Agatha Christie and Archaeology (1999) ed. By Charlotte Trumpler

I was intrigued by the topic of this collection of essays: namely Agatha Christie, her husband Max Mallowan, Detective Fiction and Archaeology and the cross overs between them all. The first two chapters, written by Janet Morgan and Henrietta McCall respectively, provide a succinct biography for Christie and Mallowan. Most of this information will probably be familiar to keen Christie fans, but I was glad to learn a few new things, such as Christie’s love of algebra and to read about the courtship between her and Max – impromptu bathing and a night in a police cell included! (N.B. They weren’t actually arrested for anything.)

The book then changes direction with a number of chapters covering all the excavations Mallowan and Christie were on. Though there was the occasional interesting titbit of information, these chapters were incredibly and painfully boring. Christie and Mallowan weren’t really mentioned all that much and the technical information would only interest someone who knew a fair bit about archaeology. The best of these chapters was by John Curtis who writes about the Nimrud excavation, as the role Christie played in this one is talked about more, (using her own face cream to clean delicate ivories for instance), and the difficulties of writing on a dig are also mentioned.

Thankfully the book does pick up again when the next topic focused on is life on an archaeological site in the 1930s. This chapter by Charlotte Trumpler was very interesting as she includes many entertaining anecdotes, linking these real life experiences to events in Christie’s stories. We also get to see more of what Christie thought of life on a dig, including the fashion and household difficulties she faced. This more personal approach continues in the next chapter by Joan Oates who writes about Christie, Nimrud and Baghdad. The fact Oates actually met both Christie and her husband, as a research student in the 1950s helps this approach and I can imagine many readers are quite envious when they read how Oates went on shopping expeditions with Christie. Though readers may be less envious of the bathroom facilities and the daily experience of finding frogs and fish in the hip baths they used!

Agatha Christie working at the Nimrud Dig

Before moving onto the travelling aspect of archaeology, there is a brief chapter on the photography and filming Christie did whilst on the excavation sites, again written by Trumpler. It was interesting to read in Axel Heimsoth’s chapter on Christie’s travels of Christie’s Shelden Cooper like appreciation of trains. However, Tom Stern’s chapter was more fascinating, as Stern looks at how the Middle East Christie writes about in her biographical work, Come Tell Me How You Live, has changed since. At times Stern finds that Christie is used as a marketing ploy, whilst in another instance when interviewing former dig workers, it seems little interest is maintained, with one interviewee saying that ‘I am not interested in any of that now. Only a hair breadth’s separates me from death.’ Though to be fair to them they were nearly 100 years old!

The travel theme continues in Reinhold Schiffer’s chapter on ‘Agatha’s Arabs: Agatha Christie in the Tradition of British Oriental Travellers.’ One point I found particularly engaging in this chapter is when Schiffer considers the difference in incidents recorded in Christie’s biographical work compared with her mystery fiction:

‘Christie’s autobiographical experience of the Orient does not contain mad adventures; instead it speaks of common, trivial, often exasperating things and occurrences. […] Conversely, the crime novel, as genre, demands extraordinary irruptions into ordinary human lives, murder and manslaughter. In Christie’s crime novels extreme incidents such as these are only weakly linked to the oriental setting. The Orient Express might as well have got stuck in Switzerland; murder might have been committed on a steamer on the Rhine, rather than the Nile; Edward Goring’s world conspiracy did not strictly demand Baghdad as a setting […]’

Whilst I agree that the Orient Express could have broken down elsewhere on its route, I’m not sure I entirely agree that Death on Nile really could have been transposed to the Rhine as successfully as Schiffer suggests. Unfortunately though I felt points like this got rather lost in the chapter, as a greater emphasis was placed on providing other contemporary viewpoints from other people.

The next theme to be looked at is the detective novels and mystery fans will feel more at home with chapters such as ‘The Glamour of the East’: Some Reflections on Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia’ by Nadja Cholidis. This chapter examines the crossovers between archaeology and crime solving, reflecting on the parallels between the 1930 Ur Expedition Christie was on and her novel Murder in Mesopotamia.

Following this chapter is Waltraud Guglielmi’s ‘Agatha Christie and her Use of Ancient Egyptian Sources’. Guglielmi looks at how Death Comes as the End, was influenced by the Hekanakhte Papers; letters which show the everyday life in Ancient Egypt within one family. Christie definitely had insider contacts in this respect as her novel was published before the letters were and her story includes many direct quotes. Other sources from Ancient Egyptian literature and archaeological dig reports are also considered. Guglielmi also looks at the sources behind Christie’s play Akhnaton, which though never performed, was published decades after it was written, (after meeting Howard Carter no less). Although interesting this chapter was very heavy going when it looks at Akhnaton.

Barbara Patzek, Regina Hauses and Andreas Dudde are the co-authors of the next chapter looking at Poirot as an archaeologist and the parallels between the two, focusing on the short story, ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’. However this was not a great chapter as the central thesis gets lost in the recounting of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s grave. This chapter is a good example of a problem which reoccurs a lot in this collection, whereby in some chapters real life history monopolises the narrative, leaving Christie and her work on the periphery.

Next up is Ulrich Suerbaum’s chapter on the ‘Rules of the Game: Agatha Christie’s Construction of the Detective Story’, which recycles well-worn criticisms of Christie e.g. her characters having no psychological depth etc. and has a clichéd understanding of her novels and their structure. Archaeology doesn’t really come into it, so not really sure how this chapter made it into the collection. The subsequent chapter though is much better, with Volker Neuhaus’‘The Archaeology of Murder.’ Stronger background knowledge of golden age detective fiction is present, with references to Ellery Queen and Ernest Bloch’s essay on ‘The Form of the Detective Story and Philosophy’ is explored a lot at the start of the chapter. Archaeology as a metaphor for detecting is a key idea which comes through in this piece by Neuhaus and his citing of mystery fiction which merge these two themes is good, mentioning some novels I had not heard of before, such as John Trench’s Docken Dead (1953) and Dishonoured Bones (1954). Though it did surprise me that he did not mention Anthony Rolls’ Scarweather (1934).

The closing chapter is by Tom Stern looking at the films Christie made herself of the digs she was on and also films of her novels with an archaeological connection. This is quite a brief chapter, which only describes/lists these films, without any real analysis, which was a shame.

Whilst I think this was a great idea for an essay collection I am not sure it really achieved its aims. The history of the digs and the time periods they are from, dominate too much for my liking, isolating readers like me who lack the technical knowledge to understand what they are being told about the various digs. Equally in the main I think the writers contributing to this collection are more experts in this aspect than they are on writing about Christie, (though there are some exceptions). This is fine, but it means that Christie feels more like a gimmick in the collection, a name to draw people in and nothing more. Consequently I feel like I didn’t really get what I was hoping to get from this topic, as I think the theme of Christie, Detective Fiction and Archaeology is a fertile ground for further thought, yet these themes didn’t really coalesce as much as I hoped for.

Rating: 2/5

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