An Elusive Woman
By Lucy Worsley
415 pages. Pegasus Crime. $29.95.
Agatha Christie’s best books have crisp dialogue and high-velocity plots. The bad ones have a Mad Libs quality: feeble prose studded with blank spots into which you can picture the prolific Christie plugging a random “BODY PART” or “WEAPON.” In a 1971 study of English crime fiction, Colin Watson snickered that Christie “seems to have been well aware that intelligence and readership-potential are quite unrelated.”
Watson’s barb was unfair. Few readers turn to detective novels for complex cerebral rewards. Detective novels are games, and require a different method of evaluation (and construction) than works of capital-L Literature. Christie understood this. As with any game-player, an author can be accused of not playing fair, and Christie’s finest novels, like “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” tiptoe deliciously close to the cheating line without crossing it. The goal is to leave a reader thwarted and thrilled, not stumped and resentful.
There have been at least a dozen books devoted to Christie in the past two decades, and Lucy Worsley’s “Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman” is a pleasant but inessential addition to the stack. Fans will admire Worsley’s identification of real-life people, places and phrases that Christie upcycled into her fiction. They will delight in seeing photographs of the author surfing in Hawaii, or learning that her favorite drink was a glass of neat cream. (“Cream, neat” should be an acceptable order at a bar. If we work together, maybe we can make it happen.)
But the book also contains a great deal of padding — perhaps because the terrain has been so thoroughly mapped before — and an unsubtle dose of moralizing. A line in the preface sets an ominous tone, warning that Christie’s work “contains views on race and class that are unacceptable today” — a common refrain in recent biographies but totally unnecessary for readers whose knowledge of history extends more than five minutes.
Worsley moves through Christie’s childhood at a brisk pace. Her birth year: 1890. Location: Southwest England. Mother: creative, enigmatic. Father: blessed with a decent inheritance but cursed with a shopping addiction. Siblings: two. Home: sprawling villa with a view of the sea. Education: spotty.
In 1914 Christie married a handsome pilot named Archie and, while he was at war, worked in the wards and the pharmacy of an auxiliary hospital. During work lulls she filled notebooks with story ideas and lists of poisons.In 1919 she gave birth to a daughter, Rosalind.That same year, a publisher invited Christie for a meeting after reviewing the manuscript that would become her first book, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles.”
Along with demonstrating Christie’s gifts for puzzle-crafting and dialogue, “Styles” brought Hercule Poirot into the world. Poirot and Jane Marple, who debuted in late 1927, are two of the most indelible characters ever to grace detective fiction. Observing the similarities between these two offers a glimpse of Christie’s unique project.
Both Poirot and Marple are unglamorous, unmarried and without children. Their strengths are rationality, competence and a lack of squeamishness. The Belgian dandy and the elderly knitter are perpetually underestimated — a social penalty they convert into a deadly weapon. Most important for Christie’s audience, neither Poirot nor Marple are prodigies of technique, which renders them easy stand-ins for the reader. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Sherlock Holmes tested blood, analyzed soil and published a monograph on footprint analysis. If Poirot and Marple issued monographs, they’d be on mustache husbandry and fiber crafts.
Christie’s home life sputtered at approximately the rate her career took off. She seems to have had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to motherhood, ditching Rosalind for months at a stretch and neglecting to answer the unhappy girl’s letters. Later Christie would describe Rosalind as playing “the valuable role in life of eternally trying to discourage me without success.” Ouch.
Worsley takes a charitable view of the relationship. “Would all this make Agatha that endlessly satisfying target to aim at, the ‘bad mother’? Of course not, for there is no such thing as a ‘bad mother.’” (Berthe Bovary would like a word!)
In 1926, Archie dumped Christie for a hot young golfer named Nancy, which may have been the precipitating event of the author’s notorious 11-day disappearance. After falling into an Archie-induced depression, Christie went for a drive. There was a car crash. The crash may or may not have been a suicide attempt; all we know is that Christie rolled her vehicle down a hill and into a hedge. She then made her way to a spa hotel and registered under the false name of Teresa Neele. (“Neele” was Nancy the golfer’s last name.)
It seems clear, from all available accounts, that Christie lapsed into a fugue of grief after Archie’s betrayal. But elements of her behavior also suggest a kind of psychotic break. During her hotel stay, she placed a newspaper ad requesting that “FRIENDS and RELATIVES of TERESA NEELE, late of South Africa, please COMMUNICATE.” What to make of that?
Equally disconcerting was what occurred toward the end of the incident. On a Sunday evening, two musicians from the hotel band informed local police that one of the guests looked an awful lot like a certain missing celebrity author. The police contacted Archie, who boarded a train toward the hotel. When he arrived, Christie introduced him to guests as her brother. Whatever the true circumstances of Christie’s severance with reality, the media had a field day. Her book sales shot up.
Worsley’s timeline of the disappearance is admirably scrupulous, but the sheer weirdness of the events can’t be brushed away with phrases like “veiled plea for help” (to explain Christie’s bizarre newspaper ad)or “coping mechanism” (to explain the introduction of Archie as her brother).
In a biographer you want someone who finds her subject immensely but not indiscriminately fascinating, and Worsley doesn’t quite clear that bar. The second half of the book is padded with tedious information. Do we need quotations from a letter written by Christie’s second husband to his mother as a teenager, years before he met the subject of this biography?Or a dispatch from Christie about buying furniture on sale?
Meanwhile, the author’s craft is only glancingly studied. We learn what Christie did but not how she did it. In Worsley’s telling, best sellers emerge as suddenly and effortlessly as sneezes. The book makes a bubbly supplement for a reader with prior interest in Agatha Christie, but it doesn’t explain how she became, by some accounts, the most widely read novelist who ever lived. Another unsolved mystery for the ages.