ever lose her Queen of Crime title. If she had been writing now, her books probably wouldn’t have caught on like they did, but in the 1930s it was the golden age of crime novels and she was revolutionary.
“She was the first to write a story where the narrator turned out to be the murderer. It caused an uproar. People said it wasn’t playing fair with the reader. Crime novels nowadays are much more complex and that sort of thing wouldn’t work in the same way.
“Agatha Christie wrote about a lost Britain, with domestic servants listening at doors. Her books are full of social history and written simply so that everyone can understand. It was an age of innocence.
“Quite a few commentators have mentioned that she doesn’t dwell on the body and murder in great detail, but the stories are scary because of the paranoia – anyone could be the murderer.
“She doesn’t give detailed descriptions of people so, in your mind, you can imagine it happening in your own village or town. She saved her energies for the plot and puzzle.”
The characters of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, are, of course, exceptions to this rule. “Their characters are well built,” says Cathy, “but that happened over a series of books. Poirot was largely formed in the first book but the Miss Marple from the first short story is very different to how she appears in later novels, when Christie herself was older and could perhaps relate to a character of that age better.”
Working on the miscellany added to Cathy’s already deep understanding of Agatha Christie.
“I did a lot of research,” she says. “The libraries in Essex were wonderful and got me every book I wanted. I read everything I could about her to glean every last piece of information. I learned a lot about her in the process.
“She was very reclusive but enough people interacted with her that if you read widely you do get a picture of what she was like.
“Someone described her as everybody’s favouite aunt. She was a woman of incredible intellect, memory and brain power. My fascination with her remains as strong as ever.”
The Agatha Christie Miscellany is available now. For more information visit www.christiemystery.co.uk