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7 September 2022

Agatha Christie’s secret worlds

After her infamous 11-day disappearance in 1926, the author retreated from public view. Lucy Worsley’s new biography claims to solve the “mystery” of her life.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In her autobiography, Agatha Christie reflects with palpable pleasure on the doll’s house she owned as a child. A classic two-storey structure that swung open, it was soon too small to accommodate the items she ravenously acquired for it. She begged for a second doll’s house, and was given a cupboard decorated with scraps of wallpaper that she filled with furniture. She had dolls too, of course, but had little interest in them. Instead, she delighted in “round polished dinner tables”, a “grand gilded armchair”, “little cardboard platters of roast chicken, eggs and bacon, a wedding cake”.

“God bless houses!” she wrote. “I have continued to play houses ever since.” She was referring to her love of real homes – at one point, she owned eight– but also her crime novels. By the time of her death in 1976, Christie was not just a household name, but found on almost every household’s bookshelves (her estate claims she is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare).

Christie domesticated the detective story, bringing murders – and murderers – inside the home. Bodies are found in the library, at the bottom of the stairs, slumped over a desk. Her weapons include a kitchen pestle, hat paint, a corn knife, and all manner of household poisons, concealed in cough syrup, smelling salts or a cup of tea. She is the best-known proponent of the genre now often patronisingly referred to as “cosy crime”, in which misdeeds are comprehensible problems that take place in an ordered, formulaic microcosm. “I specialise in murders of quiet, domestic interest,” she said. “Give me a nice deadly phial to play with and I am happy.”

At first, Christie saw herself as a wife and mother only playing around with stories. On forms, she put “housewife” as her profession. She later saw herself as a “tradesman”: like a carpenter, she said, she made work to the dimensions and appearance requested.

These modest, curiously impersonal comments are typical excerpts from Christie’s posthumously published autobiography, which, like her novels, delights in domestic detail but omits literary flourishes or deeper emotional introspection. Some readers have found it mundane. It contains no mention of the author’s 11-day disappearance in 1926, splashed over tabloid front pages as a story out of her own fiction: “The Mystery of the Missing Woman Novelist”.

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A number of Christie’s biographers have attempted to close the gap between her public persona as the poison-penned Queen of Crime and Christie’s insistence on her own ordinariness by marketing her as a “mysterious” figure who left behind “clues” about her life, a puzzle to be solved like one of her books. The approach has persisted, from Gwen Robyns’s 1978 biography The Mystery of Agatha Christie to Laura Thompson’s 2007 work Agatha Christie: An English Mystery. Janet Morgan’s straightforward 1984 life still begins, “Even the beginnings were deceptive.” Now comes a new work from the popular historian Lucy Worsley, titled Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman.

“In this book, I’d like to explore why Agatha Christie spent her life pretending to be ordinary,” Worsley writes, in the teasing tone she has honed on television. “I’ve pieced together the surprising number of statements she did in fact make about [her disappearance]. And looking at them carefully, I believe much of the so-called mystery melts away.”

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Agatha Miller was born in 1890 at Ashfield, her beloved family home in Devon. Her father, Frederick, was an American of independent income whom the author described as possessing “no outstanding characteristics” save an instinct for enjoying himself. Her mother, Clara, was “an enigmatic and arresting personality”. Christie was a girl both loved and indulged. But this warmth and safety was shattered when her father died when she was 11. “I stepped out of my child’s world,” she wrote. “I knew for the first time what it was to feel anxiety.” At 12, she would wake up in the night, heart racing, and creep into her mother’s bedroom to check she was still breathing.

Coming of age in the Edwardian era, Agatha Miller was a pretty and well-dressed young woman who received nine proposals. But the one she was excited about was from Archibald Christie, a tall, curly-haired 23-year-old who rode a motorbike and exuded “a great air of careless confidence”. The two quickly became engaged – but war broke out soon after.

On Christmas Eve 1914, they married while he was on leave from France. Archie was an officer in the Royal Flying Corps; Agatha was working in the hospital pharmacy alongside a pharmacist who bragged about a lump of poisonous curare he kept in his pocket to make him feel powerful. It was here, in 1916, that Christie wrote her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Hercule Poirot’s debut. (Poison would become her weapon of choice – appearing in 41 of her 66 detective novels, killing more than 30 characters.)

