Ninety years ago today, Archibald Christie argued with his wife and walked out of the house, revealing to her that he was leaving her for another woman. This sort of domestic tragedy happens all the time, but when it happens to the world’s most successful mystery writer, the repercussions are bound to affect the work she produces. After all, most authors write about what they know, and it makes sense that their own experiences and feelings will affect how and what they write. At the same time, marital discord, adultery and divorce are fodder for many a murder tale. Christie had included these matters in her books long before her own marriage took a darker turn. Still, looking back at the Christies’ marriage and holding that up to the light of seven subsequent titles creates a fascinating and illuminating portrait of the merging of the public artist and the private woman. It is a discussion that will necessitate spoilers throughout, so new readers of Agatha Christie’s work had best maintain a wary distance.
The series of incidents that led to Agatha Miller’s first marriage was, as you must imagine, the stuff of a good novel, at least according to her autobiography. A pretty girl who was popular with the boys, she had gotten engaged to Reggie Lucy, a “shy and retiring” Major with the Gunners who grew close to her by offering to improve her golf game. Agatha didn’t do very well, but as she describes it, Reggie “was extremely patient, and he was the kind of teacher who did not mind in the least whether you improved or not.” He was slow and gentle in this and all matters, and their visits together were full of “restful pauses. It is the way I most like holding a conversation. I never felt slow or stupid, or at a loss for things to say, when I was with Reggie.” Here is how Agatha remembers Reggie’s proposal to her:
“You’ve got a lot of scalps, Agatha, haven’t you? Well, you can put mine with them anytime you like.” I looked at him rather doubtfully, not quite sure of his meaning. “I don’t know whether you know I want to marry you,” he said, “you probably do. But I may as well say it. Mind you, I am not pushing myself forward in any way; I mean there’s no hurry . . . Just bear me in mind, and if nobody else turns up – there I am, you know.”
And so they embarked on an “understanding,” and while Reggie was stationed abroad, he urged her to have fun, go to dances, “go out and see people.” So Agatha decided to attend a dance that the Cliffords of Chudleigh were giving for soldiers, and there she met an Air Force subaltern named Archibald Christie:
“He was a tall, fair young man, with crisp curly hair, a rather interesting nose, turned up not down, and a great air of careless confidence about him . . . he danced splendidly and . . . I enjoyed the evening thoroughly. “
Agatha was swept away by the fact that Archie flew planes; Air Force recruits had a romanticism about them that, for her, Army men lacked. Still, she thought no more of him until a week or so later when Christie dropped in unannounced at her family home and wangled an invitation to dine on Christmas leftovers with the family. Agatha invited him to be her date to the upcoming New Year’s Ball. There she found him in a “peculiar” mood that made her wonder if he even liked her. So you just know what’s about to happen in the middle of the ball:
Then he said fiercely, “You’ve got to marry me, you’ve got to marry me.” He said he had known it the first evening he danced with me . . . I told him it was impossible, that I was already engaged to someone. He waved away engagements with a furious hand. “What on earth does that matter?” he said. “You’ll just have to break it off, that’s all.” “But I can’t. I couldn’t possibly do that.” “Of course you could! I’m not engaged to anyone else, but if I was I’d break it off in a minute without even thinking about it.” “I couldn’t do this to him.” “Nonsense. You have to do things to people. If you were so fond of each other, why didn’t you get married before he went abroad?” “We thought – “ I hesitated – “it better to wait.” “I wouldn’t have waited. I’m not going to wait either.”
Agatha broke off her engagement to Reggie, who took it like a gentleman and whose only concern was that Archie was not financially equipped to give her the life she was entitled to. It took another year and a half before they were married, a period that Agatha describes as “a tempestuous time, full of ups and downs and deep unhappiness, because we had the feeling that we were reaching out for something we would never attain.”
Let this be a lesson to all kind, patient, and gentle men of fair to middling looks who find themselves on the opposite point of a triangle with a reckless, ruthless “golden boy.” Gentlemen, you don’t stand a chance.
The Christies were married from 1914 to 1928. Wikipedia claims, in Archie Christie’s biography: “During that period they shared many happy times; and Agatha wrote some of her best novels.” The first part of this description is certainly true: the couple had a daughter whom they adored and then rather neglected as they traveled extensively around the world as part of the Tour as part of Archie’s job to promote the British Empire Exhibition. They surfed together in Hawaii. They returned to England and Agatha wrote her novels in their flat while Archie worked in the world of finance and played a lot of golf. During this time, Agatha wrote one of her best novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. For this, and for the rest of her body of work, she was earning her position at the top of the mystery writing profession.
