A CASE OF IDENTITY: Losing Oneself in Agatha Christie

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are focusing on vacations this month, and I myself am on the verge of an eleven-week-long break from school. In fact, I have just two more days to go, so you must forgive my greater-than-usual fuzziness this week. I won’t discuss trains, boats or planes this time. Instead, I wanted to say a little about how vacations afford us a chance to tamper with our normal identities and tie that into a little Christie-ana !

Don’t we all sometimes wish that we could lose a part of ourselves when we go on a trip? Not being you for a while – isn’t that really the ultimate vacation? To step outside our carefully ordered existence, throw caution to the winds, and find – what? An escape from our dull, petty problems? A dash of adventure, mixed with just the right amount of danger? A passionate but conveniently temporary romance?

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In one of my favorite plays, The Importance of Being Earnest, (which – shameless plug – will be a part of my 25th theatrical season at my school next spring), Jack Worthing escapes the staid propriety of his country life by taking on the persona of Ernest, a rake about London. His true identity earns him respectability, but only when he is “vacationing” as Ernest in town does he find fun, which leads to love and happiness. His best friend Algernon Moncrieff has invented a similar game, an imaginary invalid friend called Bunbury whose frequent illnesses give Algy the excuse he needs to party down in the country. But only when Mr. Moncrieff adjusts the rules and becomes “Ernest” Worthing himself does he get the girl. Now Wilde is being satirical here, spoofing Shakespeare’s classic line, “What’s in a name?” Gwendolen insists that she will only marry a man named Ernest as if the name makes the man, and she has ironically set her sights on Jack, a most un-earnest man! Cecily loves her Ernest because she has heard how badly his reputation belies his name. She wants to reform a bad boy! To my mind, Cecily and Algernon are infinitely better suited because at least she knows what she’s getting! Still, Jack ends up with his life’s dream by pretending to be someone else! Happy endings all around!

In mystery fiction, people trade one identity for another for nefarious, rather than romantic, purposes. Even those who change their name for love more often than not end up having to cover their actions with a spot of murder. I could give you dozens of examples from Agatha Christie alone, but I will forego that since to do so would be to spoil much happiness for new readers. (However, for those of you who are Christie buffs, please check out the little quiz I have included at the end of this post.)*

At first, the author insisted that she had suffered from a form of amnesia, an alibi supported as recently as 2006 by Andrew Norman, a doctor turned Christie biographer who agreed with the theory that she had been in a fugue state brought on by the shock of her husband’s betrayal. Was this the true explanation? Or was it a publicity stunt to boost the sales of her latest book, The Mystery of Roger Ackroyd (a novel which, I believe, needed no such stunt since it incited much controversy quite on its own)? Was it a fiendish attempt to frame her husband for his wife’s “murder”?

For the rest of her life, Christie didn’t speak much about this episode, nor did she incorporate the idea of amnesia into her stories.

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In only one instance did Christie create a heroine whose betrayal by an unfaithful husband causes her to shed one identity for another. In Destination Unknown (1954), Hilary Craven, a woman devastated by the tragic death of her young child, must then contend with her husband’s desertion for another woman. Hilary travels to Morocco, bent on suicide. Instead, she is recruited by her country to undertake a mission that will most likely result in her own death by impersonating the wife of a vanished scientist, one of many brilliant British minds who have gone missing. Posing as Olive Betterton, Hilary braves many dangers, finds Olive’s husband, exposes both an international conspiracy and a private murder, and ultimately finds love and a reason to live.

Good for Hilary! If only the book itself were more than passably mediocre. Still, its interest to us lies in its being the only mystery written post-1926 to deal, even indirectly, with Christie’s personal troubles. (One of her Mary Westmacott novels, 1934’s Unfinished Portrait, has a similar troubled marriage at its core. It, too received a less than enthusiastic reception, perhaps indicating the perils of any author getting too autobiographical with her material.)

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The only other work pertinent to this subject – and to this monthly TNB topic – is a collection of stories written in the early 30’s and published together in 1934. Parker Pyne Investigates deals with the work of a retired Government clerk, James Parker Pyne, whose work with files and statistics has caused him to categorize people and problems into specific groupings, which aids him in the problems he tackles. The book is unofficially divided into two sections, with the second section consisting of a half dozen conventional mysteries, a series of “busman’s holidays” where Mr. Parker Pyne solves murders and thefts while on vacation in the Middle East.

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The first half of the collection is more controversial. I confess that I like these tales very much, but they are not straight up mysteries; rather, they stem from Mr. Parker Pyne’s claim that he is a “detective of the heart” dedicated to fixing the problems that prevent people from finding happiness. His ad in the Times says it directly:

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The six people who do so in these half-dozen stories are a varied lot, ranging from a wife worn down to a shadow of her youthful self by her husband’s negligence and increasingly flagrant unfaithfulness, to a retired Major bored with civilian life, to a rich woman who has everything she could want except true happiness. Mr. Parker Pyne guarantees success, or no money will exchange hands, and one of the joys of these light-hearted tales is that things don’t always go according to plan. But it’s fascinating to watch these plans unfold, with the help of a team of actors and a writer-in-residence (the first appearance of the indomitable Mrs. Ariadne Oliver). The clients are forced to take a vacation from themselves, to step outside of the daily “comfort zone” that has resulted in such dissatisfaction in their lives. To varying degrees, they become someone else. Today, people do that by playing video games, and we emerge from the controls with little accomplished and little to say for ourselves. The people in the Parker Pyne stories end up profoundly changed, mostly for the better! It’s like having a travel agent for the soul, a service I occasionally feel would benefit me very much.

