Category Archives: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

There are many things I like about Five Little Pigs, a Poirot mystery first published in 1943. I like the plot and the way it’s structured, the characterisation, the dialogue, and Agatha Christie’s fluent style of writing. In addition the solution is convincing and satisfying.

Caroline Crale was convicted of the murder of her husband, Amyas and died in prison. Sixteen years later, her daughter, a child of five at the time of the murder, asks Poirot to clear her mother’s name, convinced that she was innocent.

Poirot checks the police records, talks to the lawyers who conducted the trial and to the five eyewitnesses, persuading them to write down their versions of events. He finds that she had ample motive for the crime, at no time had she protested her innocence, although she contended that he had committed suicide, and all the eyewitnesses thought she was guilty.

Inevitably there are different versions of the events and conflicting views of Caroline’s character, all very clearly set out. So what did actually happen? Was Caroline innocent or guilty?

Poirot, in his usual methodical manner, goes through the sequence of events, and having gathered together all the people involved, using logic and psychology to detect the incongruous he makes his dénouement.

The description of Amyas Crale’s house, Alderbury appears to have been modelled on Agatha Christie’s own house, Greenway, complete with a Battery overlooking the river, just as at Greenway. The book was written in 1943, making it 16 years after 1926, the year of her disappearance before her divorce from her first husband, Archie Christie, so I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Amyas Crale, a womaniser who was proposing to leave his wife for another woman has the same initials as Archie Christie!

I think the nursery rhyme theme of the title and the chapter headings is rather forced, as it doesn’t really throw any light on the mystery. It seems that Agatha Christie was a bit carried away with her ‘crimes of rhymes’, just as Poirot was obsessed with the jingle:

‘A jingle ran through Poirot’s head. He repressed it. He must not always be thinking of nursery rhymes. It seemed an obsession with him lately. And yet the jingle persisted.

This little pig went to market, this little pig stayed at home…’ (page 33)

This is the first Agatha Christie book I’ve read this year and I’m pleased it was such a good one!

Five Little Pigs is my 8th TBR book I’ve read this year in the Mount TBR Challenge, and the TBR Triple Dog Dare, the 2nd for the My Kind of Mystery Challenge and the 2nd for the What’s in a Name 7 Challenge (in the category, a book with a number written in letters in the title). And last, but by no means least, it’s the 56th Agatha Christie book I’ve read in the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.

A Year of Reading Agatha Christie: 2013

Agatha ChristieThe Agatha Christie Reading Challenge is run by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. I don’t think of it as a Challenge – it’s really a reading project, as it is quite simply to read Agatha Christie’s books. I’m not reading them in order of publication but as I come across them.

As I wrote in a guest post on Alyce’s blog for her series of Best and Worst earlier this year, Agatha Christie has long been one of my favourite writers. I first read some of her books as a teenager, but over the last four years or so I’ve been reading as many of her books that I can find.

She wrote over 100 novels, short story collections and plays and she is one of the best-selling (if not the best-selling) novelists of all time, well known for her crime fiction featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and other detectives, both amateur and police.

I like many things about her writing. Her style is light, humorous at times, but her writing can be dark creating a tense and menacing atmosphere. Her plots are often ingenious, intricate, complicated puzzles, with the clues scattered throughout the texts. Some of her characters are clearly defined and fully rounded, some are lightly sketched, and others are comic characters, caricatures presented satirically or even farcically. Her settings are often country houses in idyllic English villages, but also in exotic locations in the Middle East as in her archaeological mysteries.

The full list of the 55 novels and short stories that I’ve read is on my Agatha Christie Reading Challenge page. This year I’ve read 9 of her books:

My favourite this year is Cards on the Table, but they all make fascinating reading.

