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Murder she wrote and deliciously well

The famed British mystery writer was a master of succinct storytelling. Her memoir, now rereleased, tells of a life much larger even than her considerable literary output.

November 27, 2011|Mary McNamara

Last summer, while browsing in a used bookstore in San Luis Obispo, I discovered something I thought no longer existed -- an Agatha Christie novel I had not read. Anyone monitoring my vital signs would have thought I had discovered the next Gnostic gospel or a lost play of Shakespeare's. Clutching it tightly as if someone might snatch it from me, I quickly bought it. I promised myself I would take my time, savor the experience and read only a few pages at a time. Instead, I finished it the next day.

Now it resides beside its sisters in my Agatha box, a crate at the foot of my bed. I don't own all of the 66 mystery novels and 14 short-story collections that Christie wrote, but I have most of them and I read them over and over again, in rotation, throughout the year.

I read lots of other books as well, but I don't like to go too long between Agatha Christies because, as a writer myself, I don't like to stray too far from the masters. And for anyone trying to write to be widely read, it's hard to beat Dame Christie. With deft and cheerful economy, she can conjure a character in three sentences, set an intricate plot moving in five and plumb the depths of the human soul using snatches of overheard conversation and a bottle of hat paint.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, November 29, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
The Reading Life: In the Nov. 27 Arts & Books section, an article on Agatha Christie referred to the author as Dame Christie. The correct title is Dame Agatha.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 04, 2011 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
The Reading Life: A Nov. 27 Arts & Books article on Agatha Christie referred to the author as Dame Christie. The correct title is Dame Agatha.

She believed in storytelling and did not confuse it with decanting the contents of her interior life and stretching it out along a contrived plot tarted up with simile, symbolism and encyclopedic information about secret societies (although she did love a good secret society now and then, ditto the occasional plot to secure world domination).

Her life story "Agatha Christie: An Autobiography" (Harper, $29.99), which has just been rereleased with a new foreword by her grandson, is similarly brisk and admirable, although at 532 pages, it is quite the longest work she wrote. Capturing the experience of a generation too often made over-grim or over-glorious, it is the autobiography of a woman, not merely a writer. Yes, she admits that even as a child she was telling stories to the kittens in the garden, but her work was her work and just one of the things that made up her life, which survived two world wars, two marriages and an unprecedented career in a way that can be described only as globe-trotting.

During her marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan, she spent as much time working on various excavations as she did writing novels, which not only inspired several of her novels (including the ancient Egyptian "Death Comes as the End"), it makes her a double-shot inspiration for Elizabeth Peters' popular archaeologist detective, Amelia Peabody.

Not that there are many mystery writers who don't owe Christie something. The genre was popular long before she took a stab at it with "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" (which sat in the publisher's office for five years before it was accepted for a pittance and published in the early 1920s), but it was much more hidebound. Hercule Poirot entered loudly dismissing all the old familiar tropes, declaring that it was not for him, this Holmesian propensity for scrambling around in the dirt collecting cigarette ash and bits of burnt letter; instead the work was done by the little gray cells.

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford were the postwar adventurers, creating a whole new template for romance with their thrill-seeking banter, and the popularity of Miss Marple began the race for Most Unlikely Detective, in this case, a spinster of a certain age who used her hard-won understanding of human nature to solve crimes.

Yet there are those too who dismiss Christie simply because she was so prolific, because her books eschew the epic or deeply psychological in favor of a story best told quickly and with deceptive ease. And yes, the genre has changed, grown darker and more brutal (a shift Christie deplored as early as 1975), but as a die-hard fan I don't want to hear the word "formulaic" (she invented that formula, people, she can use it as she will), "predictable" (I defy anyone to find me a better, or more surprising, motive for murder than the one in "The Mirror Crack'd" or better crimes than those committed in "Curtain" or "Murder on the Orient Express"), and I don't want to hear the term "cozy."

Agatha Christie was not cozy. She earned the title the Queen of Crime the old-fashioned way -- by killing off a lot of people. Although never graphic or gratuitous, she was breathtakingly ruthless. Children, old folks, newlyweds, starlets, ballerinas -- no one is safe in a Christie tale. In "Hallowe'en Party," she drowns a young girl in a tub set up for bobbing apples and, many chapters later, sends Poirot in at the very last minute to prevent a grisly infanticide. In "The ABC Murders," she sets up one of the first detective-taunting serial killers.

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