Friday, April 27, 2012

A Dame at a Dig

Come, Tell Me How You Live is so little known among the works of Agatha Christie that it sometimes is omitted from her bibliography. The book, subtitled “An Archaelogical Memoir,” was written under her married name, Agatha Christie Mallowan, and published in 1946.

Agatha (nee Miller) Christie married Max Mallowan in 1930, having divorced her first husband, Archibald Christie, in 1928 after fourteen years of marriage. Mallowan was an established archeologist; however, his wife’s fame—though she would not be Dame Agatha until 1971, after her husband had been knighted in 1968—had already eclipsed his. By the time of their marriage, Christie had already published several novels, her first in 1920 being The Mysterious Affair at Styles. This mystery novel featured the first appearance of Hercule Poirot, her longest running detective. Styles, incidentally, was the name of the Christies’ house in Sunningdale, Berkshire.

Eventually, Agatha Christie would become the best-selling novelist of all time, her books selling approximately four billion copies in more than one hundred languages. Her play, The Mousetrap, famously, has been in constant production since its premier in 1952. She has been outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare.

Come, Tell Me How You Live makes a delightful departure—as it must have been for Christie herself. It is a rambling, day-to-day memoir that recounts several seasons of archeological digs in the Middle East during the 1930s, prior to the Second World War. Reading it gives one some insight not only into the goings on of a dig in that period but into the character of Christie that in various ways becomes manifest in the array of personalities in her novels. This is a very human, interesting and interested individual, who pays attention to both the vast and the minute. And she’s funny! This memoir is truly entertaining to the point of chuckling aloud from time to time. So many memoirs take themselves far too seriously, and this one doesn’t fall into that trap.

Christie’s prewar Middle East digs provided fodder for several of her popular mysteries, including Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and Death on the Nile (1937). When the war began, the digs ended and Christie set aside the memoir. In 1944 she took it up again, saying,

But now, after four years of war, I have found my thoughts turning more and more to those days spent in Syria, and at last I have felt impelled to get out my notes and rough diaries and complete what I had begun and laid aside. For it seems to me that it is good to remember that there were such days and such places, and that at this very minute my little hill of marigolds is in their bloom, and old men with white beards trudging behind their donkeys may not even know there is a war.

Readers today are the richer for Christie having taken up the memoir she laid aside before the war. And we can see, through her keen eyes, into a world that has, unfortunately, been largely lost forever.