Alison Joseph is a crime writer and radio playwright, former Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, and author of the Sister Agnes series of detective novels. She has also written three novels featuring Agatha Christie as a (fictional) detective. The latest is Death in Disguise, published as an e-book December 2016, and paperback February 2017.
It may be a bit of a step to see Agatha Christie as a Dangerous Woman, when her image is traditionally that of a respectable, conservatively-inclined writer of novels which tend to centre upon the restoration of natural order. But I will argue that Christie’s work finds its tinderbox spark in the formative years of the 20th century, in the breakdown of Victorian certainties, the shadow of two world wars – and in the shock upheavals of her private life too.
Agatha Christie was born on 15th September 1890. In 1926, she found herself having to earn a living as a single parent, supporting her young daughter Rosalind. And she did this by spending her working life dreaming up believable ways of killing people. She produced a book a year, reliably, and with enormous success, right up until her death in 1976. Her characters scheme and plot and rage, and almost get away with it. Their murderous plans are complex and quite often involve poisoning, on which Agatha was an expert. In fact, her description of thalium poisoning in The Pale Horse (1961) was so accurate that the novel was deemed to have saved at least two lives from readers recognizing the symptoms.
Agatha Christie gained much of her pharmacological knowledge during the First World War. For Agatha, an upper-middle class English woman from a good family, the challenges of war catapulted her into an altogether new kind of life. She married her first husband Archie Christie on the eve of the war. He was almost immediately called up to serve as an airman, which he did with great courage, while she served at Torquay hospital, firstly as a general nurse, and then, when the trauma of carrying amputated limbs to the incinerator proved too much, in the pharmacy, where she learned much of the knowledge of poisons that would serve her so well in her novels. In 1918 she and Archie found themselves setting up home together – four years after their wedding, and relative strangers. He had seen untold horrors – many of his cohort never returned. And now here they were, reunited, each with their own intense experiences of the trauma of warfare. And then they became parents, with the birth of Rosalind in August 1919 – but there was still so much unsaid.
Meanwhile, Agatha was beginning to take her writing seriously. Her first published novel was The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was eventually taken up by John Lane of the Bodley Head and published in the UK in 1920. It was immediately popular, and set her on the path for which she is so well known, of stories that are efficiently told and carefully structured. But while her work may have the soothing effect of a well-told classic detective story, in that the right result is brought about, the puzzle solved by reason – there is always a deliberate undertow of anxiety. She created characters who function within tightly controlled strata of society, while actually not quite belonging. The murder, the chaos, erupts through the gaps.
Her work is dangerous in other ways. She raises the question, how do we know what people are really like? Can we tell a person’s virtue by how they behave, how they treat their spouse, their dog, their servants? How do we look for clues? And what happens when seeking the truth is dangerous? As Miss Marple says, ’Conversations are always dangerous, if you have something to hide.’ (A Caribbean Mystery, 1964).
At least within the neat structures of her stories the chaos could be controlled. But the quiet routines of her married life were about to be shattered. In 1926, to her utter surprise, her husband Archie asked her for a divorce; he had fallen in love with Nancy Neele, a friend from the local golf club near their home in Sunningdale, Berkshire. The news came soon after the death of her mother, where she had found herself alone in the old house in Devon, clearing a lifetime’s worth of her mother’s possessions. The combined trauma proved too much, and brought about the controversial disappearance to Harrogate, which made the front pages of the national press. She was found after ten days, apparently amnesiac, in what is now the Old Swan Hotel. She never spoke of it again.
For a woman of that time, of that class, to be divorced, was already the source of some shame. For someone such as Christie, with a temperament that preferred privacy, to have the details of her marital breakdown on the front pages of the world’s newspapers would have been appalling. It is no surprise at all that she wanted to put it behind her.
And so, with the steel of her generation, she faced her new circumstances with courage. Finding herself a single mother, she set to work with a renewed professionalism and determination, in order to make a living and to keep Rosalind at boarding school. Much of her writing as a younger woman was done to pay the bills; the popular image of Christie living a comfortable, luxurious life belongs firmly to her later years, when she was happily settled in her second marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan.
