Agatha Christie: An English Mystery by Laura Thompson

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Agatha Christie: An English Mystery by Laura Thompson

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Category: Biography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of one of the 20th century's most successful and prolific authors, the creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 544 Date: July 2008
Publisher: Headline Review
ISBN: 978-0755314881

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Agatha Christie, the creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, was one of the select few ultra-successful, very prolific authors who became an institution within her lifetime. She was much read, widely adapted for television, cinema and stage, and often criticised for her sometimes formulaic plots as well as eagerly sought-after by those who had loved her earlier books and were always eager for the next 'Christie for Christmas', something her publishers did not hesitate to exploit.

Yet she was a shy woman who disliked publicity, was always selective about accepting interviews with the media, and remained very much an unknown quantity. Laura Thompson's biography goes a long way towards unravelling what one might call the mystery of the 20th century's most popular mystery writer.

On the face of it, one might ask whether an author who wrote book after book had time to do much else which is worthy of recognition in a biography of almost 500 pages. The same might be said of one of her admirers and contemporaries, the equally prolific P.G. Wodehouse. There is a parallel between the two in that each was briefly involved in a contentious issue which remains the subject of much dispute years after the deaths of both. For Wodehouse, it was the World War II broadcasting. For Christie, it was the matter of her brief headline-grabbing disappearance to Harrogate in 1926. Did she genuinely have a nervous breakdown, unable to cope with the twin traumas of her mother's death and her husband's infidelity, or was it just a publicity stunt which got out of hand? In view of her essentially private nature, the latter seems questionable.

Thompson's account of Agatha Christie's vanishing act takes up a generous chapter of the book. In some ways it is the most interesting part, but in others the most irritating. While she is very good on examining the events, and the reactions of those involved, particularly of her first husband Archie whom she was on the point of divorcing, her style occasionally lapses at this stage into a novelized frothiness of short single- or double-sentence paragraphs. To take an example - How lovely it all was. How safe she felt. It's almost as if a different author has suddenly taken over.

My other criticism of the book is that in places there is too much quotation from some of her novels, particularly the partly autobiographical Unfinished Portrait. Up to a point it is justified, as it shows how much of the author's personality and life surfaced in her stories and characters. But Thompson relies too heavily on this approach, and I found it interrupted the flow in places.

Nevertheless, she has made excellent use of Christie's diaries and letters, examines her published work, personality and marriages very well, and gives a lively yet solid account of her success and what became known as the Christie phenomenon. She is also strong on the author's struggles with success and the Inland Revenue, not to mention the tax difficulties accruing from earnings on the other side of the Atlantic, and how the woman who initially wrote 'for fun' (even after her first book had been published after several rejections) soon realized that she was no longer 'an amateur' – she had to write. This book certainly passed the litmus test of any biography, in that I came to the last page feeling that I knew considerably more about what the person was like than when I started. I would certainly recommend it, but with a little skimming in places, and as for the extracts from her books, I feel it would have been improved with some editing.

Our thanks to Headline for sending a copy to Bookbag.

For another biography of a 20th century author, why not try C S Lewis: The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia by Michael White.

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