Monday, 24 October 2016

The Lady Vanishes

Is that you, Mrs Oliver?

“Ruthless” – it’s a word Agatha Christie is fond of. In Murder in Mesopotamia, Fr Lavigny says of the fascinating Mrs Leidner: “I think she could be ruthless.” She IS ruthless – she has no conscience about teasing and bullying vulnerable members of the expedition, or betraying her husband. And it’s what Christie’s mother said about her husband, Archie, when she first met him – “I think he could be ruthless”.

In April 1926, Christie's beloved mother died. Agatha spent weeks clearing out her beloved home Ashfield, where her mother and grandmother (a hoarder) had lived. For some of the time she had her young daughter Rosalind, but Archie always had an excuse not to come down for the weekend. She disposed of wardrobes full of clothes, and threw away piles of rubbish. She became exhausted. In her autobiography she reveals that when she had to sign her name, for a frightening moment she couldn’t remember it.

She returned home to Sunningdale, but Archie seemed different, and had not booked the trip abroad they were planning. Archie revealed he was having an affair with a younger woman, Nancy Neele, and wanted a divorce. He always said he was no good when anyone was unhappy or ill: his own happiness came first. (Is it a coincidence that Agatha had become successful and famous?)

In December 1926 she went out late at night in her car and didn’t come back. The car was found at Newlands Corner, near the Silent Pool. In it was her fur coat, her bag and her passport. A nationwide search was launched, involving aeroplanes and Conan Doyle (he held a séance). A newspaper published mockups of how she might look, her appearance changed with different hairstyles and glasses (see above).

Eleven days later she was recognised by a musician (saxophonist? banjo player?) at the Swan hotel in Harrogate. She had checked into the hotel under the name Theresa Neele. Archie turned up to collect her and gave out that she had been suffering from amnesia.

There are various accounts – did she make Archie wait while she changed her dress? Did she come downstairs and admit who she was? Did she fail to recognise him?

Some say that, according to her sister and brother-in-law, a telegram detailing her plans had gone astray. That was their story and they stuck to it.

In 1928 the Christies divorced, and Archie and Nancy married. Agatha met her second husband, Max Mallowan, in Mesopotamia in 1930.

In 1932 a short story The Affair at the Bungalow was published in the collection The Thirteen Problems (spoiler alert - I'm about to give away the plot). A group of friends meet weekly. At each gathering one of them tells the story of an “unsolved mystery” to which she or he knows the answer and challenges the others to solve it. In the corner is a little old white haired lady; the others hardly realised she was playing. You know the rest...

It’s the turn of actress Jane Hellier, a guest of Colonel and Dolly Bantry, to tell a story. She’s beautiful, but not known for her brains. She begins a rather rambling tale (appealing for help in naming the characters) about a "friend" of hers, also an actress, who is playing the provinces somewhere like Marlow.

Jane's "friend" is summoned to a police station to meet a young man. He turns out to be a playwright, who’s been found wandering dazedly. He says that he sent the actress a play to read, and she invited him to a riverside bungalow to discuss it. He turned up, and there she was, they had a cup of tea, and then everything went black... (At about this point Jane gives up pretending it all happened to a friend.)

Meanwhile the bungalow has been found turned upside down as if by burglars. The playwright says he’s never seen the real Miss Hellier before, and she claims she’s never met him. The bungalow was inhabited by yet another actress, the mistress of a wealthy city man, who was mysteriously summoned to London (along with her maid) to get her out of the way. But nothing has been taken.

All confess themselves baffled, and turn to Miss Marple, who says something like “All I know is that women should stick together.” The company departs, and Dolly and Jane go up to bed.

“Dolly,” asks Jane. “Do you think there are many like her?” Like Miss Marple, she explains. Because Miss Marple has guessed the answer to her mystery – it was all a put-up job by Jane herself. She got the actress playing her maid in the play to impersonate her, while she played the maid – because nobody looks at a maid. They drugged the young man, faked the burglary, and dragged the unconscious man outside. “But I’d be in her power, wouldn’t I?” she asked, meaning that the other woman could always blackmail her.

“But it’s too late now!” says Dolly. Jane explains that “it hasn’t happened YET, I was just ‘trying it on the dog’ so to speak”, to see if anyone could unravel her plot.

“But what's the point of it all?” asks Dolly, utterly baffled, as the reader will be by now. Jane explains. The actress who is living in the bungalow as the mistress of a rich city man stole Jane’s husband. “She was the one who took Claude from me!”

“But, but...?” stammers Dolly.

“You see,” says Jane, “It would be in all the papers, and everybody would see what kind of a woman she was.”

And that’s my solution to The Case of the Vanishing Writer. She must have walked from the car to Guildford station, got a train to London and from there to Harrogate. She could have gone to her London flat and picked up some clothes. She must also have taken cash and another bag with her. Cash, because how could she write a check without using her own name? The search was all over the papers every day - if she didn’t want to disappear, why didn’t she call or telegraph to her sister?

Many years later, Christie invented her comical alter ego, Mrs Ariadne Oliver, who appears in many of her books as a sidekick to Poirot. In Third Girl, which I love despite some absurdities, Mrs Oliver sets out to shadow a young man in a café. She nips into the loo and scrapes her hair back into a bun and puts on a pair of reading glasses. He is not fooled by the disguise.

More Christie here.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Andrew Marr on Detective Fiction

This is a review of Andrew Marr's programme about popular fiction on BBC4.

Marr should have learned from his subjects how to do linear narrative. You can say “I talked to living detective story writers” without giving us a clip of their interviews. The programme gets better as it goes on, and the sets and photography are good - a soulless empty office to talk about the Kingsmarkham nick, interviewing Val McDermid across a table with cardboard coffee cups etc.

Agatha Christie cliché bingo: “Characters who are moved around like pieces on a chessboard… that least gritty of authors… not for nothing have these books been dismissed as snobbery with violence… murder was a genteel game as servants not clever enough to be serial killers…” (After the Funeral?)

In Christie novels there is almost no violence - a gentle tap on the back of the head…” An old woman bludgeoned to death with the knob from a brass bedstead? Another struck down with a brass sugar hammer? More than one character despatched with a stiletto under the base of the skull and into the medulla oblongata?

PD James: “There are no great problems of right or wrong.” (Orient Express?)

Marr lists writers’ prior jobs, without mentioning that Christie started her working life as a nurse and pharmacist. But as for structure: “She’s dancing in front of us.”

Talking to Sophie Hannah: “I don’t terribly like Christie - I find the characters too cardboard.”

SH: “The characters are presenting themselves as two-dimensional, everyone is presenting themselves as they want to be seen. They are absolutely not two-dimensional.” (It’s like watching a film - we only see them from outside and hear what they say.)

Marr: But Christie is “cosy - there’s not much blood and guts.”

SH: “There’s a powerful awareness of evil… the danger that any one of us might cross that line.”

He repeats the usual slur that all the loose ends are tied up at the end and life goes on as usual. But if there wasn’t a solution, what would be the point of writing the book? Is there a mystery without a solution? (Marsh’s Black as He’s Painted? Go on, tell me who did the murder.)

Previews also said Marr’s acting was appalling, but it’s not so bad. He’s OK on Scottish characters, and how else would you say “Giant Rat of Sumatra”? His Poirot is no worse than many audio Poirots. But he shouldn’t have tried to do Chandler as an American - Chandler was an Irishman brought up in England, who went to Dulwich College and sounded standard English (per recordings).

We get to social history in the last few seconds. “Historians in 100 years time… will turn to McDiarmid and Rankin. To this cheap, disposable - throwaway entertainment - that will outlast us all.”

Fantasy next time, then spies.