“I know all mothers rave about their babies, but I must say that, though I personally consider newborn babies definitely hideous, Rosalind actually was a nice-looking baby. She had a lot of dark hair, and she looked rather like a Red Indian; she had not that pink, bald look that is so depressing in babies, and she seemed, from an early age, both gay and determined.”
So writes Agatha Christie in An Autobiography about the birth of her only child, Rosalind. I’m sure the author liked her daughter very, very much, but when you pick out the bits about Rosalind throughout the book, it feels less like a mother-daughter relationship and more like one between a big grown-up and a little grown-up. Christie doesn’t dote constantly on her child; soon after Rosalind’s birth, Agatha and her husband Archie embark on various travels, leaving the little girl with various nurses, friends and relatives. After taking a voyage around the world, including a surfing holiday in Hawaii, Christie wrote:
“It was exciting to go away; it was wonderful to return. Rosalind treated us, as no doubt we deserved, as strangers with whom she was unacquainted. Giving us a cold look, she demanded: ‘Where’s my Auntie Punkie?’ My sister herself took her revenge on me by instructing me on exactly what Rosalind was allowed to eat, what she should wear, the way she should be brought up, and so on.”
Rosalind’s childhood was a whirl of change. Her first decade saw her mother’s establishment as the Queen of Crime, the unhinging of the Christie marriage, and Agatha’s notorious disappearance. Christie divorced Archie in 1928, dated a few men, and then met and married the noted archaologist Max Mallowan in 1930. Unsure whether she should accept his proposal, Christie writes that she sat down with Rosalind, “my home oracle,” to have a conversation:
“Rosalind,” I said, “would you mind if I married again?”
“Well, I expect you will sometime, said Rosalind, with the air of one who always considers all possibilities. “I mean, it is the natural thing to do, isn’t it?”
“I shouldn’t have liked you to marry Colonel R.,” said Rosalind thoughtfully. I found this interesting, as Colonel R. had made a great fuss of Rosalind and she had appeared delighted with the games he had played for her enjoyment.
I mentioned the name of Max.
“I think he’d be much the best,” said Rosalind. “In fact I think it would be a very good thing if you did marry him . . . We might have a boat of our own, don’t you think? And he would be useful in a lot of ways. He is rather good at tennis, isn’t he? He could play with me.”
It’s significant to mention that this conversation occurred when Rosalind was 10 or 11.
The little girl that Christie creates in her autobiography sounds very grown up, indeed. And when one examines the child characters that Christie created in her fiction, this concept of “the little adult” becomes striking. Although they are relatively pint-sized, Christie’s children are not only fully realized characters, they fulfill every role that a character in a murder mystery can play. Every role . . . as witnesses, heroines, or victims. They can even be murderers.
There aren’t a lot of children in Christie’s archive of characters. Maybe that’s a good thing, considering the atmosphere of dark deeds pervading her books. Christie was quite ruthless in her plotting: there was no guarantee that two people in love could be crossed off the list as a murderer, nor could you trust the spry old lady, the worried mother, even the investigating officer. Yet, there is also a pervading kindness in Christie’s books, in keeping with much of classic detective fiction. Her sense of justice is so keen that it tends to overshadow the grief that comes when a circle of closely related people lose not just the victim but the slayer as well.
Christie waited until late in her career to cast a child in the role of victim, and then it happened with almost alarming frequency. Dead Man’s Folly (1956), Endless Night (1967), By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) and Hallowe’en Party (1969) all begin with the death of a child. In the case of Endless Night, the death is buried in the early events of the main character’s life, and its significance does not become clear until the book’s end. The death that is called to mind in Pricking/Thumbs is of an infant, and it thankfully occurs long before the events of the book, but it does inspire more child deaths, again occurring in the past. The murderer in Elephants Can Remember (1972) also preys on children. As for the victims in Dead Man’s Folly and Hallowe’en Party, they are both teenage girls whose murders open a can of worms that reveal much larger murder plots. Christie spares her audience some discomfort over these girls’ deaths by making them quite unattractive, given to lying and/or blackmail.
Other children pop up along the way as witnesses, often brightening up the scene with their unusual perspicacity. In The Clocks (1963), Geraldine Brown gives Hercule Poirot important information because her illness gives her the perfect excuse to watch the neighbors. She also provides one of the few pleasures in this mostly tiresome mash-up of espionage and murder.
Most of the children in Christie’s novels are female, and one can’t help wondering how much the author derived inspiration from her own life, not only her own daughter, but Christie’s memories of herself as a little girl, often playing in solitude or treated like a grown-up by her mother and sister. We can see this autobiographical influence in an examination of three major child characters from the canon.
Agatha Christie was a very pretty little girl, so in that respect she is the opposite of Josephine Leonides from Crooked House (1949) whom the investigator, Charles Hayward, is startled to find staring over his bed as he wakes up in her house one morning, She is described as:
“ . . . a fantastically ugly child with a very distinct likeness to her grandfather. It seemed to me possible that she also had his brains . . . The face still had its goblin suggestion – it was round with a bulging brow, combed back hair, and small, rather beady, black eyes. But it was definitely attached to a body – a small skinny body.”