But more than this, Agatha’s approach to her work was itself risk-taking, in her readiness to face her own life, her own weakness, her own art. Far from the escapist, clockwork-plotted mysteries of cliché, her writing constantly finds itself up against the truths of her characters; their decisions, their moral dilemmas. And in the 1930s Agatha took another risk, by embarking on a series of pseudonymous non-crime novels under the name of Mary Westmacott, an identity which she managed to keep secret for some years.
In the second of these novels, Unfinished Portrait, the central character Celia is talking about her now-grown-up daughter Judy:
‘I always felt guilty with Judy… I think she knew I did. She never said anything, but I thought that, secretly, she blamed me for the loss of her father… And there, of course, she was right. She said once, “It was you Daddy didn’t like. He was fond of me.” I failed her. A mother ought to keep a child’s father fond of her. That’s part of a mother’s job. I hadn’t. Judy was unconsciously cruel sometimes, but she did me good. She was so uncompromisingly honest.
‘I don’t know whether I’ve failed with Judy or succeeded. I don’t know whether she loves me or doesn’t love me. I’ve given her material things. I haven’t been able to give her the other things – the things that matter to me – because she doesn’t want them. I’ve done the only other thing I could. Because I love her, I’ve let her alone. I haven’t tried to force my view and my beliefs upon her. I’ve tried to make her feel I’m there if she wants me. But you see, she didn’t want me. The kind of person I am is no good to the kind of person she is – except, as I said before, for material things… […] Whether I’ve been any use to her I shall never know. I hope I have – oh, how I hope I have… I love her so.’ (p. 216)
How can any of us read this and not think of Agatha reflecting on her own experience as a mother? As Max Mallowan famously said, ‘In Celia we have more nearly than anywhere else a portrait of Agatha.’
Unfinished Portrait is about lots of things. It’s about a marriage that’s gone wrong, a woman in despair; it’s about, as above, a mother reflecting on the damage this has wrought in her relationship with her daughter. But it’s also about form; its structure is, for want of a better word, post modern, starting as it does with a letter from Larraby, the ‘author’ of the account to ‘Mary’, saying he’s written a ‘portrait’ of this woman he encountered, Celia, as best he can, but as he’s really a painter, he’s a bit out of his depth in this new medium of words.
‘I’ve tried getting her on canvas in this new unfamiliar medium… Words. Strung together words… No brushes, no tubes of colour- none of the dear old familiar stuff – a portrait in four dimensions, because, in your craft, Mary, there’s time as well as space.’
And at the end of the novel, he writes:
‘It’s my fixed belief that Celia went back into the world to begin a new life…
She went back at thirty-nine – to grow up…
And she left her story and her fear – with me…
I don’t know where she went. I don’t even know her name. I’ve called her Celia because that name seems to suit her. I could find out, I suppose, by questioning hotels. But I can’t do that…
I suppose I shall never see her again…’
This is a long way from the usual accusations of Christie’s stories being too neat, too keen to sacrifice realistic characterization for the needs of the plot.
In the Westmacott works we see Christie pushing at the boundaries imposed by her huge success as a crime writer. It is in these stories that Christie answers her critics. If the modern novel is all about character, then Agatha belongs within it. If it’s about the real, then that too. If it’s about the honesty of a writer to draw on their own life, their own pain even, then Agatha shows how well she understands that. And even in her crime novels, however silly it might appear that everyone in the railway carriage has a motive for murder – Agatha has thought about all their characters, all their stories. She faced the challenges of life with courage, both in her work as a novelist and in her private life as a wife and mother. It is no surprise that her novels are still read in their thousands by devoted fans and new readers alike.
Her novel The Pale Horse (1961) took its title from a line from the Bible, the Book of Revelation:
‘I looked, and there before me was a Pale Horse. Its rider was named Death.’
Feature image by Wikimedia Commons. Author photo by Hugo Glendinning.