Cards on the Table

  1. Cat Among the Pigeons  (Poirot)
  2. Mrs McGinty’s Dead (Poirot and Ariadne Oliver)
  3. Murder in the Mews (Poirot 4 short stories)
  4. Cards on the Table (Poirot)
  5. Third Girl (Poirot)
  6. Ten Little Niggers aka And Then There Were None
  7. A Murder is Announced (Miss Marple)
  8. N or M? (Tommy and Tuppence)
  9. Ordeal by Innocence

I’ve also read two biographies:

  1. Agatha Christie: an English Mystery by Laura Thompson
  2. Agatha Christie at Home by Hilary Macaskill

There are still plenty of Agatha Christie’s books for me to read. The following books are the ones I own and will be reading next year (not necessarily in this order):

  • They Do It With Mirrors (Miss Marple)
  • The Moving Finger (Miss Marple)
  • Miss Marple and Mystery: Complete Short Stories
  • Poirot Investigates (short stories)
  • The Golden Ball (short stories)
  • Complete Parker Pyne (short stories)
  • The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (short stories)

Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie wrote in An Autobiography that Ordeal by Innocence and Crooked House were the two books she’d written that satisfied her the best. Neither book features Poirot or Miss Marple, so maybe she had become rather tired of them and had enjoyed introducing completely new characters.

Ordeal by Innocence (The Christie…Summary from the back cover of my copy:

According to the courts, Jacko Argyle bludgeoned his mother to death with a poker. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he died behind bars following a bout of pneumonia. Tragically, it was not until two years later that Dr Arthur Calgary came forward with the testimony that could have acquitted Jacko. Worse the doctor’s revelations were about to re-open old wounds in the family, increasing the likelihood that the real murderer would strike again.

My view:

Ordeal by Innocence is thus a stand-alone novel, first published in 1958, unlike the TV adaptation that had Miss Marple (in the form of Geraldine McEwan), solving the mystery.

Dr Calgary was surprised by the reception he received from the family when he visited them to tell them that Jacko was innocent and why he hadn’t come forward at the time to confirm his alibi. Instead of relief he was met with wariness and suspicion as the family members realised that one of them could be the murderer. This is a cold case that they wish had never been re-opened; they had been happy to accept that Jacko, a thoroughly nasty character, was guilty. Only Philip the eldest daughter’s wheelchair-bound husband is keen to discover the murderer’s identity. So, it is up to him, Doctor Calgary, helped by the family solicitor and Superintendent Huish to carry out fresh investigations.

What I liked about Ordeal by Innocence was the way Agatha Christie delved into the family relationships and their characters. Mrs Argyle was one of those mothers who was always right and thought she knew best and at times all her children had rebelled or wanted to rebel against her authority, so all were suspects, along with her long-suffering husband, who since her death was planning to marry his secretary.

The novel is as much about protecting the innocent as punishing the guilty, and the fact that stating your innocence is not proof of it. Calgary has to find the murderer so that the innocent will not suffer from the taint of guilt. Without knowing who was guilty they would have all come under suspicion, destroying their love and trust.

I swung from believing first one, then another character, was the guilty person and was quite taken in by all the red herrings Agatha Christie threw into the book. All is made clear in the last chapter when Dr Calgary presents his findings and reveals the killer. Although I don’t think it is one of Agatha Christie’s best books, I still enjoyed its complexity and admired her skill in plotting this novel.

N or M? by Agatha Christie

N or M? is the third of the Tommy and Tuppence stories, set in 1940 and first published in 1941.  Agatha Christie wrote this at the same time as writing The Body in the Library. She explained the reason in her Autobiography:

I had decided to write two books at once, since one of the difficulties of writing a book is that it suddenly goes stale on you. Then you have to put it by, and do other things – but I believed that if  I wrote two books, and alternated the writing of them, it would keep me fresh at the task. One was The Body in the Library, which I had been thinking of writing for some time, and the other one was N or M?, a spy story, which was in a way a continuation of the second book of mine, The Secret Adversary, featuring Tommy and Tuppence. Now with a grown-up son and daughter, Tommy and Tuppence were bored by finding that nobody wanted them in wartime. However, they made a splendid come-back as a middle-aged pair, and tracked down spies with all their old enthusiasm. (An Autobiography by Agatha Christie page 506)

Tommy is asked to go under cover to track down members of the Fifth Column, two of the most important and trusted German agents, whose mission is to infiltrate British society, like the Trojan wooden horse. All that is known is that N is a man and M a woman and they are thought to be at Leahampton on the south coast. He tells Tuppence that he is being sent to Scotland and that she can’t go with him, but she surprises him by being at Sans Souci, a seaside guesthouse in Leahampton, when he arrives. So there they are, both under cover, Tommy as Mr Meadowes and Tuppence as Mrs Blenkensop.

