Mys­te­ri­ous words from the be­yond

Re­cently dis­cov­ered tapes prom­ise rev­e­la­tions about the elu­sive Agatha Christie, writes Selina Mills

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

ONE hot sum­mer af­ter­noon in Lon­don, when I was five or six, I was sent to the gar­den of our house in Chelsea to con­tem­plate a naughty deed, rather than at­tend­ing a birth­day party. I can’t re­mem­ber my crime, but I can re­mem­ber sway­ing too vi­o­lently on a vivid or­ange ham­mock and fall­ing on my head with a thump. Be­fore long, a smart old woman with ropes of pearls rushed over from next door and calmed my howl­ing. We had a nice lit­tle chat about the mer­its of ham­mocks on hot sunny days and be­ing naughty un­til my mother ar­rived and the woman left. I did not dis­cover un­til much later, how­ever, that my res­cuer was Agatha Christie; the fol­low­ing win­ter, in 1976, she died.

I tell this story, not just for the name drop, but to give a clue about Christie. A cou­ple of months ago, her grand­son Mathew Prichard was go­ing through her ef­fects at her home, Green­way, in south Devon, and to his as­ton­ish­ment found a box full of tapes and a Grundig Me­morette reelto-reel tape recorder. Dat­ing back to the 1960s when Christie was mak­ing work­ing notes for her bi­og­ra­phy, pub­lished in 1978, the tapes of­fer an in­trigu­ing glimpse into the in­ti­mate life of one of the world’s most pri­vate and reclu­sive writ­ers. They re­veal a side that her fans and crit­ics never saw: a cos­mopoli­tan, clever and forth­right per­son, who cared deeply about so many things, even lit­tle girls who fell out of ham­mocks.

First, the bad news for the many Christie afi­ciona­dos: the tapes do not re­veal what hap­pened dur­ing the 11 days Christie went miss­ing in 1926. When the au­thor’s first mar­riage was dis­in­te­grat­ing, she dis­ap­peared. The pub­lic and press, in true mys­tery-novel style, were con­vinced she was dead, per­haps from sui­cide. Af­ter a search, she was found at the Hy­dro Ho­tel, Har­ro­gate, looking quite well and with no ex­pla­na­tion for the episode other than am­ne­sia. She never spoke about it ( her fam­ily now ac­cept her bi­og­ra­pher Laura Thomp­son’s view that she had some form of break­down) and sadly the tapes hold no clues to this elu­sive pe­riod.

In­ter­est­ingly, and per­haps be­cause of the frenzy of the pub­lic­ity in 1926, Christie rarely gave in­ter­views again, ex­cept in 1955 to the BBC and in 1974 to the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum about her ex­pe­ri­ences in a World War I dis­pen­sary: hence her knowl­edge of poi­sons. So the mere ex­is­tence of th­ese tapes is im­por­tant.

Speak­ing in an in­for­mal and re­laxed tone, and con­tin­u­ally hit­ting the pause but­ton to think, and al­most in­ter­view­ing her­self by an­swer­ing hy­po­thet­i­cal ques­tions, she talks about much of her life, in­clud­ing her pre-war trav­els and digs in the Mid­dle East, her 1930 hon­ey­moon in Dubrovnik with her sec­ond hus­band, the arche­ol­o­gist Max Mal­lowan, and war­time Lon­don. As you lis­ten to her quiet rhythm and clipped syn­tax it is hard not to be lulled into a past era, a world of quiet as­sur­ance and old Eng­land that we rarely hear th­ese fast 21st-cen­tury days.

She mulls over her writ­ing. When speak­ing about The Mouse­trap , Lon­don’s long­est-run­ning play, she says its suc­cess was 90 per cent luck and that there was a bit of some­thing in it for ev­ery­body, al­though she never imag­ined it would go on for so long. But she is also im­mensely hum­ble: ‘‘ I must say I had no feel­ing what­so­ever I had a great suc­cess on my hands . . . I was a bit de­pressed about it, I re­mem­ber.’’

