This year, I was lucky to be invited to speak at the International Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay, during the week of Agatha Christie’s birthday (15th September). This year, for various reasons, I decided to treat myself to a holiday and enjoy nearly the full festival, rather than popping in for a day or two as I’ve had to do before.
And what a pleasure it was. The first thing to note is that the gods decided to treat Torquay to a healthy mix of atmospheric rain and sunshine that doesn’t need any compensatory adjectives during the course of the week. The festival organisers kindly put me up for a night in the Grand Hotel, a bastion of olden days grandeur where Agatha Christie and her first husband, Archie, honeymooned in 1914. For the other nights, I stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast, the Montana, which is run by a young family.
Torquay is beautiful, and really does feel like you’re stepping into a fictional world. The palm trees, the period architecture, and the wonderful and oh-so-local conversations you overhear just walking around add to the effect. You also come across a lot of blue plaques commemorating the homes or holidays of the famous, including Torquay’s most famous daughter, the Queen of Crime…
… of whom there is a bust! Every time I visit, I snap a selfie with Agatha’s head, but this time there were some excellent friends to share the spotlight with! Yes, friends! It has been so lovely to catch up with so many people, some of whom I haven’t seen in real life since before the pandemic.
Feeling rather cheeky, I brought along some copies of my latest book, the encyclopaedic catalogue of Christie’s published and unpublished writing, themes, and characters, Agatha Christie: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction. Some people who already had copies said very kind things about it, and others very kindly took my copies off my hands (although I did so much shopping, it didn’t really lighten my suitcase). It is such a treat to know that people are actually reading and, even better, enjoying one’s work.
Starting with the Big Hitters
This year’s festival was directed by Daniel Schumann, formerly a producer for Bill Kenwright Limited (who created the Agatha Christie Theatre Company a couple of decades ago) although some of the arrangements were made by last year’s organiser – and a speaker this year – Tony Medawar, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Christie and her peers, and who for many years I knew only as ‘the chap who wrote the explanatory notes in While the Light Lasts’ (he also unearthed and collected all the stories in that book). It ran smoothly thanks in large part to an army of dedicated volunteers including the wonderfully friendly Jo and Gary Barlow, who kindly drove me to and from one of my talks.
Sadly, I missed two early events on Saturday 10th September. In the afternoon, three of the authors who have contributed to the new short story collection, Marple, helped launch the book. Although I didn’t get to see them this time, I have previously met Kate Mosse, Dreda Say Mitchell, and Elly Griffiths at different events so I know they gave excellent insights and am gutted to have missed it. I did, however, buy the book from the festival’s pop-up bookshop, heroically manned by Crediton-based The Bookery, and immediately dug in on the train back.
So far, I’ve read stories by Lucy Foley and Val McDermid (the latter revives many of the characters and settings from The Murder at the Vicarage). Other authors who have contributed stories to this new book include Naomi Alderman, Leigh Bardugo, Alyssa Cole, Natalie Haynes, Jean Kwok, Karen M. McManus, and Ruth Ware. All titans of the crime writing world and among them is, I’m convinced, the nearest thing we have to an heir to Christie.
In the evening on Saturday, Lucy Worsley introduced her new biography, Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman. People were buzzing from this event throughout the whole week and again I’m very sorry to have missed it (apparently, she mentioned me!). Luckily, I will be seeing Lucy next week, as I am interviewing her for the National Archives immediately after our Christie-themed symposium, Dig It! Unearthing Agatha Christie’s Crime Fiction Legacy, on Wednesday 21st September. It will surprise no one that Lucy is an engaging and generous speaker. If you haven’t got hold of the book yet, I’d strongly suggest doing so. It is a biography for our times, which positions the Queen of Crime as, foremost, a woman to whom the twentieth century happened.
The Festival Programme
This year, more than in previous years, the festival spread itself out. For the first time, as far as I know, there were official events as far away as Exeter, where John Curran spoke from the university’s archives (these hold Christie’s business correspondence, which was invaluable during my PhD studies, and some examples of which were on display – including my favourite letter). Kathryn Harkup, author of A is for Arsenic, and crime novelist Kate Ellis also hosted themed events in Exeter.
