It is Agatha Christie week over on Mysteries in Paradise and this post is my contribution towards this enterprise.
I am a huge fan of Dame Agatha as everyone who knows this blog will realise by now. Her output is simply remarkable and when you realise she was a middle class girl living a very sheltered upbringing, the twists and turns of her mind are really uncanny. I am not going to give any biographical details as I am sure most of us who admire and love the Dame know these already, her marriage, divorce, disappearance etc etc and if you want to know more I can highly recommend Laura Thompson's biography which I read and reviewed HERE and which I do not think can be bettered.
I first discovered the Queen of Crime when I was 12 years old. I remember it very well, I was at home and stuck indoors as I had German measles and was highly infectious and not allowed out. Apart from a few pale pink blotches I looked, and felt, fine and was irritated and bored. My sister, a librarian in the local branch just across the road, came home one lunchtime with a pile of books for me, two of which started a life long love of the authors. One was Agatha Christie, the other Georgette Heyer (of which another time) and the Christie title was Ten Little Indians or as it is now sometimes known, And Then there were None (in those days of non-political correctness it was called Ten Little Niggers) and I sat down, started to read and that was it. Did not move for the entire afternoon until I came to the last page and then I just sat and gasped. For those of you who have escaped knowledge of this murder mystery, I will only say that ten people are invited for a weekend on an isolated island. They are all strangers to each other and nobody knows why they were asked to come, each of them receiving an invitation from a seemingly different person. The one thing they have in common is that they are all hiding a secret, they are all guilty of murder in various ways and, here is the vital clue, they have all escaped justice. Well, no longer as one by one they all die. As the numbers get smaller and smaller, so does the list of suspects and when first reading I thought well last one left is the murderer. Not so. Ten bodies are left on the island. Nobody else is there - so who did it?
The solution to this left me totally bowled over and when my sister returned home later she was dispatched back to work to bring me back as many Christies as she could lay her hands on, and then I was off.
Earlier this week I listened to a programme on Radio 4, chaired by Val McDermid, herself a crime writer of some note, in which some never before heard voice tapes of Dame Agatha were played. These had been found by her grandson who took them to an expert and had them restored and though they are slightly scratchy we can hear the authentic voice of Agatha talking about her books and her plays. She sounded remarkably like the Queen same plummy tones, and also sounded very amused by her life and what had happened to her. I had always felt that I rather liked Dame A and after hearing these tapes, these feelings were confirmed - she sounded delightful.
The panel included Laura Thompson as well as John Curran, whose recent book the Secret Notebooks of Agatha Christie is on my wish list, and also playwrights who had adapted her work for the stage and the radio. The old complaint that 'she is not very good at characterisation' was aired and this always make me very cross as it is totally wrong. While the books are essentially plot driven, of course they are, and the crime and solution is all, this does not mean that her protagonists are badly drawn. Far from it.
Well, first of all we have Hercule Poirot who is a character positively bursting with interest and fascination; Miss Marple who, it transpires, was based on another spinster lady in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - a gossipy lady who knew all that was going on in the village, whom Agatha became very fond of (this from the played tapes); all the characters in Death on the Nile are very well drawn and if we were not interested in Simon and Linnet Doyle and the rejected fiance Jackie, then we would not be interested in the story. Murder on the Orient express another example. I could go on and on, but will not ....
I was very pleased to hear that nearly all the panellists on this discussion agreed that she had a 'Middle Period' when she was at her height and that one of the books written at this time Five Little Pigs is among her best. I have always thought so. Five separate people looking back on a summer and death some 15 years earlier, all with a different viewpoint and mindset and Hercule Poirot listening and watching and coming up with the solution. It is quite brilliant and the characters in this story leap off the page.
Another title mentioned and, again, one of my favourites was Murder is Easy. And if anybody reading this has just seen the Miss Marple episode with Julia McKenzie based on this book, then you should dismiss this from your mind and just read the book. First of all, Miss Marple does not appear in this title, it is one of Agatha Christie's stand alone novels, the story line was totally changed, there was no rape, no incest and no abortion in the original book, the character of Bridget was Irish and certainly not an American over looking for her long lost mother, oh it was really quite quite dreadful.
Crooked House, another stand alone book, is creepy and dark and also full of interesting characters, including a rather knowoing unpleasant child, Josephine who seems to know everything about everyone and thus places herself in danger. No doubt this will turn up as a Marple sooner or later.
But I digress.
May I also mention the books which Agatha Christie wrote under the name of Mary Westmacott. These are very much out of the ordinary and it is no secret that at least two of them are largely autobiographical and expose many of AC's inner feelings. She had these published separately from her usual crime titles as she knew that they would not be accepted by her usual readership. I remember that these were discovered and reissued when I was a teenager working in Highgate Library in London and being very excited and reading them all as they arrived. Because they were so different I was disappointed and felt rather let down, but then I read them again years later, and found them fascinating. The later editions, needless to say, are marketed as Agatha Christie with the Westmacott name shown on thecovers in much smaller writing. The publishers know their market.....
It was that bout of German measles and the discovery of this author that set me off on my life long love of detective novels. Ngaio Marsh is one of my highest rated favourites, as is D L Sayers who I only discovered about five years ago, and while I have found Margery Allingham hard to g et on with, I have recently found Edmund Crispin and have started his with great pleasure and enjoyment and the knowledge that there are more to come; the Miss Silver books of Patricia Wentworth all 30+ of which were loaned to me last year by a friend and which I loved and then there are more recent authors. Andrew Taylor's Lydford series set in the 1950s, excellent and just crying out to be televised, the silly but wildly amusing Agatha Raisin (Miss Marple but in a temper) series which cannot be taken seriously but have the usual setting in an English village where murders seem to happen a weekly basis and many more.
But the doyenne of them all and the lady who reigns supreme as far as I am concerned is Dame Agatha Christie. Not just the creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple who are world famous, but also Tommy and Tuppence, Parker Pyne, Harley Quin, Sir Eustace Pedler in the Man in the Brown Suit (one of her 1920 mysteries and one of my favourites); Georges, Poirot's valet; Miss Lemon; Captain Hastings; Aridane Oliver (widely assumed to be a self portrait); Inspector Japp (Poirot's Moriarty); Superindent Battle - who says she can't do characters?
I understand that two new Poirot stories have been discovered amongst her notebooks mentioned above so an even more compelling reason for purchasing this book.
The Queen of Crime - never to be supplanted.