Yikes! I got a little confused this week, probably due to tech’ing and opening a musical over the weekend. I thought it was the end of the month and The Tuesday Night Bloggers last week to tackle Agatha Christie. So I wrote a rather personal summation of my relationship with the author and then woke up this morning with the realization that we still have one week of Christie talk to go! Ah, well! Too late to write another piece for today, so think of this as if you’re peeking at the end of the book, and next week you can go back and look at all the clues that led you here. In fact, I think I’ll talk about Christie’s clueing next week!
I am proud to be part of the first generation of the Tuesday Night Bloggers, put together by Curtis Evans as a forum for discussing some of the top authors from the Golden Age of mystery fiction. I really owe my start as a blogger to Curt, who graciously provided a forum for me on his own blog – thepassingtramp.blogspot.ca – when everyone on the GAD Facebook page was celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th anniversary. Today I thought that I would speak a little more personally about my relationship with Christie.
In the time between the First and Second World Wars, readers turned to detective stories as a means of coping with the chaos of the modern world around them. In a way, a murder mystery mirrored the events happening in real-life: the cozy village, secluded mansion or luxury liner invaded by murder became a metaphor for the violent upheaval visited upon one’s homeland by enemy invaders. The difference was that, due to the expert machinations of a public, private or amateur detective, the murderer – that causal agent of destruction in a mystery – was vanquished and, to a great degree, peace and order were restored to the community. Plus, with the careful placement of clues within the text, social chaos was reduced to a game, and the reader was invited and empowered to join forces with the detective to restore order to the world, something that most citizens felt powerless about as world forces battled around them.
Being a kid can make you feel equally powerless, especially if you’re growing up in the 1960’s, and you prefer musical theatre to rock and roll and reading to baseball. (Any doubts on that, check out my little league photo!) I read voraciously as a child. More than anything else, I devoured mysteries, first Encyclopedia Brown, then The Hardy Boys.
On Curt’s blog I mentioned my favorite babysitter, Steven Levy, who got us to bed with stories told in serial fashion based on books and movies he loved. My favorite story was the one he told about ten strangers trapped on an island by a homicidal maniac and how, one by one, they died in horrible fashion. This, unbeknownst to me, was my first taste of Agatha Christie.
When I was nine years old, my family moved to a small, grubby suburb of San Francisco called Westlake. It’s the town that inspired Malvina Reynolds to write the song, “Little Boxes.”
We only stayed there for a year before relocating back to the city, but it was long enough for my shaky confidence to suffer serious damage. My fellow students took one look at this studious, small for his age, sarcastic little boy who loved theatre and hated sports, and decided that I must be tortured daily as punishment for having moved to their community. I transformed from an outgoing kid to pretty much a nervous wreck due to their bullying. At this point, reading became as much a solace as a pleasure to me. One day, that solace took on a new dimension when I found the novel Ten Little Indians on the paperback rack at a local drugstore. As I read the descriptions on the back and inside cover, I realized excitedly that this was the very story Steven Levy had recounted to my brothers and me a couple of years previously!
I made my mom buy the book for me. Then I made her buy me Murder in the Calais Coach, (the horrible American Title for Orient Express), and, after that, The Mousetrap and Other Stories. I began to spend my allowance money on Christie paperbacks – which led to buying Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh and others. I would plop myself down in our living room after homework was done and get lost in the world of English villages and sleuths with egg-shaped heads or lace fichu collars. Christie both excited me – I’ll never forget my reaction as Poirot revealed the solution to Orient Express; did all grown-up mysteries have such stunners of an ending? – and calmed me down, much in the same way, I believe, that her books had provided comfort to people who read them through the Blitz.
Today, my relationship with Christie has been burnished by time and familiarity. I still own the tattered stack of Christies I bought in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I have most of the books on audio CDs, too. Every novel but two has been reread many times. (Those two are Passenger to Frankfurt and Postern of Fate. My fellow Christie lovers will, I think, forgive me for that.) I own most of the film and television adaptations, as well as the audiobooks and BBC radio plays, as well as many fine analytical books about the author. (Get a hold of Robert Barnard’s A Talent to Deceive and John Curran’s two volumes about Christie’s notebooks if you can.) Knowing the solutions doesn’t diminish the joy of watching the plot unfold, the clues spring up, and the suspects gathered together for the unmasking of a killer. I consider my connection with Christie’s work to be even more vital than it was when I first met her, just like the relationship with an old friend should be.
Over the past twenty-seven years, I have spread the word about Christie to my high school students in a variety of ways. Every spring, my drama classes do a murder mystery project, in which they choose a year in history and a closed setting and then create a “Golden Age” style mystery with suspects and clues delivered in fair play fashion. The groups compete with each other to fool the most classmates with their solutions. Each member of the winning group receives an Agatha Christie novel as a prize.
On a trip to London in 1985, I initiated a relationship with Christie, the playwright, when I saw The Mousetrap. (Is there anyone here who does not know that this holds the record for the longest running play in history?) The performance was sparsely attended, and the cast’s energy reflected that. But the people sitting in front of me had a ball trying to guess the identity of the murderer during the interval. (Everyone was wrong!) Twenty years later, I would direct the play with my students. What fun we had! I had the perfect Molly, and one young man who had done small parts during his high school career really came into his own as Mr. Paravicini. A few years before that, I had directed The Hollow, which is one of my favorite adaptations by Christie of her work. And five years ago, we produced A Murder Is Announced where, I have to admit, I reinserted Colonel and Mrs. Easterbrook, who had been summarily cut by Lesley Darbon, the adapter of the novel. My celebration of Christie’s dramatic work will continue this spring when we celebrate her 125th anniversary with a production of And Then There Were None, bringing me back full circle to the story that started my grand affair with Dame Agatha!
Thank you for bearing with my gushing blather. I haven’t provided much insight into Christie herself this go round, yet I know that Agatha Christie will crop up again on this page many more times. (Next week, in fact, since I got my dates confused!) For now, I feel immense gratitude to my favorite mystery author, who has provided me with such pleasure for most of my life and who, I know, will do so as long as I continue my study of the Golden Age of Mystery.