Lucy Worsley is a popular British historian and the chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces. She is interested in women’s lives, the national obsession with murder, and the history of the British home, which makes Agatha Christie her ideal subject. Like Christie herself, Worsley is a prolific writer who aims to address a broad demographic and whose books are made into television shows. Accordingly, Agatha Christie reads as though it were being spoken to a camera: ideas are expressed as simply as possible; there is no argumentative rigor; the tone is upbeat until, at the end of each chapter, it becomes ominous; the lexicon is limited (“dark” and “darkness” are her refrain); and there are goofy asides to the audience—“Urgh,” Worsley shudders in response to the “creepy” behavior of one of Christie’s wartime coworkers.
Worsley approaches the subject with a “historical” rather than a literary “bent,” but this is history-lite. Christie, for example, is described as an iconoclast who “shattered the twentieth century’s rules for women.” At a time when “females of her generation and social class were supposed to be slender, earn nothing, blindly adore their numerous children and constantly give themselves to others,” Agatha was overweight and a distant mother, and she earned a fortune. Christie’s greatest achievement, Worsley concludes, was to show that an author need no longer be “a grand old man with a beard.”
The biography falls into two acts, with an interval. Act 1 takes place in Ashfield, the white-fronted villa in Torquay, on the Devonshire coast, where Agatha Miller was born in 1890. Her older siblings, Monty and Madge, were at boarding school for the duration of her childhood, and so Agatha—educated, as an experiment, at home—had her adoring mother to herself. In An Autobiography (1977), the excursion into memory that is Worsley’s principal source, Christie describes Ashfield as “truly a happy house” and a happy childhood as “one of the luckiest things that can happen to you.” There is little about her formative years that Christie cannot recall: a third of An Autobiography’s five hundred pages is devoted to her hoop, her bird, her dog, her dollhouses, the names of her toy soldiers and imaginary kittens, the story about the poisoned candle that her mother never finished telling her, the mathematical problems she enjoyed solving with her father.
It is the safe world of the nursery, however, with its wallpaper of mauve irises and the ever-present figure of “Nursey,” that Christie remembers with the most pleasure: removing Nursey’s “snowy ruffled cap” to tie a satin bow around her head, the taste of Nursey’s juicy steak, falling asleep while Nursey sits sewing by her side. But despite these sepia scenes, Worsley says, “there was something unexpectedly dark about [Christie’s] view of the world,” and the alternative version of nursery life can be seen in the titles of her future books: And Then There Were None; Five Little Pigs; A Pocket Full of Rye; Hickory Dickory Dock; One, Two, Buckle My Shoe; Crooked House; Three Blind Mice. “I adore nursery rhymes, don’t you?” says a character in The Mousetrap (1952). “Always so tragic and macabre.”
Christie also remembered the suicide of the gardener (whose hanging body was discovered by her father) and a recurring nightmare in which a figure called the Gun Man—with powdered hair, a three-cornered hat, and a French regimental uniform—appeared from nowhere:
It would be a happy dream, a picnic or a party. And suddenly, just when you were having lots of fun, a queer feeling crept over you. Something was wrong somewhere…. What was it? Why, of course, the Gun Man was there. But he wasn’t himself. One of the guests was the Gun Man.
Sometimes it was her mother who was the Gun Man; other times it was her sister. When Christie brought the Gun Man into her fiction, Worsley notes, she did something new and “particularly modern”: the murderer was no longer an intruder from the outside world but a “trusted family member.”
Christie’s parents were almost each other’s siblings. (“Yes,” says Worsley, “this was a complicated family.”) Her father, Frederick Miller, was the son of a successful American businessman whose first wife died and whose second wife, Frederick’s stepmother, was named Margaret West. Margaret, who had no children of her own, adopted her nine-year-old niece, Clara Boehmer, whose father had been killed in a riding accident, leaving a struggling widow with five children. Clara would become Agatha’s mother, which meant that Margaret was both Christie’s great-aunt and her grandmother. Auntie-Grannie, as she was called, with her “Rabelaisian tongue” and powers of premonition, was the family’s controlling intelligence and the inspiration for Miss Marple.