Her marriage was initially happy and Christie was thrilled when she heard that John Lane wanted to publish Styles, the manuscript she’d all but forgotten about. The couple spent a year travelling South Africa, New Zealand, and Hawaii, where Christie learned to surf. (“Oh, the moment of complete triumph on the day I kept my balance and came right into the shore standing upright on my board!”) When they returned, Christie turned to writing to help support her family. Her books soon developed a loyal readership.

Christie’s mother died in April 1926. She was devastated. She stopped eating, and started forgetting her own name. “I began to get confused,” she wrote. “For the first time in my life I was really ill.” It was then that Archie told her he was having an affair, and wanted a divorce. “I did tell you,” he said, “that I hate it when people are ill or unhappy.”

On 3 December 1926, Christie’s Morris Cowley was found crashed near a quarry with her belongings – an old driver’s licence, her fur coat – inside. It seemed an almost curated collection of clues. Tabloid newspapers and readers theorised that she was living out a plot from her next book, staging a publicity stunt, or framing her husband for her murder. She was finally discovered on 14 December in a hotel in Harrogate, under the name Neele: her husband’s mistress’s surname. Christie later said she had been suicidal when she crashed her car, and after the accident, she experienced total amnesia. She would see a psychoanalyst in Harley Street to reunite her with her sense of self. 

The incident, which Worsley sees as “a distressing episode of mental illness”, made her more private than ever. Worsley lambasts biographers who undermine Christie’s version of events: “It’s time to do something radical: to listen to what Agatha says,” she writes, and “when she says she was suffering, to believe her”.

Here, and throughout, there is a feminist gloss. With a distinctly 21st-century outlook, Worsley smoothly condenses the events of Christie’s autobiography and earlier, more detailed biographies, into a simple narrative – making this not the definitive life, but perhaps the most accessible. Her style is breezy and knowing: she describes Archie Christie as “incredibly hot”; of the creepy pharmacist, she writes simply: “Ugh.”

Christie’s breakdown was a turning point in her personal life. Not long after her divorce, she met the archaeologist Max Mallowan, 13 years her junior, in the Middle East; they married in 1930, and she would spend the next 36 years travelling with him and writing novels. Her disappearance also stoked her public career (after this, her books always sold well). But it marked a new phase creatively, too. In December 1927, a new character appeared in Christie’s work. The unmarried, misunderstood and unshakeably determined Miss Marple.

Worsley sees Miss Marple as a covertly feminist symbol, showing that “older women have more to offer the world than meets the eye”. Poirot remains more famous, but Jane Marple seems to inspire particularly effusive affection in readers. 

Marple, a collection of 12 short stories by Val McDermid, Kate Mosse, Naomi Alderman and more, is a testament to the character’s enduring appeal. Much of Christie’s work balanced on the knife-edge of self-parody – here, the sense of caricature is unavoidable, though the writers have a great deal of fun with it. McDermid begins “The Second Murder at the Vicarage”: “To have one murder in one’s vicarage is unfortunate: to have a second looks remarkably like carelessness, or worse.” Alyssa Cole improbably transports Marple from her sleepy village to New York City in “Miss Marple Takes Manhattan”. It is Mosse’s “The Mystery of the Acid Soil” which feels the most convincing.

There are countless gleeful descriptions of Marple’s twinkling eyes, her dropped stitches and her ability to unearth a solution by glancing at a neighbour’s garden. The authors relish introducing foolish male foils to underestimate Marple. It is as if each writer has been permitted to play with Christie’s doll’s house, for a short while – and each delights in her assignment.

Near the end of her life, Agatha Christie retreated from “the life of personal relations” into the world of memory and dreams. And when she dreamed it was always of her first love, her first home: Ashfield. “The frayed red curtain leading to the kitchen… the Turkey carpet on the stairs, the big shabby schoolroom with its dark blue and gold embossed wallpaper.” She could remember every detail.

Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman
Lucy Worsley
Hodder & Stoughton, 432pp, £25

Marple: Twelve New Stories
HarperCollins, 384pp, £20

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained