Monday, June 15, 2009

Duchess of Death, the new Agatha Christie biography

Duchess of Death: The Biography of Agatha Christie by Richard Hack was sent to me in galley. I gave it the usual fifteen page test and found that I couldn't stop reading it. Richard Hack has done a fine and substantial job with his new book on Christie. He was kind enough to answer some questions.

You've written books about Ted Turner, Michael Jackson, J. Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes. Agatha Christie doesn't seem to fit on the same shelf. What attracted her to you as a subject?

1. It is true that I have written quite a few biographies including those on Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, Michael Jackson, Ron Perelman (Revlon), and Sumner Redstone (CBS/Viacom). In each case, these men were and are inspired geniuses driven by a determination to succeed in their chosen professions. Agatha Christie is among good company on that bookshelf. She was as unique and successful as any of the men I’ve researched, and complimented her God-given talent with a insatiably curious mind that produced some of the most original and clever mysteries ever written.

Given all the biographical material available on Agatha Christie, why did you think your book would offer anything new?

2. While it is true that there are a number of previously published books on Christie, all except two are limited in their scope, selecting either to concentrate on her literary output while dissecting their contents, or postulating on what happened to the author during the eleven day period in 1926 when she disappeared from sight. The two complete biographies on her life (the first by Janet P. Morgan; the second by Laura Thompson) were endorsed by the Christie estate who controlled access to diaries and handwritten letters. Both books comply with her estate’s wishes to protect Christie’s legacy at the expense of the complete truth. “Duchess of Death,” an unauthorized biography, had no such constraints. The book reads like a novel, opening up her life for her fans with all the color, drama and intrigue such style allows, while including subjects overlooked by the authorized versions.

Were you able to talk to anybody who'd known her or worked with her?

3. In the course of my research for “Duchess of Death,” I traveled to each of the towns and villages she called home, including Torquay where she was born, speaking with neighbors and friends who passed along stories about the famous writer. In the course of my career as a journalist, I had the opportunity to interview Sir Peter Saunders multiple times about his involvement with Christie, and her behavior as both a business associate and friend. Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, ignored all requests for interviews.

Christie's eleven day disappearance has become an obsession among some of her fans. Given all your research, what conclusions have you come to about why she chose to disappear?

4. Christie’s eleven day disappearance is recounted from two perspectives in “Duchess of Death”—her own and that of her first husband. All evidence points to a deliberate and rather cunning manipulation of her husband for whose benefit the disappearance took place. She wanted her husband to notice her, to rekindle their romance and with it their marriage. When it became obvious that was not going to happen, Christie made certain that all of England, and much of the world, became aware of her husband’s infidelity in their marriage. While many Christie fans obsess about the days and their impact on her life, it is only one of a number of fascinating events that colored and shaped Christie’s life. In each, Christie was the manipulator, not the pawn. As with her mysteries, she was completely in control.

Christie produced a large number of books and plays. What did you learn about Christie's work methods?

5. Agatha Christie’s work ethic was driven less by a desire to write than it was by a need to earn money. While she found pleasure in crafting stories that would perplex and mislead her readers (while laying out every clue needed to solve her ever-expanding collection of short stories and novels), her primary motivation was generating a continuing source of income to pay for the purchase and maintenance of multiple houses and estates as well as a variety of servants and assistants. Christie ventured into writing plays as a faster way of generating income, since the writing of plays was a quicker process for the novelist than composing full-length books. Christie generated her original story concepts from the observation of life in the various villages and towns she called home. It was a seemingly endless source of material for the writer found abundant plots and well as red herrings among England’s seaside villages and metropolitan areas. Her plots were carefully worked out completely in advance in a series of notebooks that served as a private storehouse of material for future work. Many plots were developed over a period of years and saved for later use.

Christie was lauded world-wide as the finest writer of whodunits. Were there critics who disagreed with this asssessment and how did Christie deal with bad reviews?

6. Christie tended to ignore reviews from critics—both positive and negative—feeling that reviews had little impact on her sales. For the most part she was correct. Since her death, her writing has been analyzed and dissected, with literary critics questioning her writing and talents. Such academic treatment of your books and plays would have greatly perplexed Christie, who thought of herself less as a writer than as a storyteller out to entertain.

Were Christie's relationships with her publishers always friendly?

7. Christie had great faith in the ability of Edmund Cork, her agent with Hughes Massie & Co. Ltd. for nearly her entire career. It was to Cork that she routinely deferred in her affairs, content to allow her representatives control over her contracts and tax advice, as well as handling her travel, theater seats, and restaurant reservations. Cork had entered her life after Christie had signed with her first publisher, Bodley Head. The terms of her contract with Bodley Head allowed for little in the way of royalties or other compensation, setting the tone for her lifelong distrust of publishing houses. Even when Cork arranged to sign a lucrative contract with new publishers--Williams Collins & Sons in England and Dodd, Mead in America—Christie was extremely cautious and distrustful. She found both companies to be careless in its proofing and strangely lacking in creativity during the preparation for cover art. Christie, herself, had little direct contact with the publishing houses, preferring to complain to Cork who in turn made her feelings known to her book companies. As the years progressed and Christie’s output diminished, she was under constant pressure to produce. Collins Publishing had made “A Christie for Christmas” a marketing pitch—a device that remained in place right through the end of her life.

Was she generous with other writers, providing advice and quotes?

8. Christie was neither generous nor gracious to struggling writers, having forgotten the help and encouragement she herself received from a well-known Devon author, Eden Phillpotts, at the start of her career. Requests to read manuscripts were always turned down through her agent at her request, without compassion or consideration, often accompanied by a mocking note suggesting how far she had distanced herself from her origins.

What facts did you learn about her that most surprised you?

9. Christie had a reputation for being shy and highly protective of her privacy. It was therefore surprising to discover how outgoing and charming she could be in small groups or at private functions. It was large crowds that made her uncomfortable. And while much has been written about her lack of ego, the writer actually had a rather healthy sense of her own importance, particularly when dealing with her agents. Letters reveal a woman who demanded respect for her talent, and expected to be paid a premium for it. She was a enormous romantic, searching for love and attention, and delighting in the spotlight when she received it.

Christie loved interior decorating, devoting months to furnishing a new home, or redecorating an established one. She also enjoyed traveling, particularly at a discount, and took great pride in discovering an out-of-the way hotel with reasonable rates and comfortable beds.

Agatha Christie was a complex woman who was most comfortable when surrounded by family. She was neither sentimental nor particularly compassionate, looking at most things as black and white, with little tolerance for human failing or inefficiency. Her relationship with her only daughter was civil though not overly loving, while she doted over her only grandson Mathew and delighted in exposing him to opera, art, and foreign countries.


Anonymous said...

This is a splendid interview of the author of a splendid biography of a storied novelist.

Thank you for this posting.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed it, Ed. Thank you for doing it and running it on your blog.

Ed Lynskey