Clara loved the seventeen-year-old Frederick from the moment she saw him. Everyone loved Frederick, although it is hard to get the measure of his charm: a curiously traction-free figure, he led a life undisturbed by internal or external events. Christie recalled him as “lazy,” “agreeable,” and “not particularly intelligent,” with “no outstanding characteristics.” Clara, meanwhile, had her own theories of education, took an active interest in Zoroastrianism, and was believed by her daughters to be telepathic. “Anything I don’t want mother to know,” said Christie’s sister, Madge, “I don’t even think of if she’s in the room.” An Autobiography records the exchanges between husband and wife: “What are you thinking about, Fred?” Clara would inquire. “Nothing,” Frederick would reply, with, Christie stressed, “perfect truth.”
Clara was imaginative, shy, and emotionally fragile. Frederick’s sloth was her stability. There were skeletons in the closet of the Boehmer family: another of Clara’s aunts had been committed to an insane asylum, as had a cousin; a great-uncle and a further cousin had died of “mania,” her elder brother had shot himself, two more cousins drowned themselves, and a third was a convicted wife-beater and alcoholic.
Christie and her mother liked to play house under chairs and tables, and “I can see quite plainly,” she later wrote,
that I have continued to play houses ever since…. I have gone over innumerable houses, bought houses, exchanged them for other houses, furnished houses, decorated houses, made structural alterations to houses. Houses! God bless houses!
As for her novels, these too would be about houses. “You have to be concerned with a house,” she explained. “With where people live.”
Houses and death were always yoked for Christie, whose middle-class homes, with their rigid routines and soft-footed servants, were repositories of memory and sites of violence. She described her brand of detective fiction as involving “murders of quiet, domestic interest.” In her study of interwar literature, Forever England (1991), the scholar Alison Light notes the “domestication of weaponry” in Christie’s novels: murders are performed with household poisons, meat skewers, golf clubs, paperweights, even the steel ball from a bedstead. But while Christie’s murders are puzzles that can always be solved, the riddle of the house remains intact. This is what Michael tries to explain at the close of Endless Night (1967): the house built for him by the architect Rudolf Santonix was, he says,
the best thing I had in the world. The thing that mattered most to me. Funny that a house could mean that. I suppose it was a sort of symbolism about it. Something you want so much that you don’t quite know what it is.
Christie, like Clara, lost her father before she reached her teens. Frederick’s death when she was eleven marked the end of her childhood and brought about a reversal of roles: from now on Agatha was the mother and Clara the clinging daughter. It was, Christie wrote (under her pen name Mary Westmacott, in her 1934 novel Unfinished Portrait), “like the Gun Man—everything all right and then he was there…. Things could change—things could happen…” The new dynamic was demonstrated in the future of Ashfield: Clara, now considerably poorer thanks to Frederick’s mismanagement of the Miller fortune, wanted to sell the house but was prevented from doing so by Agatha. When Auntie-Grannie moved in with them the household became a matriarchy, and Agatha looked “at her very feminine family,” says Worsley, “and saw darkness there.”
From her mother Christie learned to think at high speed; from her father she inherited her regard for indolence. She later questioned, in An Autobiography, the “odd assumption that there is something meritorious about working,” and rejected the idea that she had ever wanted her success. “How much more interesting it would be if I could say that I always longed to be a writer,” she wrote, but “such an idea never came into my head.” “I personally had no ambition,” she claimed; everyone in the Miller clan wrote stories and poems, including Frederick. Clara was a Scheherazade of storytelling, and Madge, who introduced Christie to Sherlock Holmes, had her own tales published in magazines while Christie was a child and later had a play produced in the West End.
Madge was the benchmark that Christie, the dunce of the family, had to meet, and she wrote her first detective story, she said, as the result of her sister’s challenge. Christie says nothing in An Autobiography about sibling rivalry, but it is a subject returned to in her fiction. Her brother, Monty, who by 1926 had become an opium addict, was something else that was not talked about.
By the start of the Great War, Christie had evolved into, in Worsley’s phrase, “a total man-magnet,” and aged twenty-four she married an “incredibly hot” aviator named Colonel Archie Christie, who had his own family secrets: his father had died of “general paralysis of the insane,” and his brother, who also suffered from mental illness, later committed suicide. While Archie was at war, Agatha worked as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse in a hospital in Torquay. Here she cared for the wounded, assisted in operations, became an authority on poisons, discovered her distrust of doctors, and wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
The Christies had been married for four years before they first lived together in London when the war was over. In 1919 Agatha gave birth to a daughter named Rosalind, and Styles, after being rejected by six publishers, was accepted by John Lane and released in 1920.
