Many of Agatha Christie’s mysteries feel cozy, like their English village settings, yet murder never fails to cast a long, prehensile shadow. Guilt, however deeply buried, is unearthed with the mental equivalent of an archaeologist’s trowel. Christie constructs for her readers a tragicomically rigid social order with everything to gain or lose, her books featuring contested wills, where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire blackmail, toxicology in a teacup, and the plot-ruffling appearance of impossibility. As her iconic detective Hercule Poirot claims in Murder on the Orient Express (1934), “The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.”
Born into a wealthy English family in 1890, Christie grew up to become not only a Queen of Crime — indeed the crowning jewel in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction — but also, on a wider level, the best-selling novelist of all time. Over 80 of her books were published between 1920 and 1976, and it’s often noted that only Shakespeare and The Bible have outsold her. To tell the story of the woman behind the body count is no small challenge. A new biography, in the graphic novel form, promises to do just that but doesn’t quite succeed. Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie is as cute as it is slight.
French authors Anne Martinetti and Guillaume Lebeauare, along with illustrator Alexandre Franc, saw their 112-page biography originally released in 2014 as a French-language Kindle edition. In May of this year, a smart-looking paperback version in English was released by the UK press SelfMadeHero, which specializes in graphic novel adaptations of classic literature. Though delighted by the prospect of this book, having been a Christie fan since adolescence, it told me little I didn’t already know and left me wondering just who’d benefit from it. I’d have loved it 30 years ago, when I was 15, and it’s certainly teen-accessible. Perhaps a newbie fan of any age could value such an easy-to-read overview.
I also found myself wondering about the title’s pledge to reveal the “real life” of Agatha Christie. Do the authors mean in contrast to her fiction, which is not real life? Or versus some previously established myth of Agatha Christie? There are no accounts of Christie’s life (e.g., her own autobiography) that are less than real, really. Perhaps the title is meant to counter assumptions that the story is to some degree fictionalized, given how the term graphic novel is used even when the content is nonfiction. The authors do present an accurate cradle-to-grave sequence of events, readily checked against Wikipedia or the official Agatha Christie website. At any rate, the main reason this telling of Christie’s life felt less than “real” to me is because I can’t imagine Christie having recurring imaginary conversations with her characters.
This has been tried before, and done well, in a psychologically edgy little film called Murder by the Book (1986). Christie (played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft) is confronted one night by Poirot (Ian Holm) but it’s all a guilt-ridden dream, prompted by the publication of Curtain in which Poirot dies. A clever, biting script and the gravitas of the performances offsets the semi-hokey premise. In Martinetti and Lebeauare’s biography, however, Poirot pops up way too often. His presence does little to reveal Christie’s psychology; instead he brings to mind the obnoxious Great Gazoo on The Flintstones. Other Christie sleuths, like Jane Marple, also make appearances, but of the 29 pages dramatizing imaginary interactions, 24 feature Poirot. Half as much would still feel like filler.
Martinetti and Lebeauare are almost at their cleverest in making use of a controversial episode that took place when Christie was 36 and coping with the dissolution of her marriage. For ten days she hid out at a spa under a false name while the world thought she’d disappeared, prompting a massive search. Christie remained mum about what happened throughout her life, the truth at last exposed in a best-selling nonfiction book from 1998 by Jared Cade (two decades after Michael Apted’s compellingly speculative film Agatha starring Vanessa Redgrave). Christie’s self-imposed disappearance, ironically mysterious, is used as a gateway into Martinetti and Lebeauare’s biography.
If their biography is weak overall, it’s because it never fully dramatizes anything; a graphic novel in form but a flipbook in narrative. Only in dramatizing Christie’s disappearance do the authors take more time, dedicating the first 14 pages and another five midway through. I say the authors are “almost at their cleverest” because eight of those pages are wasted on Christie’s imaginary conversations with Poirot.
My disappointment pains me because, despite its shortcomings, including illustrations that are rarely as eye-catching as the cover image, there’s an undeniable love of Agatha Christie built into Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie.