Monday, August 30, 2010


To Agatha with thanks

Eighty-nine years ago, a woman that few people had ever heard of tried something that was to change the face of recreational reading. The something? A country house mystery called The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The woman? Agatha Christie. The motivation was said to be a challenge by her sister. Although this unknown and unpublished author had her troubles selling this manucript (actually written in 1916), the book survived and was the first of eighty detective novels books to entrall readers around the world. She has been translated into 103 languages as the first clue to that. She is reputed to be the largest selling individual author of all time and that’s not mentioning the popular plays and short stories. And she is the first name that comes to mind for most readers when they think of mysteries. The world was fascinated by Christie and her works. She continues to be the subject of books, articles and much discussion. Her work continues to be made into television drama and movies. We are still talking about her.

Like many people, I read almost everything she ever wrote, surviving even some of the more bizarre later books (no titles mentioned) and returning every few years to the early ones, like a chocolate addict to a box of truffles. I bought the same books more than once, mislead by the fact that the UK titles are not the same as the American version. This year, I’ve reread several books including Murder on the Orient Express and Thirteen for Dinner and read Curtain which closes the circle that introduced Poirot at Styles so many years before. They are still entertaining and readable, still a bit tongue in cheek, and occasionally campy, but in a good way. They take us to a time when the upper crust had time on its hands, life could be spent country house parties, gowns and jewels and fabulous trips, butlers and cooks and parlour maids, ladies’ maids, kitchen maids and upstairs maids, all in little white caps too. Leather luggage and cigarette holders, hats and hunting parties. Really, to die for. In every way. We lapped it up. Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple became household names.

Agatha Christie’s own life was complex, interesting and mysterious. I think in many ways she’s more fascinating than many of her fictional creations. There was the unhappy marriage, the missing weeks when she disappeared and her later meeting in Bagdad and subsequent marriage to the noted archaeologist, Max Mallowan. Mallowan was thirteen years her junior and the exotic trips with him also gave us such titles as Death on the Nile.

Agatha Christie left a legacy of books and also her gracious residence and refuge (Greenway in Devon) which is now a much-visited National Trust property. It was in Greenway that she kept her notebooks, some ninety of them, filed away and forgotten. The discovery of this treasure trove is the subject of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: fifty years of mysteries in the making. This book is a joyous examination of the notebooks, by John Curran. To an author it is a fabulous tour, learning something of the infrastructure, the trial and error, the thought processes behind the books, a glimpse at an amazing body of work. It is not only entertaining, but also reassuring to see the questions? The second thoughts and the modifications that underlie well-known stories.

Naturally, I bought the ‘secret notebooks’ in hardcover. Agatha Christie continues to hold my interest and affection. I owe her a lot. So it is with a happy heart that I mention that Agatha Christie will form a part of the plot of a new venture. My daughter, Victoria Maffini, and I will be collaborating on a new book collector’s mystery series. We’ll be writing as Victoria Abbott and we’re tickled that our first book (no title yet) will feature the search for a previously unknown Christie manuscript that seems to have popped up and is tantalizing our fictional collector. Is it real? Is it legal? Is it a scam? You know of course, that we can’t tell you the answer to that, but we can say that we know it will be dangerous!

It was wonderful news to us to learn that indeed there were unpublished short stories found at Greenway during the great notebook excursion. If there were some there, who’s to say there aren’t others? What’s more, with such a well-travelled writer, who’s to say where they might be? We think that the Grande Dame would approve of that part at least. We hope to do justice in our own small way to the Queen of Crime and continue the sense of fun that permeates so much of her own work.

What about you? Is there a Christie story you can’t resist rereading?

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three, soon to be three and a half, mystery series. You can check them out at


  1. there's a wonderful article about Agatha in a recent issue (august 16th & 23rd) of New Yorker magazine - worth tracking down the magazine and reading - also fun to watch again the 1979 movie Agatha, with Vanessa Redgrave in the title role and Dustin Hoffman as Wally Stanton

  2. I credit Agatha Christie as well to my life-long addiction to crime fiction, and the inspiration for beginning Napoleon's own crime series, RendezVous Crime. Brought up on the prairies in the days when the weekly Bookmoible was the only source of books, as a child, I devoured every Christie mystery. I thank the Bookmobile to this day for their good taste. And often wonder who chose the books that they put on the shelves of the little rolling van of delight.

  3. I remember reading Hickory, Dickory, Dock when I was fourteen and babysitting for neighbours. Because their house was only a few doors away from my own home they simply paid me and ushered me out the door at midnight. Those were the longest three hundred feet I've ever had to run. Agatha certainly knew how to ramp up the suspense.