Narrated by Captain Hastings, convalescing at Styles Court from the Western Front, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a tale told by an idiot. Christie knew from the first what she was up to: the book is a card trick, a sleight of hand, and it hits the system like a rush of sugar. The formula she repeated for the next fifty-five years is here established: the isolated community, the complex set of human relationships, the mutual suspicion, the drawing-room denouement in which the culprit is unmasked. The clues are buried in apparently artless sentences, there is no blood involved because the death—like forty-one of Christie’s murders, attempted murders, and suicides—is by poison, and the twist (there is always a twist) is that there is not one murderer but two. The victim is an elderly matriarch named Emily Inglethorp; the murderers are her much younger husband, Alfred, and his secret lover, Evelyn, whose “square body,” “stentorian tones,” and “hearty” handshake make it impossible for Hastings to believe that she could ever be an object of male desire. Christie always had fun with gender stereotypes.
In “The Guilty Vicarage” (1948), W.H. Auden compared the cathartic function of detective fiction to that of Greek tragedy. Styles, however, like many of Christie’s stories, is a comedy in the sense that things start badly and end well, and also in the sense that it is witty and self-aware. The book’s characters are admirers of Sherlock Holmes, and Hercule Poirot, who makes his first appearance here, is both a physical inversion of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective and, with his little legs, a miniature Hercules. The name Poirot sounds like Pierrot, and as Pierrot the clown pines for Columbine, Poirot the dandy pines for the Countess Vera Rossakoff, a flamboyant jewel thief of uncertain nationality whose title is in doubt. “Any woman,” as Poirot explains, “can call herself a Russian countess.”
Poirot is pantomime, Rossakoff is burlesque; Christie’s world is a masquerade and Poirot’s next case, written up by Hastings as the short story “The Affair at the Victory Ball” (1923), takes place at a masque where a party of six come in the costumes of the commedia dell’arte. When the woman dressed as Columbine dies of a cocaine overdose and Harlequin is stabbed in the heart, the killer is revealed, by Poirot, to be Pierrot.
It was bold for Christie to choose, as her agent of justice, an effete Belgian refugee sheltering from the Germans. The England Poirot observes is a nation of xenophobes, in which the men are largely ineffectual and the women have the upper hand. It is only because of the television adaptations that we see Christie as a writer who trades in nostalgia; the novels themselves do very little looking back as they ring through the changes of the twentieth century. When, for example, Poirot summons Hastings back to Styles Court in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (1975), the stately home has become a guesthouse.
The reviews of Styles were adulatory, and the publication in 1922 of The Secret Adversary was consequential enough for the author to have her photograph published in The Times. In 1926 the Christies moved to the suburb of Sunningdale, where Agatha, the main breadwinner, bought a twelve-bedroom, mock-timbered mansion that she called the Styles, and Archie spent his weekends on the golf course. When Clara died in April of that year, Agatha fell into a depression and Archie, having warned his wife that he could bear neither illness nor unhappiness, began an affair with a younger woman named Nancy Neele and requested a divorce.
How could it have felt for a man like Archie to be married to a woman like Agatha? “It’s people like me who have careers,” said Daphne du Maurier, “who really have bitched up the old relationship between men and women,” but Christie always denied that she had a career. The profession listed on her passport was “Housewife”; she stuck to detective stories because they “pay so much better” than poems and was “astonished” when the tax office inquired about her earnings, which she had not considered “as income.” Yet she was sufficiently exacting with publishers about typos, the “crude and amateurish” jacket covers they designed, and the absence of promised sales accounts to gain the reputation of being demanding.
Christie satirized herself as a novelist in the character of Ariadne Oliver, the best-selling detective-story writer whose Swedish sleuth, Sven Hjerson, anticipates the British love of Scandi-noir. “Some days,” says Ariadne Oliver, “I can only keep going by repeating over and over to myself the amount of money I might get for my next serial rights.”
Money mattered because Ashfield was falling into disrepair and Christie was determined to keep hold of her childhood home. She also had her lifestyle to support, and did everything to excess. “How would it appeal to you to come about 8.30 and eat a Great Deal of Caviare?” she asked a friend. “I ate too much,” she confessed to another, but “what is life without an orgy now & then?!” Worsley describes Frederick Miller as having been “terribly addicted to shopping,” but Christie shopped like a hardened junkie. She owned, at one point, eight houses in central London, all stuffed to the rafters, as Ashfield had been, with furniture and other paraphernalia.
