One of the things I find fascinating about reading is that readers themselves don’t change. They will grow and evolve and become a myriad different versions of themselves across a lifetime, but their style of reading won’t. If you’re the fast kind – the type who skims and flicks and chews up books over a 20-minute train journey, you probably always were and always will be. If you’re a plodding 10-page a week kinda person, the kind who likes to savour each word, take it all in, chances are that’s your style, and it’s as unlikely to change as your fingerprints. And what’s most interesting about this is that often, a “reading” personality can differ from the way a person generally acts or behaves, sometimes in total contrast.
Case in point: I am an impatient and restless sort of person and have been since childhood, but I read at a snail’s pace. I cannot stand to leave a book unfinished, which goes against the principles I apply to the rest of my life – namely, if I don’t like it, it isn’t worth it, and I’ll discard it.
But mixed in with this comes the simple, obvious fact that some books, and some types of authors, are better suited to certain readers than others. Detective stories have appealed to me since I was a kid because they appealed precisely to those impatient, restless traits: namely, they’re often fast, pacy, devoid of tiresome metaphor and they reward you for paying close attention. Romances have only ever interested me if they’re really decent: I can read a pulpy, airport-bought thriller quite happily, but I’m not interested in boy-meets-girl unless it’s a) proper kinky, b) Wuthering Heights or c) Mills & Boon when I’m on holiday, and we’re all pissed and reading it out loud to each other. My Kindle’s full of blood-red covers with dripping knives – but to enjoy the sleigh-ride of crime fiction as a genre, it’s good to have some classics to return to.
Loving Agatha Christie seemed, at the time, to start when I was 18: riddled with exams and stress and working my arse off to get into the one university I’d been accepted to. These slim little books were my reward after endless French subjunctives and dates reeled off to my bedroom wall. I felt mad most of the time, muttering gibberish under my breath, completely terrified I’d cock it up. I borrowed them from my college library, nicked them off my then-boyfriend’s mum. It didn’t occur to me until I picked up And Then There Were None one evening that, actually, I’d been here before, I knew these characters and I remembered this fear. I was 10 when I first read it, and despite the eight-year hiatus it was just as, if not more terrifying. And it was only after I got to the end of another one – the big showdown, Poirot gathering his suspects together to twirl his moustache and pronounce the murderer – and the final four pages were missing, that my dad came home the next day with a microwave-sized cardboard box under his arm, and the whole collection was mine. “Twenty-two quid for the lot,” he said, approvingly. It was, and still is, one of the best presents I’ve ever received.
Born in Torquay into a upper-middle class family in the 1890s, Agatha Christie was the third child of three, and not unlike Beatrix Potter spent a good deal of time on her own as a child. Also not unlike the great BP, she set a lot of store on animals, though whereas the former turned this love into Peter Rabbit Christie diverted and went after poison. She was home-schooled and spent family holidays abroad – locations which, coupled with trips taken with her archaeologist husband later, formed the basis of a large number of stories set in Egypt, such as Death Comes As The End. As per the custom for girls of her social standing, she attended finishing schools and wrote her first stories under the pseudonym of “Monosyllaba” – ironic for someone who’s sold as many copies of her work as the Bible and Shakespeare.
She worked in a hospital for wounded soldiers during the first world war and is reported to have performed 3,400 hours of unpaid work between October 1914 and December 1916. Afterwards, she got a job as an apothecaries’ assistant and married Archie Christie on Christmas Eve 1914 in Bristol. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first published novel, was written in the midst of the war and published in 1920. It introduced Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective who was to monopolise her work and was based upon Belgian refugees she encountered in Torquay. His trusty sidekick, Captain Hastings, who narrates a large portion of the Poirot books, has a significant name: an Englishman to his core, his interpolations and the differences between the pair provide a massive chunk of the essential humour inherent to Christie’s work.
In 1926 Archie left the couple’s house in Styles, Berkshire to be with his mistress in Surrey, an event which sparked Agatha’s 11-day disappearance. She was eventually found staying at a hotel in Harrogate under a false name. The couple divorced in 1928 – she then met Sir Max Mallowan during an archaeological dig, and married him in 1930. She worked at a pharmacy at UCL during the second world war, and again was armed with a knowledge of the posions she’d often come to use in her works.
