The New Agatha Christie Biography

This engaging biography explores why and how Agatha Christie in effect lived a life of disguise: Despite her international fame and mammoth audience, she sought to be inconspicuous.  Not an easy task given that fans could come from as far away as Finland to try to meet her–and bang on her door!

When Christie was growing up, the ideal British woman and wife was like the one depicted in a revoltingly sentimental poem by Coventry Patmore, “The Angel in the House.”  This ideal figure was meant to be “devoted and submissive to her husband….passive and powerless, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all–pure.”

Christie was anything but passive, however, in both her marriages or when dealing with agents, publishers, and directors.  As a young woman she was funny and flirtatious despite being shy, a great dancer, loved to surf and seemed nothing like the grande dame we see in later publicity photos.  Through most of her adult life she was a “compulsive writer” despite self-deprecating remarks about her work as an author and she could turn out a fine mystery in six weeks when inspired.

If she were alive today, she might be a fan of makeover shows on HGTV because one of her great loves was buying a house, then remodeling and redecorating it.  At one point she actually owned eight homes.

The book devotes a great deal of time to Christie’s famous “disappearance” in 1926 when she seemed to be missing (and possibly dead) for almost two weeks.  Worsley does a fine job untangling what really happened amid of welter of possibilities, and is especially clear on how Christie’s image seemed to suffer at first when journalists and others suggested it was a publicity stunt.  That story gripped England and America, and readers might be surprised at how sexist some of the contemporary analysis of her reasons for going off the grid were.

Curiously, the author doesn’t tell us anything about Christie’s sales figures until almost midway through the book.  That’s especially puzzling for her early books.   Surely sales figures are a significant part of her story as a famously best-selling author who’s sold more books than anyone else in the world?  And how can we judge the success of her early books–or even later ones like Death on the Nile–without comparisons to books by her contemporaries?  Worsley also classes a number of Christie’s techniques as “tricks,” which seems a strange label.  There’s nothing unusual about novelists using real settings and real news stories in their books–it’s common practice.

Mystery fans can sometimes be ticked off that the genre they love is considered inferior  to Literature, but what struck me as revelatory was the sexism she face throughout her career. Christie was demeaned, diminished, and derogated not because of her genre but primarily because she was a woman.  Far too many critics couldn’t resist saying something sexist when they reviewed her books or plays. 

In An Elusive Woman, Christie has found a keen-eyed and witty biographer who honestly assesses her strengths and weaknesses, and makes a solid case for considering Christie one of the 20th Century’s most important writers.

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jerusalem Report and a handful of public radio stations.  He recently reviewed a collection of Christie ghost stories and a volume of new Miss Marple stories.

Review: Singapore Sapphire is Classic Crime Fiction

Memoirs can be difficult to write, and in Sir Oswald Newbold’s case in 1910 Singapore, writing a memoir turns deadly.  As befits a classic mystery, he’s found dead in the first chapter, and the hunt is on to track down the murderer and find out what Newbold could have written that guaranteed his savage murder.

Newbold retired in Singapore to escape England’s “miserable weather and miserable people.”  What secrets was he going to reveal in his book?  Whom would he expose, and why?

Taking the field to find out the truth are dashing Inspector Robert Curran and intrepid Harriet Gordon, a stenographer and typist who has left England under a cloud. Gordon has suffered deep personal loss and abuse.  Part of the enjoyment in this mystery is watching her rise above her grief to find new meaning in life.  We also experience the difficulties and beauties of living in a tropical climate mainly through her eyes, and the vision is never less than fascinating.

The cast of minor characters is as colorful as those you find in Christie’s Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.  Like Christie, Stuart makes them all vivid and unique.

The author also has a terrific eye for detail.  Because she’s lived in southeast Asia and her father served there in the British army, Stuart can evoke last-century’s Singapore with great skill.  She makes you feel the heavy humidity and lashing rain, you smell the frangipani and mangroves, you can see the glorious heavy blooms of Bougainvillea.  This Singapore is truly “a place of extremes.”

But Stuart doesn’t just paint scenes to perfection, she honestly portrays a colonial society with its prejudices and blind spots.  It’s matched by an  England where women were denied the right to vote and suffragists in prison were tortured by being force fed during hunger strikes.  Bringing those two worlds together is part of what makes Singapore Sapphire so compelling.

Mysteries are sometimes derided as “escape fiction” or “escapist,” but all literature, from Tolstoy to P.D. James, helps you escape your own life and time to travel somewhere fascinating.  If it’s well executed, of course.

With just the right touch of romance, Stuart has written the ideal mystery for armchair travelers and for fans of the genre in its classic form.  Her heroine is bright, resourceful, compassionate; her hero a sterling and indomitable character; the villains are as devious as they should be.  But nobody is a caricature or paper thin.

Singapore Sapphire is clever, well-paced, complex, and deeply moving.  It has everything needed to make a splendid TV movie or even a miniseries.  This is a book to revel in for its local color and its crafty plotting.  No doubt there’ll be more Harriet Gordon adventures, and she’s a welcome addition to the current roster of sharp-eyed amateur sleuths.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at  The former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, he’s the author of nine mysteries and fifteen other books in many genres.