Shopping was a compulsion, but so was writing. Christie wrote for the money and because she couldn’t not write, because she didn’t know how to stop writing, and for sixty years she wrote the same book again and again. She wrote on every available surface in the house—the “marble-topped bedroom washstand table” and the “dining-room table between meals”; she wrote when she was working full time in the hospital during the war, when her marriage was collapsing, when she was deeply depressed. Even when, in the 1940s, her tax bills were so high that there was little likelihood, she said, of “avoiding bankruptcy,” Christie didn’t cut back on her writing.
“Crime is like drugs,” she told a journalist in 1922, having written only two books. “Once a writer of detective stories…you inevitably return.” Christie was as hooked on writing her books as we are on reading them. (“For me,” wrote Auden, “the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.”) If she downplayed her professionalism it is because indulging an addiction has never felt like hard work.
The sixty-six novels were written in six weeks every year between January and February so the nation could buy a “Christie for Christmas”; less time was needed for the 165 short stories and sixteen plays. She preferred the planning stage to what she called the “violent hitting of the typewriter,” and would jot down in a notebook the plots that came to her as she lay in the bath, washed the dishes, walked around the neighborhood, or looked in a hat-shop window. But unlike the meticulously cross-referenced records of plots and ideas kept by Patricia Highsmith, Christie’s seventy-three notebooks are haphazard, chaotic, and unchronological. “Much of what’s in them,” writes Worsley, “simply doesn’t make sense,” but little about Christie makes sense to Worsley.
Christie’s persona is the aspect of her that most interests Worsley. “I’d like to explore,” she writes, “why Agatha Christie spent her life pretending to be ordinary, when in fact she was breaking boundaries.” Christie, like her killers, was a mistress of masquerade: “I’m pretending to be a writer,” says Celia, Christie’s mouthpiece in the autobiographical Unfinished Portrait. “It’s almost queerer than pretending to be a wife or a mother.” A canny businesswoman who played with her public image, Christie had a “hyperawareness” of the fact that “all of us are really acting,” argues Worsley, which was “essential to her art. It’s the thing that makes her perspective a little bit similar to that of a queer writer.”
This startling statement, we later learn, is a reference to J.C. Bernthal’s bold study Queering Agatha Christie (2016). Christie is a queer writer, Bernthal argues, not because she was a closeted lesbian (which she wasn’t) or because she wrote homosexual characters (although she did) but because she is playful, interrogative, and subversive. Her queerness lies in the staginess and mannered unreality of her world; she turns out stock characters and stereotypes only to show that we don’t know them at all; she poses as a conservative while gently undermining the status quo; she presents any number of alternative family constructs. Her misfits, outsiders, mannish women, womanish men, murderous children, and nonnuclear families are “queer,” writes Bernthal, because they adopt a position outside the norm and “hold that norm up for interrogation.”
Bernthal’s “application of queer theory to Christie’s work,” Worsley writes in her acknowledgments, “inspired the approach of this book.” It is also the source of the book’s confusions. Worsley neither expands on nor explains her own understanding of the “pretence” involved in Christie’s “queerness”; we never discover in what way this queerness is different from the playfulness and subversion of other strong writers, or how Christie’s sense that we are all players, strutting and fretting on a stage, differs from that explored by Shakespeare. Worsley fails to prove that as an iconoclast Christie broke anything very much, other than the world record for best-selling author of all time.
Act 1 of Christie’s life ends in December 1926, with the realization that Archie, “murderer of her happiness,” has “all the time…really been the Gun Man.” From now on, Worsley says, Christie’s novels will “firmly address dark, uncomfortable feelings…the darkness that can lurk within even normal, respectable people.” Act 2 begins with Christie’s second marriage, to the archaeologist Max Mallowan. Fourteen years her junior, Mallowan had little interest in his wife’s books and lots of interest in other women, but Christie no longer minded, or, more precisely, pretended to no longer mind, about infidelity. “Have a good time, darling,” she instructed when he went on one of his digs, “and do anything that you want to and you need—just so long as I am held in your heart in deep friendship and affection.” Being “Max’s wife,” writes Worsley, was Christie’s “favourite role.” It is what Worsley says about the interval between the acts, however, when Christie vanished from Styles leaving a trail of clues for the police, that will most interest her readers.
