Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

Mrs Christie would kill for a holiday

THE CHRISTIES Agatha and Archie.
THE CHRISTIES Agatha and Archie.

WHEN Agatha Christie abandoned her car by a quarry in Surrey late on December 3, 1926, she couldn’t have imagined igniting a mystery so intriguing it is still being dissected a century later.

Married society girls did not walk alone at night, no matter how capable. They certainly were not expected to disappear, which is exactly what Mrs Christie did that evening.

“Police mobilised multiple counties into a hunt for the crime writer.”

The 36-year-old English author appeared on the cover of The New York Times only days after her green Morris Cowley was discovered. Police mobilised multiple counties into a hunt for the crime writer – or her body – while an international press pack pursued Agatha’s husband Archie.

Was the whole event a publicity stunt, or a nervous breakdown brought on by Archie’s request for a divorce on the day of her disappearance?

agatha-christie-1926-disappearanceBooks, films and articles have explored everything between these two extremes, but the seeds of Agatha Christie’s escape may well have been planted years before.

The first way to understand the incident is to apply a bit of context.

Agatha Christie the ‘Queen of Crime’ did not exist in 1926. After serving their country in World War One – Agatha as a voluntary nurse, Archie in the Flying Corps – the couple produced a daughter and settled into civilian life.

“I had written three books, was happily married, and my heart’s desire was to live in the country …” Agatha wrote in her autobiography, “and then something completely unforeseen came up.”

This was an offer for the couple to join delegates on a ‘grand tour’ of the world while drumming up participation for the British Empire Exhibition.

In June, 1922, on a weekend escape from meeting dignitaries, Archie and Agatha made a dash to Australia’s largest cave system – Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains of NSW.

Agatha wrote home about the one-night trip to the remote holiday resort. “So we started in style, much to Archie’s annoyance. He hates motoring in the cold, and much prefers going by train any day,” she guilelessly joked, indicating it wasn’t all plain sailing.

“Our car went well until we started climbing miles from anywhere when it proceeded to turn nasty. We induced it to go on for a bit but it broke down about six times and eventually we arrived at the Jenolan Caves at 6pm instead of 2.30, freezing cold and dead tired.

“After a meal we were taken as a ‘special party’ around the Orient Cave which is supposed to be the best. It really is wonderful, you go for two miles through the bowels of the earth, up and down steps (1500 in all – and you know it the next morning!) twisting in and out through labyrinths and coming to the different chambers.

REMOTE RESORT Caves House, Jenolan Caves, NSW, Australia.
REMOTE RESORT Caves House, Jenolan Caves, NSW, Australia.

“We were up early the next morning and did some of the open air caves. The Hotel (or Cave House as it is called) is right in the heart of the mountains.

“They rise up all round it, and to get to it the road zig zags down and seems to end, but really it is a great natural arch through the mountain itself.

“We had to start back at 2 o’clock unfortunately. I could have spent a week there quite happily.”

This and countless other letters languished in family hands for ninety years until they were published in 2012 by the Christies’ grandson Matthew Prichard, revealing glimpses of the marriage that crumbled so swiftly less than four years after the tour.

Settling back into their home life a second time saw a typical divide quickly develop. Her burgeoning writing career kept Agatha in the city and his struggle to get a foothold in the corporate world drew Archie away from it to the Christie’s Berkshire home and its adjacent golf course.

Into this fertile ground came a rival for Archie’s affections – a younger woman called Nancy Neele – who worked as a clerk in London but frequented the same country house parties as the couple.

A trial separation and reconciliation ensued, until Archie’s December, 1926, divorce demand. 

HAPPY HOLIDAY Timothy Dalton as Archie Christie and Vanessa Redgrave as Agatha Christie in Agatha, a film adaptation of the mystery released in 1979.
HAPPY HOLIDAY Timothy Dalton as Archie and Vanessa Redgrave as Agatha in ‘Agatha’, a film adaptation of the mystery released in 1979.

When Agatha ran from her marital home on the back of such life-changing news, dumped the car and walked to a nearby railway station, she slipped back into holiday mode and headed for a place just like Jenolan Caves – a classic resort in the Belle Époque tradition.

The name she used to check into Harrogate’s Swan Hotel – Teresa Neele – not only bore the surname of Archie’s mistress, but her fictitious character was from South Africa.

In a sense, she killed-off her old life with that fake signature, as surely as she would have if she’d put her foot down and stayed longer at Jenolan Caves.

“The fiction that began when Agatha signed the hotel register was only just beginning.”

Agatha’s Harrogate holiday lasted slightly longer than the week she yearned for at Jenolan. When a band member took a punt and identified her, the eleven-day ruse was over. Archie hurried to Yorkshire to collect his wife, who, it was announced to the press, was suffering a bout of amnesia.

