“What can I say at seventy-five? ‘Thank God for my good life, and for all the love that has been given to me.’”
Agatha Christie: An Autobiography
“It’s sad really, but nowadays one is only interested in the deaths!”
Passenger to Frankfurt (1970)
Elephants Can Remember (1972)
(*Both of these novels were written earlier, Curtain almost certainly in the early 40’s, Sleeping Murder arguably later, according to John Curran, but possibly that same decade)
Two Stage Plays
Fiddler’s Three (1971)
Agatha Christie: An Autobiography (1977)
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As I mentioned at the start, I am not a biographer, and so I knew that when I arrived at this point, things would get tricky. There has, so far, been fifty years of output to talk about: so many novels, short stories, and plays that I was able to pick and choose as I wished. In previous installments, I traced how Christie honed her craft in a ten-year apprenticeship (that still saw the creation of a classic in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) during the 20’s; crafted brilliant puzzle after brilliant puzzle in the 30’s; struck a balance between puzzles and deft attention to character and theme through the 40’s; wrote some delightful mysteries – and wavered a bit – in the 50’s; did some good work and a lot more wobbling in the 60’s.
During the 1970’s ten works appeared that bore the name “Agatha Christie” as author. These included six novels, two plays, a book of poems and an autobiography. And yet half of this material had been written earlier:
- We have long been told that the novels Curtain and Sleeping Murder were written during World War II. Christie had decided to create a final adventure for Poirot and one for Miss Marple and then to leave them in a vault until after her death. No doubt the exigencies of war prompted her to write these books. With bombs dropping all over England, what if she didn’t survive? She also wanted to provide a little economic windfall for her daughter and grandson, who would each receive the proceeds for one of the novels. John Curran has made an excellent argument, based on details uncovered in Christie’s notebooks, that Sleeping Murder was written later, perhaps at the end of the decade.
- The play Akhnahton was written in 1937, around the same time Christie was working on Death on the Nile. The double bonus for her was that she could dabble some more in playwrighting, which she was really starting to enjoy, and she could expand her research into Egypt by crafting a play set in ancient times. The endeavor was a playful exercise for the author, who never thought it would be produced. And it wasn’t during her lifetime – not that she didn’t try! In 1972, with the treasures of King Tutankhamen being exhibited around the world, Christie found the play and contained not a jot of what made people love Christie, but because its set and costume requirements were prohibitive.
- Poems was a collection of previously written verse, dolled up in a different order. ‘Nuff said.
- Agatha began her autobiography in 1950 while working on a dig with Max. She worked on the project sporadically for fifteen years, and it was published after her death.
This means that Christie produced five works in the 70’s – four novels and a play – and that may be all to the good. The play, Fiddlers Three (which started life under the title Fiddlers Five and got pulled for extensive renovations) was produced under the protestations of Rosalind Hicks, Christie’s daughter, who argued with her mother that the play could actually damage her reputation. The play didn’t appear before the public long enough to do so. It’s interesting to note that, at her advanced age, Christie is still trying new things by producing a black comedy with mysterious overtones. Unfortunately, it faded to obscurity, although you can now purchase a copy to read from Samuel French.
In an earlier post in this series, one reader joked – at least, I think he was joking – that the 70’s were coming up and I could now wax at length about Passenger to Frankfurt and Postern of Fate. Here’s why I can’t do that: Passenger is one of only two Christie novels that I have only been able to read once (the other is The Secret of Chimneys.) I read it in 1970, at Christmastime. I remember that part of it takes place at a schloss, that there was an enormous woman who was a Nazi, and the name of the traitor in the British government, and that’s about it. One is called back to They Came to Baghdad, where Christie played with the idea of a conspiracy after World War II to regenerate the fascist movement under the sway of a charismatic leader. Twenty years later, Christie is mucking about with the same idea.
I would be more critical of the recycling except that Christie anticipated a fascination among contemporary thriller writers over the longevity of Naziism. William Goldman would have a smash hit in 1974 with Marathon Man, and Ira Levin would make a success out of cloning Hitler in The Boys from Brazil (1976). Robert Ludlum, who had set a couple of his early novels during the war, wrote a modern-day Nazi conspiracy thriller in 1978, The Holcroft Covenant. That same year, Ken Follett scored a big hit with his period spy thriller Eye of the Needle, which one that year’s Edgar Award for best mystery novel.