The first talk I saw, in Torquay, was from Tony Medawar himself, discussing Christie’s 1922 Grand Tour, which was to serve the British Empire Mission. By now, I think we’ve all seen the famous pictures of a young Agatha surfing in Hawaii, but Tony gave us the full story of the tour, and how it inspired her work – not just the next novel, The Man in the Brown Suit, where it’s most obvious, but also other titles and creative choices throughout her career.
Later, I was lucky enough to see Tina Hodgkinson, expert in Agatha Christie’s London, give us a whistlestop tour through Poirot’s London. Tina’s excellent presentation gave us insights into the houses and the quirkier parts of London society, including Kasper the cat, an elegant dinner guest carved from a single block of plane which sits in the Savoy Hotel, to accompany any dinner parties of thirteen – referring to that old superstition that readers will recognise from Lord Edgware Dies (and Three-Act Tragedy).
Unfortunately, I missed the talk from Carla Valentine, ‘Agatha, Bernard and Crime: The ABC of Murder’, all about forensic science and the influence of Sir Bernard Spilsbury – but luckily I get to see it next week in Suffolk, at the aforementioned Dig It!. Like Lucy Worsley, Carla knows how to communicate to a general audience, and how to make complex research come alive in the most entertaining and informative way.
There were quite a few academic specialists at this year’s festival, and several people came along who have previously been at our wonderful Agatha Christie conferences. Writer and professor Frankie Y. Bailey came over from the University of Albany to give us an excellent introduction to American crime writers of colour. Bailey, a former president of Sisters in Crime and former VP of Mystery Writers of America, brought the long history of the mystery story alive to a room of readers mostly unfamiliar with the authors she discussed.
Other talks from academic doctors included Mark Aldridge (Solent University) on the topic of ‘Agatha Christie – from Stage to Screen’, which was a hugely entertaining success and elements of which he kindly presented at our Golden Age conference in June. Charlotte Beyer (University of Gloucester) gave a very insightful talk on the theme of love, paying much-needed attention to some of the Harley Quin short stories. I don’t understand why these aren’t better-known and better-loved. It has been great to see some of the less famous titles get their due this year. Jeremy Black from the University of Exeter gave an academic-style paper on the presence of evil in Christie’s work.
Also interesting – especially to me as someone with a degree in theology – was that three of the talks at this year’s festival centred on the religious world of Agatha Christie. Hannah Strømmen of the University of Chichester gave a talk inspired by her chapter in Caroline Blyth and Alison Jack’s The Bible in Crime Fiction and Drama: Murderous Texts, discussing Herclue Poirot as a bourgeois prophet figure and dealt brilliantly with questions. Her book chapter is definitely worth a read if you’re interested in, for example, W.H. Auden’s famous discussion of crime fiction as a kind of secular religion in ‘The Guilty Vicarage’.
Later, there were virtual talks, which I sadly missed, from Dan Clanton and Nick Baldock, also on Agatha Christie’s Christian world. However, as I know both a little and am familiar with their work, I know that both presentations will have been excellent. This is a side to Agatha Christie that isn’t often discussed, but she was a devoutly religious woman (who never took communion after her divorce). Dan has written a book, God and the Little Grey Cells, soon to be published and sure to be a treat. I recently wrote a chapter, ‘Christie and Christianity’, for the forthcoming Bloomsbury Handbook to Agatha Christie, and am so happy to see interest in this under-discussed angle beginning to blossom.
Jamie Does Some Speaking
I was on the menu twice this year. On Wednesday 14th September, I was honoured to be part of a special live recording of the podcast All About Agatha. Host Kemper Donovan chaired a spirited ‘balloon debate’ in which experts John Curran, Mark Aldridge, and Carla Valentine, and I (the eternal imposter) battled it out to determine the greatest Christie novel of all time. In the end we narrowed it down to Five Little Pigs or And Then There Were None and the audience had the casting vote.