Reality closed in fast. A year later the Christies divorced and Archie married Nancy.

But the fiction that began when Agatha signed the hotel register was only just beginning. She entered a cycle of imagination that would transform her career, and as she began to polish her oeuvre, she was far from settling on her primary detectives.

By the time of Agatha’s disappearance, many of her famous sleuths had been created – Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and regulars Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle, Inspector Japp and Arthur Hastings.

Marriage over, Christie’s experimentation continued, with spinster Miss Marple’s appearance in a 1927 short story collection. Two single young female detectives were trialled in the early 1930s. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s mystery author alter-ego, married but with no husband to account for, also appeared. Harley Quin got a run, as did another detective by the name of Parker Pyne.

Parker Pyne Investigates is a rumination on troubled marriages, kicking off with The Case of the Middle Aged Wife, in which a husband runs around with a mistress called Nancy – a clear reference to the new Mrs Christie – leaving his wife to seek help from Mr Pyne to win him back.

Christie turns the focus onto Archie in The Case of the Discontented Husband, where a different couple is challenged by his love of golf and hers of the arts. 

Parker Pyne’s common sense marriage advice is so benign it suggests Agatha had undergone some kind of counselling after her disappearance, or at least listened to loved ones about what she may have contributed to the demise of her marriage.

Agatha’s confidante may well have been her new love Max Mallowan. The couple married in 1930 after meeting while she was on another holiday, this time at Mesopotamian dig in modern-day Iraq.

death-on-the-nile.10902After joining Mallowan’s digs throughout the Middle East, trains, boats, islands, archaeological digs and isolated resorts emerged with indelible force in Christie’s work, replacing the stately homes, villages, and coastal towns she’d limited herself to.

Readers can see the transformation taking place across the Parker Pyne collection, in which Agatha Christie combined exotic locations with marriage fallouts, but it made for pleasant distraction more than gripping crime drama, and was possibly not enough to placate her damaged heart.

It wasn’t until she located an array of scheming lovers – with no patience for divorce – right within her great ‘destination crime’ cycle that she found the winning combination.

These shameless paramours do away with hapless wives far from home, but they never quite get away with it. Christie delivers justice in the form of a funny little Belgian with a penchant for travel, and forever challenges her readers to guess who life’s real villains are.

PLUCK COVER copyThe author who never had an exotic honeymoon when she married Archie Christie on the eve of war had finally flown the coop for good, and in doing so she became the Queen of Crime.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

 

The call to action

UNCLE SAM WANTS you to get out of your comfort zone, for the sake of a good story (J.F. Flagg's 1917 poster).
UNCLE SAM WANTS you to get out of your comfort zone (J.F. Flagg’s 1917 poster).

THERE’S a nifty three-act dramatic structure, generally used by screenwriters (but drawn from the older five-act dramatic arc), which gets a plot moving a bit faster than a novel and contains a great plotting tool – the Call to Action.

One of the reasons we go to the movies, or distract ourselves by reading, is because we want to step outside our lives, temporarily, for entertainment.

It might sound incredibly obvious, but this distraction requires writers to create work so deliciously escapist that the reader/viewer is taken beyond the sphere of their own lives for a short time.

Writers don’t have to create an alternate universe (although some do, to great effect), we just need to suspend the reader’s disbelief. Even getting them a centimetre off the ground can be enough.

To achieve this disbelief, writers need to have their main character – the protagonist – step outside their world. The protagonist’s ‘call to action’ is the trigger for this step.

Situated at the heart of a plot’s exposition, the protagonist is going about the business of what seems like an average day, when something happens (an old friend calls with some unusual news; a car crashes into their front room; a stranger turns up at their door … it can be anything).

Those of us who live the average Western life, where most of our needs are taken care of, do not get wake-up calls like this, but we love to imagine what we would do if we did.

It’s this attractive energy that publishers, agents and eventually audiences crave, and it’s even become a marketing tool. It’s why we buy the book, or the movie ticket.

Now, I hear a bunch of literary fiction writers screaming: “Nooo, it’s all about the Art!”. Well, as a fan of literary fiction myself, I say let ’em scream: literary fiction writers need a call to action for their protagonist every bit as much as Agatha Christie did.

Would Nick Guest, the protagonist in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, have gone on such a compelling emotional journey had he simply moved out of the Fedden family’s house the minute their daughter Cat started cutting herself? (he wanted to).

Would Stevens, the Butler of Darlington Hall in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, have decided to take a car trip to visit Miss Kenton, the former Housemaid, had his new boss Mr Farraday not ordered him to take some time off ? (he didn’t want to).

Of course they wouldn’t. Had Nick moved out, and Stevens never gone away, both storylines would simply peter out. Neither piece of ‘Art’ would have garnered the critical and financial successes of their Booker Prize wins.