We know Christie loved writing these things, and here she is at the forefront of a trend. And here I would like to note the opinion of author Ruth Ware in an interview she had Catherine Brobeck and Kemper Donavan on their podcast All About Agatha. Ware stated that if one judged Christie only by her Poirot novels OR her Marple novels OR her standalone mysteries, she would still probably be considered at the top of her profession to this day. If one looks at the thrillers alone – and Ware includes the Tommy and Tuppence novels in her opinion – Christie’s reputation would not have been so great. It’s not that these books aren’t entertaining; it’s just that other writers wrote them so much better.
Moving on . . . before we get to the posthumous novels, Christie produced a final case for Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and the Beresfords. Only one of these books is significant in the canon: Nemesis feels like a swan song for Jane Marple as clearly as Sleeping Murder does not. If the plot meanders as much as a tour of England’s Country Homes and Gardens, it is a deeply emotional work. And what is so captivating is that the emotion here centers around Miss Marple. All her life she has observed others and found them wanting. She has embraced the belief that people tend to behave badly, whether out of greed or of love. Love has the capacity to be a dark force, and that is what we find in Nemesis.
Biographer Laura Thompson calls Nemesis “Agatha’s last masterpiece,” and there are qualities that raise it to a high level. But it’s not an easy read. The book is more of an elegy than a mystery, a discourse on the idea the dominates Christie’s work till the end: the power and fragility of memory. There is a vagueness that runs through the middle of the book. One can argue that it’s significant to the plot; after all, Mr. Rafiel has sent Miss Marple on a quest without giving her any information. It turns out to be a dangerous assignment, so he provides her with hidden protection. But I can’t really understand why he keeps her in the dark. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because you don’t read Nemesis – well, you don’t re-read it – for the whodunnit. You read it to get into Miss Marple’s head.
The killer, as it turns out, is a magnificent figure, and the most tragic since The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. There’s a shattering effect at the end as these two spinsters – Nemesis and Clytemnestra – face off in a life-or-death finale. Miss Marple, who often confronts the killer at the end, is pitiless in these final confrontations because no exigency can excuse murder. But when the killer in these books is a woman, Christie imbues the finale with a sort of sympathy to the extremes they are pushed to for love (Nemesis) or security (A Murder Is Announced) or justice (The Mirror Crack’d.)
The other bonus that we get in Nemesis is a sense of continuity which reinforces the argument that this book should be considered Miss Marple’s swan song. As in Murder at the Vicarage, we find Miss Marple in her garden, except now she’s too old to do the work, so she hires out and spends her time reading the paper and watching the world go by. We also get a sequel of sorts to A Caribbean Mystery: not only is Mr. Rafiel the impetus for the whole adventure, but we get a rare sense of closure on some characters whose fates were left hanging in the earlier book. Finally, we get the full development of Miss Marple into the figure of Nemesis. True, Mr. Rafiel anointed her with this nickname in the tropics, but hasn’t Miss Marple been a sort of avenging angel for most of her career, especially for the downtrodden and most vulnerable members of her society? She found justice for Ruby Keene in The Body in the Library, for the little housemaid in The Moving Finger, for Dora Bunner and Amy Murgatroyd in A Murder Is Announced, and most poignantly for Gladys Martin, hopeless at her servant job despite Miss Marple’s guidance, in A Pocketful of Rye.
Thus, if the middle of Nemesis meanders and drags, if there are too many extraneous characters and side trips down a rabbit hole, the book serves as both a fitting conclusion for Miss Marple and a disquisition on memory. Unfortunately, Elephants Can Remember, the ironically titled last Poirot that Christie wrote, is a mess. On the most superficial level, it invites comparisons with Five Little Pigs: a pair of deaths in the past threaten to ruin the happiness of a young engaged couple in the present. This time the girl is Mrs. Oliver’s goddaughter, so at least we have the mystery author’s presence to enjoy. She and the young people have a redoubtable enemy in Mrs. Burton-Cox, the goddaughter’s future mother-in-law and a delightful villainess.
Unfortunately, she has nothing to do with the case at hand, which pales in comparison to the murder of Amyas Crale. Carla Lemarchant has a real emotional stake in discovering whether or not her mother killed her father; Celia Ravenscroft couldn’t really care less if her father shot her mother or her mother shot her father. And – spoiler alert! – while I’m not going to argue that Christie breaks an old rule of Father Knox’ by incorporating the hoariest of cliches into her solution (she does pave the way for this), I can’t believe that any half intelligent reader can’t see the whole picture telegraphed nearly from start to finish. Finally, anyone who complains that Five Little Pigs makes a mistake by doubling down on the testimony of the five witness/suspects will welcome a succinct written document in Elephantsrather than the dozens of foggy, dull remembrances we have to trudge through, all leading to a final history plagued with chronological errors.
