Thursday, September 10, 2020

Agatha in Africa

Michael - Thursday

It’s hard to imagine that anyone reading this blog has not read an Agatha Christie novel. She's the largest selling fiction author of all time, and her 66 books have sold over 2 billion copies.

Her writing has been analysed from every imaginable point of view. Someone even discovered a link between word patterns and sentence length to the generation of tension. Modern critics have been harsh, claiming that her books are little more than dressed up puzzles with no real characterisation or attempt to address the reality of the world in which she lived. PD James – who's known for her style and characters – was asked about that in an interview at Crimefest one year. She thought for a moment, and then in her brilliant way put it in a nutshell. She said something like, “Well, it may be true that her books are not particularly deep. But let me ask you this. You are on a long international flight and land at some out of the way place, where you are told you will have to spend the night because of some technical issue. When you reach your hotel room, you find two books next to your bed. One is an Agatha Christie novel you haven’t read before, and the other is the latest Booker prize winner. Which would you choose to spend the evening with?”

In 2015, on the 125 year anniversary of Christie's birth, The Irish Times invited a number of mystery writers to write short pieces on some aspect of her work. Stanley and I were invited to join authors like Val McDermid, John Banville, and Yrsa Sigurdardottir to give a personal take. We decided to talk about her work set on the location of her travels. We'd really have liked to focus on Africa, but there's only so much you can say about Death on the Nile and all of it has already been said. Anyway, Egypt is a long way north from us. So this is what we wrote.

Christie visiting Egypt
"Agatha Christie is often thought of as the archetypal British mystery writer. People who don’t know much about her life, but read a lot of her stories, probably imagine her as a retiring, genteel, middle-class lady pecking away on a typewriter. They know from the film Agatha that she once vanished and holed up in Harrogate – and why she did that and what she did there remains a mystery, but not much else.

On the Empie Exhibition trip
In fact, she was an adventurous traveller. In the early 1920s she undertook a yearlong trip with her husband Archie, as part of a team to promote the Empire Exhibition. She learnt to surf in Cape Town, subsequently honing her skills in Hawaii, learning to surf standing up – apparently one of the first Brits to do that. She spent time in Egypt, and later with her archaeologist second husband, in Iraq. She also spent time in the Canary Islands, which some years ago held a festival in her honour.

So Christie loved the sun and the sea, and no doubt her curiosity about foreign people and places fuelled her fiction. But what of her settings? Indeed, most of her stories take place in England, but some of the most famous ones have exotic locations – Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, They Came to Baghdad. However, it seems that Agatha Christie’s only connection with southern Africa was her surfing visit to Cape Town, never setting any of her stories in this part of the world. More’s the pity."

Bathing in Cape Town
Then, a few weeks ago, we received an email from someone who clearly knows much more about Agatha Christie and her work than we do. She mentioned several more novels and short stories set in North Africa and the Middle East, including Death Comes to an End, a historical novel set in Egypt that has no European characters. And she pointed out that Christie had indeed set a novel (partly) in South Africa – The Man in the Brown Suit. Published in 1924, it was her fourth book. Although the mystery starts in Hyde Park tube station, Anne, the protagonist, follows the clues to a steamer bound for Cape Town. Clearly Cape Town had a big impact on Christie when she visited on her trip. This is how Anne expresses it:

Table Mountain from the sea
I don’t suppose that as long as I live I shall forget my first sight of Table Mountain. I got up frightfully early and went out on deck. I went right up to the boat deck, which I believe is a heinous offence, but I decided to dare something in the cause of solitude. We were just steaming into Table Bay. There were fleecy white clouds hovering above Table Mountain, and nestling on the slopes below, right down to the sea, was the sleeping town, gilded and bewitched by the morning sunlight.

It made me catch my breath and have that curious hungry pain inside that seizes one sometimes when one comes across something that’s extra beautiful. I’m not very good at expressing these things, but I knew well enough that I had found, if only for a fleeting moment, the thing that I had been looking for ever since I left Little Hampsly. Something new, something hitherto undreamed of, something that satisfied my aching hunger for romance.

A scene of the TV version
Still, South Africa was a means to an end, not the target of the story. Anne points that out herself:

By the way, I should like to make it clear here and now that this story will not be a story of South Africa. I guarantee no genuine local colour—you know the sort of thing—half a dozen words in italics on every page. I admire it very much, but I can’t do it.

After Cape Town, the action moves to Rhodesia where Anne has more adventures. The book becomes more of a thriller than a mystery, and received some sniffs from the critics on that account. But Christie received ₤500 for the first publication and that paid for her first car, a Morris Cowley. No doubt it’s made a few more bob since then.

Thanks for the heads-up, Bernadette!


  1. Wonderful, Michael!! How great to learn more about someone we think we know. And, as I recall, that car has a story too. Was that one--when he husband left her for another woman--she pushed off a cliff to fake a suicide? I know she did that with a car. And then hid out in a hotel for a few days, only to emerge in full possession of her gifts. Today she would be richer than JK Rowling, and that's saying something!!!

    Oh, and KUDOS to PD James for her put down of the literary snobs, who consider any book that has entertainment value beneath their dignity! If you want to impress them, you must write with mellifluous sentences a story in which nothing happens. In other words, colorless and boring.

  2. I think that was the disappearance at Harrogate. But I want to delve into some more background/biographies.

    I was also impressed with PD James response. If anyone, she had a right to support the character driven approach to mysteries. But the really good people don't feel obliged to put down others to improve their own status!

  3. I confess I knew about her surfing escapades! I will arm wrestle Christie bashers to the ground. Poirot and Marple sustain day time ITV. One of my desert island books is Towards Zero. Fabulous book.

  4. Earlier this week I saw a masterful hour-long show on PBS featuring David Suchet--the iconic on screen embodiment of Hercule Poirot--searching for a better understanding of Agatha Christie. It took him to her family archives and a fascinating interview with her grandson. Her Harrogate adventure remains somewhat of a mystery but most likely was linked to her husband having just asked her for a divorce. She did not send her car over a cliff, but just abandoned it in an eerie place. I heartily recommend seeking out that show for a different take on AC. Here's the link

  5. Loved this post! Definitely her books win out if given a choice between a Booker prize winner and hers, I'd opt for hers. Like her so much that I've read her, "Come tell me how you live" the story of her time out on a dig with her husband and also the stories of her life.

  6. Gosh, I"m raining on the parade. When I was 19, I was reading one of her books and I saw anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia, so I closed the book and took it back to the library. That was it. I reached my limit and tolerance.

    Everyone has their own taste and patience and I reached my limit.

    1. Did you feel it was the author's or the character's viewpoint? She lived in a different era, but that doesn't justify those viewpoints, of course.

  7. I thought it was the author's point of view. The writing wasn't in a character's mind. It was part of the narrative. Also, I had read that she softened her views on Jewish people during WWII and after the atrocities, but Christopher Hitchens visited her house for a dinner in the early 1970s (I think) and said that anti-Semitism permeated the air.

    Also, I have read many critiques online of her writing which discussed her racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, including by readers of many nationalities and people of color. Some decided to read her books, knowing this about her views; some decided not to read her books.

    The original title of one of them was horrendous, very racism. The publisher changed it in 1940 in some countries, not all. I read the title was just changed elsewhere.

    But that title alone would have turned me off forever.