Review - Agatha Christie, An English mystery

Written by Laura Thompson, originally published 2007
My rating: 3/5

This is a problematic book. It has its good points, and some very negative. But let's start with the positive. The book is incredibly well researched, if there is anything you ever wanted to know you will find it here. You will find a whole lot of information you didn't even know you wanted to know. And Laura Thompson clearly loves her subject, she loves to write this book and it is very evident throughout it. No, throughout most of the book. She loves the subject and she loves the writer Christie and all this love and staunch belief in Christie can make an entertaining read.

But then there are some problems...

First of all this love for Christie makes Thompson a bit blind to the fact that not everyone that picks up this book will share her absolute devotion, considering Christie the best crime writer of the Golden era of English crime. It is of course quite alright to believe in your subject, but it can get a bit tedious with a long section stating Thompson’s opinions on why Christie is the greatest presented as unarguable fact.

Secondly, this is not a straightforward biography, you get all the facts, but a bit jumbled up as if you are supposed to have a grasp on the basic facts of Christie's life beforehand. For example, Christie’s first husband, Archie, is not much more than introduced before you are told that the marriage will end in shambles (which can get a bit boring for the reader, if nothing else). What Thompson want to tell her readers is instead the psychological biography of Christie. And that is a dangerous road to tread. Thompson seems incapable of consenting to that some things we just don't know, and we won't ever get the answer. The blurb on my copy talks about a unique access to letters, diaries and interviews with the family. This might be true, but it doesn't change the fact that most of the information come from Christie's books. Not her autobiography but her novels. Of course parts of it might very well reveal something about their creator, but it can't be used as facts, not even when semi-autobiographical. We just don't know what's true, and what is a pure fiction. Most of all Thompson turns to ‘Unfinished portrait’ and when there are facts and thoughts which collide with what we KNOW about Christie Thompson just pass them by without admitting the problem with using such a source when using the books for other parts of her life which we have very little, or no, other information about. Because we have to admit that there are quite frankly a lot about Christie's thoughts and inner life we don't know anything about. Not to mention that the novels are used in this way only when it suits this book's purpose. When a character says something less suitable it is labelled as a product of Christie's creativity.

Thirdly the main purpose of the book is without a doubt for the author to give her version of what she thinks happened when Christie disappeared for a week in 1926. I do not have a problem with that, it is an engrossing read. But there is a problem in this for the rest of the book. Everything that happened before this is analyzed with the knowledge of what was to happen then, and much afterwards is then analyzed as an effect of that one week and the media reaction afterwards, without taking into account that there are of course other things that must have influenced Christie and her actions. A person's actions in his or her life are generally not explainable with just one single cause. Another side-effect of this is that the later parts of her life are described in a way that is much less interesting, and since that is about fifty years of her life it is a bit of a problem.

Fourthly there are many instances in the book when what she writes is an answer to the book ‘Agatha Christie and the eleven missing days’ by Jared Cade, where Thompson mostly disagrees with the conclusions drawn. If you haven't read the book in question, and no I haven't, it is just pointless.

And finally Thompson has a clear concept of what she thinks, stating them as facts and not opinions, most prominent in her belief that Christie was too attached to her mother and the house where she grew up. I should say the evidences she puts forward are not hard enough to really sound convincing...



Berlin, Altes Museum - The Egyptian Collection
The famous Nefertiti bust
ⓒRebecca Bugge
Name: Nefertiti (Nafteta) 
Born: About 1370 B.C.
Died: About 1330 B.C.
Married toAkhenaten
Children: Six daughters (at least)
Occupation: Chief consort of the pharaoh Akhenaten.

Nefertiti (or more correctly Nafteta) is one of the most famous faces of ancient Egypt - though the portraits of her that exist are hardly typical Egyptian portraits. She and her husband, pharaoh Akhenaten, were at the centre of a religious revolution with an upheaval of many Egyptian customs and traditions, and introducing a new art style (the Amarna style, named after the modern name of the new capital they made: Akhetaten) with contorted bodies and weird faces (having led to speculations on possible disfiguration  of the pharaoh himself). Still the bust of Nefertiti is known for its beauty.