However . . . at least Elephants has a beginning, middle and (fairly) clear-cut end. I didn’t love it when I first read it, but there were still enjoyable parts (the beginning, mostly, and any appearance by Mrs. Oliver). Postern of Fate is something else entirely. I almost wish it had never been published, and I have to wonder if it ever saw an editor’s hand. If so, what must it have been beforehand?? If not, why not . . . for the sake of the author and her readers? Yes, we get to catch a final glimpse of Tommy and Tuppence, newly moved into a house that resembles Christie’s childhood, from architecture to the books and toys on the shelves. You kind of have to place a bookmark on the page and go down, line by line, stopping frequently to ask yourself what just happened, or whether or not you accidentally went back a few pages.
At the start of 1971, Christie was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.. This great honor could not belie the fact that her health began to sink quickly. In June, she broke her hip, never a good thing for an 81-year old woman. Her mind began to lose its sharpness. Some have theorized by analyzing the vocabulary of Elephantsthat the author might have been suffering from Alzheimer’s. We’ll never know if her last two books were a result of this supposed diagnosis, or if her reputation and power – along with the lure of money that every “Christie for Christmas” promised – were so strong that these manuscripts were not repaired as they should have been. Her final reviews were not good, and Christie laid down her pen forever.
Which makes Curtain and Sleeping Murder incredible gifts. I might argue that, as they were written at the height of her powers, they should be . . . better. But Curtain is a fascinating and important novel, and Sleeping Murder is . . . well, it’s B- Marple, but it’s eminently readable.
The whole phenomenon of Curtain makes more sense. If you’re going to write something for posterity, it should be a significant work, and Curtain gives us plenty: it reunites Poirot with Hastings, on the scene of their first triumph, it pours on the nostalgia and the pathos at seeing the great detective brought so low by age and illness, and it gives Poirot a fittingly dramatic exit.
In some ways, Curtain brings to mind Christie’s greatest triumph, And Then There Were None. In that novel, we met a psychopath who has two forces warring within him: a fixation on dispensing justice and the urge to kill. One is almost relieved that the killer was at least able to channel his murderous impulses into executing those who had already gotten away with murder. The psychotic killer and the avenging angel are separated into two people in Curtain. The murderer’s methodology is one of the most unique in the annals of mystery fiction, while the avenging angel’s identity is the real news in Curtain.
The problem for me with this book is how flat it is and how hard Christie resists giving us any sense of history. I realize that she understood that, if all turned out well with the Allies, many more Poirot novels might appear before this one. But despite the setting of the action at Styles, the whole affair exists in a sort of historical stasis. That, and the unlikelihood that so many people in this small house party would fall easy prey to the killer’s technique. (I’m sure Miss Marple would have a lot to say on this matter.)
The cumulative effect, however, is powerful. Hastings has never felt so human, and Poirot goes out, almost literally, with a bang. It makes me wonder why Christie chose to make her final tale about Miss Marple so . . . inconsequential. I’m not saying an author needs to bump off all her detectives, but it’s hard to know what to make of Sleeping Murder. I have to admit I don’t love it. First of all, any self-respecting drama student will figure out the solution before the murderer even appears on the page!! Secondly, aside from Gwenda, the beleaguered heroine, the characters have never been more flat. That makes for a draggier middle than usual, especially if you’re that aforementioned drama major who is kicking back, waiting for the revelation, the one you know is going to come, to come! And, inevitably, it does.
I called these final two novels “posthumous,” which had been Christie’s intent. However, when it became clear after Postern of Fate that the author would write no more, and when a couple of years had gone by with only some recycled stories published in new collections, permission was given to release Curtain in 1975. She died in January 1976. Sleeping Murder was published in October, giving us our penultimate Christie for Christmas. The following year, her autobiography came out (in two volumes in England). It was the final birthday gift concerning Christie that I received. And I have to say that, at the time, it was a great disappointment to see how little she talked about her writing. Maybe she saw the process as private or simply wasn’t as fascinated by the way her own mind worked as her fans would have been. We get a few good stories, notably the creation of her first novel and her most popular detective, some comments on the technical difficulties or creating a novel where everyone dies, or the detective did it, or the whole affair is set in ancient Egypt. By and large, Agatha Christie: An Autobiography is more of a life story, a charming ramble through memories of her childhood and key moments. She picks and chooses what she will focus on, and she plays the lady throughout by never diving too deep into the painful episodes. Sadly, however, those of us eager to learn what made her tick artistically would have to wait nearly forty years to find out anything.
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And so she died. The longevity of popularity for most genre writers is . . . not very long, but as we all know, this is not the case with Christie. I’m not going to pretend to know all – or seek to uncover – all the machinations that followed with the family to ensure a lasting and profitable legacy for the author. In the course of a career that spanned over fifty years and produced 66 novels, over a dozen plays and numerous collections of short stories, Christie produced many classics in the genre. And she had a readability factor that transcended her work where other equally clever plotters fell short. If you were a non-mystery fan who wanted to get a taste of the form, chances were you chose a Christie novel rather than Carr, Sayers or Allingham. If you were American and liked your thrillers more hard-boiled, your occasional forays into the world of Malice Domestic would probably involve Christie.
And yet, in the 1970’s, all of the authors I mention here and more were firmly established on shelves in bookstores and libraries all over the world. I could step into Stacey’s in downtown San Francisco on a Saturday morning and pick up a couple of Christies (Fontanas imported from the U.K. with the Tom Adams covers), a Carr, a Marsh, a Queen, and a Brand and walk out of that bookstore a little lighter in the wallet but with an eager bounce in my step. Nowadays, when you go to one of the few bookstores left in the U.S. – one of those big barns like Barnes and Noble, where few clerks behind the counter know more about books than a quick internet search will glean – the only classic mystery novelist with whom they are well-stocked is you-know-who.
How did that come to be? How did Christie, brilliant though she may be, survive the vicissitudes of time (again, aside from any canny marketing practices by her daughter and grandson)? I would venture to say that, in a stroke of great irony, it was Hollywood, with whom Agatha always had a nettlesome relationship, that made her name a world-wide phenomenon.
Christie only lived to see two major film productions during the 70’s, and I can only say that we are lucky that Endless Night, released in 1972, didn’t kill her off and destroy any prospects for future productions. It should have been better: screenwriter/director Sidney Gilliat was renowned for his film work. He had written one of the best of the British Hitchcocks (1938’s The Lady Vanishes), and he had directed easily one of the best mystery films ever (1946’s Green for Danger). He cast Hayley Mills as Ellie and assembled a cast that included a few stalwarts (George Sanders, Britt Eklund) but mostly served the needs of the story. He even hired Bernard Herrman, one of the greatest musicians of the Golden Age of Hollywood (Vertigo, Psycho) to write a lush score.
The film stinks. It paired Mills with a frequent co-star, a young Welsh actor named Hywel Bennett. I can’t comment on Bennett’s career, so I can only say that either Gilliat directed this performance to pave the way for the finish, or Bennett is at his most uncharismatic here for reasons of his own. It’s more than that, however: the editing is atrociously arty, and the violence at the end is repulsive. Christie despised the film and was quite vocal about her opinion.
However, this was not the last film based on her own work that she would see. Produceer John Brabourne had conceived the idea of mounting a luxurious adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. When he received a firm “no” from the author, he turned to his father-in-law, who happened to be Lord Mountbatten. After talking to the Queen’s second cousin, once removed, and taking into account that she had enjoyed some of Brabourne’s other production. Christie gave grudging consent for the new film to proceed.
In retrospect, I don’t think she was impressed or swayed with the stupendous credentials of the film. Sidney Lumet was one of the great directors of the day. The cast was packed with Hollywood luminaries (many of whom said yes after a canny Brabourne secured Sean Connery as Colonel Arbuthnot.) Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Sir John Guilgud, Ingrid Bergman . . . the list goes on and on. And the production values were, to say the least, sumptuous, as was Richard Rodney Bennett’s score.
I have offered my feeling on this film elsewhere. Let me just say that if, in retrospect, it lingers a little too long on the splendor, if the film does nothing to relieve us from the mild tedium of interviewing thirteen witnesses that we find in the novel, if the final moments, where everyone has a champagne cocktail party to toast Poirot’s decision on which solution he will deliver to the Yugoslav police, are jarring . . . well, none of it mattered to this 19-year-old fan in 1974. From the opening credits, through the beautifully rendered (but too revealing) opening flashback, to the gathering of the passengers and then the loving faithfulness to the plot and spirit of the original material, I was in heaven.