In 1925, Agatha sat on a committee to design and organize a children’s section of the Exhibition in Wembley. She worked with the wife of another friend of Archie’s boss, a woman named Nancy Neele. Nancy was a great golfer, while Agatha, if you recall, was not. So if you are looking for evidence that one can find that romantic spark on the golf course, I would turn away from Agatha and Reggie and set your sights on Nancy and her new golf partner, Archie Christie.
The book Agatha was working on as she went through the throes of separation and divorce was The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928). Christie claims to have always hated the book. She developed it before and after her famous disappearance, after the death of her beloved mother, and after her separation from Archie. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not a very good one either. The combination of a thriller featuring a “bright young thing” as its heroine with a traditional mystery presided over by Hercule Poirot feels labored. On the plus side, the heroine, Katherine Grey, is a very attractive character, and Christie makes us care about her finding happiness, even if her involvement in the murder and with all the significant characters seems forced.
Significantly, the victim in this tale, Ruth Kettering, is unhappily married to a highly attractive but weak man, Derek, who is having an affair with an exotic dancer. Ruth is hurtling out of the frying pan on that train, so to speak, to meet her lover, a truly odious gigolo named the Comte de la Roche. There seems no chance here for Ruth to find romantic happiness, so perhaps it’s fitting that she is brutally murdered before she has to make a choice.
That choice is bequeathed to Katherine, who becomes emotionally involved with both Derek and with Major Knighton, the personal secretary to Ruth’s millionaire father, Rufus Van Aldin. This triangle bears some resemblance between that of Agatha, Archie and Reggie: a bright, capable woman, a gentlemanly former army man whose leg was injured in the line of duty (Knighton) and an attractive but unstable adulterer. In the end, it turns out that neither man is worthy of Katherine, since Knighton turns out to be a notorious jewel thief and a murderer. (Even his battle injury is fake.) The only male characters who merit respect are the father figures, Poirot and Van Aldin.
The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) is of significance mostly as the novelistic debut of Miss Marple, but it fits into this discussion well. The victim is another retired military man, Colonel Protheroe, who is despised by everyone in the town, including the vicar! There is nothing attractive about the Colonel, yet he has managed to marry two beautiful women. He drove his first wife away with his cruelty, and now he is himself being cuckolded by his wife with the artist Lawrence Redding. Naturally, the two lovers are the first to fall under suspicion when the Colonel is found murdered in the vicar’s study. However, a combination of events proves that neither could have done it. Moreover, Christie presents a sympathetic portrait of a couple in love. The conversations both of them have with Miss Marple and the police have the same ring as Archie’s proposal to Agatha at the Cliffords’ dance back in 1912. There’s a tone of fierce devotion, a streak of ruthlessness, as if doing anything for the one you love is all that mattered.
And you have to ask yourself just how Agatha sits on the matter of sexual and romantic passion. Is it possible that she would have been happier married to Reggie? But then, if she had been a satisfied wife, would that have had a deleterious effect on her professional life? Was the pain she endured throughout the span of her relationship with Archie Christie worth it?
Whatever the answers to these questions – and yes, it’s not really any of our business – the situation can only have inspired Christie as she examined the eternal triangle in some of her best work. Looking at Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). Death on the Nile (1937) and Evil Under the Sun (1941), Christie’s life might be seen to imbue the characters with certain qualities, but it doesn’t stop her from exercising remarkable ingenuity in coming up with different twists on the same relationship. (The 1937 novella Triangle at Rhodes fits perfectly in this category as well, and many of its significant plot twist would work their way into both Nile and Sun.)
Interestingly, the victim in all four of the works named above is the wife, depicted as an alluring yet vain, self-serving, creature who ultimately falls prey to the man to whom she has committed herself. In Murder in Mesopotamia, the killer has a dual nature that makes him akin to both Archie Christie and Max Mallowan, Agatha’s second husband with whom she has a less tempestuous, but evidently full and happy marriage. Louise Bosner Leidner found herself married at a young age to a man in the U.S. State department who turned out to be a German spy. With him she had a life of adventure and danger that recalls the thrill a young Agatha felt when she learned that Archie flew planes for a living. When the first husband dies in a train crash, Louise marries a second time to a noted archeologist, a gentle and loving man, perhaps someone quite like Max.