Yet she also be­lieves deeply in her char­ac­ters. In an­other tape, she ex­plains how she came to cre­ate Miss Marple, the el­derly spin­ster who acts as an am­a­teur sleuth for 12 nov­els. She is adamant that Miss Marple is not based on her grand­mother, but ad­mits there are sim­i­lar­i­ties: ‘‘ She had this in com­mon with my grand­mother that, al­though a com­pletely cheer­ful per­son, she al­ways ex­pected the worst of any­one and ev­ery­thing and, with al­most fright­en­ing ac­cu­racy, was usu­ally proved right.’’

She also re­jects the idea — de­spite many of her fans wish­ing it so — that Her­cule Poirot and Miss Marple could ever meet, be­cause Poirot was such an ego­ist and would not like to have an el­derly spin­ster giv­ing him ad­vice. Poirot, of course, would not fit into the cosy world of Miss Marple: ‘‘ They are both stars, and stars in their own right. I shall not let them meet un­less I feel a very sud­den and un­ex­pected urge to do so.’’

What­ever your view on Christie’s nov­els ( and this can range from snub­bing to adu­la­tion) they show, as do her own in­sights, that she ob­served peo­ple with clar­ity. She un­der­stood archetypes and used them as part of the func­tion of her plots. What her read­ers so en­joy is the recog­ni­tion of them­selves or oth­ers in th­ese char­ac­ters. We know th­ese archetypes: the jeal­ous wife, the greedy hus­band. And while the plots are straight­for­ward, they of­ten wres­tle with moral and philo­soph­i­cal is­sues: when do you re­ally know some­thing? Would you kill for love? Char­ac­ter solves the plot in a Christie novel.

The tapes also re­veal, and this is too of­ten for­got­ten, that Christie loved trav­el­ling and es­cap­ing the pub­lic glare, par­tic­u­larly when she was at the height of her fame in the ’ 60s and ’ 70s. For a few months a year, she could just be Mrs ( later, Lady) Mal­lowan, who qui­etly con­sid­ered hu­man­ity at ground level while dig­ging along­side her hus­band. She loved everyday ob­jects, dig­ging and the strug­gles of cook­ing in the desert, which she detailed in Come, Tell Me How You Live , the trav­el­ogue of her jour­neys in Iraq and Syria.

As she talks, Christie gives an in­ti­mate and pri­vate sense of her­self. She has man­ner­isms, clears her throat in the mid­dle of sen­tences, is con­sid­ered and or­dered in her think­ing.

She would never re­veal her­self in this way pub­licly, know­ing how the press would spec­u­late. She would also have been the first to ad­mit she was not a lit­er­ary writer and never set out to be, and what is clear from the tapes is that she was happy her books gave en­ter­tain­ment, en­joy­ment and es­capism. Yet she had much sup­port from the literati of her gen­er­a­tion. She was pop­u­lar with French in­tel­lec­tu­als, and deeply ad­mired by the Shake­spearean scholar Robert Speaight. And on the pub­li­ca­tion of the fi­nal Poirot novel in 1975, the fic­tional Bel­gian de­tec­tive was given a front­page obituary in The New York Times .

Christie’s grand­son is still painstak­ingly digi­tis­ing the tapes, so it will be a while yet be­fore we find out if there are any other hid­den ghosts in the at­tic. But the tapes are a won­der­ful way of mak­ing Christie real and hu­man and re­moved from the brand.

As she writes in 1929 in her short story The Man from the Sea : ‘‘ You as you may not mat­ter to any­one in the world, but you as a per­son in a par­tic­u­lar place may mat­ter unimag­in­ably.’’ The tapes, the books and her char­ac­ter still do.

The Spec­ta­tor

Pri­vate per­son: Agatha Christie re­mains a best-sell­ing au­thor more than 30 years af­ter her death

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