Was there ever a writer who, on the face of it, looked less destined for literary immortality than Agatha Christie? Born Agatha Miller, naturally shy and brought up in a cosseted Edwardian home in the seaside town of Torquay, she toddled in the shadow of older siblings. (“Agatha’s so terribly slow” was the family consensus on Christie as a child.)
In adolescence, Christie enjoyed reading mysteries — Sherlock Holmes and Anna Katharine Green’s “The Leavenworth Case” were particular favorites — and, egged on by her beloved mother, she experimented with writing romances and other ladylike fiction. But it was not until her much more dazzling older sister Madge (who fancied herself the budding writer in the family) issued a dare that Agatha stepped daintily into her life’s work. In her recently reissued autobiography, Christie recalls the momentous conversation in which she told Madge that she “should like to try [her] hand at a detective story”:
“ ‘I don’t think you could do it,’ said Madge. ‘They are very difficult to do. I’ve thought about it.’
“ ‘I should like to try.’
“ ‘Well, I bet you couldn’t,’ said Madge.”
That snippet of sibling rivalry should put a smile on the faces of put-upon kid sisters everywhere.
“An Autobiography” was published in 1977, a year after Christie’s death. She began writing it in 1950 and worked on it, sporadically, for 15 years, stopping when she turned 75 because, as we’re told in the preface, she thought that “as far as life is concerned, that is all there is to say.” The critical verdict on the book has always been that, evocative as it is of upper-middle-class life in England before World War I, it’s something of a red herring as far as disclosing anything significant about Christie’s personal life or the sources of her great gifts as a writer. She remains tactfully discreet about the end of her first marriage, to the philandering Archie Christie. (Calling him “ruthless” is as nasty as she gets.) Also absent is any kind of self-examination about the most famous incident in Christie’s life: her 11-day disappearance during the winter of 1926 following the death of her mother and the breakup with Archie. Christie glancingly alludes to the deterioration of her mental health during this period, but that’s about it.
What has ginned up interest in this agreeably musty series of recollections is the addition of a CD featuring highlights from tapes discovered in Christie’s house, Greenway, after the death of her only child, Rosalind Hicks, in 2004. Christie used a reel-to-reel tape machine to dictate portions of the autobiography to her secretary, and because so few recordings of her voice are known to exist, these tapes constitute something of a treasure trove.
The excerpts here correspond to the sections of the autobiography in which Christie talks about her famous detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Christie’s voice is thin and fluty, her precise Dame Edna accent as much a period piece as is her reticence in the autobiography. It’s an undeniable thrill to hear the sphinxlike Christie speak, although she is not very forthcoming about her craft.
Greenway House must have had a lot of closet space because another find occurred there: 73 handwritten notebooks that contain plot outlines, stories and false starts, as well as furniture lists, jotted times for hair appointments and random to-do lists. Unlike the dictation tapes, Christie’s notebooks had never been forgotten, just pushed to the back of the cupboard. Her grandson Mathew Prichard invited Christie scholar John Curran to take a stab at studying the notebooks in 2005. (Prichard is also responsible for the release of the dictation tapes.) Curran’s book “Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks” (2009) presented outlines and notes for 25 of Christie’s novels, as well as short stories and stage scripts. “Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making” is a sequel to this Herculean effort. It traces the genesis of the rest of the novels written by the Queen of Crime and also includes literary exotica, such as the original ending of Christie’s first novel, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”; a lost Miss Marple story; and notes for a final, unwritten novel.
The indomitable Curran has sifted through and collected a plethora of notebook material, much of which will interest only the truly crazed Christie fan. But amid all this paper, some pages seem especially intriguing. Christie’s notes on plotting reveal, of course, the sweat behind the magic; her book lists hint at the range of her literary and intellectual interests. Along with the mysteries — cozy and hard-boiled — she regularly devoured, she also read novels by Italo Calvino, William Faulkner and Muriel Spark, as well as nonfiction such as T.S. Eliot’s “The Idea of a Christian Society.”
All this material — the reprinted autobiography, her dictation tapes, her notebooks — ultimately deepens rather than solves the mystery of Christie and her great gift. And why should it be otherwise? She often seemed mystified by her own talent. For instance, of Miss Marple, one of the most beloved characters in all of detective fiction, Christie commented modestly that she “insinuated herself so quickly into my life that I hardly noticed her arrival.” Maybe some investigations are fated to be left open.
Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air” and teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Agatha Christie
Harper. 542 pp. $29.99
Murder in the Making
By John Curran
Harper. 430 pp. $25.99