There is definitely something not right about the guesthouse, it has the feel of something sinister, something evil. And it’s not long before Tommy and Tuppence are embroiled in a series of dangerous near-disasters, involving German spies, and Smuggler’s Rest, a cottage with a secret room, set on a cliff overlooking a little cove and ideal for enemy action.

N or M? is an easy book to read and not too demanding. Agatha Christie makes use, as in some of her other books, of nursery rhymes, in this one it’s ‘Goosey goosey gander’, which comes from a Mother Goose picture book Tuppence reads to little Betty Sprot. Of all the characters in the book (apart from Tommy and Tuppence) Betty, a toddler, who speaks her own baby language, is the most well-drawn, so much so that at one point I even found myself wondering if she could be M!!!

One of its attractions for me is its historical setting, although when Agatha Christie wrote this book it was very current, she did not know how the war would end. It is interesting to see how she portrays the general public’s attitude towards the war, about patriotism, and the fear of Fifth Columnists, of spies, and Fascists and Communists. Also of note is that whilst most of the characters thought the war would be over very quickly, which is what I thought was the general consensus at the time, one of them thought it would last at least six years.

Following the publication of N or M? Agatha Christie was investigated by MI5 because she had named one of the characters ‘Major Bletchley’ and MI5 suspected she had a spy in Britain’s undercover code breaking centre, Bletchley Park.

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

A Murder is Announced was first published in 1950. My copy is in a collection of four Miss Marple stories – A Miss Marple Quartet. I particularly like this cover, showing Joan Hickson as Miss Marple.

Synopsis from Amazon:

The villagers of Chipping Cleghorn, including Jane Marple, are agog with curiosity over an advertisement in the local gazette which reads: ‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m.’

A childish practical joke? Or a hoax intended to scare poor Letitia Blacklock? Unable to resist the mysterious invitation, a crowd begins to gather at Little Paddocks at the appointed time when, without warning, the lights go out…

Of course it isn’t a practical joke and someone is murdered. But the mystery is to identify the victim – it’s not as straight forward as it first appears and there are plenty of red herrings. I vaguely remembered seeing the TV version (with Joan Hickson, perfect as Miss Marple) years ago and although I couldn’t remember who did it knew that I had to pay close attention to the detail of where people were sitting or standing in the room at the Little Paddocks when the lights went out. But even though I read it very carefully I was still baffled. It all hinges on family relationships and details of the characters’ identities which are so skilfully hidden that I was kept guessing until very near the end.

It’s not without flaws, some of the characters are a bit sketchy, and some of the novel borders on farce, with Miss Marple imitating a dead person’s voice whilst hiding in a broom cupboard and Mitzi, the highly strung and paranoid cook, a refugee from Germany, screaming like a siren and insisting that the police will take her away and torture her. Still, I wish her recipe for the chocolate cake ‘Delicious Death’ had been revealed.

What I really like about A Murder is Announced is the picture it paints of life in post-war Britain, showing how society was in the process of change. Miss Marple is her usual brilliant self, now seeming very old with ‘snow white hair and a pink crinkled face and very soft innocent blue eyes’, chattering and fluttering, but still as sharp and observant as ever. As she explains the world has changed since the war when everyone knew who everybody was. But now people come and settle in a village and all you know of them is what they say of themselves – you don’t know who they really are! And so, she compares them to the people she does know, people in her village of St Mary Mead, which helps to throw light on the mystery. It’s a layered mystery involving past illness, identities, and questions of inheritance.

Ten Little Niggers by Agatha Christie

I wondered when I began to write this post whether to use the current title, And Then There Were None, for this book, but chose to use its original title, Ten Little Niggers as that is the title of my copy, a 1968 reprint of its first publication in the UK in 1939. Because of its offensive title it was first published in the US a few months later in 1940 as And Then There Were None.