About the lady herself not all that much is known - her place of birth is not known, who her parents were is debated, when she died isn't exactly known, if she ruled a few years after the death of her husband is debated and where she is buried is not known. There are of course theories on all of these subjects. One theory of her parentage is that she was the daughter of Ay (who was later to become pharaoh after the death of Tutankhamen), supported by the fact she is mentioned as the sister of his other, known, daughter Mutbenret. His wife Tey was given the title of nurse of Nefertiti. But it has also been suggested that she is to be identified with the Mitanni princess Tadukhipa, daughter of the Mitanni king Tushratta. Tadukhipa was married to pharaoh Amenhotep III and after his death she married his successor Akhenaten (though the princess has also been identified with Akhenaten's other wife Kiya). Given the evidence at hand the Ay-theory seems to be a bit more well-founded.

It is not known when Nefertiti married Akhenaten, but the names of their six (known) daughters are known:
Meritaten (the wife of Smenkhkare, born about 1356 B.C.)
Meketaten (lived about 1349-1335 B.C.)
Ankhesenamun (the wife of Tutankhamen, lived about 1348-1322 B.C.)
Neferneferuaten Tasherit (about 1344 - before the ascension of Tutankhamen)
Neferneferure (about 1341 B.C. - probably before Meketaten)
Setepenre (about 1339 - before Meketaten and probably before Neferneferure)

After 14 years as a royal consort to the pharaoh Nefertiti disappears from all records. At one point the theory was  that she had fallen from grace, based on destroyed portraits of Akhenaten's consort - but it has later been shown that these were portraits of his other wife Kiya - and the theory has been abandoned. It has also been suggested that she in fact did not die at this point, that she instead was elevated to the rank of co-regent and as the successor of Akhenaten ruled under the name of Neferneferuaten (who in case was of royal descent - but might have been a daughter of Akhenaten rather than his wife). A very common interpretation of her disappearance is that she simply died.

(All dates are very imprecise in this post, because we simply don't know the exact ones.1339)

Berlin, Altes Museum - The Egyptian Collection
Nefertiti (to the right) with Akhenaten and three of their daughters.
ⓒRebecca Bugge


The unknown with the books

Woman from Målilla

Date: Sometime around 1900
Photographer: Thyra Dahlman
Sitter: Unknown
Provenience: Målilla, Sweden

A photo from a time when everyone went to the photographer to have their picture taken and give them to friends and family. This particular photo comes from a family album, but it still does not mean that I know who the sitter is. It was obvious to the owners of that album, they never bothered with writing it down - and now it is a knowledge lost to the world - a far too common fate with old photos.

This is also a good example of what cabinet photos would look like outside the big cities, no advanced backdrop and the treatment of the photo is actually rather crude - the motif is blurred at the edges, but so much that even the face is somewhat blurred and the clearest part of the photo is the dress. The dress is absolutely a Sunday best - but I doubt that was the intention of the sitter. Even so it is an interesting piece, a legacy from a time when photography was one of the few decent professions open to women without loss of social standing a hundred years ago and more... (Unfortunately, I have been unable to track down any additional information on Thyra Dahlman, apart from her being active around 1900.)

The woman in the photo is, as I said, unknown, but a few clues about her as a person can be glinted from this shot. She is obviously not married - not even engaged. She is not wearing a ring. Her dress is perhaps a bit provincial but the fabric isn't coarse, the sewing is well thought through (look especially at the chest area and the pleating there) and the collar is laced. There is at least some money involved here. I am actually guessing she is a school teacher. That would mean she earned some money in her own right, and that would explain the books by her side. Props are not unheard of in older studio photography, but there is usually a point to them, a reason for them being there, and illustrating a woman standing all alone ought to indicate some form of interest in books - and the most common outcome for women interested in books, and with no husband, at this time was to become a teacher.