The International Agatha Christie Festival finished in Torquay yesterday, a nine-day programme of events commemorating the author’s 125th birthday. Greenway, Christie’s northeastern Devon holiday home, was described by her as “the loveliest place in the world” – it’s beautifully remote, nestled on the banks of the River Dart, and with a history dating back to the 1490s. I went in 2009, the summer before starting university, and very nerdily overexcited that Greenway is the setting for three of Christie’s novels – Five Little Pigs, Dead Man’s Folly and Ordeal by Innocence. We took the boat which leaves from Torquay; it was chucking it down and the mist rolled over the pirate flag attached to the mast. This all seemed fitting. What struck me most was the isolation of the house – in a positive way – and the fact that it seemed exactly the sort of place television crews would decide to film her country-house mysteries. It’s a bright, yellowy white and looks welcoming from the outside, but the eclectic mix of writerly and archaeological interests makes it a mishmash of interests and influences inside.
A great deal of Christie’s novels take place abroad, but many use the English countryside as their setting. Names like Chipping Cleghorn, St Mary Mead, Much Benham, Much Deeping, Deering Vale and Woodleigh Common have a reassuringly old-school feel, conjuring images of babbling brooks, rambling green lanes and, you know, sparrows. Devon is the perfect model for these fictional places: rugged and untamed, governed – particularly in the south – by the sea.
Christie’s mysteries are excellent no matter where they’re set, but for me those quaint, sleepy villages – the likes of which are now so rare – always make the murderous investigations darkly comic, and the characters so much more nonplussed at the crafty doings-away of small-town residents. Only two of her books have been full-out scary, namely And Then There Were None and Endless Night. In the latter the menace builds slowly, as whatever’s watching a young couple in their new (and of course completely remote) dream home becomes more daring and ever more sinister.
And Then There Were None is set on Devon’s Burgh Island, which can be walked to or sea-tractored depending on the tide. Soldier Island, as Christie has it, is further from the mainland than Burgh (the doomed guests could probably have swum the distance in real life) but retains the craggy, windswept grounds of the original, where the house itself appears incongruous amid the harsh natural defence of the place. Evil Under The Sun is also set here, one very few of her works where the film (starring a pre-Suchet Peter Ustinov as Poirot, as well as a wonderful Maggie Smith and terrifyingly devious Jane Birkin) is as good as the book. It’s a real must-visit for diehard Christie fans, and hasn’t become commercialised or tacky for the association – the island speaks for itself.
My top 10 Agatha Christies:
- And Then There Were None: eight people are invited to a remote island by the mysterious U.N.Owen. Their fates are seemingly determined by “Ten Little Soldier Boys”, the eerie little poem they discover hanging on the wall.
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: Poirot just wants a quiet life growing vegetable marrows. This is curtailed when his friend and neighbour Roger is murdered in his own (locked) study. Often voted the best crime novel ever written.
- Crooked House: Charles Hayward is desperate to marry Sophia Leonides, but when her grandfather is found murdered with his own eye medicine, she vows they cannot marry until the killer is caught. Charles becomes gumshoe; brilliant twist.
- Peril at End House: Magdala “Nick” Buckley has escaped near-fatal accidents several times at her sprawling Cornish house. When Poirot insists Nick’s cousin come to stay, a fireworks party soon descends into (drumroll) murder.
- Halloween Party: A girl claims to have seen a murder she only later realised was a murder. She is then murdered. Poirot investigates. [I read this at a festival – it might not be as good as I originally thought.]
- Death in the Clouds: Hilariously, Poirot finds himself on a flight from Paris to Croydon. A wealthy Frenchwoman dies on board. It looks like an allergic reaction to a wasp sting, but Poirot has other ideas…
- Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? While playing golf in Marchbolt, Wales, Bobby spots a man lying at the bottom of a cliff. The man’s dying words are the novel’s title. How did he get there? (This is the first AC I read, so although it’s a bit strange it has to be on the list. It also, in true Christie style, features a character called Roger Bassington-ffrench.)
- Evil Under the Sun: Once again Poirot’s efforts for a bit of R&R are thwarted, when the beautiful but serially unpopular actress Arlena Marshall is discovered dead on the beach at his Devon resort. All the other holidaymakers have reason to kill her, but who finally succumbed to the urge?
- The Hollow: Gerda Christow is standing with a gun over her husband’s body at a weekend country party. The perpetrator seems obvious – Poirot uses the little grey cells to dig deeper.
- The Body in the Library: This opens at Gossington Hall, where a woman in a Blance DuBois-ish getup is found dead in the library – but nobody knows who she is. One of the few really brilliant Miss Marple mysteries.
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