The facts are as follows: on the evening of Friday, December 3, when Archie was spending the weekend with Nancy Neele, Christie kissed the seven-year-old Rosalind good night and drove off in her Morris Cowley. The next day the car was found abandoned on a slope above a chalk quarry near Newlands Corner in Surrey, with her fur coat, a case of clothes, and her driver’s license inside. A thousand police officers and two thousand volunteers combed the Surrey hills for Christie’s body, dredging a pond and beating the undergrowth with sticks. The novelist’s disappearance made the front page of every newspaper, Archie Christie was under suspicion, Conan Doyle consulted a medium, and Dorothy L. Sayers told the Daily News that “in any problem of this kind there are four possible solutions: loss of memory, foul play, suicide or voluntary disappearance.” Readers should remember, Sayers warned, that they were concerned in this case “with a skilful writer of detective stories, whose mind has been trained in the study of ways and means to perplex.” The crime writer Edgar Wallace argued in the Daily Mail that the missing woman was alive, this being a “typical case of ‘mental reprisal’ on someone who has hurt her.”
On December 14 Christie was discovered two hundred miles from her car at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, where she had registered as “Teresa Neele.” Smiling and well with a smart new wardrobe, she had spent the previous eleven days shopping, reading library books, playing cards, dancing, and placing an ad in The Times: “FRIENDS and RELATIVES of TERESA NEELE, late of South Africa, please COMMUNICATE. Write Box R.702.” This, Worsley suggests, was a “veiled plea” to Archie to help her out of the mess she had got into with the press.
Meanwhile, Archie told the Daily Mail that his “very clever” wife might have had “engineering a disappearance…running through her mind, probably for the purpose of her work.” But when Christie was discovered, Archie stuck to the official line that she was suffering from “complete loss of memory,” which two doctors confirmed. The nation remained unconvinced. The Mail described Christie’s disappearance as “a heartless practical joke,” and an MP demanded to know how much the “cruel hoax” had cost the government. The following month Christie—vacationing on the Canary Islands, where she immediately resumed writing—watched as her sales doubled.
The journalists and biographers who have suggested that Christie consciously staged her disappearance are accused by Worsley of victim blaming: “It’s time to do something radical: to listen to what Agatha says…: when she says she was suffering, to believe her.” They are equally accused of confusing facts with Christie’s fiction: “As we’ve seen many times, many people simply don’t understand the difference.” Accordingly, Worsley’s belief that Christie suffered a nervous breakdown whose symptoms were akin to a fugue state or shell shock rests on two accounts by her, one factual and the other, published in Giant’s Bread (1930), fictional.
The disappearance is not mentioned in An Autobiography. Christie’s only public statement was given in an interview with the Daily Mail in February 1927, when she defended herself against accusations that she “deliberately disappeared” in order to garner publicity for her books. She explained that she had left her home at ten on the night of December 3 “in a state of high nervous strain with the intention of doing something desperate.” After driving “aimlessly about,” she reached Newlands Corner, where she took her hands off the steering wheel, released the brake, and let the car run down toward the quarry. The front wheels struck something, causing her head to be flung forward, her mind went blank, and she found herself twenty-four hours later in the hotel in Harrogate, having “become in my mind Mrs Neele of South Africa.” “As Mrs Neele, I was very happy and contented…. All the worries and anxieties of Mrs Christie had left me.” This Mrs. Neele read about the disappearance of Agatha Christie in the newspapers and remarked to a fellow guest that “Mrs Christie is a very elusive person. I cannot be bothered with her.”
If the explanation Christie gave to the Daily Mail reads like one of her novels, notes Worsley, it is only because she employed “the language she knew best.” But none of Christie’s novels is as clumsily plotted as this. What’s interesting about the statement is less whether it is true (I suspect it isn’t) than the degree to which Christie came to believe it—and my sense is that later she believed it totally. But by rejecting what she calls the “persistent idea that…Agatha was only pretending to be ill” and the newspaper reports that “she might merely have pretended to have lost her memory,” Worsley undermines her own thesis that Christie, as a “queer” writer, liked to pretend.