Like Christie, Josephine is a precocious child, having grown up in a house filled with people much older than her. (Christie’s brother and sister, like Josephine’s, were significantly older but closer to their sister in terms of affection.) Left to her own devices, Josephine, like her creator, spends much of her time in nature, or watching the adults around her closely, or creating stories to act out. Most significant is Josephine’s assertion that she is the detective who will solve her grandfather’s murder – a dangerous plan for any character in a mystery.
Josephine’s mother, Magda, is a famous stage actress. Like Christie, she is absorbed with her artistic career, which affects the time she can spend with her daughter. Unlike the author, Magda’s personality is all about appearances and emotional effect. Each pronouncement of her love or concern for her children comes off like a scene from a play, and each of her children responds to that in a different way. The eldest, Sophia, becomes an uneasy caregiver, gently trying to keep her mother focused on reality without puncturing the illusion that life centers around Magda. Her brother Eustace nearly disappears from the scene. And Josephine withdraws to a position of self-amusement and solemn, malicious observation.
Most of her interactions are with Charles, who tries with increasing desperation to get Josephine to reveal what she knows. There is something preternaturally old and almost supernatural about this child. The goblin imagery suggests something stunted and unreal, and in conversation and action, Josephine behaves like an adult, yet one with the moral compass of a child. She literally possesses more wisdom about the case than anyone else in her household. Given that she is only twelve years old, that makes her situation fraught with suspense and tinged with the potential for tragedy.
In Hallowe’en Party, the central child figure in the novel turns out not to be the victim but another twelve-year old girl named Miranda Butler. Hercule Poirot’s first meeting with Miranda calls to mind the same otherworldly imagery we get from Josephine:
“Her voice was clear, almost bell-like in tone. She was a fragile creature. Something about her matched the sunk garden. A dryad or some elf-like being.”
Appropriately enough, Miranda is usually found in a wondrous garden that is central to the mystery plot. She feels most at home in the outdoors, yet Miranda is connected to her community more than Josephine: she is close to the single mother who raises her (one might say they raise each other) and to her friends, while Josephine is a solitary child, oddly estranged from the large family with whom she lives in Crooked House. Miranda is also connected to a murder case, yet she has a self-possession that Josephine either lacks or chooses to ignore, which makes Miranda’s ultimate fate quite different.
Like Josephine, Miranda is presented as an extraordinary child. She inspires strong feelings in both noble and unsavory people. Her relationship with Michael Garfield, the grown man who designed the garden they both love, has always made me deeply uncomfortable. Still, the main problem for Miranda, to be frank, is that she is trapped in a mystery plot that is so wobbly and dull that, by the time we reach the climax – in which Miranda figures prominently – many of us no longer care what happens.
If Josephine and Miranda are inspired by the fairy stories that Christie loved, then Julia Upjohn of Cat Among the Pigeons (1959) is firmly rooted in the realities of English girlhood, even if the book she inhabits is a fantastical piece of fluff, a hybrid of murder mystery and the escapades in espionage of which Christie was all too fond.
What makes it a truly enjoyable novel for me is the depiction of the staff and schoolgirls at Meadowbank Academy, the private school that is the main setting of the story. Yes, the sacred jewels of Ramat are hidden on the premises, and yes, there is a deadly spy and at least one murderer on campus. Yet, as the bodies pile up, the girls are mostly concerned about their classes and their sports and in pondering the sex lives – or lack thereof – of their teachers.
In the middle of all this stands Julia Upjohn, “a plain freckled child, with an intelligent forehead, and an air of good humor.” Along with her best friend, Jennifer Sutcliffe, “a pale solid child of fifteen,” who lives and breathes tennis, Julia finds herself through sheer happenstance at the center of this complex plot. And what does she do? She behaves practically, without a hint of coyness or self-importance, and seeks out the best source of aid she can find – a small Belgian detective who can be coy or self-important with the best of them!
Julia has the same strong, positive relationship with her mother that Christie seems to have had with Rosalind. Julia’s mother, like Christie, loves to travel into the deepest parts of the Middle East, leaving her daughter behind for long periods of time. Yet their relationship is extremely warm and close. Like Christie, Mrs. Upjohn was engaged in important war work for her nation: Christie worked in hospitals where she learned all about poisons. Mrs. Upjohn worked in espionage, where she learned all about spies. And yet, despite where this knowledge took them – into the heart of murder – both women maintained rather ordinary lives centered around their families.
That link between mother and daughter is a central feature of the three novels mentioned here. It is the only real spark found after a juicy murder opens the mediocre Halloween Party. It is the most life-affirming aspect of a good novel like Cat Among the Pigeons. Most of all, a classic like Crooked House has the strength to explore a more dysfunctional relationship and the terrible ramifications that occur when a child is not nurtured with the selflessness that motherhood requires.