Ten Little NiggersFrom the back cover:

10 people are invited to a fabulous mansion on Nigger Island off the coast of Devon. Though they all have something to hide, they arrive hopefully on a glorious summer evening… But soon a series of extraordinary events take place: the island is suddenly bathed in a most sinister light .. panic grips the visitors one, by one … by one… by one…

Eight people are invited to the island (based on a real island – Burgh Island off the south west coast of Devon). They are met by the butler and housekeeper/cook who explain that the owner, Mr Owen (U.N.Owen) has been delayed but has left instructions for their reception. In each of their rooms is a framed copy of the rhyme about the ten little nigger boys who all met their death. On their first evening they sit down to dinner in good spirits until, without any warning they hear a Voice accusing each of them (including the butler and housekeeper) of having caused the deaths or murdered a number of people. From that point onwards, one by one they are found dead, corresponding to the deaths in the rhyme and one by one a china figurine on the dining room table mysteriously disappears.

As the weather worsens they are stranded on the island and unable to leave or to get help from the mainland. Agatha Christie has created not only a ‘locked room’ type of mystery but also a mystery full of suspense, as the guests try to identify Mr U N Owen and become increasingly suspicious of each other. Their fear is further amplified by the house itself, which surprisingly is not an old Gothic house full of creaking wood and dark shadows -

But this house was the essence of modernity. There were no dark corners – no possible sliding panels – it was flooded with electric light – everything was new and bright and shining. There was nothing hidden in this house, nothing concealed. It had no atmosphere about it.

Somehow, that was the most frightening thing of all …

They exchanged good-nights on the upper landing. Each of them went into his or her own room, and each of them automatically, almost without conscious thought, locked the door … (page 52)

Despite their precautions the deaths continue, and each time no one sees or hears anything. I’d marked the page with the rhyme and kept flipping back to it to check how the next victim was going to meet with death, as I tried to work out who the murderer was and how he/she was able to carry out the murders unobserved. What makes it more tense for the reader (or at least for me) is the technique Agatha Christie makes of revealing the thoughts of the remaining characters, but without letting on who the thinker is.

In 1943 Agatha Christie adapted the book into a play, changing the ending, and there have been several film versions, none of which I’ve seen, so I didn’t know who the murderer was, although I knew the outline of the plot. Part way through the book I thought – ah, there is only one person who could be the murderer and I was right. I must re-read the book sometime to see if there were any clues, because if there were I missed them. My idea was based on the probability of that character being the murderer rather than any specific clues.

It is an ingenious mystery, revolving around the concepts of guilt and justice. There was no doubt that each of the victims had committed murder or caused/influenced the death of another person. But did the punishment fit the crime and could it ever be justified? As the murderer explains in an epilogue there were varying degrees of guilt among the victims and those whose guilt was lightest were killed off first!

This is possibly the most famous of Agatha Christie’s books. In her Autobiography Agatha Christie wrote that she had written the book because it was so difficult to do and the idea fascinated her. I found it fascinating too, but as an exercise and a puzzle rather than as a novel. Writing about the play and the book she stated:

I don’t say it is the play or the book of mine I like best, or even that I think it is my best, but I do think in some ways that it is a better piece of craftsmanship than anything else I have written. (page 489 of An Autobiography)

I agree.

Agatha Christie at Home by Hilary Macaskill

One of the things that struck me when I was reading Agatha Christie’s An Autobiography was her love of houses. It stemmed from her childhood dolls’ house. She enjoyed buying all the things to put in it – not just furniture, but all the household implements such as brushes and dustpans, and food, cutlery and glasses. She also liked playing at moving house, using a cardboard box as a furniture van.

Writing about her life with her husband, Max Mallowan she wrote:

We were always choosing sites for houses. This was mainly owing to me, houses having always been my passion – there was indeed a moment in my life, not long before the outbreak of the second war, when I was the proud owner of eight houses. (page 440 of An Autobiography)

Agatha Christie at HomeSo when I saw that Hilary Macaskill had written this book – Agatha Christie at Home – I knew immediately that I wanted to read it. It’s a beautiful book, with many photographs – more than 100 colour photos – illustrating Agatha’s life and homes. I took my time reading it, first of all looking at the photos, before reading the text.

There is a Foreword by Mathew Prichard, her grandson, explaining the love his grandmother had for Devon, in particular for Torquay, where she was born and Greenway, the house that had a special place in her heart.  He expressed his hope that this book will ‘transmit some of the magic that my whole family felt when they were there.’  And this book does indeed do that!

