One of us?

In the old Golden Age of detective fiction, there is always some Countess clutching her pearls, casting disapproving looks at the corpse leaking blood onto her Aubusson carpet, and declaring that surely the perpetrator is some stranger, some tramp or wandering vagabond. ‘It can’t possibly be one of us.’

For me, the thrill of these books is the certain knowledge that, yes, it is most definitely one of ‘us’. One of these characters, so genteel, so polite, offering around the drinks decanter, or standing when a lady comes into the room, or smiling pleasantly and asking after the vicar’s marrows, it’s one of them. Most of them have known each other for years and see each other almost every day out walking the dog or playing tennis, or at drinks parties or dinner parties, at bridge evenings and coffee mornings.

We always want to assume that those around us are just like us, and thereby comes the assumption that no one ‘like us’ could possibly do something so sordid as kill another person. This implies loss of control, unacceptable levels of emotion, and of course, a denial of the never-say-die attitude that instils us with hope for a better tomorrow. Or if not better, at least no worse.

So when Major Blaine is found underneath the billiard table with his head bashed in or a hat pin piercing his eye to skewer his brain (sorry about that graphic image, the situation got really bad, really fast, didn’t it?) no one I know could possibly have been the one to commit such an act. Therefore – it could only have been done by someone ‘not from here’.

But when we look at those around us, how well do we really know them? The Countess, so used to having her own way in everything, and with a reputation to maintain. Or the major’s wife. She’s known for her knitting circles and good works, but is she ever at home? How often did the major actually get his wife’s attention? What about the vicar’s wife, busily visiting the elderly and infirm, taking care of the vulnerable, dispensing wisdom, and charity. Does she really deep down love her neighbours? The Vicar, does he really need to spend so much time shut away in his office? What’s he really doing in there? What about Miss Simpson, the village busybody, who knows everyone and everyone’s history. They say she has a heart of gold, but is she really over that old romance? After all, she’s never married, does she still carry a torch for that certain someone? What about the village doctor—I bet he knows a secret or two. Then there is the visiting artist along with his famous ‘temperament’. The aunt from another village, always poking her nose in and gossiping with the neighbours. The daughter just returned from university full of frustration with our old stagnant way of life and plans for the future, and of course, the elderly father who once threatened the organist with his walking stick for driving too fast through the village.

Surely no one I know would commit such a vicious crime?

But now I think of it, how well do I really know them? As I watch them gathered around the corpse, the various emotions—triumph, relief, satisfaction, fear, horror, dismay, anger, sorrow—fleetingly appearing on each face in turn, I feel as though I am in a room filled with strangers.

Any one of them could be the killer… that’s the beauty of it.

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So what has Agatha Christie done for us?

Following my two recent posts about Agatha Christie and her famous–or infamous–disappearance, I thought it would be good, and only fitting, to bring the focus back onto her profession output: between 1920 and 1973-ish she wrote 66 detective novels under her married name, Agatha Christie, 6 non-detective novels as Mary Westmacott, and 14 short story collections. In addition a number of her works were adapted for the stage, or were plays that were novelised. How many of us can hope to produce so much work over a period of over 50 years? Even now, in the 21st century, her work is still being adapted for television or filmed for the ‘big screen’. Her work is available in a huge range of languages, and in Braille, large print, and as audiobooks. I’m sure there are few authors who could claim such a massive audience over such a sustained period of time. And forty years after her death, her novels are being reprinted and are easily getting into the upper reaches of bestseller lists. Wow! Let me just take a moment to think about that.

But far from setting out to be a great author, she only started writing at all due to a bet with her sister, and a certain amount of boredom. Yet she has arguably created some of the best and worst detectives in the genre, and some of the most devious and controversial plots to ever trick and mislead the reading public. If we sometimes today find her plots predictable or jaded, that is because we can easily forget that she and a few other trailblazers have, through their work, made us as readers more sophisticated and at the same time, have aroused expectations to fit the genre. We should try to place the books in their original era if we can, as then they were even more fresh, unusual and very, very clever.

So if you’ve been living on the moon, and haven’t read anything by Christie before, or if you’ve only lately come to detective fiction via some other nefarious genre, what are the five books you should read by Agatha Christie?

