Have you ever wanted to spend time with your literary heroes? Perhaps a weekend walking the byways of Maine with Stephen King, or driving across Devon with Ann Cleves. Agatha Christie died before I could dream of sharing tea with her in London, or staying as a guest at Greenway, her Devon home.
Dame Agatha died nearly 50 years ago, and her life has been documented in biographies, her works read, re-read and analyzed. This year, though, there are two works of fiction that give another sort of insight into Agatha’s world. What a treat for fans!
The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
Marie Benedict’s The Mystery of Mrs. Christie turns a spotlight on Christie’s famous disappearance, ten days that have remained the truest mystery of the writer’s life. Christie never discussed them, and they are not referenced in her extensive notebooks. Benedict fills the void with a speculative story that makes unreliable narrators of both members of the Christie marriage. The first of two plot lines revolves around husband Archie, his desire to leave Agatha and marry his mistress, and the threat of a police investigation when Agatha goes missing. As Agatha fans, we know she turns up alive, so the mystery is how it ends for him.
Interwoven with the search for Agatha is a second plot – The Manuscript. That story is attributed to Agatha, as a history of her meeting, marriage and life with Archie Christie. In the parallel plots, Benedict re-creates young Agatha’s world, building a portrait of a woman pushed and pulled by family ties and latent ambition. She breathes life into the relationship between Agatha and her mother, older sister, and first husband. No spoilers here, but Benedict does credit to Christie with her fictional account of the disappearance, what happened, and why. I’d like to think Agatha would be pleased. (And Archie should have been worried, the cad. Am I allowed to say that?)
Death at Greenway
For a perfect pairing, I read Lori Rader-Day’s new book, Death at Greenway. If Agatha has a starring role in The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, Rader-Day uses Christie’s house – Greenway in Devon – and the atmosphere of her presence to build a new mystery. Agatha is a shadowy figure in the book, ‘at home’ only a few short days, but her PRESENCE is everywhere. Her library is populated by tales of murder, she’s an expert in poisons, she famous for puzzling out crimes. We can imagine living in the region, and the gossip and speculation surrounding such a famous owner. Add the threat of bombing during World War II, the stress of evacuation, and you have a recipe for intrigue.
Rader-Day’s story is fiction woven seamlessly into the real-life fabric of Christie and Greenway. The house is Agatha’s, down to the beautiful curved paneled dining room and oversize bathtub customized with a tray to hold her apples. The story is populated by people Christie knew and lived among: servants and villagers alike. The backbone of the story is accurate: Greenway was used as a home for evacuated children while Christie returned to London, engaged in war time hospital duty. Death at Greenway is a splendid mystery whether you are an Agatha fan or not. But the deft inclusion of Christie leaves gratifying touchstones for fans of her work.
A enduring legacy
Agatha Christie is the most translated author in the world, and has sold more books than any other author of fiction (this deftly excludes the playwright, Shakespeare). Prior to the Covid shutdown, she had the longest running play on Broadway. This is all by way of saying that there is a thirst for her work, and for stories that brings us into her world. Benedict and Rader-Day have given us that. Now I need to plan a trip to Greenway and experience the steep slopes and breathtaking views for myself. And possibly have a picture taken next to the cannon.