Alison Joseph on bringing a a literary legend to life.
Georges Simenon once wrote a playful little volume called Maigret’s Memoirs. It is a witty, insightful piece of work, in which Maigret attempts to put the record straight about what happened when this odd little man called Georges Sim was given permission by the French police authorities to observe him at work. Maigret thought nothing of it at the time, but when the stories began to be published, he felt that he owed it to the readers to correct a few un-truths. For example, Sim describes his office as being old fashioned and scruffy, with a funny old coal stove, and Maigret has to point out that his office is actually clean and modern, and he was only put in that small side room temporarily during redecoration works. But when he challenges Simenon about all these inaccuracies, Simenon is completely unrepentant. ‘Truth never seems true,’ Simenon declares, claiming that it is the work of the artist to create truth. ‘Making it seem truer than life. That’s the crux of it. Well, I’ve made you truer than life!’
Simenon’s words came back to me when I embarked on my series featuring Agatha Christie as a (fictional) detective. In the course of writing the novels, I’ve found myself reflecting not only on the relationship between truth and fiction, but on that between past and present – on the connection between ‘history’ and ‘story’.
There’s a moment in the second of the series, Hidden Sins, which illustrates this. In all three novels, I’ve had to find a week or so in Agatha’s story which I could position within her real life. For this one I chose early Summer, 1925, and I’ve placed her with her husband staying for a few days at a nice (fictional) seaside hotel in Cornwall. At the start of the story, he’s gone back home, leaving her alone, as he has work to do and anyway, he says, the hotel golf course really isn’t up to scratch, he’d be better off back in Sunningdale. Agatha settles for a few days of solitude. But then a murder happens: one of the guests is found shot dead on the tennis courts. Agatha keeps a distance, leaving it to the police. She wonders what Archie will think when the news of the murder gets to London. She imagines him worrying about her. I write:
‘It was an odd thought. In her mind, a picture of the golf club at Sunningdale. Her husband, standing on the green in the summer evening light, pausing, mid-swing, to worry about his wife.’
Of course, anyone who knows anything of Agatha Christie’s life at this point will know something she doesn’t, which is that Archie, in the summer of 1925, was thinking of someone other than his wife – he had met Nancy Neele through the Golf Club, and she would become his second wife. But, importantly, my Agatha doesn’t know this. Which means the reader, because of Agatha’s very reality, is privileged with information that she, the character, doesn’t have. It is a very particular relationship between author, character and reader.
In my writing I have an image of a kind of tinderbox, a gap across which the spark jumps and ignites the whole story. In the case of these Christie stories it is this paradox that illumines the story, whereby the character who plays the classic detective role has a life beyond the novel. So, what is it to be true to the ‘real’ Agatha Christie?
The simple most obvious fact, is that I can’t. I can make sure she’s with the right husband, that her daughter is the right age, with the right name, that the timescale is about right for what I’m asserting she was doing at the time my fictional story starts – but the central fact is, that there is always going to be a gap between my Agatha Christie and the real one. And yet I would assert that I am being true to her, in the way that Georges Simenon so airily defines; in the way, I believe, that all writers of fiction want to be true to their characters.
In the classic crime story, there is an area that the detective has to occupy, that space between the reader and the writer in which the detective roams, uncovering the plot hand in hand with the reader. In this age of realism and gritty police procedurals, the contemporary detective does most of the leg work, as the murderer commits his or her crimes and then hides. But I would argue that so-called Golden Age detectives tend to have an easier life, managing to stay, in narrative terms, close by their creator. In a typical Christie story, it is the murderer who has to work very hard: disguising themselves, taking up a false identity, paying gypsies to spread rumours of curses, making sure that red shawls are worn by particularly people, while Poirot or Marple spend most of the time just observing, and thinking.
