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  • Maggie Wheeler

The Summer of Agatha Christie

Updated: Jul 29


I learned (what I suppose I really knew already) that one can never go back, that one should not ever try to go back—that the essence of life is going forward. Life is really a One Way Street, isn’t it?”

Jane Marple, At Bertram’s Hotel

It started, as Poirot would say, as a “little idea.” It had been with me for many years, but put off by life, by distraction, by workload. Most of all, I have usually been writing a mystery of my own and by personal/professional SOP I stay away from other mysteries while doing so (The one negative concession to my writing).


Then came the year 2020: the centennial of Agatha Christie’s published writing career and the birth of Hercule Poirot, a global pandemic, closed borders and restricted travel, a state of emergency for the Province of Ontario as elsewhere, lockdown, businesses shuttered, #staysafe, #stayhome. Got it.


More time to write. But not the brains and focus to do it with everything going on. I still needed to do something constructive, beyond housework and painting rooms. And I wanted to do something to celebrate the centennial of the greatest mystery writer ever.


The “little idea” returned. It was time to read Christie again, the over 80 novels and short-story collections—start to finish—including the non-mysteries and non-fiction, in chronological order. To revisit the Queen of Crime, the inspiration for my own work, and fill the few gaps in my own sizable collection of her work. Then, I decided if I were to do that, hopefully one book a week, I would also revisit the events of her life at that time and the influences on the books themselves. Finally, I thought to gather and publish this on social media to share and to keep. The Christie Project was born.


I first met Agatha Christie at the age of 11, having just been indoctrinated to sleuthing via Harriet the Spy and the subsequent consumption (no other word to be used here) of the entire Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys canon at that time. I was hooked on mysteries, a love affair that in the intervening almost half century has never waned or left me with a broken heart.


In my late thirties, I finally worked up the courage to try my own hand at my first love—and the Lost Villages mysteries with Farran Mackenzie were born. No one was more surprised by that than I was, both in the fact of completion of one book (let alone now five) and the wonderful response over these past two decades to the characters, the mysteries and the unique Canadian history they showcase. But that is actually a tribute to the art of the mystery novel, which when paired with history is a match made in heaven.


My first hesitation was: Can I read one book a week to keep the pace over time? Answer: It’s Christie. Even when you remember most of the endings, you still can’t put them down. The first pleasant side effect was that I got back my reading muscles—reading for pleasure. I do a lot of research in my work and keep up on the news, but reading for pleasure was a lost art to me when I started this. Not because I no longer had value for it, but because of the familiar challenge of time in the day. Suddenly, I was back grabbing a few minutes here or there, reading with a meal, or finding the stamina to fit a chapter in before sleep.


The sheer enjoyment of immersing myself in the Queen of Crime would have been enough as time went along, but something else returned to me. Many times in my adult life when faced with a challenging situation that defied solution at first thought, I would walk away from it and read a Christie mystery. Still just a fan and not a fellow author, I found that her brilliant puzzles and their solutions did something for me at a deeper level as I read along; a solution for my own puzzle would eventually present itself. That fallout came back with The Christie Project.


As we moved through the first weeks of the alien and unfamiliar pandemic landscape, I found myself becoming increasingly mentally adaptable and resilient. Some of that was due to my situation, my realities allowing me to stay out of the line of fire for the most part. The greatest challenge was the common one of getting needed supplies. However, as I read book after book with baffling and sinister murder scenarios dealt with over the plot line, my own mind (I believe) began to respond in kind with an increasing agility in navigating roadblocks, detours and new terrain in the Covid-19 world. The sudden drop in external stimulus was replaced with a new diet and my mental health thrived.


Christie wrote over a span of almost 60 years. She began with characters of post-war refugees (Poirot), an unemployed and unwanted generation of youth (Tommy and Tuppence), and socially invisible seniors (Miss Marple). She moved through backdrops of the rise of socialism, fascism, World War 2, the Cold War, eugenics, and terrorism. Reading through the substantial historical tapestry, I am reminded that we have always faced tremendous challenges in this world and, as the ordinary people who populate much of the Christie character spectrum do, we always rise to them. This will be no different. Even without a murder to complicate things.


What must also be taken into account is my own “historical tapestry” or span of time connected to these books. I started reading Agatha Christie as a girl, continuing through my youth and young adulthood, with an understandable break during my young family time. Now I am back as both reader and author, with the perspective of soon-to-be 60 years. My enjoyment is unabated, my respect for her craft the same. Yes, we find old social terms salted here and there that are unacceptable today but, as an historian, I read these as the products of their time that they are. And in her characters is the timelessness of Christie that keeps legions of fans loyal over 40 years after her death: restive youth, lost generations, strong and intelligent women, multi-faceted men, middle-aged people keeping active lives in the face of ageism, and elderly women sidelined by the culture pushing back. The wise women of society. My only momentary shock is that Christie defines elderly as 60-plus. The ‘old pussies’ as she (and her characters) calls them. Another product of those times. If that groups me in now with Miss Marple, I’m okay with that. Wait for me, Jane!


Spring has turned into summer, and now summer is delicately laced with the first hints of the coming autumn. Week after week, on The Christie Project Facebook group, I read and comment on the books along with research into the amazing life that Christie lived. What has been unexpected with this work (and ties into this blog on midlife) is not the return of pleasures of the past but an undeniable wellspring of human experience that refills my own, creating a refreshed foundation on which to stand as we move through these very challenging times. My walk toward 60—whatever I find that to be and what I make of it—as explored in this blog has covered ground I never saw coming. It has also brought a whole new appreciation for life.


Credit for that lies in many sources but Christie is definitely one of them. Agatha Christie, born a Victorian woman, living through most of a century marked by titanic challenge and change, creative, brilliant, visionary, relentlessly productive, was always in her own view an old-fashioned and traditional woman. To this day, to her readers and scholars, she remains a true woman of mystery both personally and professionally. The Christie Project (as is this blog) is a very personal perspective on this iconic writer. I can say that my return to Agatha Christie for the long haul has been like a wonderful afternoon visit with an old friend—older female friend, mentor, elder advisor. Just the ticket right now.


My blog followers will see that this entry is unusually long, but it marks a turning point in the journey they have graciously shared with me. Last year, I started looking at entering my sixties as an unknown. Not so much trepidation as hesitation, and the desire to create a new decade in my life that would be the best one yet. I can say now that, even with the national tragedies Canadians have dealt with this year, the brick wall of a global pandemic, and a looming global recession, I have never felt so well, so solid, so strong. Happy and grateful in the centre of my life. Excited for the future and its possibilities. A second summer of the soul. I know that Agatha would approve. Despite the challenges in her life and having experienced being "wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow” at times, she never once doubted “that just to be alive is a grand thing.” Reading her now with my perspective of years, I can attest that Agatha Christie kept her summer, too.


So steady as she goes, onward into the second half of 2020 and my sixth decade (officially beginning in August). As noted in my previous entries, I am creating new dreams and can’t wait to take on what comes next.


Yes, Jane, life is definitely a One Way Street.


Thank God for that!

Talk soon,

Maggie

The Christie Project: https://www.facebook.com/groups/224240028699908/

Social media hashtag: #acenturyofchristie

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