Agatha may have been fascinated by the intellectual mystery solving of the archeologist, but Louise is just bored, and she engages in an affair with her husband’s colleague, Richard Carey. This marks her for death by her husband’s hand, and, in one of the most unbelievable twists in all of Christie’s canon, Leidner turns out to be Frederick Bosner, whose obsessive love for his wife has led him to assume an entirely different life. It’s too hard a twist for most readers to believe, and thus it detracts from the elements of the romantic triangle that square with Christie’s own experience. Christie is definitely not Louise, in temperament or interests. But the combination of the reckless spy with the erudite scholar is one that bears notice.
Linnet Doyle and Arlena Marshall of, respectively, Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun are both sexually predatory and worthy of the enmity they engender in folks around them. Our perceptions of Arlena are reversed at the end as we discover that she is not the object of desire in a romantic triangle that she was presented to be. Her husband Kenneth (a retired Army captain, by the way) has come to believe he married the wrong woman. Her lover Patrick (whose striking good looks and athleticism are emphasized throughout) is not in love with her at all but with with the money she pours into his bank account. His true lover, who poses as his wife, far from being mousy and weak, is a games mistress with great strength. (I’ll bet she plays a mean golf game, too.)
Far more interesting to me is the relationship between Linnet Doyle, her husband Simon and her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort. Simon is another one of Christie’s strikingly handsome and athletic young man, and Jacquie is the impoverished daughter of a French count and his American wife. (Agatha’s father was American.) We meet these two through Hercule Poirot’s eyes when they are engaged and dining at the same restaurant as the detective. Poirot wonders, looking at Jacqueline, if maybe she loves Simon too much.
Again, we receive a warning about the dangers of passion. When Linnet steals her best friend’s lover away and marries him, Jacquie undergoes the same sort of breakdown that Agatha had when Archie left her. How else do you explain following your ex and his new wife around the world, terrorizing their honeymoon?
Once you have finished the novel, you come to understand that Jacquie’s “breakdown” is quite different in nature, yet no less real. This was a time when a couple, no matter how much in love, had to give serious consideration to whether they could afford to marry. This is the issue that delayed Archie and Agatha for over a year causing them to reluctantly comply with her mother’s wish that they delay marriage until Archie could better provide for her daughter. That wait was an unhappy time for the couple, and it’s clear that Jacquie is placing all her hopes on the wealthy Linnet giving Simon a job on her estate in order to set the couple up for wedded bliss. It puts all the sympathy on Jacquie and Simon from the start.
So what to make of their subsequent plans? In suggesting that he could marry Linnet and bump her off, Simon demonstrates a complete lack of the moral fiber one hopes a good man will have, (the same deficiency that might prompt a war hero to leave his wife for another woman.) The true tragedy, one that Poirot senses with his from the first time he lays eyes on Jacquie, is how love will cause her to assume the role of guiding hand in planning Linnet’s murder. In robbing her best friend of her soulmate, Linnet has sparked the Latin passion for hatred that imbues Jacquie’s character. She underestimates her friend’s response, and she completely misreads the shallow signs of love that Simon bestows upon her. People can complain all they want about the artificiality of the murder plot. I disagree with that viewpoint, and I think that the underlying motivations of this central trio of characters make Death on the Nile one of the best Christies of them all. And I think this power arises from Christie’s own depth of understanding about how love can turn.
In the next two titles up for consideration, the romantic triangle is maintained, but the husband becomes the victim. Significantly, in both cases, the triangle is much more straightforward, and Christie sets no traps to make the reader misconstrue the parts that husband, wife, and mistress play.
Five Little Pigs (1942) is almost a cautionary tale against basing a relationship on sexual passion. Amyas Crale is an artist and a sensualist. The author makes it abundantly clear that he absorbs pleasure from others and returns the best of himself through his art. Such selfishness causes a lot of people to suffer, nobody more so than his wife Caroline. Unlike Christie, Caroline Crale is not a professional woman. What she shares with her creator is a strong maternal instinct, both for her baby daughter and for her younger sister. (Christie’s sister was older, but they were extremely close.) It is those instincts that prompt Caroline to follow the course of action that she does, leading her to her death in a prison cell.
