Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie
Although the most widely read English author in the world during her lifetime (and according to Doctor Who, “the most popular writer of all time”), it has been 40 years since Agatha Christie passed away, so her life and the stunning extent of her career may no longer be as well known to today’s mystery fans. Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie, a graphic novel biography, should change that. Although I’ve read all of her novels and a good deal about her life, there were items here that I didn’t know, and I loved the presentation.
Agatha collects a variety of short scenes into a comprehensive portrait of the mystery author’s life, covering more than just her writing. The incidents shown touch on her travels, her family, her wartime service, and yes, her checkered marital past.
After her first husband notified her in 1926 that he had been having an affair and wanted a divorce, while she was still grieving for her recently departed mother, she disappeared for 11 days. She was found checked into a resort hotel under the last name of her husband’s mistress. That event frames the telling of her life here, although the time period still hasn’t been fully explained, since she never spoke of it and claims to have had temporary amnesia.
Agatha is written by Anne Martinetti and Guillaume Lebeau, specialists in crime fiction, and drawn by Alexandre Franc. The art and panels are welcoming and easy to read, in a straightforward layout, making this graphic memoir a wonderful gift for the mystery lover in your life, even one who may not be that familiar with comics. Christie comes alive through this graphic novel as a real person, a complex woman who wasn’t afraid to try new things but could be laid low by heartache.
We see Agatha as a child, demonstrating love for her parents and interacting with her siblings. She gets married to Lieutenant Archie Christie, serves as a nurse during World War I (where she learns about poisons), travels the world, has a daughter, and begins publishing. Later, she remarries an archeologist and ponders her legacy.
The comic format allows Christie to be shown having conversations with her detective characters Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, as well as cameos by other famous mystery writers, such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Arthur Conan Doyle. The device makes her thoughts, concerns, and struggles visible in an involving way, particularly her ambivalence towards Poirot and his popularity.
The book is nicely underwritten, requiring the reader to pay attention and think through implications, much as with a detective story. For example, when discussing her possible second marriage with her daughter, at the end of the page, the girl (drawn well to resemble her mother) asks, “How about me? Do you love me? … As much as your books?” There’s a world of feeling in that question from a young woman jealous of inanimate objects for her mother’s affection. Just a few pages later, her characters argue amongst themselves to see who will feature in her new title, inspired by the author’s travels on the Orient Express.
(There is one interesting bit of revisionism on display. Agatha is shown at one point reciting as inspiration a nursery rhyme about “ten little Indian boys”. However, her book with that title wasn’t originally published as such; the original title was much more repulsive to today’s readers, and it’s never mentioned in this book. Christie’s cultural contexts, such as the anti-Semitism visible in some of her novels, aren’t addressed in favor of making her story more relatable to the modern reader.)
Success brings its own struggles, as she worries about tax, and age means saying goodbye to more loved ones, particularly during World War II. She gains worldwide recognition, sees her works made into successful movies and long-running plays, and is honored by the Queen. The volume concludes with a thorough timeline of key events in Agatha Christie’s life, as well as a complete bibliography. You can see preview images at the publisher’s website. (The publisher provided a review copy.)