Well obviously you’ve got to read the first Poirot book, not that sequence is an issue with Christie as it is with many authors. But it’s always interesting to a) read an author’s first book, and b) read the first book to feature a well-known detective. So you absolutely must begin with The Mysterious Affair At Styles, published in 1920 and featuring Hercule Poirot: I would say the world’s foremost fictional detective. This is a phenomenal debut, and an intriguing mystery. Later Christie decided she didn’t like Poirot, and she tried to kill him off, but her publisher kept the book on ice for decades before allowing its release. Poirot is rather a comical detective, with personality flaws in the form of vanity and self-importance. His strengths lie in his deep thought processes and his use of logic to work out the details of a crime, that and a reliance on bigotry that overlooks the usefulness of a foreigner on the part of many he comes into contact with. Styles was the real name of Christie’s own childhood home.

You also HAVE to read two other classic Poirot’s: Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express. These have become genre classics almost

independent of their creator, and the TV series and various film versions have definitely assisted with that. These books have masterful plots featuring an ensemble cast, and represent neat variations on the country house theme by being a ship and a train. The exotic locations just add to the pleasure.

Miss Marple is one of Christie’s other detectives, and is almost as well known and loved as Poirot. She is a single old lady who knits and gossips. She solves mysteries by the simple expedient of listening, asking questions and knowing a great deal about human behaviour. This is largely the result of her long life experience, and that she lives in a small community where everyone knows everyone. Like Poirot, she is often overlooked as a threat to the plans of baddies and evildoers. The best Marple book to start with, in my opinion, is again the book that introduces us to the character, a volume of short stories first published in 1933, The Thirteen Problems (or in the US this is called The Tuesday Club Murders). Another famous Marple book is Nemesis and it is also excellent.

Okay, I said five books, and there they are. But I can’t resist adding a bonus one: Death Comes As The End. It was published in 1945, and is a traditional-style murder mystery, but it is set in ancient Egypt, and the background was gleaned by Christie from her archaeological exploits with husband number two, Sir Max Mallowan. It’s a great story, full of fascinating detail, and inspired me to learn more about history of all eras.

I hope that, having read all the above books, you might feel an impulse to go back and read all her works. They are well worth the effort, and I am sure you will agree, not only are they entertaining and enjoyable, you will also feel that you have come to know the woman behind the works too.

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Hatless and coatless at 6am: Agatha’s famous disappearance.

1926 was the worst of years for Agatha Christie in spite of her successful career as one of the world’s most famous detective fiction authors. Her sixth novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published that year. Yes it was, and still is, massively successful, but it had its critics and detractors, becoming almost a notorious book, and a difficult one to follow up.

Agatha’s husband Colonel Archibald Christie took himself off, overseas then to London, leaving Agatha to cope with first the illness, then the death of her mother, alone. She had the task of clearing her childhood home, again, without her husband of 12 years’ support. Meanwhile, he had announced he was having an affair with Nancy Neele, the former secretary of a friend, and that he wanted to end his marriage to Agatha and marry Nancy.

After a brief reconciliation in 1926 which Agatha described as ‘a period of sorrow, misery and heartbreak’, on the 3rd of December he packed his bags and left for good, stating that he wanted a divorce. That was the day Agatha disappeared. He went to a friend’s for a weekend house-party, planning to meet Nancy Neele there. She left the house late that evening, and was not seen again for eleven days.

Her car was found abandoned off the road at Newland’s Corner in Surrey. It’s a fairly remote spot, even today, and a beautiful, popular place for walking. Her fur coat and a suitcase containing clothes and an expired driving license were found in the car, prompting fears of kidnapping or worse. It was all over the news, with sensational headlines such as ‘Where is Mrs Christie? Foul Play?’ and my personal favourite, from the Surrey Times: ‘Riddle of Newlands

Corner: Strange Disappearance of Authoress: Hatless and Coatless at 6am’. It’s easy to see how exciting this all was for everyone not actually involved. A mystery author caught up in her very own mystery. She had left home the night before, so the ‘At 6am’ bit was a melodramatic invention. But they came by that because a man claimed to have been stopped by a woman who asked him to start her car for her, and the description answered hers. It’s all a bit tricky to piece together now, as this was supposed to have been at Newland’s Corner, so did she drive off then come back to the same spot? Or did he just want his fifteen minutes of fame? Anyway, she was gone, and it wasn’t until the 14th December that she was found, 230 miles away.

