Agatha Christie

For as long as I can remember in my adult life, I have been vaguely attempting to amass a complete collection of Agatha Christie’s books. My love affair with them began at university, when I went to stay with a boyfriend whose family were weird and intimidating (though not as weird and intimidating as he was), and I spent most of the weekend holed up in the spare bedroom, which contained a shelf full of battered old detective stories. I gorged my way through three books – I can’t remember which ones – and was hooked.

Back in Colchester, I was already in the habit of visiting the two secondhand bookshops on the High Street to look for cheaper copies of university text books (a hint to teenagers: art history is a very expensive subject to study, bookswise). The next time I was in town I went and had a look at the “Crime” shelf in the larger bookshop, the one inside someone’s house, and was delighted to discover dozens of aged Christies, all priced at 70p. I bought a handful, then periodically went back over the following weeks and months and acquired the lot. I discovered that I’d inadvertently struck gold the first time out and that not all the stories were as good as the early ones, but there was never one I didn’t enjoy reading.

Having gotten hold of about thirty books for pennies at a time, I was loath to start spending £6.99 a go on the remaining titles – it seemed somehow against the serendipitous spirit of the affair – and I found myself content to check every car boot sale, thrift store and charity shop I passed in the hope of picking up an unread Christie.

Last year, now the owner of two full bookshelves of battered Marples and Poirots, I arranged them in alphabetical order, found a list of her complete works and made a meticulous list of everything I didn’t yet have. Some of them, borrowed from friends or libraries or lost over the years, I had read but didn’t have a copy of, and I decided it would be lovely to have an absolutely complete set, not counting the romances which I find readable and entertaining but nothing like as exciting as the detective books and which in any case are written pseudonymously, so don’t technically count as Agatha Christies.

Using this more systematic approach I acquired a dozen or so more books, and of the remaining ones on the list some are US versions of books I already have, some are thrillers rather than mysteries (although the dividing line is not always clear, of course) and others are titles I know I have somewhere, but I can’t think where.

So what next? The answer is obvious: sign up for a book club offering brand new copies of every single Agatha Christie, sent out fortnightly at £5.99 a pop.

Yes, I know it sounds a bit mad, but in another piece of beautiful serendipity, I went into a newsagent yesterday to top up my Oyster and spotted a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, complete with accompanying magazine, for £1.99. So naturally I bought it, and discovered that Hachette are republishing every single Christie, in hardback, in a facsimile of the original binding and cover art, accompanied by a magazine with contemporary detail and modern analysis of each story. Plus, you get free gifts – a bag, some mugs, glass coasters – if you subscribe, as well as the obligatory free binder with part two.

This is exciting for me, even though I’ve read almost all of the books, so it ought to be even more exciting for someone who hasn’t read the books and would like to, which is why I think you should also subscribe. £5.99 for a book is quite cheap, especially as the first one is £1.99, the second is £3.99 and the third is free (if you subscribe by post, rather than just buying it from the newsagent), AND you get a load of free stuff, AND the bindings are gorgeous, AND, well, Agatha Christie is just really lovely to read. The stories are so cleverly plotted and have been so ripe for TV and film and radio adaptation that it’s easy to forget that they are also beautiful evocations of an England – of a world – that few of us knew but which we can all recognise. And more than that, they provide an eloquent social history of a particular class of English life of which Christie herself was a part. So if your new year’s resolution was to read more, I think you should sign up now and join me in reading a Christie a fortnight in 2012. Sorry if this reads like an ad, it wasn’t meant to. Also, if you don’t want to subscribe but do want to try one of the stories and I know you in real life, let me know and I will pick one out for you and give it to you.

More books I have recently read

I went in for a crime-fest on holiday:

Hurting Distance and The Point of Rescue, both by Sophie Hannah, are dense, cleverly plotted thrillers with breathtaking denouements, but that’s not what I liked about them.  At least, I did like it, but there are lots of other books you could say that about.  What I especially like about Sophie Hannah is how human and likeable her characters are.  They’re never there just to serve a clever story: they’re living breathing people whom you could imagine meeting and having a conversation with.  This is very rare, I think.  My favourite book by her is out of print, but if you can hunt down a copy, I recommend Cordial and Corrosive, which is just one of the funniest, cleverest and most unexpected stories I’ve ever read.

I also read two new (to me) Agatha Christies.  Ordeal by Innocence was a fairly standard whodunnit: if you like Agatha Christie, you’ll like it well enough.  Endless Night is creepier and more original, and well worth reading, especially if you don’t know the ending, which I did.

To balance out the thrillers, I also read some location-specific fiction: Super-Cannes, which I enjoyed in a sort of plodding way – I couldn’t ever quite reconcile the intensity of the action with the languid tone in which it’s conveyed, though I suspect that’s partly the point – and Tender is the Night, which I took a little while to get into but which I ended up loving.  I also noticed some unexpected similarities between the two, which I don’t think are coincidental: a character in Super-Cannes is reading Tender is the Night very early on in the book.  But I shan’t go into specifics here because I don’t want to spoil anyone.

I am a sucker for a book on language, and I like swearing very much indeed whilst not being very good at it, so I also enjoyed Your Mother’s Tongue: A Book of European Invective, which more or less does what it says on the tin.  When it comes to saying the unsayable the similarities between European languages are interesting, and the differences even more so.

Having successfully read some proper books (by which I mean the kind other people write about), I went back and read another Sophie Hannah book.  The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets is a collection of short stories, and it’s a bit more literary than its terrible title makes it sound.  I didn’t find every story a hit, but the ones which were good (which crucially included the first one and the last one) were very good.

Then I read two Blandings books, but I couldn’t tell you which they were.  It doesn’t really matter: they’re all good.  And now I’m on a Jeeves and Wooster, which I’m also enjoying very much.

The mystery which wasn’t

Agatha Christie: The Biography is a mildly overblown account of a life which was slightly less interesting than the author wanted it to be. It reads more like a genteel domestic saga than a penetrating piece of investigative biography, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I became increasingly irritated, though, with the amount of what I suppose could be called poetic license but which I might instead call “making things up”. At one point we are told that Agatha was “far more beautiful than is apparent from photographs”, and given that the author isn’t much older than me, I found myself thinking but how do you know?