There is an overview of Agatha Christie’s life followed by descriptions of the houses and countryside she loved – from Ashfield in Torquay her first home, where she was born and brought up to Greenway, a Georgian mansion above the River Dart, now owned by the National Trust.

There are no spoilers in this book but Hilary Macaskill has identified the settings Agatha Christie used in her books and how some of the place names have been altered, but are still recognizable from her descriptions. I hadn’t realised that the names of some of her characters are taken from the names of streets or villages, such as Luscombe Road in Paignton which she adopted for Colonel Luscombe in At Bertram’s Hotel.

It’s a useful book too if you want to find out more about visiting Devon with tourist information and website addresses. The final chapter is about Agatha Christie’s legacy and her continuing popularity both nationally and internationally. As well as being able to visit Greenway, which has been restored to the way it was when Agatha lived there, there are events to celebrate her life and works, such as the annual Agatha Christie week that takes place in Torquay each September around her birthday.

I haven’t been to Greenway, although I have stayed in Torquay, but that was before Greenway was open to the public. It is enormously popular – on the first day it was opened over 400 visitors came to see the house. But Agatha Christie was a very private person and I can’t imagine what she would have thought about that. After all she had refused permission for an ‘authorized life’ to be written, stating:

‘I write books to be sold and I hope people will enjoy them but I think people should be interested in books and not their authors.’ (page 129)

Knowing that I think I’d feel I was invading her privacy if I did go to Greenway!

Third Girl by Agatha Christie

Third Girl was first published in 1966. In it Poirot is probably meant to be approaching eighty, although if he had aged with the books he would have been well over a hundred! Anyway, the young lady who comes to see him about ‘a murder she might have committed‘ runs out of his room after blurting out:

You’re too old. Nobody told me you were so old. I really don’t want to be rude but – there it is. You’re too old. I’m really very sorry.’ (page 13)

Poirot is bored. He had finished his Magnum Opus, an analysis of detective fiction writers, in which he had spoken scathingly of Edgar Allen Poe, and had complained of the lack of method or order in the romantic outpourings of Wilkie Collins. He had no idea what to do next, so, his interest is aroused by the young lady’s announcement and he sets out to discover what murder she ‘might have committed.’ It turns out that Mrs Ariadne Oliver had told the girl about him when talking with friends about detectives and together they discover that she is Norma Restarick, the ‘third girl’, sharing a flat with two other girls.

Norma thinks she might be crazy, but won’t see a doctor. She doesn’t always remember what she has done. She hates her stepmother and thinks she might have poisoned her. Poirot is intrigued but when a suspicion of espionage surfaces it is all too much for him:

Poirot gave an exasperated sigh.

‘Enfin,’ he said, ‘it is too much! There is far too much. Now we have espionage and counter espionage. All I am seeking is one perfectly simple murder. I begin to suspect that that murder only occurred in a drug addict’s brain! (page 211)

But as Poirot reminds himself it is his ‘metier’ to deal with murder, to clear up murder, to prevent murder and eventually with a casual phrase spoken by Mrs Oliver it all becomes clear to him.

The plot is complex, which is rather puzzling,  but for me Third Girl is also interesting because of its commentary on the 1960s culture seen through the eyes of the older characters – the disparaging remarks about the youth of the day – beatniks, long hair, clothes that were of doubtful cleanliness, and skimpy skirts, and the Van Dyke type clothes some of the young men wore, the drink and drugs and wild parties. Mrs Oliver has her usual gripe about people saying things to her about her books and how they longed to meet her, making her feel ‘hot, bothered and rather silly‘ and how much they love the ‘awful detective Sven Hjerson‘ she had created and now hates.

Maybe it’s not one of Agatha Christie’s best books but I think it’s very entertaining.

Agatha Christie: An English Mystery by Laura Thompson

It took me weeks to read Laura Thompson’s book Agatha Christie: An English Mystery. It has taken me several days to write and re-write this post because I’ve found it difficult to put down my thoughts about it without going into too much detail (and this is still a long post). My overall impression of the book is that I felt as though I was intruding into Agatha Christie’s private life that she had not wanted to be made known. I also think that Laura Thompson had found it difficult to separate the woman from her writing, because throughout the book facts are interspersed with suppositions drawn from Agatha Christie’s novels and in particular from Unfinished Portrait, a novel Agatha wrote under the pseudonym, Mary Westmacott.