Amyas’ mistress, Elsa Dittisham, possesses none of these caring instincts. In her, Amyas recognizes a fellow creature of passion, but he fails to understand how dangerous this, combined with her youth, makes her. Ultimately, the blame for all the unhappiness engendered in this story falls on Amyas, who comes off as a compelling and attractive, but unsympathetic, character. Five Little Pigs can be seen as one of Christie’s most feminist works, with the two women in this triangle the prime agents for change. Both undergo similar transformations of sacrificing their freedom to protect the most important women in their lives. Caroline saves her sister by going to prison for her. Elsa saves herself, frames her rival, and winds up in a sterile marriage, stripped of her capacity for love or passion. One of the most compelling aspects of this novel is that Caroline, an innocent, even noble woman, dies, but Elsa essentially gets away with murder, and Poirot condones this because he realizes that Elsa, like Caroline, is in a prison of her own making. This imbalance at the end of the book strikes a much more powerful emotional chord than any tradition “all wrongs made right” situation that you would find in most traditional mysteries.
The Hollow (1946) flips the situation found in Five Little Pigs. The man at the center of the triangle is no less an egoist as Amyas Crale, but John Cristow (a name with a remarkably familiar ring to it) is also a doctor engaged in important research that will save many lives. His relationships with his wife and mistress pretty much reverse that found in Pigs: his wife, Gerda, provides him with the appearance of respectability and with children, but her timorous, rather stupid, nature makes her totally unsuitable as a physical or emotional support. Henrietta Savernake, John’s mistress, is also the most complex and admirable character in the novel. She is a sculptor, and like Amyas, she has a tendency to blend and confuse her passion for her lover with her need to create art. But it is in scenes between John and Henrietta that we see the man most at peace. We can assign elements of the author’s life to both women: the dutiful wife who can’t satisfy her man and the committed artist who uses her art to literally work through the loss of her love. The plot ties these three together in an extraordinary way when John, recognizing that his philandering has driven his wife to murder, begs Henrietta, with his dying breath, to protect Gerda. Gerda’s self-protection derives from pure animal instinct, while Henrietta becomes the perfect intellectual foil to Poirot. So while the two women in Pigs remain rivals to the bitter end, their counterparts in The Hollow join forces, or at least, Henrietta becomes Gerda’s protector out of their shared love for John.
Perhaps the situation found here has less in common with Christie’s own romantic history than some of the others.
The last title to consider, 1948’s Taken at the Flood, has some interesting points worth noting. Coming twenty years after Christie’s divorce, it also is the last of her mysteries that has a romantic triangle emblazoned at its center (although there are plenty of hidden relationships to uncover in later titles.) Like Christie, Lynn Marchmont, the heroine of Flood, bridles at the idea of being just a wife and mother. Her experiences as an Army nurse have set her apart from the rest of her family, whose economic dependence on their patriarch and benefactor, Gordon Cloade, leads to a series of disastrous events for the whole clan after his death during the London Blitz.
Lynn left for service with the understanding that, upon her return, she would marry her cousin Rowley, a gentleman farmer. Unlike both Archie Christie and Reggie Lucy, Rowley was unable to serve in the war due to his job, and that inability to fulfill his patriotic duty rankles and affects his relationship with Lynn. Enter David Hunter, a former war Commando, who bristles at civilian life and has his eye on protecting his sister, Gordon Cloade’s widow, from her new, predatory relations. He also turns his interests toward Lynn, and although from a family standpoint they are at odds, they are also attracted to each other out of past experience and a mutual love of adventure.
Once again, Christie presents romantic passion as a dangerous, life-altering condition that eliminates all good sense. Gordon Cloade marries a much younger woman out of the blue, and his head is so turned that he forgets to rewrite his will to provide for the family whom he has manipulated to rely on him for financial support. Lynn’s passion for adventure leads her to view resettling back at home with a dubious eye. It also takes her further from Rowley and into the arms of David, who proves to be, to say the least, an unsuitable match even though his love for Lynn may be the one honest feeling David possesses. Finally, the stolid Rowley is all but destroyed by passion: he seems to possess the same stolid patience and understanding as Reggie did, but the prospect of losing Lynn inspires such rage that he causes one man’s death and almost ends Lynn’s life.
I make no claim that Agatha Christie’s troubled marriage to Archie drove her creative mind down any particular path. I have always respected her wish to separate her private life from her professional. Her autobiography is honest but hardly sensational; it maintains a fondly nostalgic tone coupled with an emotional reticence throughout. And yet it is interesting, on the anniversary of that sad day marking the end of her first marriage, to consider how certain of her books seem to spring from Christie’s own romantic life. How daring she was to allow those experiences to serve as the springboard for some of her most striking and successful murder plots. And how lucky for us that she did!