What an exciting few months it has been. I’m not talking about the vibrant political happenings but about my contributions to all things Agatha Christie.
In July, I was honoured to record a segment with the historian Lucy Worsley for her forthcoming BBC/PBS documentary, Agatha Christie: Mystery Woman.
August saw the publication of Agatha Christie: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction, my mammoth 300,000 word companion to Christie’s published and unpublished work, which I believe to be the most thorough encyclopaedia of her life and work. The same day, in fact, TED-Ed released How to Write Like Agatha Christie, a video lesson I was humbled to write, beautifully animated by Totem Creative.
In September, shortly after the International Agatha Christie Festival, where we recorded a live episode of the podcast All About Agatha, I was lucky enough to host a Christie symposium to help launch the University of Suffolk’s Centre for Culture and Heritage, where I even got to interview Lucy Worsley for the National Archives.
And now, in October, another absolute thrill. Bloomsbury has published The Bloomsbury Handbook to Agatha Christie, which I co-edited with the fantastic novelist and scholar Mary Anna Evans.
It is high time that Agatha Christie received her own academic handbook. This is a hefty collection of original contributions from across academia and the creative arts, summarising and contributing to the current field of research. As the bestselling writer of all time, and now a stalwart of university syllabi and university presses, it is quite remarkable that that vast body of work has not yet been surveyed and summarised.
We could have included extracts from seminal works – that’s one approach handbooks take – but instead we secured new contributions from the people best positioned to survey and intervene in scholarly debates: the people leading in their respective fields.
In addition, we worked with the Agatha Christie Archive Trust, who kindly allowed us to use several rarely seen photographs, casting new light on this remarkable woman’s life, career, and legacy.
Our book is divided into three sections: Agatha Christie: The Woman and the Writer, Critical Approaches, Christie and Society,and Beyond the Crime Novels.
It opens with a generous foreword from bestselling crime writer (and Marple author!) Val McDermid. And after the introduction we jump right in with ‘My Grandmother, Agatha Christie’ by Mathew Prichard. Christie’s only grandson, Mathew expressed an interest in writing something substantial and he has given us a touching and very personal account of family and its importance to the Queen of Crime.
The chapters collected under Critical Approaches include some illustrious names that will be familiar to anyone who has studied Christie at university or read books about her. Rebecca Mills is on top form in ‘The Middlebrow Woman Detective Author’, which includes a much-needed look at characters who are authors, and considers how these reflect and intervene in conversations around literature and the middlebrow in the twentieth century.
Michelle M. Kazmer, whose work in information science is seminal, contributes ‘Christie’s Clues as Information’, analysing Christie’s approach to data and information, and suggests new avenues to further our understanding. In ‘Christie Does Ecocriticism’, Susan Rowland, author of From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell, shows Christie to be an important historian of the earth and our relations to it.
This section also includes Mary Anna Evans’ ‘Reading Christie with a Feminist Lens’, which addresses some of the most written-about topics in Christie studies: her portrayal of women, their lives, and their relationships with a patriarchal society. I was lucky enough to bring ‘Queer Clues to Christie’ into this section, challenging some of the stereotypes about stereotypes in discussions of Christie, gender, and sexuality.
Sarah Martin’s ‘Psychogeography and the Flapper Sleuth’ investigates the ways that Christie presents space, especially for her female characters, as metaphysical, cultural, and gendered. Closing this section, Nadia Atia gives us ‘Christie’s Contemporary Middle East’, which contextualizes Christie’s presentation of the Middle East, recognising the shadow of empire and expanding our understanding of her relationship to politics and people with reference to Christie’s friend, Palestinian writer and translator Jabra Ibrahim Jabra.
Christie and Society also includes some of the key voices in their respective fields, making urgent and contextualised contributions to our knowledge. Meta G. Carstarphen’s ‘Of Race, Law, and Order: Colonial Ghosts’ is centred on And Then There Were None, exploring the troubling history of minstrelsy, counting rhymes, and blackface performance behind its original title. Mary Evans’ ‘Christie and the State’ is sociologically informed and considers how morality is enforced and transgressed.
The excellent Brittain Bright gives us ‘House and Home: The Country House’, turning the idea that country house settings are all about class on its head: Bright emphasises the role of the house as a home in Christie’s work. Mary Anna Evans’ ‘Agatha Christie, the Law, and Justice’ reflects the over-arching concern of crime fiction with justice and society’s attempts to achieve it.
Kathryn Harkup, author of A is for Arsenic, contributes ‘Poison in Golden Age Detective Fiction’, which reminds us that Christie was a trained pharmacist who knew more than most about how poison worked. To this section, I contribute ‘Christie and the Carnage of War’ and ‘Christie and Christianity’. I am particularly excited by how the study of Christie as a religious writer is taking off.
Some highly recognisable names (for the diehard Christie fan or ‘agademic’) can be found in the final section, all on sparkling form. Merja Makinen, royalty in Christie studies and the author of Agatha Christie: Investigating Femininity, presents ‘Hiding in Plain Sight: Mary Westmacott’, an absolute treat that opens up scholarship on the six little-discussed literary novels Christie wrote under a pseudonym.
Vike Martina Plock investigates the also rarely-discussed history of ‘Christie’s BBC Radio Broadcasts, 1930-55’, which includes a useful table of Christie’s radio work. I must say, the idea of editing my PhD supervisor was a bit of a mind-blower, although of course Vike was fantastic to work with. Benedict Morrison’s ‘Christie and the Theater’ lets us foreground the achievements of someone Julius Green memorably called ‘the most successful female playwright of all time [who] also wrote some books’.
Mark Aldridge, author of Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World (and a forthcoming Agatha Christie’s Marple book) was the only possible choice to write the chapter ‘Film and TV Adaptations of Christie’. And he does not disappoint. The book closes with a fascinating selection of mini-essays, commissioned and curated by Barbara Peters, co-founder of the Poisoned Pen Press. The four contemporary crime writers are Martin Edwards, Rhys Bowen, Ragnar Jónasson, and L. Alison Heller. The tagline of the 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express was ‘The Who’s Who of the Whodunnit’ – but I think it applies here just as well!
I hope this has shown you just how much there is to say, to read, and to discuss about Agatha Christie. She may have called herself ‘an industrious craftsman’ and ‘a perfect sausage machine’, but her nuanced career and her varied and often surprising life contain so many secret treasures which we are delighted to be bringing to light. I don’t think I have ever been prouder of a book. The Bloomsbury Handbook to Agatha Christie shows the world how seriously we need to take this literary titan, and I am floored by my luck in helping gather some of the most impressive and exciting voices leading in this scholarly moment.