Last week I had a pleasant shock. Reaching up to the top shelf for the sanctuary of my Agatha Christie collection, I found one I hadn’t already read (heard on the radio/seen on TV) five times.
I hadn’t even read it once. How had I missed it? A new Christie. Bliss!
To be honest, writes Gareth Calway, Passenger To Frankfurt turned out to be less than vintage. Published in 1970, near the end of her career, and a Bond-villain thriller rather than a detective yarn – full of the slightly bonkers conspiracy theories that occasionally blur Christie’s entertaining social observations – it seems to conflate long-haired 1960s hippies with the Hitler youth of the 1930s. (She’s much funnier elsewhere raising her Victorian eyebrows at miniskirts and tights.)
Was the grand old lady losing her marbles – or at any rate, her memory of two radically different decades?
Of course, my England began with the Beatles; Christie’s died on the Somme.
She was – and in her writing somehow remained - a volunteer nurse. In First World War hospitals, she learned about doctors and death and all those poisons. She never stopped trying to put back together that Victorian-Edwardian Eden shattered in the trenches.
This may be why reading her murder stories is so comforting, like a game of Cluedo. Genteel ladies garden, servants bring in dinner and cocktails; the suspects convene in that heart of civilisation – the library. But ghastly deaths occur – sometimes even in those libraries. In the Marple books in particular, the English village is a Paradise infested with serpents.
There is real evil; modern nastiness –schoolgirls abducted; sex crime; handsome devils who really are the devil; psychopathic stranglers; incestuous possessiveness; poison pens; furies; Dr Shipmans; abuse. There is choking on acid; burning-alives and Conrad hearts of darkness– even black magic, however bogus.
You’re right not to trust the doctor; you might not even be able to trust the vicar; and never trust an actress.
Yet, because you can trust the detective, it is a secure world.
Even, incredibly, in concentration camps. One Jewish internee in Buchenvald wrote to thank her after the war, saying his group’s ability to escape into a production of one of her stories is what kept them alive. Christie’s fanmail shows (she is the most read author after the Bible and Shakespeare) this is just an extreme example of the security her detectives offer everyone, making sense of a senseless world.
Christie holidayed annually in Norfolk. Hardly surprising. “It’s St Mary Mead!” as one of my daughter’s University friends exclaimed, visiting our flint cottage village.
Perhaps forgetting how many murders happen in St Mary Mead!
Next time I need to escape the hurly burly, it’ll have to be via a Christie I already know like an old friend.
Luckily, I almost never remember the solution - until she finds it for me.