Agatha Christie: An English Mystery is described as a ‘perceptive and stylish biography‘ on the jacket sleeve, but it is not just a biography; it is also a study of Agatha Christie’s novels, drawing conclusions from her writing about her thoughts, feelings and emotions and a fictionalised version of Agatha’s disappearance in 1926. Laura Thompson’s sources are unpublished letters, papers and notebooks.

First of all, concerning the study of the novels I was dismayed as I was reading this book at the amount of information she reveals about the crime fiction novels, including giving away who the murderers are in a number of cases. Charles Osborne’s book The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie is much better, outlining the books, not just her crime novels but also her non-fiction, stories for children, poetry and plays in chronological order and nowhere does he reveal the identity of any of the murderers.

Then the fictionalised version of Agatha’s disappearance is in a chapter called ‘The Quarry‘, which begins ‘Time for a new story‘, words which did not immediately alert me that Laura Thompson was no longer writing strictly from the sources at her disposal but also from her imagination, putting words into Agatha Christie’s mouth that she could not have known, and describing her reactions to the people she met and the newspaper reports of her disappearance. Later in this chapter she wrote:

All biography is story-telling. No life is a code to be deciphered: there will always be gaps and inconsistencies, and it is stories that make the missing connections. Omniscience is for Hercule Poirot. Real life knows less; it has the beauty of mystery; and this, despite the books she wrote, was something that Agatha understood very well. She must have known she had created a puzzle of a different order, with all the geometric complexity of ‘Roger Ackroyd’ – and how to work it out? Turn it this way? That way? – and yet the twist in the tale: it was true, and therefore it could never be solved. It was perfect in fact. The perfect metaphor for human mystery. What could be more impenetrable than the woman who moved through Harrogate like a smiling ghost, reading newspaper reports about her own vanished self? (page 219)

I just wish she had not gone so far down the story-telling line in this book and had left this episode of Agatha Christie’s life as an impenetrable mystery, or at least had made it clear straight away when she was writing imaginatively. I have absolutely no objections to fictionalised versions of a life (for example I really liked Justine Picardie’s book Daphne: a novel, which merges fact and fiction) but I do think it should be obvious that it is fictionalised. Nor do I object to different interpretations of

Laura Thompson quotes from Unfinished Portrait, using this as evidence of Agatha’s thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. In Osborne’s book he also states that Unfinished Portrait, which was published in 1934, is based on events in Agatha’s life:

The story of Celia is remarkably similar to the story of Agatha as readers were eventually to be offered it in ‘An Autobiography’ more than forty years later. Several incidents are common to ‘An Autobiography’  and ‘Unfinished Portrait’, and the novel is quite clearly a fictionalised, more detailed, and emotionally more forthcoming version of the first third of the biography. The portraits of Celia’s mother and her grandmother are really of young Agatha Miller’s mother and the grandmother with who she stayed in Ealing. The men in Celia’s life are the men in Agatha’s life, and Dermot, whom Celia marries, is Archie Christie. (page 105)

but he also quotes from Max Mallowan’s writings about the book, pointing out it is a blend of fact and fiction:

The book is not one of her best because, exceptionally, it is a blend of real people and events with imagination. Only the initiated can know how much actual history is contained therein, but in Celia we have more nearly than anywhere else a portrait of Agatha. (page 106 of ‘The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie’)

It is evident that Agatha Christie wrote about things she knew – the use of poisons from her work in a pharmacy during the First World War and her journey on the Orient Express are just two examples. Laura Thompson later in the book acknowledges that it is impossible to know what Agatha really thought – this is in the chapter called ‘The Second Husband‘, (page 298) writing about Agatha’s reaction to the Woolleys’ interference with her honeymoon with Max Mallowan. And she acknowledges that it would not have occurred to Agatha Christie that conclusions about her character would be drawn from her remarks in the novels about Jews, ‘blacks’ and servants, so I think it is difficult to decide what inferences can be drawn about Agatha from her fiction!