Agatha Christie was found at the Hydropathic Hotel (now called the Old Swan, a lovely-looking place) in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, where she had been staying, registered under the name of Mrs Teresa Neele, purporting to be a widow from South Africa. It was said that she had seen the newspaper reports and had even joined in with the speculation about the fate of the missing author. Staff and guests at the hotel had seen her dancing the Charleston, doing crosswords, reading the newspaper and playing Bridge, apparently unaware of the furore her disappearance had caused.

And it was a furore, too. There were an estimated 500-1000 police officers involved in the search for her, and approximately 15,000 people volunteered to help in the search of the area in Surrey. Bloodhounds, Beagles and German Shepherds sniffed the area, and even her own fox terrier was brought in to try to track her down. Local ponds were dredged or searched by divers, airplanes flew over the area.

In the literary world, her colleagues were keen to help: Arthur Conan Doyle took a glove of Agatha’s to a medium as he feared she was dead, but received no help from the ‘other side’. Dorothy L Sayers searched for clues and generally did her bit as a sleuth to try to get to the bottom of the problem. Rewards were offered and Archie Christie wanted Scotland Yard to be called in.

A couple of people said they made this discovery and rang the police to claim the £100 reward, a member of the hotel staff, a musician in a band playing in the hotel. Whoever did it, the police, and Archie Christie arrived in a media flurry to claim both. Christie and the truth about what happened. Officially, she hit her head and lost her memory. Archie got her to a psychiatrist or two to bear out the story, and then took her home to recover.

The theories abounded. Some said it was a fake, a mere publicity stunt to boost book sales (not that she needed to). Others said the memory loss was genuine, amnesia is not always total. Psychiatrists seemed to be divided in their opinions. Officially, the line was never wavered from: she hit her head when she crashed her car, and she lost consciousness. When she awoke, she thought she was someone else. Still other opinions suggested she had sought revenge on Archie, and wanted to either panic him, or make him realise how much he still loved her, or even, in extremis, to have him arrested for her murder.

But she came home, the marriage was dissolved, somehow life got back to some kind of normality. And the books continued to be written, Including Unfinished Portrait, a book under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott, where a woman attempts suicide, prompting parallels to be drawn with Christie’s own life. 

My personal view is, this was a woman at a crisis point in her life. Her mother had died, her husband was leaving her, and a successful career was a daunting and unforeseen prospect for a shy country woman. She was known to have suffered periodically from depression and had by her own admission had thoughts of suicide, though her Christian upbringing precluded that as an option. I think she just had to get away, fix herself, rest, and the amnesia story was the only half-credible way out of the fix. These days celebs and career people dash off to little refuges and retreats to get away from the media. In those days, I’m not sure they did. I just think she felt out of options.

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Kindle launch of Night and Day: a Dottie Manderson mystery

new-final-choice

Today’s the day! Technically, it’s the first of two days, but today’s the day Night and Day: a Dottie Manderson mystery is released on Amazon for Kindle ebooks. For various reasons, I don’t mind telling you guys in confidence, it was touch and go whether the book would be put out, but I got there in the end and – ta-da!

Many thanks to my friends and family who helped plod through tricky first drafts and almost disappeared down plot-holes. And they are still smiling. I think that’s a smile. And especially a huge hug and thank you to my daughter who nagged I mean encouraged me to the finishing line. I owe you a packet of marshmallows, missus.

So what’s the book about?

In London, November 1933, a young woman Dottie Manderson, stumbles upon the body of a dying man in a deserted night-time street. As she waits for help to arrive, she holds the man’s hand and tries to get him to tell her what happened. But with his last breaths he sings to her some lines from a popular stage show. But why, Dottie wonders? Why would he sing to her instead of sending a final message to his loved ones? Why didn’t he name his attacker?

Dottie needs to know the answers to these questions and so, even though a particular very annoying young policeman is investigating the case officially, she feels compelled to carry out her own investigation into the mysterious death.

If you’d like to read an extract, click here: Night and Day: a Dottie Manderson mystery.

Night and Day is out today on Amazon for Kindle ebooks, and also on Amazon or Barnes and Noble in paperback. On November 4th, the following ebook formats will be released: iPad, Nook, Kobo, Android and pdf. These will be available through Smashwords, and Nook will also be available from Barnes and Noble, Kobo from Kobo, and for iPad from iTunes/Apple store.

Happy reading!