Agatha Christie in her own words

Posted Dec. 04, 2011, at 7:33 p.m.

“AGATHA CHRISTIE: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY” by Agatha Christie; Harper Collins (544 pages, $29.99)

In time for the holiday season, the 1977 autobiography of mystery writer Agatha Christie has been reissued with an introduction by her grandson, Matthew Prichard.

“An Autobiography” is the history of a unique upbringing in a time long gone. It’s a portrait of a childhood and young womanhood that vanished with World War I.

What makes this edition special is a CD of Christie dictating parts of the autobiography. The recordings were made from tapes found by Prichard after her death, and painstakingly restored.

Agatha Christie was born in September 1890 during the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Her happy childhood dominates the first part of the book with rich evocative detail.

For example, for her third birthday, “There is a tea-table and it is covered with cakes, with my birthday cake, all sugar icing and with candles in the middle of it. Three candles. And then the exciting occurrence — a tiny red spider, so small I can hardly see it, runs across the white cloth. And my mother says: ‘It’s a lucky spider, Agatha, a lucky spider for your birthday …’ And then the memory fades.”

Christie taught herself to read at 5. In her teens and early adulthood she dabbled in music and singing, and fell into writing almost by accident. It was during the war years that she conceived of her famous Belgium detective Hercule Poirot.

All writers use their life knowledge in their work, and it’s easy to see where such famous sleuths as Miss Jane Marple and Poirot started. However, fans of the latter may be dismayed to find that Christie disliked her Belgium detective.

Christie fell in love and married a Royal Flying Corps pilot named Archibald Christie in 1914 right before he shipped out in World War I. She entered nursing and end up working in the dispensary, or a pharmacy. This played into her novels since she learned a great deal about drugs, their effects and potential for abuse.

She and Christie had an ugly divorce in 1926. Anyone looking for insight into the missing 11 days when she vanished needs to look elsewhere; she mentions how unhappy she was at the time and how she was annoyed by the press coverage of her disappearance, but nothing more.

Her second marriage, to archaeologist Max Mallowan, was a happy one. She traveled often to the Middle East, dabbled in photography and then in writing plays, adapting her own work.

To modern eyes, there are jarring elements. She uses the N-word in the title of one book, and in the stage adaptation of it. Her Victorian attitudes are several generations back and some might find them uncomfortable today.

Finally, her take on her career? “One of the pleasure of writing detective stories is that there are so many types to chose from: the light-hearted thriller, which is particularly pleasant to do; the intricate detective story with an involved plot which is technically interesting and requires a great deal of work, but is always rewarding; and then what I can only describe as the detective story that has a kind of passion behind it — that passion being to help save innocence. Because it is innocence that matters, not guilt.”

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