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I fear that this week’s TNB offering was pretty wispy, but if you haven’t read Parker Pyne Investigates, give it a try. I know the early tales are not to everyone’s taste. As for Destination Unknown, I recommend that one to people determined to read all of Christie. It’s certainly not her worst thriller (hmm . . . now that would make an interesting, if sad, post!) because it has a nice little twist at the end, but the thriller aspect is far-fetched verging on the ridiculous.

Quiz-Time

** Okay, my fellow Christie buffs: here’s the quiz I promised you. People disguise themselves in Christie all the time; here are an even dozen of the more outrageous examples. Read the descriptions below and then, in the comments section, list by number the correct Christie title.

WARNING: TWELVE SOLUTIONS ARE ESSENTIALLY GIVEN AWAY HERE. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS QUIZ OR EVEN READ IT THROUGH IF YOU DON’T WANT UNREAD BOOKS SPOILED FOR YOU!!!

  1. A jealous husband, presumed dead in a train crash, has plastic surgery and remarries his own wife in order to make sure she stays faithful to him alone.
  2. A shy deformed young woman, upon the death of her twin sister, switches identities in order to one day inherit a lot of money.
  3. Another twin sister, quite the loony tunes, pushes her sister off a cliff and takes over her identity, fooling no one. (Did I mention she was crazy?)
  4. A man impersonates his best friend’s butler in a shared joke that backfires on the host when he swallows poison. (Hint: the butler did it!)
  5. A woman dons a fake beard and successfully impersonates her male cousin in order to provide him with an alibi for murder.
  6. A woman disguises herself as her roommate in order to convince that woman’s relatives that somebody’s natural death was murder, which will then deflect suspicion off the reason for the roommate’s subsequent death.
  7. A war deserter and a psychopathic beauty disguise themselves as a country squire and a West Indian dimwit in order to . . . oh God, who really cares! I do not like this book, and just writing down this sentence explains why.
  8. A classic English beauty disguises herself as a hippie art dealer for reasons that escape me even after reading this novel three times. (Plus, she’s hardly convincing as either, yet nobody spots her because of some hair dye and a lack of bathing.)
  9. A famous person hires a brilliant impersonator of famous people to pretend to be her in order to be two places at once – one of which involves murder. By the end, both are dead – one by poison, the other hung on the gallows.
  10. A politician’s wife impersonates his Scottish cousin, a daffy actress, a lonely bridge player, and a vicious spy. Multiple murders ensue.
  11. A man flies back and forth from Europe in order to impersonate a common guy, woo a simple-minded maid, and use her as a tool to wipe out his family.
  12. After a master of disguise has fooled the police over and over in one of the most absurd international crime plots of all time, the detective in charge of the investigation fakes his own death and returns as his imaginary twin brother – going so far in his disguise as to remove that part of himself of which he is most proud!
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10 thoughts on “A CASE OF IDENTITY: Losing Oneself in Agatha Christie

  1. 1. A jealous husband, presumed dead in a train crash, has plastic surgery and remarries his own wife in order to make sure she stays faithful to him alone. MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA
    2. A shy deformed young woman, upon the death of her twin sister, switches identities in order to one day inherit a lot of money. A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED
    3. Another twin sister, quite the loony tunes, pushes her sister off a cliff and takes over her identity, fooling no one. (Did I mention she was crazy?) ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER
    4. A man impersonates his best friend’s butler in a shared joke that backfires on the host when he swallows poison. (Hint: the butler did it!) THREE ACT TRAGEDY
    5. A woman dons a fake beard and successfully impersonates her male cousin in order to provide him with an alibi for murder. SITTAFORD MYSTERY?
    6. A woman disguises herself as her roommate in order to convince that woman’s relatives that somebody’s natural death was murder, which will then deflect suspicion off the reason for the roommate’s subsequent death. OH GOSH… NO IDEA
    7. A war deserter and a psychopathic beauty disguise themselves as a country squire and a West Indian dimwit in order to . . . oh God, who really cares! I do not like this book, and just writing down this sentence explains why. DEAD MAN’S FOLLY
    8. A classic English beauty disguises herself as a hippie art dealer for reasons that escape me even after reading this novel three times. (Plus, she’s hardly convincing as either, yet nobody spots her because of some hair dye and a lack of bathing.) THIRD GIRL
    9. A famous person hires a brilliant impersonator of famous people to pretend to be her in order to be two places at once – one of which involves murder. By the end, both are dead – one by poison, the other hung on the gallows. LORD EDGEWARE DIES
    10. A politician’s wife impersonates his Scottish cousin, a daffy actress, a lonely bridge player, and a vicious spy. Multiple murders ensue. ONE TWO BUCKLE MY SHOE
    11. A man flies back and forth from Europe in order to impersonate a common guy, woo a simple-minded maid, and use her as a tool to wipe out his family. A POCKETFUL OF RYE
    12. After a master of disguise has fooled the police over and over in one of the most absurd international crime plots of all time, the detective in charge of the investigation fakes his own death and returns as his imaginary twin brother – going so far in his disguise as to remove that part of himself of which he is most proud! THE BIG FOUR

