The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie is an excellent companion for every Christie fan. Of course this book might be interesting to others as well, but I don´t think those who aren´t major fans will have the sustained interest and reading stamina to make it through about 400 pages of details about every published work by Agatha Christie. Not that I want to scare you off! 🙂
Although this is nonfiction, it´s not difficult to read at all, the writing style is quite conversational. But I wouldn´t recommend reading this book in one sitting. Osborne structures his work according to Christie´s works, and goes through them from earliest till latest book. I´d recommend keeping it on your nightstand and picking it up after reading one of Christie´s works, to find out where Christie wrote it, how typical (or not) it was of her style, etc. Reading this book from cover to cover takes some of the pleasure out of it, as some of the information repeats itself of course (I had to read it quickly because my copy was only from the library).
It was interesting to find out how Christie´s life and her works intersect which is especially noticeable in those of her works which are set in the middle east. I haven´t read any biographies about Christie, I have her autobiography on the shelf, so much of the information about her personal life was new to me. I also liked that Osborne made use of Max Mallowan´s (Christie´s second husband) memoirs to round this up.
Osborne mentions Christie´s knowledge of poisons, which she very often made use of in her mysteries. This knowledge was a result of her training and work as a nurse in WWI. It was also interesting to read that Belgian refugees inspired her to invent her famous detective Poirot. And his nationality is something that she apparently came to regret as she didn´t have much knowledge of Belgium, and her French (and as a result Poirot´s) wasn´t always up to the task. If you haven´t read any of Christie´s mysteries which feature Ariadne Oliver, do so now. Christie brilliantly satirizes herself in Mrs Oliver, and through Mrs Oliver (who is a crime writer and has invented a Finnish detective who´s obsessed with vegetables) she vents her troubles with her famous detective. Did I mention that Mrs Oliver is my favorite secondary character? 🙂
Osborne also adresses Christie´s carelessness with regard to timeline, it´s really better not to wonder about Poirot´s age, especially in the later mysteries. And to me Poirot was always the same in every book, I couldn´t really imagine him aging very much, even though he lived through two world wars. I think Christie had her attention on her plot and intricate puzzles, which is what really counts.
There is mention of Christie´s apparently not very high-brow writing style, but Osborne states that “her prose is never less than adequate to convey mood and meaning”. Which seems to me to be the point, Christie focused on the puzzle which is always quite brilliant, but she doesn´t go out of her way to do the same for her writing style or characterization. These were always adequate but never so noticeable that they distracted from the central mystery. I suppose this might put some readers off, especially if you don´t draw a line between crime fiction and novels. This is not supposed to say that crime fiction cannot be beautifully written or be very literary (and lots of writers are trying to prove it), it´s just that often this is not the most important thing about it. I´m very particular about the mysteries I read, I don´t want them to try to be a literary novel with a side of murder mystery, but simply a puzzle. And this is what Agatha Christie delivers. She wrote some novels under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott, and her style and characterization are given more attention there. Although I always admired that even in her mysteries, one sentence was enough to make a character come to life.
Something I loved about this companion is that Osborne plays fair, and never reveals the endings and solutions of the mysteries. If you´ve seen The Mousetrap you´ll know from experience that this is something that´s basically sacred to Christie fans. Although Osborne tries his best to be objective, it´s still obvious that he is a big Agatha Christie fan, and that is something that makes reading his work more enjoyable. The greatest fault a writer can have , in my opion, is a lack of enthusiasm.
What I never noticed (perhaps it was edited out of the German editions) is that apparently Christie made several anti-semitic comments in her mysteries. It seems that this was quite common in her time and class, and she was horrified when she met someone who was in favor of the politics of the third reich, but it´s still upsetting to read. I guess there´s always a drawback, early feminists were in favor of the class system, there´s racism in the classics, and apparently anti-semitism in Christie mysteries.
But I didn´t want to end my review like that, so I´m going to leave you with a quote about one of my favorite Christie mysteries, Cards on the Table. In another book, Hastings asks Poirot to describe his favorite crime (which he then encounters in Cards on the Table):
Then as his imagination warms to the task, he proceeds to describe the kind of crime he would most like to investigate. Four people in a room are playing bridge, while a fifth reads in a chair by the fire. At the end of the evening, it is discovered that the man by the fire has been killed. No one has been in or out of the room, and the murderer must have been one of the four players while he or she was dummy.
Doesn´t that sound fantastic? (I should perhaps mention that I´m a structure-geek, and this mystery is nothing if not well-structured 🙂 )