Most important, the movie-going public (and they couldn’t all be Agatha Christie fans, could they?) agreed with me, and as a result, EMI Productions and Brabourne decided to do it again, this time with Death on the Nile. Albert Finney was unfortunately unavailable, and so Peter Ustinov was cast as Poirot. You can leave me a comment as to who you like more between them, but my understanding was that the producers decided to hire an actor who would ape Finney’s mannered performance. Ustinov was less Poirot-like but arguably more entertaining, although in subsequent renditions of the role he would venture perhaps a little too far into the realm of comedy.
When the film came out in 1978, this 22-year-old college graduate went into even bigger paroxysms of delight. The cast was equally stellar, and the basic plot elements of the novel were adhered to. There were a number of changes, however: the twenty or so suspects from the novel were cut in half, and several of the surviving characters were given original motives to strengthen their parts. While Orient Express called to mind the lavish all-star productions of 30’s Hollywood, it was never camp; this was impossible to avoid with the likes of Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, and Angela Lansbury on set, with Ustinov eagerly cavorting at their side. The film is even longer than Lumet’s, but it doesn’t really seem so, given the multiple murders and the plethora of flashbacks that keep reframing the murder as the work of one suspect or another.
The only other way that the film suffers for me is in its casting of the pivotal triangle. Mia Farrow fares best here as Jackie, but she is nothing like the Jackie of the novel. Simon MacCorkindale as Simon certainly looks the role and plays him in a suitably callow way. For me, Lois Chiles brings the whole thing down a peg as Linnet. There is no doubt that the character is self-serving, but Chiles plays her like a monster. What’s more, this was the fifth film for the former fashion model. She would improve in her next film, Moonraker, as James Bond’s love interest, Dr. Holly Goodhead. Here she is stiff and unconvincing.
Brabourne wasn’t the only one who felt giving Christie the star treatment couldn’t fail to raise money in the box office. Shlockmeister/producer Harry Alan Towers had tried it in ’65 with Ten Little Indians. In 1974, the same year Orient Express was released, Towers slinked back with a retread of And Then There Were None, the only title to which he held the rights. Considering that most of his output were sexploitation films and Fu Manchu thrillers, this might have been either his savviest business move or his luckiest break.
Viewers were not so lucky. The cast may have been marginally more stellar than in the 60’s version – Oliver Reed, Richard Attenborough, and Elke Sommers, among others – but Towers basically recycled the same script and moved the cast from a snowy Schloss to a secluded hotel in the Iranian desert. The most distinguished thing about this film was the casting of the mysterious U.N. Owen: when the recording plays, hurling accusations at the guests, the voice that comes out of the speakers is none other than . . . Orson Welles.
One has to pause and figure out what to make of the final film to appear in the 1970’s dealing with Agatha Christie. In the latter part of the decade, journalist Kathleen Tynan began research on a project about Christie for the BBC. Naturally, she became obsessed with that most private of events, the missing eleven days in 1926. She went to the network and suggested that, instead of a documentary, they create a film about the only real life mystery involving Christie. The result was again a truly prestigious picture: Michael Apted directed, Vanessa “Mary Debenham” Redgrave played Agatha and Timothy Dalton played Archie. For the pivotal – and fictional – role of a journalist trying to track the missing author down, the producers found the extremely popular Dustin Hoffman and hopelessly miscast him.
Christie’s family hated the whole project and tried to get it stopped, to no avail. It’s easy to see why they would want the late author’s personal life kept private, especially the part she had kept mum on for over fifty years. Agatha is, for the most part, a complete work of fiction, to the point where it’s almost illicit to tag the word “biographical” to it. It provides the factual impetus for Christie’s disappearance, making something of a snarling villain out of Dalton’s Archie, who sneers at her birthday present to him and times his announcement that he’s leaving her for his golfing buddy to coincide with the acclaim she receives for Roger Ackroyd.
Once Redgrave lands at the Old Swan Hotel, the story veers into fantasy. It’s a clever fantasy with tinges of the sort of mystery the author might herself have created? Does Christie have amnesia or not? What plot is she brewing at the spa? The solution is perhaps too ridiculous to prompt speculation as to whether or not the real author would have ever conceived carrying out such a plan, but it does entertain us. Unfortunately, the lack of chemistry between Redgrave and Hoffman engenders no positive feelings in this viewer.
However . . . I find it significant that the decade ended with a biographical film about a long-forgotten incident in the life of a now-deceased genre author. It boded an interest in Christie’s life and work, an interest that would spring forth in abundance in the 1980’s. Join me next time to find out more.