Reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography is like sitting down to tea with an especially chatty, good-natured auntie; one would never suspect her of slipping arsenic in your drink. The Queen of Crime, it turns out, was also a gifted and engaging memoirist, and readers who missed out on the 1977 publication of An Autobiography will be delighted with its reissue, timed to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Dame Christie’s birth.
As Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard notes in his foreword, much of this autobiography focuses on her childhood, a happy and imaginative time that laid the groundwork for her future writing career. Young Agatha was a natural storyteller, creating imaginary friends known as The Kittens, and later inventing The School, a series of stories she spun about a group of schoolgirls. Learning about poisons while working in a pharmaceutical dispensary during the First World War gave Christie the idea for a detective story, which eventually became The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first published book; witnessing the plight of Belgian refugees in England inspired Christie to make her detective Belgian—and thus Hercule Poirot was born. A marriage to handsome airman Archibald Christie was happy for a time, but Archie, it turns out, couldn’t much bear unhappiness. Agatha’s mother’s death in 1926 led to his affair and her infamous disappearance later that year. Christie doesn’t address the disappearance directly here, but says enough about her mental state to support theories that suggest she’d had a nervous breakdown of sorts.
Funny anecdotes about surfing with Archie in Hawaii and Cape Town (who knew Dame Christie could stand-up surf?), a happy second marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan and periods spent with him on site in Iraq and Turkey are all fascinating. Christie’s enjoyment of the “indulgence” of memoir writing is apparent on every page of this lovely book, giving it a cheerful tone, as if she’s just turned to face you across the tea table to tell you a story. Packaged with a CD of newly discovered recordings of Christie dictating portions of the book, An Autobiography is essential for both mystery and memoir readers alike.