    Lovely to meet someone so deeply into Christie. Just rereading her autobiography – she used so much from her life. Sometimes just observation of details, or situations she noted down for later use. Like the woman who lived with a devoted husband and a devoted “family friend”.

    My theory: Yes, she wanted to frame Archie for her death or disappearance, using methods from her books. She succeeded in setting off a countrywide search, and Archie did come under suspicion. Did she mean to start a new life under another identity? Perhaps she was appalled by the results of her plan. Perhaps she had a pleasant time living anonymously in Harrogate, playing the hotel’s piano, as in the film Agatha (a speculative riff on her life and personality, but a good movie). Whatever happened, it must have haunted her – no wonder she didn’t want to talk about it. Unfinished Portrait gives some hints about her first marriage that didn’t get into her autobiography.

    I like Destination Unknown. Some scoff at Christie for her old-fashioned thriller plots about undercover international organisations trying to take over the world. Surely such things can’t, couldn’t, happen in the 20th/21st century! Her picture of a totalitarian utopia in the desert is chilling and psychologically apt.

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    1. I loved the film Agatha, and I enjoyed your theory. It certainly makes sense that she was angry and, at the very least, wanted to embarrass her husband. She might have wanted to see if he cared.

      You missed two on the quiz, but I still count you a fellow Christie maven!

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      1. I think you meant missed on 5 – not Sittaford, but Mysterious Affair at Styles.

        A woman disguises herself as her roommate in order to convince that woman’s relatives that somebody’s natural death was murder, which will then deflect suspicion off the reason for the roommate’s subsequent death. After The Funeral

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  2. 6. A woman disguises herself as her roommate in order to convince that woman’s relatives that somebody’s natural death was murder, which will then deflect suspicion off the reason for the roommate’s subsequent death.
    I think to us Brits, ‘roommate’ makes her sound like a young college girl, or the Third Girl setup, so it is harder for us to see that this is After the Funeral. Which personally I think has the best murder motive in all Christie. We would call her a ‘companion’.
    I still don’t recognize number 10, even with Lucy’s answer!

    Love this quiz Brad – please do more like this.

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    1. Yet if I had used companion, Moira, it would have given the whole show away! I’m glad you enjoyed the quiz, Moira. And Kate is correct about the last one!

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  3. You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. This was a great post and I too am a fan of Wilde’s plays. Interestingly last year David Suchet starred in The Importance of Ernest as Lady Bracknell! I agree also that the Parker Pyne stories are intriguing and definitely worth a revisit (for me that is, not demanding you re-read these stories). Very good quiz also, though some definitely took a lot of thinking about and as Moira said your use of the word roommate in no.6 certainly had me baffled for a while! Anyway here are my answers. Think I may have some of them wrong:
    1. Murder in Mesopotamia
    2. A Murder is Announced
    3. Elephants Can Remember
    4. Three Act Tragedy
    5. The Mysterious Affair at Styles?
    6. After the Funeral
    7. Dead Man’s Folly?
    8. Third Girl?
    9. Lord Edgware Dies
    10. One Two Buckle My Shoe
    11. A Pocket Full of Rye
    12. The Big Four

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  4. A great post as always, and great fun for a Christie fan like me! Some of the plot synopses could be fitted to more than one story, at a stretch – I had Murder in the News for no.6 (wrongly) – but then, Christie was known for re-using plot devices so I don’t feel too bad.
    In Laura Thompson’s biography of Christie she states that the author had written to her brother in law explaining that she was going away for a rest, but that the letter did not arrive, hence the famous ‘disappearance’. That explanation was supported later by Archie and her family. I think she also wanted her husband to worry for a couple of days but it went a little too far. I guess we’ll never really know the truth about what she was thinking at the time.

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  5. “the author had written to her brother in law explaining that she was going away for a rest, but that the letter did not arrive, hence the famous ‘disappearance’. That explanation was supported later by Archie and her family.”

    And she didn’t send them a telegram when she read in the papers about the nationwide womanhunt? And saw the photos of herself in “disguise” with glasses and hair in a bun? (Just the disguise Ariadne uses in Third Girl – could she possibly be laughing at us?)

    Of course the family came up with a story they all stuck to, however transparent. Perhaps they begged her to keep quiet! But Archie couldn’t go on pretending he wasn’t having an affair with Nancy Neele. He he he he he he.

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  6. Agatha Christie disappeared in 1926. The Christies divorced in 1928. In 1932 she wrote a story called The Affair at the Bungalow…

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