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.

The Marvelous Miss Marple


I discovered Agatha Christie in junior high school at my local library and was usually more interested in reading about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple than anything my English teachers assigned me for homework. Christie’s characters were unfailingly intrepid as detectives and their cases deliciously mysterious. While I could never remotely match their sleuthing skills, I didn’t mind because the journey was enjoyable and the solutions so satisfying.

Given that Poirot was Belgian and my parents had lived in Belgium, it was Miss Marple who actually seemed more exotic, living in an alien-to-me world of gossipy small towns, vicars, cottages, servants, gardens, servants, endless cups of tea and glasses of sherry.  And she was such a delightfully unlikely  amateur sleuth, given her age and retired life, yet as keen-eyed and sharp-witted as Sherlock Holmes, though far less arrogant. 

I especially loved it when she discoursed on the nature of the human heart and evil in the drawing room, and I relished the way people underestimated her ability to pierce what might seem like an impenetrable fog around a murder.  My students at Michigan State University enjoyed her too when I taught The Murder at the Vicarage, Christie’s first Miss Marple mystery.

Val McDermid pays homage to that fiendishly clever novel with her standout story in Marple, a book that collects twelve new Miss Marple stories by an international array of bestselling women crime writers like Kate Mosse and Ruth Ware.  McDermid’s story, wittily titled “The Second Murder at the Vicarage,” is filled with dry dialogue and lovely clues.  And its vicar isn’t remotely as stupid and unbelievable as the one played by David Tennant in Netflix’s appalling new series Inside Man.

The Marple anthology isn’t rooted in England, but also takes Miss Marple abroad to New York, Cape Cod, Hong Kong and Italy.  That last locale is the setting for Elly Griffith’s luscious “Murder at the Villa Rosa” which opens with the elegant, mouthwatering line “It’s not necessary to travel to a beautiful place to commit murder, but sometimes it does help.”  The gorgeously written story about a crime writer haunted by success is a pleasant surprise.  Though Miss Marple’s role is a minor one, something she says proves to be pivotal.  Of course.  Perhaps most surprising in this glittering volume is Miss Marple’s response after she unmasks a murderer in Leigh Bardugo’s complex “The Disappearance.”

Throughout the volume, Jane Marple twinkles, knits, drinks tea, calmly spies on neighbors, assures her friends that murder is much more ubiquitous than they imagine, softly jokes about mystery novels vs. real life, and glows with quiet fire.  One character in Ruth Ware’s “Miss Marple’s Christmas” amusingly praises her ability to solve crimes by saying she has a mind “like a bacon slicer.”  Ware’s plot turns in part on a story by another mystery legend, Dorothy L. Sayers–what a treat for fans of both authors.

These highly entertaining stories make for a wonderful vacation and are a fine tribute to the genius of Agatha Christie.  All the authors deftly play with the sharp contrast between Miss Marple’s appearance and her dark knowledge, as expressed in “The Murdering Sort” by Karen McManus where Miss Marple notes that “no one is ever the murdering sort until they are.  The least likely people can shock you.  Young mothers, elderly clergy, esteemed businessmen. You can’t rule out anyone, I’m afraid.”

Lev Raphael was a long-time crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and is the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries which have been praised by reviewers across the U.S.