On the Christie Express-- Billions and Billions Sold

"Agatha Christie: An Autobiography"
Reviewed by David Marshall James

Most novelists don't lead anything near the exciting, fascinating life that Agatha Christie did.

Ernest Hemingway may have dashed into his wife's delivery room, but Christie (nee Miller) toted amputated limbs to the furnace from a World War I operating room.

She traveled around the globe during the 1920s, surfing (!!!) off the coasts of South Africa and Hawaii, bumping across the Australian Outback, and crossing the deserts of Syria, Iraq, and Iran, before venturing into the Soviet Union.

She would return to Iraq for many seasons of archaeological digging with her second husband, Max Malloran, who became immersed in the excavation of the ancient city of Nimrud.

But, that was later, during the 1930s and after World War II.

Agatha first married a dashing Irishman, Archie Christie, a WWI flier. He abandoned his wife and daughter, Rosalind, for another woman. Agatha even begged him to take a year to reconsider restoring their union.

The author delivers many such candid details of her family, beginning with her Victorian-era parents (her father was American) and her even-more-solidly Victorian grandmothers.

Agatha was reared during the sunset of the golden age of British household servants, doting on her elderly "Nursie" and finagling treats from "Cook." Children visited with their parents at set times of the day. Agatha relates a rich, inner, imaginative life replete with made-up characters and territories (including a lengthy railroad that, in her mind's eye, circled the back garden), developing skills that would facilitate her writing.

However, she rather stumbled into that career, having little formal education (she learned multiple languages, mostly by ear), although she read voraciously and enjoyed her father's mathematics lessons. She acquired a knowledge of chemistry (including poisons) while assisting with pharmaceutical dispensation during both World Wars.

Christie considered a profession in music, being an accomplished pianist and singer. Yet, when told her voice would never be strong enough for opera, she realistically abandoned the cause. Moreover, she maintained a strong distaste for public performance and speaking throughout her life, so her hopes for the stage were scarcely set in stone.

Nevertheless, her interest in music prompted her to compose lyrics and poetry, and to branch out into more prosaic forms from there.

Her older sister, "Punkie," had had some success placing short fiction with the eager periodicals of the day, although she settled into a well-heeled marriage, but not before daring her younger sister to write a detective novel.

Christie doesn't dwell on her writing as much as one might expect. She dismisses her detective fiction as "entertainment" and wishes she had begun by rendering Hercule Poirot a considerably younger investigator, so that author and character could have "grown old together," as she puts it.

Still, she had no way of forecasting his (or her) longevity.

Switching about with protagonists, from Jane Marple to Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, helped forestall writer's ennui, and she claims the greatest pride in her more "serious" novels, written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, particularly "Absent in the Spring," which she wrote over three days during World War II.

Following WWII, Christie embarked on a fresh phase of her writing life-- for the stage, producing the sensationally long-running "The Mousetrap," as well as "Witness for the Prosecution" and "The Spider Web," among others.

Christie's more than eighty books have sold more than one billion (yes, that's a "b") copies in English, with another one-billion-plus in translation.

She commenced recording her life in 1950, in Iraq, closing out her recollections in 1965, at age 75, although she lived until 1976. HarperCollins has republished this lengthy memoir (almost 550 pages) with both color and black-and-white photographs, along with a CD of some salvaged oral dictation by Christie for this autobiography.