Agatha Christie by Lucy Worsley; Marple: Twelve New Stories – review

With a keen historian’s eye, Lucy Worsley pieces together the queen of crime’s life, work and misunderstood episode of mental illness, while Val McDermid, Natalie Haynes and others put a fresh spin on Miss Marple

Agatha Christie was arguably the first modern literary celebrity, and it follows that her long writing life, from her first published novel in 1920 to her death in 1976 at the age of 85, has been thoroughly picked over, not only by journalists during her lifetime but by the author herself in her autobiography. Any biographer wishing to bring a new perspective to Christie’s story is therefore working within obvious limitations, not least that many of the most intimate and revealing letters written or received by her were destroyed by family or associates. Barring the miraculous discovery of a hitherto unknown cache of documents, then, the best a new biography can hope to do is to offer a fresh interpretation of some very well-thumbed material.

Lucy Worsley’s Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman is the first significant biography of Christie since Laura Thompson’s Agatha Christie: An English Mystery in 2007. Unlike Thompson, whose book was something of a hagiography, Worsley steers a careful course between sympathy for her subject and a brisk, no-nonsense acknowledgment of her flaws. In order to maintain this balance, she has to combine a feminist appreciation of the author’s achievements (and the ways in which male journalists and biographers have misrepresented her) with a stern contemporary condemnation of Christie’s more unsavoury views. “We have to face the fact that somewhere in the mass of contradictions making up Agatha Christie was a very dark heart,” she writes. “It’s not just that she could dream up stories in which even children can kill. It’s also that her work contains views on race and class that are unacceptable today.” It’s true that some of Christie’s books contain racist and antisemitic caricatures offensive to modern readers, though whether that’s evidence of inner darkness rather than simply the inevitable product of her background is debatable.

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