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:
“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.”
Christie did lose Archie a few years later when he deserted her for a mistress. That was in 1926, Christie’s annus horribilis, when her beloved mother died and the distraught Agatha went missing for 11 days. Much of the sad charm of “The Grand Tour” derives from our present-day knowledge of how grim the future will be for this giddy couple. The book captures Christie’s keen impressions of life in the far-flung British Empire, as well as her youthful innocence just before the sun set on both.
In letters and photographs sent chiefly to her mother and sister, Madge (nicknamed “Punkie”), Christie minutely documented the trip, which began on a voyage out on the RMS Kildonan Castle to Cape Town, South Africa. Eventually, the mission wended its way through Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Hawaii and Canada, with (for Agatha, solo) a quick visit to her Aunt Cassie in New York City. What did the future Queen of Crime most want to do in the Big Apple? Visit a cafeteria! “Aunt Cassie thought this a most extraordinary desire. She could not imagine anybody wanting to go to a cafeteria. . . . I got my tray and collected things from the counter, and found it all a most amusing new experience.”
With Archie and the rest of the trade mission, Agatha gamely visited hydroelectric plants, timber mills and diamond mines. Maj. Belcher turned out to be an irritant throughout the trip. In a long letter to “darling Mummy,” Christie records Belcher’s ire upon being served what he called “a filthy meal at the unearthly hour of six” in an Australian hotel. Christie retaliated for Belcher’s tiresomeness by transforming him into Sir Eustace Pedler in her 1924 mystery, “The Man in the Brown Suit.”
Just as the mystery novels she wrote are essentially conservative in their social outlook, so, too, was Christie’s commentary on what she saw as she hopscotched about the British Empire. For instance, she praised an aged Aborigine named Susan, who worked in a Queensland household, for her loyalty and noted the woman’s performance of “queer, off-key tunes.” A lost world, with both its nostalgic allure and its barbarism, is captured in these pages.
When Christie returned to England in December 1922, she expected her life with Archie to resume its mundane routine. Christie went on to enjoy many more excursions, however, with her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, but the goofy joy radiating from her young face in so many of the snapshots here is absent from photographs of her later in life. For this fresh perspective on Christie, “The Grand Tour” is a revelation.
THE GRAND TOUR
By Agatha Christie
Edited by Mathew Prichard
Harper. 376 pp. $29.99