Agatha Christie was arguably the first modern literary celebrity, and it follows that her long writing life, from her first published novel in 1920 to her death in 1976 at the age of 85, has been thoroughly picked over, not only by journalists during her lifetime but by the author herself in her autobiography. Any biographer wishing to bring a new perspective to Christie’s story is therefore working within obvious limitations, not least that many of the most intimate and revealing letters written or received by her were destroyed by family or associates. Barring the miraculous discovery of a hitherto unknown cache of documents, then, the best a new biography can hope to do is to offer a fresh interpretation of some very well-thumbed material.
Lucy Worsley’s Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman is the first significant biography of Christie since Laura Thompson’s Agatha Christie: An English Mystery in 2007. Unlike Thompson, whose book was something of a hagiography, Worsley steers a careful course between sympathy for her subject and a brisk, no-nonsense acknowledgment of her flaws. In order to maintain this balance, she has to combine a feminist appreciation of the author’s achievements (and the ways in which male journalists and biographers have misrepresented her) with a stern contemporary condemnation of Christie’s more unsavoury views. “We have to face the fact that somewhere in the mass of contradictions making up Agatha Christie was a very dark heart,” she writes. “It’s not just that she could dream up stories in which even children can kill. It’s also that her work contains views on race and class that are unacceptable today.” It’s true that some of Christie’s books contain racist and antisemitic caricatures offensive to modern readers, though whether that’s evidence of inner darkness rather than simply the inevitable product of her background is debatable.
Of course the great mystery at the heart of any Christie biography is her 11-day disappearance in December 1926; this too was subject to wildly differing interpretations even as it was happening. Shortly after the death of her beloved mother, Christie’s husband, Archie, informed her that he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. She was also under enormous pressure to produce the follow-up to her most recent success, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Leaving her young daughter, Rosalind, at home with the servants, she drove to the Surrey Hills, where her abandoned car was later found crashed into a hedge at the edge of a quarry, her clothes and driving licence still inside. While the police prepared to drag ponds in search of her corpse, Christie had made her way to a spa hotel in Harrogate, where she checked in as Mrs Teresa Neele, bought herself a new wardrobe and went dancing with the other guests. As news of the famous author’s disappearance reached Harrogate, “Mrs Neele” was heard to observe that Mrs Christie was “a very elusive person. I cannot be bothered with her.”
Opinions on this episode, both at the time and retrospectively, fall into two camps: either Christie experienced a genuine loss of memory, or she was faking it. One (male) journalist even suggested that she had deliberately set out to frame her husband for murder. Worsley is firmly of the belief that Christie suffered an episode of mental illness (what would now be called a dissociative fugue state), and here her sympathy for her subject is at its fiercest: “The great injustice of Agatha Christie’s life was not that her husband betrayed her while she was mourning her mother. Nor was it even the mental distress. It was the fact that she was shamed for her illness in the national newspapers in such a public way that people ever since have suspected her of duplicity and lies.”
While it may offer little in the way of startling revelations, where Worsley’s book excels is in bringing a broader historical perspective to Christie’s life and work, and her enthusiasm is infectious. She makes the case that, despite the author’s outwardly conservative views, Christie “could be described as a ‘covert’ feminist”, and her clinching evidence is the enduringly popular character of Jane Marple; the later Marple novels “all express Agatha’s view of a Britain that has gone wrong, but in which a single old lady can still be a force for good”.
Since the crime fiction writer Sophie Hannah revived the character of Hercule Poirot in 2014 with the blessing of the Christie estate, it was only a matter of time before Marple was similarly resurrected, with much speculation as to who would inherit such an enviable task. The answer turns out to be an ensemble offering: in Marple: Twelve New Stories, 12 female authors have contributed a new story featuring the formidable sleuth of St Mary Mead. The editors have opted for a range of voices, including some obvious choices – established mystery writers such as Val McDermid, Elly Griffiths and Lucy Foley – but also looking outside the genre with an eye on the US market; American authors Leigh Bardugo, Jean Kwok and Alyssa Cole all reimagine Miss Marple from a fresh perspective, while remaining true to the character’s role as a shrewd observer of human nature and social change.
Standout contributions come from Naomi Alderman, whose story The Open Mind introduces drugs and sexual assault into the stuffy gothic atmosphere of an Oxford college, and Natalie Haynes, whose The Unravelling weaves borrowed plot strands from the myth of Odysseus and Oedipus Rex into an apparently conventional story of village life. Christie took Marple to some exotic locations in the later books, so perhaps Alyssa Cole’s gloriously comic Miss Marple Takes Manhattan is not so far-fetched. Purists may cavil at some of the subjects or locales, but taken as a whole, this highly enjoyable collection illustrates Worsley’s conclusion: “Although Miss Marple stories are often described as cosy crime, this is a bold, dark, troubling view of the world.” It’s also a testament to the enduring power of Christie’s imagination.
• Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman by Lucy Worsley is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
• Marple: Twelve New Stories is published by HarperCollins (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply