Agatha Christie by Lucy Worsley; Marple: Twelve New Stories – review | Agatha Christie

AGatha Christie was arguably the first modern literary celebrity, and it follows that her long life as a writer, from her first novel published in 1920 to her death in 1976 at the age of 85, has been carefully traced, not only by journalists during her lifetime but by the author herself in her autobiography. Any biographer wishing to bring a new perspective to Christie’s story therefore works within obvious limitations, not least that many of the most intimate and revealing letters written or received by her have been destroyed by her family or associates. Barring the miraculous discovery of a previously unknown cache of documents, the best a new biography can hope to do is offer a fresh take on very well-leafed material.

by Lucy Worsley Agatha Christie: a very elusive woman is the first significant biography of Christie since that of Laura Thompson Agatha Christie: An English Mystery in 2007. Unlike Thompson, whose book was something of a hagiography, Worsley carefully navigates between sympathy for its subject matter and quick, no-nonsense acknowledgment of its flaws. In order to maintain this balance, she must combine a feminist appreciation of the author’s achievements (and the way journalists and male biographers have twisted it) with a harsh contemporary condemnation of Christie’s most unsavory views. “We have to face the fact that somewhere in the mass of contradictions that made up Agatha Christie was a very dark heart,” she wrote. “It’s not just that she could imagine stories in which even children can kill. It’s also that his work contains views of race and class that are unacceptable today. It is true that some of Christie’s books contain racist and anti-Semitic caricatures that are offensive to modern readers, although whether this is evidence of inner darkness rather than simply the inevitable product of her past is debatable.

Of course, the great mystery at the heart of any Christie biography is her 11-day disappearance in December 1926; this too was subject to very different interpretations even as it happened. Shortly after the death of her beloved mother, Christie’s husband Archie informed her that he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. She was also under enormous pressure to produce the sequel to her latest hit, The murder of Roger Ackroyd. Leaving her young daughter, Rosalind, at home with the servants, she drove to the Surrey Hills, where her abandoned car was later found crushed in a hedge at the edge of a quarry, her clothes and her driving license always drive indoors. As police prepared to drag ponds in search of her body, Christie had checked into a spa hotel in Harrogate, where she checked in as Mrs Teresa Neele, bought herself a new bodyguard dress and went dancing with the other guests. As news of the famous author’s disappearance reached Harrogate, ‘Ms Neele’ was heard to observe that Ms Christie was ‘a very elusive person. I can’t be bothered by her.

Opinions on this episode, both in the moment and in retrospect, fall into two camps: either Christie suffered genuine memory loss, or she was faking it. A (male) journalist even suggested that she deliberately sought to frame her husband for murder. Worsley is a firm believer that Christie suffered from an episode of mental illness (what would now be called a dissociative fugue state), and here her sympathy for her subject is at its fiercest: “The great injustice of the life of Agatha Christie was not that her husband betrayed her as she mourned her mother. It wasn’t even the mental distress. It was the fact that she was shamed about her illness in national newspapers in such a public way that people ever since suspected her of duplicity and lies.

While it may offer few startling revelations, Worsley’s book excels in bringing a broader historical perspective to Christie’s life and work, and her enthusiasm is contagious. She argues that, despite the author’s seemingly conservative views, Christie”could being portrayed as a “secret” feminist, and its irrefutable proof is the enduringly popular character of Jane Marple; Marple’s later novels “all express Agatha’s view of a Britain gone wrong, but in which a single old lady can still be a force for good”.

Since crime novel writer Sophie Hannah revived the character of Hercule Poirot in 2014 with the blessing of the Christie estate, it was only a matter of time before Marple was similarly resurrected, with many of speculation as to who would inherit such an enviable task. The answer turns out to be a package deal: in Marple: twelve new stories, 12 female authors have contributed a new story featuring the formidable detective from St Mary Mead. The publishers opted for a range of voices, including obvious choices – established crime novel writers such as Val McDermid, Elly Griffiths and Lucy Foley – but also looking outside the genre with an eye on the American market; American authors Leigh Bardugo, Jean Kwok and Alyssa Cole all reimagine Miss Marple from a new angle, while remaining true to the character’s role as a keen observer of human nature and social change.

Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple in 2013. Photography: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Notable contributions come from Naomi Alderman, whose story The Open Mind introduces drugs and sexual assault into the stifling Gothic atmosphere of an Oxford college, and Natalie Haynes, whose The Unraveling weaves plotlines borrowed from the myth of ‘Ulysses and Oedipus Rex in a seemingly conventional story of village life. Christie has taken Marple to exotic locations in the later books, so perhaps Alyssa Cole’s gloriously comedic Miss Marple Takes Manhattan isn’t so far-fetched. Purists may quibble about certain subjects or locations, but taken as a whole, this very enjoyable collection illustrates Worsley’s conclusion: “Although the stories of Miss Marple are often portrayed as comfortable crime, it is a bold, somber vision and disturbing of the world. “It’s also a testament to the enduring power of Christie’s imagination.

Agatha Christie: a very elusive woman by Lucy Worsley is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Marple: twelve new stories is published by HarperCollins (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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