Thursday, October 18, 2012

Agatha's Express

Read Charlotte Canelli's column in the October 19, 2012 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin or listen to the podcast on SoundCloud. Podcasts are archived on the Voices from the Library page of the library website.

On the evening of Friday, December 3, 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared. At the time, she was the well-known author of “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, her seventh mystery. Her car was found abandoned several hours after she had announced that she “was going for a drive.” She left several notes; in one to local authorities, she declared that she feared for her life. In another, to a relative of her husband, she stated that she was going on a vacation. Her friends and fans were very confused and they speculated that she might have committed suicide. A local lake, one in which one of the characters in her novels had drowned, was dredged. 15,000 volunteers searched for Ms. Christie high and low.

Although Agatha’s mother had died months before, and admittedly Agatha was suffering from that loss, the story that emerged was that she was actually grief stricken over a very blatant affair that her husband was having. In the end, Agatha might have wanted to publicly embarrass her husband and at the same time escape the humiliation caused by his affair. In any event, husband Archie Christie was forced to travel eleven days after her disappearance to the Old Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Yorkshire, England. His mission? To identify Agatha, a resort guest and an identical match who was refusing to admit she was the one and only Ms. Christie. Or so the mystery goes.

Whatever the tale, Agatha Christie, her life and her books have mesmerized society and readers alike for nearly a century.

Agatha Christie and her husband Archie were divorced three years later. She was happily married again, this time to an archeologist whose work inspired her writing such as “Murder on the Nile. She remained married until 1976 when she died. During her prolific and illustrious writing career, Agatha wrote over 66 detective novels and 15 short story collections. There are dozens of Christie film adaptations and even more television adaptations, games and graphic novels. Agatha Christie is simply a genius.

There are many biographies about Agatha Christie which include answers to many of the events of her life, including that famous 1926 disappearance. Christie also wrote romance novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott. The Guinness Book of World Records claims that Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time, her mysteries selling more than four billion copies across the world. “The Mousetrap,” her murder mystery stage play which opened in 1952 has run continuously for over 24,500 performances. Christie was anointed as Dame Agatha Christie by Queen Elizabeth in 1971 and her books have been translated into 103 languages.

And so, how is it that until this year I, a librarian, had not read a single mystery novel written by Agatha Christie or viewed one of the movies based on her books? It’s a mystery to me that I just can’t solve.

This year the library has programmed a wonderful Fiction 2 Film series which begins in November and continues through March. The first book and movie in this series is the amazing “Murder on the Orient Express” and so my first experience with Agatha Christie has begun.

“Murder on the Orient Express” was published in 1934 and featured the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (who also appeared in 33 of Christie’s mysteries.) In Christie’s mysteries, Poirot is socially, financially and culturally literate. He manages to get people to talk while he investigates and collects clues. He is wily, somewhat secretive and punctual. Agatha’s reading public loved Poirot. Christie grew to find tiresome. The New York Times published its only obituary ever of a fictional character. In August 1975 the paper announced that “Hercule Poirot is Dead.”

As a reader of much non-fiction, and history major in college, I began reading “Murder on the Orient Express” and almost immediately craved a map. It bothered me that I didn’t know exactly where the train was going and over what terrain; place names of the 1930s and the geography sometimes stumped me. Stamboul and Haydapasar, especially.

Of course, I shouldn’t have feared a thing because I found that the Agatha Christie website has devoted an entire submenu to annotated maps of each and every Christie mystery and detective. I realized very quickly that reading Agatha, accompanied by maps, could become a new addiction.

There are a dozen biographies of Agatha Christie, most written in the 1970s – 1990s. Recent ones, however, include revelations from 73 handwritten volumes of her mother’s notes and drafts. After Christie’s daughter died in 2004, these notebooks came to light and proved a treasure trove for Christie biographers.

Two of these are “Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mystery in the Making” and “Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making - More Stories and Secrets from Her Notebooks” by John Curran (published in 2010 and in 2011). Irish resident Curran analyzes her life as documented in these writings and notes. “Duchess of Death: The Unauthorized Biography of Agatha Christie” by Richard Hack (2009) includes details about Christie’s obsession with privacy and aversion to the press.

“The 8:55 to Baghdad: From London to Iraq on the Trail of Agatha Christie” by Andrew Eames (2004) details her private life as a single mother, her marriages and some of the exotic adventure of Agatha Christie’s life.

Not reading Agatha Christie until my 60th year proves that I’ve obviously been out of touch and woefully deficient. You can say that I simply missed the express out of the station. Quite literally.

Please join me on my journey in November when we briefly discuss “Murder on the Orient Express” and view the film.

If you would like to reserve any of the titles above please call the Reference or Information desks of the library, 781-769-0200, or visit the Minuteman Library Network catalog online to reserve them.