Pretense, Worsley has argued, was “essential” to Christie’s “art” and personality; Christie had been, she stresses, “pretending to be married, pretending the work in the hospital wasn’t awful” (Worsley’s italics). Why, in that case, was the disappearance of Agatha Christie not another complex act of pretense, her “queerest” performance so far?
After she underwent psychoanalysis for a brief period, during which “memories were drawn from my subconscious mind,” Christie’s writing shifted gears. She now wanted to explore herself, but because she preferred being someone else (“You can do what you like with the characters you create”) she adopted the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, whose true identity wasn’t revealed until 1949. In the same year as her first Westmacott novel, Giant’s Bread, Christie also published her first Miss Marple mystery, The Murder at the Vicarage (1930).
While Poirot is an outsider, Miss Marple, with her psychoanalytic tendencies, is an insider. Poirot arrives at his solutions by means of “method” and his “little grey cells,” but there is no intellect involved in Miss Marple’s sleuthing; her “certain knowledge of human nature” allows her to sniff out evil instinctively. Her cottage is the panopticon from which she surveys St. Mary Mead, a place where everyone reads detective stories and spies on everyone else. “I dare say idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind,” Miss Marple counsels the vicar, “but it is so often true.” The power of gossip is one of Christie’s great themes, and her busybodies are always placed front of house. The television adaptations make the character a benign figure, but “that terrible Miss Marple,” as she is described in The Murder at the Vicarage, is “a nasty old cat.” “Early, acidic Miss Marple is actually the Miss Marple I prefer,” Worsley writes, before adding, with a wink, “But perhaps that’s because I’m a nasty old cat myself.”
Agent of discipline and punishment, Jane Marple is one of the most merciless moralists in twentieth-century fiction. The Westmacotts, however, are strange, embarrassing, and compulsive romances. Absent in the Spring (1944), in which a woman stranded near Baghdad sees for the first time her own monstrosity, took only three days to write. Described by Christie as the one book “that has satisfied me completely,” and by Worsley as “one of the very best Westmacotts,” it reads like an opium dream. In Unfinished Portrait, a suicidal woman confides to a stranger (who turns out to be the Gun Man) how her idyllic childhood left her woefully unprepared for her husband’s infidelity. This thin, inflexible narrative—the bulk of which was later cut and pasted, word for word, into An Autobiography—contains, wrote Mallowan, “more nearly than anywhere else a portrait of Agatha.”
Giant’s Bread—a hypnotic and unleavened piece of prose—is about memory loss and provides, Worsley suggests, documentary proof of Christie’s own experience in 1926. The main character is Vernon (representing Christie), a musical genius who grows up in a house like Ashfield, with a loving nurse, an overbearing mother, and an uncommunicative father. He goes to war and his wife, Nell, believing him killed in action, remarries a man named George. But Vernon is not dead, and on discovering Nell’s remarriage, he throws himself in front of a lorry and develops amnesia: “When I came to there was just one name in my head—George. That lucky chap, George.” So George is the identity that Vernon now adopts.
Later, with the help of a therapist who “made you see all the things you didn’t want to see,” Vernon recovers his past. “Must we go over it again and again?” he implores. “It was all so horrible. I don’t want to think of it any more.” “It was because of that desire not to ‘think of it any more,’” explained the doctor, “that all this had come about. It must be faced now—thrashed out… Otherwise the loss of memory might return.” Vernon’s friends question the point of his analysis: Why, when he was so “happy” as George, should he live as the destroyed Vernon?
Once we look “carefully” at Christie’s own accounts of her disappearance, writes Worsley in the preface to this biography, “I believe that much of the so-called mystery melts away,” but she does not look carefully enough, and the closer I look at the Daily Mail statement and Giant’s Bread, the deeper the mystery of Agatha Christie becomes. The factual account reads like fiction; the fictional version is read here as fact; none of us, least of all Worsley, can understand the difference.
What might be saved from Lucy Worsley’s undernourished and tangled thesis is that Christie’s lifelong preoccupation was with memory rather than murder. Our capacity to forget, Christie believed, is essential to human happiness: this is the moral of the tales she told about her missing days, and also the final thought she left us with. “Elephants can remember,” Poirot tells Ariadne Oliver in the last line that Christie ever wrote for him, in 1975, “but we are human beings, and mercifully human beings can forget.” Forgetfulness, moreover, is written into her formula: the fact that “I forget the story as soon as I have finished it,” as Auden said of Agatha Christie, is part of her addiction.