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The Agatha Christie Miscellany (2013) by Cathy Cook

I have a bit of a confession to make. I’ve not read a crime related book either fiction or non-fiction in nearly a week. I know positively criminal, but various factors prevented me from settling down to anything, so to ease me way back into my usual hectic reading speed I decided on this title, which I received as a Christmas present. I am hoping to catch up with other mystery/crime related non-fiction this month as well. We’ll see how it goes.

I got a signed edition with a personal message from my very thoughtful sister.

This is a nicely packaged pocket book of Christie facts and one which both new and old fans of Christie can enjoy. There was a mixture of facts, some of which I already knew, (e.g. such as Christie being half-American and that she was home schooled), some of which I had probably read before but had then forgotten, (e.g. Christie’s near death experience at a Calais train station and that she and Max lied about their ages on their marriage certificates), as well some others which were completely new to me, such as Christie’s opinions on baths:

‘Christie said that she did her best thinking while lying in the bath, eating apples and drinking cups of tea. She claimed that modern baths weren’t made with authors in mind as they were too slippery, with no nice wooden ledge to rest pencils and paper on.’

In the main I would say Cook has done her homework, being dedicated enough to note certain inconsistencies in Christie’s series novels. For instance in Postern of Fate (1973), Tuppence’s Deborah begins with two twins, yet ends the novel with three children, none of which are twins. There is also the changing of Poirot’s address going from Whitehaven Mansions in The ABC Murders (1936) to Whitehouse Mansions in Cat Among the Pigeons (1959) and Whitefriars Mansions in Elephants Can Remember (1972). There is also the reappearance in both Sleeping Murder (1976) and By the Pricking of my Thumbs (1968), (written decades apart despite the publication dates), of an elderly woman drinking milk and making cryptic remarks about a poor child and a fireplace. Cook asserts that the mystery behind what this woman is talking about is never resolved. I know in the ITV version of By the Pricking of my Thumbs they incorporate it in more, but I can’t remember exactly how it is mentioned in the original text. I also enjoyed finding out that criticism of the blow pipe in Death in the Clouds (1935) being too long to conceal, was later brought up by Ariadne Oliver in Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952) (a book I really need to get around to reading again).

Cook also touches on TV, Film and Stage productions of Christie’s works and I did chuckle at the unfortunate actor in the 1949 TV version of And Then There Were None (1939), who in the live performance does not realise he is still on camera and gets up walking off stage hands in pocket. Why is this embarrassing? Just before this moment his character was stabbed to the death… Furthermore, Christie’s response to her agent when MGM wanted to do a screen version of The Murder on the Orient Express (1934) with Miss Marple in, is also highly hilarious:

‘She told her agent that the book had taken a lot of careful planning, and to have it ‘transformed into a rollicking farce with Miss Marple injected into it and probably in the role of the engine driver, though great fun,’ would be harmful to her reputation.’

Did spend quite a few moments after that trying to imagine Miss Marple as an engine driver.

Elsewhere in the book Cook looks at the connections between Christie’s stories and real life crimes. Some of these examples I already knew, but it was pleasing to read some that I had not heard of before. Cook also looks at other people’s personal reminiscences of Christie and it was quite amusing to read that at one point Christie spent 6 months trying to learn to enjoy smoking. She failed, but that is probably not such a bad thing. Readers also get to see some of Christie’s answers to the questions posed in Michael Parkinson’s Confession Album (1973). However before you imagine all the scandalous questions which could be asked, the questions are somewhat tamer, though still intriguing: ‘Favourite qualities in men: Integrity and good manner. Favourite qualities in women: Loving and Merry.’ It didn’t seem too surprising to find that Christie disliked Ian Fleming’s books, finding them ‘boring,’ but I was taken aback by her enthusiasm for cricket and that in her will she left money which enabled the England Young Cricketer’s Club to go on their West Indies tour.

There were three other personal anecdotes which I especially enjoyed. The first is a pickle Christie got into when she decided the proceeds from a short story of hers should go towards putting a new stained glass window in a local church, only to find that the story would not sell. In the end she had to buy back the rights for the story in order for the window to be funded. The second anecdote was about how Christie would often read out the chapters of her current novel in progress to her family, (immensely jealous at this point!), and as well as providing general feedback they had to decide who the murderer was. Max is said to have often fallen asleep during these readings, but also annoyingly managed to often guess the murderer correctly. The final anecdote is how Christie would send her latest novel to her grandson whilst he was at boarding school. These gifts had to be vetted first by the headmaster but it turned out that the reason why her grandson had to wait so long for his books to be vetted, was that the headmaster’s wife always got to read them first!

Given how much Cook looks at uncovering facts about Christie the person, i.e. likes, dislikes, personality etc., it felt unusual that the final chapter of the book is biography of Christie, as the material overlaps with earlier chapters and moreover the nature of the book makes this type of chapter more suited to being at the start rather than the end. There is also an instance where Cook’s knowledge of the golden age detective fiction genre is a little lacking in depth, when she tries to tackle Knox’s Decalogue. She follows the well-trodden but not hugely accurate party line on these rules, expressing the same befuddlement, as P. D. James once expressed over the no chinamen rule.

Nevertheless this was still an enjoyable and relaxing read, (which I needed) and gave me plenty of nuggets of new information to ponder and two new lines of thought to consider:

  1. Are The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and And Then There Were None Christie’s ‘most stunningly original plots’? (Fairly sure the premise of the latter had been used in earlier novels, but can’t remember specific titles).
  2. What are Christie’s key works? Is this the ones which are best remembered due to snazzy film productions or is there more nuanced criteria to be made?

Rating: 4/5