Agatha Christie’s work has never gone out of style, nor out of print, in the four decades since her death — to the tune of more than 2 billion copies sold. But Christie’s flame burns extra bright in the present, thanks to new film adaptations (“Murder on the Orient Express”), authorized sequels (“The Monogram Murders” and “Closed Casket,” by Sophie Hannah) and homages (“Magpie Murders,” by Anthony Horowitz).
But derivative works and adaptations can’t fully explain why Christie’s work endures. A splendid biography by Laura Thompson, however, does. “Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life” was published in Britain over a decade ago and took an inexplicable amount of time to cross the pond. Yet the timing is perfect because Thompson’s thorough yet readable treatment of Christie’s life, in combination with artful critical context on her work, arrives at the reason for her endurance:
“As she would often do, Agatha has used the familiarity of the stereotype to subvert our expectations. It was one of the cleverest tricks she would play. It was, in fact, more than a trick: By such means she revealed her insight, her lightly worn understanding of human nature.”
Christie, as Thompson details, came by such understanding through the traditional means of early hardship. Born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller in 1890, her middle-class upbringing in Torquay was idyllic, with a fierce, close relationship with her mother, a woman determined to shield Agatha from a repeat of her own childhood hurts. Young Agatha was imaginative but practical, a skillful nurse during World War I who wished for a domestic life as a wife and mother — and got it, after marrying Archie Christie and giving birth to their only child, Rosalind.
But her imagination needed an outlet. Healthy competition with her older sister, who also published stories, spurred Christie to write the book eventually published as “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” (1920), the first of many outings for her iconic Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.
He seemed to have emerged from the ether, as Christie liked to tell it, though her careful reading of earlier detective fiction greats — especially Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq novels — was no doubt a contributing factor. The singular alchemy of careful plotting, ruthless character study and her “absolute belief that each person had an immutable essence, usually unknown even to themselves” was already in evidence.
Christie’s life and work collided in 1926. She had already published “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” the Poirot novel that still provokes vociferous reader debate, to modest success and critical acclaim. By December she was infamous, the subject of constant media scrutiny, after an 11-day disappearance that ended when she was discovered at a Harrogate spa.
She never discussed the underlying reasons for the vanishing. Thompson lays out a plausible theory of a fugue state, brought on by the crushing discovery that Archie was in love with someone else, exacerbated by terror and shame that essentially paralyzed Christie. The spell broke, she and Christie divorced, she married the archaeologist Max Mallowan and lived a merry life of travel and riches and hard work. But the key enigma, this mystery story, is, as Thompson notes, “her finest, because it cannot be solved.”
Afterward, there was the public Agatha, whose Poirots, Miss Marples and other detective fictions reached readers at a near-annual clip. But the more private one had a creative outlet, too, under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott. Thompson artfully demonstrates how Christie revealed in the Westmacott novels her pain about her collapsed first marriage, her difficult relationship with Rosalind and her overwhelming love for her mother.
Christie, in essence, was the Elena Ferrante of her day. She did not take public ownership of the pseudonym until the 1960s. While “Agatha Christie” could present herself as “the clever, controlled, sensible woman who knew all about human emotion but who dealt with it, every time, and kept chaos at bay,” Mary Westmacott was, by contrast, the “sensitive, secret creature who had been born of the drifting ghost of Harrogate . . . who could never have existed without the strange freedom that came from using another woman’s name.”
While Thompson makes a good case for reading the Westmacott romances, any Christie biography must ultimately be about the mystery novels that brought her such extraordinary commercial success. Thompson does not cheerlead when it isn’t warranted — at least one of Christie’s novels (“The Burden”) is deemed “diffuse and barely structured” — and she argues that Christie’s zenith, in plot and in prose, was during and after World War II.
That this era of tremendous carnage, societal upheaval and polarization would be Christie’s triumph is obvious in hindsight. Her novels are the epitome of order restored out of chaos. She, too, needed that catharsis, and she determined to provide it to her readers.
But this isn’t the full explanation, or else why would we still be reading her work now? Surely, her brand of order cannot overcome all possible chaos caused by contemporary ills?
An insightful quotation by P.G. Wodehouse, in a 1969 letter to Christie, offers a further clue. “I don’t find it spoils an Agatha Christie a bit ‘knowing the end,’ ” he wrote, “because the characters are so interesting.” As much as Christie’s fame rests on her fiendish plotting, what girds their iron-cast base are the people who populate her stories. Poirot’s little gray cells. Miss Marple’s near-omniscient observations. The wants, needs, desires and grievances of incidental players and possible suspects.
When one wants, one is capable of murder. That’s what Agatha Christie knew. That’s what she wrote about so well. That’s why we still read her — and always will.
Sarah Weinman is the editor, most recently, of “Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s” and the author of “The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World,” to be published this fall.
By Laura Thompson
Pegasus. 544 pp. $35