In this issue:
Books: Duchess of Death, biography of Agatha Christie, relates travels with her second husband on his Middle East digs, to sleep in a tent or on a desert floor, hardly usual in a woman “to the manor born.” Dreaming in French thrives on the gossipy, ex-pat society of Paris, where she is free to create herself apart from her hard-scrabble youth. Drawing in the Dust is a lively tale of the purported discovery of Jeremiah’s tomb, as well an an engaging romance.
And Consider This: The New York Public Library's online exhibit, Between Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation, is both illuminating and troubling
DUCHESS OF DEATH
The Unauthorized Biography of Agatha Christie
by Richard Hack
Published by Phoenix Books, Inc.; Hardcover: 237 pp
Having grown up reading and loving the novels of Agatha Christie, and having enjoyed the autobiography she published in 1977, I approached Hack’s “unauthorized biography” aware of the possibility of a variant version of Christie’s life and events.
I needn’t have worried. It’s all here, chapter and verse, including the infamous 11-day disappearance of 1926. In fact, the preponderance of footnotes for the first few chapters refer to that very autobiography.
It is not, however, surprising to note that Christie on Christie reads very differently from Hack on Christie. He is by no means the writer she was. Given to hyperbole and rather purple prose, he interprets and describes events through what he supposes her thoughts and feelings to have been. To wit, in the very first page of the Prologue, describing the morning that Christie’s husband left her, we read:
“...The fog, so typical of Sunningdale in December, had moved across the road and now threatened to block her view of the front drive completely. She hated fog; hated the way it leaned into familiar shapes, turning them sinister and threatening...”
That might make a Christie-like opening to a mystery novel, but it’s hardly suited to a serious biography. Since it’s not footnoted, we are left to reason that it’s Hack’s interpretation either of Christie’s actions or her weather preferences, or both.
One cannot help wondering what a woman of Christie’s era would make of that kind of reportage. Hack describes Christie as a romantic, and beyond all doubt she was an adventurous woman, but she was also ferociously protective of her privacy — which would, I expect, extend to another writer’s incursion into her thoughts and emotions, never mind her reactions to the weather.
There are other, occasional lapses into such excesses of prose, and they seem entirely out of place in what is otherwise a well-researched, factual biography.
Make no mistake: the book is well annotated, drawing its sources from letters and newspapers and other periodicals as well as the autobiography. It is also carefully indexed and cross-referenced to Christie’s mysteries, as well as to the novels she wrote under the name of Mary Westmacott.
He covers the disastrous first marriage rather swiftly, considering that it lasted 14 years, and gives us tantalizing glimpses into Agatha’s life during her second marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan. She not only accompanied Mallowan on his months-long digs in the Middle East: she was game enough to sleep in a tent or even on the desert floor, hardly usual in a woman “to the manor born” as was Mrs. Christie. And all the while she pounded away at her typewriter whenever and however she could (with paper and carbon and no editing functions). Those of us who write on computers in our air-conditioned homes can scarcely conceive of that kind of determination.
Hack has done a prodigious job of research throughout, and a nice follow-up on Christie’s success. He notes that her daughter and grandson deeded Christie’s home, called Greenway House, and all its contents and gardens to The National Trust after her death. It opened to the public in February of this year, and sounds well worth a visit if ever you find yourself in England. Hack describes it as “overwhelmed by knickknacks and bric-a-brac, for Agatha was a collector of things — not expensive things perhaps, but full of memories that linger still. There in the hall is the leather chest from Baghdad...” etc.
Hack also reminds us that Christie’s books sold over two billion copies; that they were translated into 105 languages; that all her books are still in print; and that her play, The Mousetrap, is the longest-running play in history.
None of the above should surprise anyone who has read Christie’s books or followed her extraordinary career, but it bears trotting out for youngsters who might just be discovering her. And a lucky lot they are.