What did they choose? The episode may end up being broadcast – so you might have to wait to find out. Or you can use your little grey cells and investigate on Twitter. But I will say, I think the audience got it right.
Then, on the blessed day itself – Agatha Christie’s 132nd birthday, 15th September – I had the absolute pleasure of giving a talk on The Man in the Brown Suit. The location of my talk was the beautifully atmospheric Kents Cavern, a network of ancient caves that contain some of the earliest evidence of human life on the British Isles. It is also a place with strong Christie connections, as Dame Agatha’s father was involved in many of the nineteenth century excavations, and she herself referenced it in her fiction.
I think the talk went well; people said very kind things about it afterwards. This has been my second talk in two years at the IACF, and once again I think I was given the quirkiest (aka best) location. Last year, I spoke on The Sittaford Mystery at Dartmoor Prison. But I was especially nervous this time because Agatha Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, was in the audience! I shouldn’t have been nervous because he and his wife Lucy were characteristically kind and generous throughout the whole festival. Agatha Christie Limited is lucky to remain a family-headed business, and to have a family so invested in the author’s special relationship with her fans.
Fringe and Other Events
There were also various fringe events, and other experiences around Torquay, including an exhibition of costumes from the screen adaptations – Dressed to Kill, which is still running – at Torre Abbey.
I was lucky enough to attend a couple of theatrical events. At the Princess Theatre, a staple of Torquay, we settled in for Solve-Along Murder, She Wrote. This unique experience compered by Australian comedian Tim Benzie saw us watching an episode of the classic TV series – Broadway Malady – and pausing throughout to discuss trivia, clues, and the cast. We each had a goody bag including a pink balloon, a party streamer, and a paddle to raise when we thought someone was making themselves suspicious. It was fun and I’m horrified to say I didn’t solve the case!
The other theatrical event I went to was a performance from the local amateur dramatics company, TOADS, at their own Little Theatre. The group often stages Agatha Christie plays, and this year they did And Then There Were None, deploying the increasingly rare ‘original’ theatrical ending as opposed to the ending from the novel which is, nowadays, normally substituted. I have seen many productions, amateur and professional, of this play, but none quite like theirs. It was a fascinating experience, not least because, occurring during a period of national mourning, it opened with a minute’s silence and a round of the national anthem.
The other fringe event I attended was a cocktail-making masterclass. This was excellent fun. At a fancy hotel, we had a brilliant talk on cocktails in Christie’s mystery fiction from Caroline Hostein and then mixologist Harry Cosmo Boardman guided us through making six cocktails that appear in or are inspired by the books, and we drank four each. We also got to leave with a bottled cocktail each. I chose a daiquiri – the vessel for a lethal sedative in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side.
Amazingly, some people went to the Grand Hotel for more cocktails after this, but I was in bed by ten!
Not technically a fringe event but definitely in the right universe, I am so, so, so happy that I got to see the new film See How They Run in a Torquay cinema with similarly Agatha-minded friends. Tom George’s comedy mystery is heavily inspired by The Mousetrap, taking place around a (fictional) party for the 100th performance in 1953. With a cast of comedic stars giving their best impressions of Richard Attenborough, Agatha Christie, and others, and packed with in-jokes, it was great fun to see.
It is normally sad to see the cinemas empty for films like this, but in the present case it was something of a delight, because it allowed us to loudly squee and cheer at all the Christie references peppered throughout the film, some obvious and some very obscure. While I had a couple of issues with the film, overall we experienced it with undiluted joy. ‘Agatha is having a moment,’ my friend Tina said, and it’s so wonderful to see. As Brad Friedman has pointed out in his blog about this film, it is one of three big releases that Golden Age fans can expect this year, alongside Death on the Nile and the sequel to Knives Out. And what a wonderful thing that this level of geekery is now profitably mainstream.
All in all, I left Torquay on Friday well-fed on all things Agatha, and bouncing with joy and enthusiasm that will sustain me for many months to come.