The last sections of Thompson’s book deal in detail with Agatha Christie’s tax problems and there is a rather ‘gossipy’ section about whether or not Max was having affairs. Overall, I think that the book as a biography is unbalanced, concentrating on the events surrounding Agatha’s disappearance and there is much speculation and supposition. I prefer Agatha’s own version of her life: An Autobiography, in which she merely referred to the events of 1926 thus:

The next year of my life is one I hate recalling. As so often in life, when one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong. (page 356)

Finally, if biography is ‘story-telling’, about making connections to fill in the missing gaps with stories, then I’m not sure I want to read it and there have been several times when reading this book that I’ve thought about abandoning it. I’m uncomfortable with the feelings it can provoke – disliking gossip, distrusting witnesses who may have a private agenda, and squeamishness about reading private correspondence. I felt all of this whilst reading this book.

I went back to a book I read a few years ago – Hermione Lee’s book Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing.This is about writing biography and the relationship of biography to fiction and history. Lee writes that biographies must give a ‘quasi-fictional, story-like shape to their material (or no none will read them)’, but against this there is the ‘responsibility for likeness and the need for accuracy’.Gaps and silences give rise to interpretations ‘through a process of conjecture, invention, intuition and manipulation of the evidence.’  Biography may seem as if it is factual because it is constructed from sources such as letters, diaries and other people’s accounts, etc but it is inevitably an interpretation and quasi-fictional. I have to remember that – it’s a reading between the lines! And as Lee says:

Whether we think of biography as more like history or more like fiction, what we want is a vivid sense of the person.

What makes biography so curious and endlessly absorbing is that through all the documents and letters, the context and the witnesses, the conflicting opinions and the evidence of work, we keep catching sight of a real body, a physical life: the young Dickens coming quickly out of a room, sprightly, long-haired, bright-eyed, dandyish, in crimson velvet waistcoat or tartan trousers …

As I read Laura Thompson’s book I did catch glimpses of Agatha Christie, but they were rather swamped by inferences drawn from her books, by the fictionalised version of her disappearance and by the descriptions of her tax problems towards the end of her life. I felt closer to the real Agatha Christie whilst reading her Autobiography. As well as being a record of her life as she remembered it and wanted to relate it, it’s also full of her thoughts on life and writing and in particular about her love of life and the joy of being alive.

But I will carry on reading biographies!

Greenshaw’s Folly: a Miss Marple Mystery

Agatha Christie’s Marple last night was Greenshaw’s Folly. I saw in the Radio Times that it was based on Christie’s short story of the same name and so I read it before watching the programme. It’s less than 20 pages and I wondered how the script writers were going to make it last 2 hours, even with the advert breaks. Well, of course, they padded out with other plot elements and characters. And there are more murders, and some farcical scenes with policemen running wild – all a bit of a mess really, but lightly done.

Greenshaw’s Folly is a house, visited by Raymond West (Miss Marple’s nephew), who does not appear in the TV version and Horace Bindler, a literary critic (an undercover reporter in the TV version). It’s an unbelievable architectural monstrosity, built by a Mr Greenshaw. Raymond explained:

‘He had visited the chateaux of the Loire, don’t you think? Those turrets. And then, rather unfortunately, he seems to have travelled in the Orient. The influence of the Taj Mahal is unmistakeable. I rather like the Moorish wing,’ he added, ‘and the traces of a Venetian palace.’ (extract from the short story)

The short story is compact, whereas the TV version is packed with poisonings, ghosts, locked rooms, concealed identities, and so on. But apart from that, I’m not going to try to compare the TV show to the short story as there are so many differences that they are really two separate entities. And both are enjoyable in their own way. Julia Mackenzie is nearly right as Miss Marple, not as good as Joan Hickson, but then who could be. I just wish the sweet smile was toned down a little. The rest of the cast included Fiona Shaw, Julia Sawalha, Joanna David, Judy Parfitt, Robert Glenister and Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves). All were very good, especially Bobby Smalldridge as Archie Oxley (Mrs Oxley’s young son who does not appear in the short story).

Greenshaw’s Folly was first published in the Daily Mail 3 – 7 December 1956 and is included in Miss Marple and Mystery The Complete Short Stories.

I see that one of the plot elements involving the use of atropine and its antidote has been taken from one of the other stories in this collection, The Thumb Mark of St Peter, first published in 1928. I think the script writers must have had great fun with these stories.