DUBAI: In a sold-out, hour-long session at the Emirates Literature Festival, British historian and broadcaster Lucy Worsley and Icelandic thriller writer Ragnar Jonasson talked about all things Agatha Christie (1890-1976), the venerable British detective author. Actively writing for more than five decades, the best-selling “Queen of Crime” led a remarkable life and career of highs and lows.
She taught herself to read at 5 years old, wrote 66 detective novels, surfed in Hawaii, and survived infidelity and a painful divorce. She sold over 2 billion books and was knighted by the queen in her 80s. One can say that Christie was a fighter, and the pen was her weapon of choice.
Both Worsley and Jonasson are long-time admirers of Christie. Worsley has a new biography about the writer, while ever since his teens, Jonasson has translated more than a dozen of Christie’s novels into Icelandic. “You go back to the books again and again, just like comfort reading,” he said.
“Somebody like Agatha Christie can sometimes be put into this box that’s marked with the words ‘difficult women.’ You aren’t immediately likable, aren’t immediately knowable, aren’t all sweet and light,” Worsley told the Dubai audience. “It strikes me that very often when a woman is put into that category in people’s minds it’s because she is breaking the rules as they are perceived for women at the time.”
Worsley, who wrote her book during the pandemic, had access to Christie’s family archive and conducted research at her Georgian holiday home in Devon, England. Christie began seriously writing her books in the 1920s, often dubbed the “golden age of crime fiction.” Worsley believes it was the First World War, when Christie was a nurse, that kicked things off for her.
“She turned to writing detective fiction during the quiet hours in the hospital dispensary, when she was waiting for the prescriptions to come in,” she explained. “It was her job to mix up the drugs and produce the medicines (and) poisons that could either save life or take life.”
During her peak years, between the 1920s and 1940s, Christie always seemed to outshine other contemporary crime authors. “She was simply the best one,” said Jonasson, complimenting her genius plots. “The others were writing very good detective stories, but she always had this extra layer of a twist at the end…Her ideas are sometimes so simple that you explain them in one sentence.”
The session also delved into Christie’s personal hardships, including her infamous 1926 disappearance, when she hid away from society for 11 days as a result of her first husband’s adultery. In the later years of her life, suffering from the early stages of dementia, Christie’s books were not as successful as her previous ones.
But there were some positive points too. Her adventurous trips to the Middle East gave the world all-time classics, such as “Death on the Nile” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” It was in Iraq that she would meet her second husband of 40-plus years, archaeologist Max Mallowan. Interest in Christie’s writings remains high, as films and TV shows inspired by her books continue to be in production. Not only do these attract longtime fans but also, and perhaps most importantly, they introduce her work to younger generations.