The protagonist’s call to action is linked to a plotting device covered in my posts on the dramatic structures of two films – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The Sum of Us. This is the compelling question needed in every plot’s exposition, in fact, they are almost one and the same: if you get the protagonist’s call to action right, a compelling question will naturally be posed.

CROSSING THE LINE Protagonist Nick Guest in the television adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty
CROSSING THE LINE Protagonist Nick Guest in the TV adaptation of The Line of Beauty (Photo: Nick Briggs).

By keeping Nick Guest in the Fedden’s home, exposing him to family secrets, and relying on his character’s already-established empathy, Hollinghurst poses the compelling question of his plot: When will the Feddens and their British upper class friends discover the reason for Nick’s empathy is his homosexuality?

By sending Stevens (who we already know is staid and a little unreliable in his recollections of his employment history) out into the world, Ishiguro poses his: Is Stevens so deluded he actually believes he can revive a stunted love affair that barely even began twenty years before?

Some authors, particularly crime writers, bury their protagonist’s call to action in mystery – a murder in the exposition is a particularly effective trigger for the most common of all plot questions – Whodunnit?

It’s for this reason that many analysts define Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot as Christie’s great antagonists – they foil her murderers (read: protagonists) at each and every turn, showing how antagonists are also locked into the plot by the protagonist’s call to action.

WRITE REGARDLESSHead spinning? Just remember that plotting isn’t meant to be a formulaic set of rules. Stretching and manipulating these conventions, in interesting ways, is the real ‘Art’ of writing.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, regardless!

Oh England, my lying heart

ENGLISH ROSE Kate Bush, siren of English Romanticism.

A Writer’s pebble-dashed vision.

I first encountered England through her literature. Walking the moors with the Brontës and their wayward brother Branwell; inhaling the sea-spray of Whitby and digging the loamy earth of Bram Stoker’s London; and sporting on lawns, catching snippets of clandestine love in E.M. Forster’s Home Counties. I fooled myself into believing that world would be there waiting for me in England, and that it would be enough to fill my nascent heart.

Mine was the romantic, mythological ‘Olde Englande’ of Kate Bush lyrics, of Tolkien, and of gentle landscapes which gave up their mysteries for the order of rustic villages where Miss Marple had everything worked out, despite the cold edge of murder and the harsh years of The Blitz.

So, brimming with this promise of green pastures, after my flight out of Sydney collected travellers in Melbourne, we ascended above amazing views of the country of my birth. Literally the first thing I saw far below was Hanging Rock, site of Joan Lindsay’s infamous picnic at which three schoolgirls and their maths mistress disappeared into the ancient heart of the continent.

The volcanic spires sent up a bright late afternoon farewell to me as we swept towards the setting sun. How apt, for a literary fool.

The endless night of my flight ended with a grey dawn over London, a city waking to just another day of commuting.

An old school friend, born in England and now living there, had arranged for me to stay with his Aunt in Warwickshire for a few days. All I had to do was get myself to Leamington Spa, after taking a connecting bus from the airport to Reading railway station.

Thoughts filled with Oscar Wilde and his famous ballad of incarceration in that town, I caught only glimpses of heritage in Reading (a pub, I think) and felt absolutely no romance.

The train swept a few silent passengers northwards, and quite soon an unmistakable vision emerged out of the dissipating fog …

I recall making an audible comment, almost a question … did I have it right? Within this mirage, were those the Spires of Oxford?

The few grey commuters about me raised their copies of the Daily Mail a little bit higher, in unison. Welcome to England, Mike.

Nevertheless, my first few nights I slept in a home down the road from Shakespeare’s Mother’s farmhouse in Wilmcote. Within days I’d wandered through Stratford-upon-Avon and soaked up the atmosphere of England’s prettiest face. The daffodils were starting to bloom, and the country held a sense of promise.

CRUMBLING FACADE Pebble-dash, the surface of England for the last century.

I ignored all bad-weather warnings and cynicism, and, on foot, continued my search for the beating heart of English Romanticism.

Across six years I maintained my romantic denial, even when a ‘castle’, looming out of the Scottish mist proved to be nothing but an enormous power station; even when exploring the endless layers of pebble-dashed suburbs that showed the visible canker that wars had brought to the face of England, seeking the home where my maternal Grandfather was born in East Ham.

But one day, after a day pounding the steely pavements of Sheffield, I accepted that I would need to keep lying to myself to live in this ‘green and pleasant land’.

To be fair on England, I presented myself upon its green hills complete with my own facade. You’d think that flying to the other side of the world would have broken the closet door right open … but I remained an underwritten character in a play that was going nowhere. I was a cipher. Devonshire teas and English Heritage sites were not going to jolt me out of my asexual romance with myself.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.