No murders. That’s the one complaint Agatha Christie fans may make about “The Grand Tour,” an otherwise marvelous compendium of never-before-published letters, autobiographical excerpts and black-and-white photographs generated by Christie and her first husband, Archie, during the round-the-world tour they took in 1922. Eccentric characters abound (mustachioed majors! suspiciously solicitous servants!), as do lavish locales (ocean liners! grand hotels!). Indeed, the only thing missing from this real-life Christie adventure is the corpse in the dining car, the body in the ballroom.
Unlike other limited-interest material that has been exhumed from Dame Agatha’s cupboards in recent years (notebooks, to-do lists, appointment diaries and story drafts), “The Grand Tour” is not only illuminating but genuinely entertaining. Edited by Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, this hodgepodge volume conjures up something we Christie readers have never quite seen before: a vivid impression of the young Agatha. Christie, after all, tends to be conflated with one of her greatest creations, Miss Jane Marple: Both women are fixed in the popular mind as dowagers sporting sensible shoes, lace collars and glinting eyes. In “The Grand Tour,” however, a grinning, 32-year-old Agatha stands holding her surfboard (!) on beaches in South Africa and Hawaii; she’s dressed in bathing skirts that stop high above her sturdy knees. Often her comments sound adolescent in their enthusiasm and appetites. Writing about her visit to a sheep station in Australia, she recalls:
(Harper) - ’The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery’ by Agatha Christie
“Here, while . . . Archie [was] putting forth the . . . importance of trade within the [British] Empire . . . I was allowed to spend a happy day sitting in the orange groves. I had a nice long deck-chair, there was delicious sunshine, and as far as I remember I ate twenty-three oranges — carefully selecting the very best from the trees round me.”
That gluttonous memory hints at the reason the Christies were traveling around the world in 1922. Archie, a financier, was invited to join the Overseas Mission of the British Empire Exhibition — a junket whose aim was to suss out new markets and strengthen ties between Mother England and her various colonies and dominions. The mentor who offered the opportunity to Archie was a middle-aged crank named Maj. E.A. Belcher; as if his name alone weren’t Monty Python-esque enough, Belcher had done his patriotic duty during World War I serving as the “Controller of the Supplies of Potatoes.”
When the trip was proposed, Christie had just published her second mystery novel, “The Secret Adversary,” and was enjoying the first stirrings of literary popularity. She yearned to travel with her husband, and fortunately, her mother and sister offered to look after the Christies’ 2-year-old daughter, Rosalind. As Christie recalled in her “Autobiography” (published posthumously in 1977), her mother counseled: “A husband must come first, even before your children. . . . Remember, if you’re not with your husband, if you leave him too much, you’ll lose him. That’s especially true of a man like Archie.”