This has given rise to accusations of a lack of realism. But Christie herself was aware of these criticisms. It’s a tension she herself plays with from time to time. In Death in the Clouds, Inspector Japp comments on how writers of crime fiction make mistakes, on how unrealistically police officers are treated by what he calls ‘ignorant scribblers.’ If Christie, in her carefully controlled way, can be playful about what’s real, it’s because she, like every writer of fiction, knows that it has to be true. It has to be believable, even within the confines of her own genre. When we read a story, something happens beyond the words. We want to believe. We laugh at a joke, we shiver with fear in the dark empty streets, we are moved to tears by a mourner’s grief. It may be fiction – but it is true.
Here is Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott, in Unfinished Portrait. In this novel, her character Celia is talking about her now-grown-up daughter Judy:
‘I always felt guilty with Judy… I think she knew I did. She never said anything, but I thought that, secretly, she blamed me for the loss of her father… And there, of course, she was right. She said once, “It was you Daddy didn’t like. He was fond of me.” I failed her. A mother ought to keep a child’s father fond of her. That’s part of mother’s job. I hadn’t. Judy was unconsciously cruel sometimes, but she did me good. She was so uncompromisingly honest.
‘I don’t know whether I’ve failed with Judy or succeeded. I don’t know whether she loves me or doesn’t love me. I’ve given her material things. I haven’t been able to give her the other things – the things that matter to me – because she doesn’t want them. I’ve done the only other thing I could. Because I love her, I’ve let her alone. I haven’t tried to force my view and my beliefs upon her. I’ve tried to make her feel I’m there if she wants me. But you see, she didn’t want me. The kind of person I am is no good to the kind of person she is – except, as I said before, for material things… […] Whether I’ve been any use to her I shall never know. I hope I have – oh, how I hope I have… I love her so.’ (p. 216)
How can any of us read this and not think of Agatha reflecting on her own experience as a mother? As Max Mallowan, her second husband, famously said, ‘In Celia we have more nearly than anywhere else a portrait of Agatha.’
Unfinished Portrait is about lots of things. It’s about a marriage that’s gone wrong, a woman in despair; it’s about, as above, a mother reflecting on the damage this has wrought in her relationship with her daughter. But it’s also about form; its structure is, for want of a better word, post modern, starting as it does with a letter from Larraby, the ‘author’ of the account, to ‘Mary’, saying he’s written a ‘portrait’ of this woman he encountered, Celia, as best he can, but as he’s really a painter, he’s a bit out of his depth:
‘I’ve tried getting her on canvas in this new unfamiliar medium… Words. Strung together words… No brushes, no tubes of colour – none of the dear old familiar stuff. A portrait in four dimensions, because, in your craft, Mary, there’s time as well as space.’
And, at the end of the novel, he writes, ‘It’s my fixed belief that Celia went back into the world to begin a new life…She went back at thirty-nine – to grow up…And she left her story and her fear – with me…I don’t know where she went. I don’t even know her name. I’ve called her Celia because that name seems to suit her. I could find out, I suppose, by questioning hotels. But I can’t do that…I suppose I shall never see her again…’
This is a long way from the usual accusations that Christie’s stories are too neat, too keen to sacrifice realistic characterisation for the needs of the plot.
In the Westmacott works we see Christie pushing at the boundaries imposed by her huge success as a crime writer. It is in these stories that Christie answers her critics. If the modern novel is all about character, then Agatha belongs within it. If it’s about the real, then that too. If it’s about the honesty of a writer to draw on their own life, their own pain even, then Agatha shows how well she understands that. And even in her crime novels, however silly it might appear that everyone in the railway carriage or the aeroplane has a motive for murder, Agatha has thought about all their characters, all their stories. Ultimately, Agatha Christie can assert, with Simenon, that ‘truth never seems true’ – and that it is the work of the author to make it so.
Alison Joseph is a crime writer and radio dramatist. She is the author of the Sister Agnes series of novels, as well as three novels featuring Agatha Christie as a detective. Murder Will Out and Hidden Sins are available as e-book and paperback. The third in the series, Death in Disguise, is published as an e-book December 2016 and in paperback January 2017. Alison was Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association from 2013-2015.
Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie, Collins, first published 1935
Unfinished Portrait, by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie), Collins, 1934
Les Mémoires de Maigret (Maigret’s Memoirs), Georges Simenon, 1951 Presses de la Cité