NWPR Books
2:59 am
Sun December 2, 2012

No Mystery: Agatha Christie Takes A 'Grand Tour'

Agatha Christie is the best-selling murder writer of all time, and has created two of the most renowned detectives in crime fiction — Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot. Her books were adapted for both big and small screens. But before she ever wrote Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express, Christie took her own less perilous journey, in 1922, when she set sail on a trip around the world.

Now Christie's grandson, Mathew Prichard, has edited and published the letters she wrote while on that journey, in a new book, The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery. "I knew her as well as anybody, probably, during the latter half of her life," he tells NPR's Rachel Martin.

Christie and her husband, Archibald, traveled to various British colonies as part of an expedition aimed at promoting an upcoming exposition of goods produced in the colonies.

"It exhibits all sorts of things about the 1920s, the first of which, I suppose, is the art of letter writing," Prichard says. "The other thing is that, of course, whilst you read the letters you learn about the comparative simplicity of communications in those days ... no e-mails, hardly any telephones."

Prichard says his favorite letter is one Christie wrote to the 3-year-old daughter she left behind.

"My darling little girl," he reads, "some butterflies for you from Mummy and Daddy, and a picture of Pretoria, where Mummy and Daddy are. There are no choo-choos ... so they will have to stay there for a long time. Mummy had brought a bottle of burgundy, but now martial law has come, and they have locked it up in the bar."

Christie's stories, seen with modern eyes, can seem as quaint as that letter — but they still have the power to captivate.

"I think they are simple. They reflect people who appear in most people's lives. So people, when they read the books, they feel quite comfortable with the characters," Prichard says. "They are easily adaptable, whether to different languages or to television, and I think that you can pick up an Agatha Christie [book] and in, what, four or five hours, you can lose yourself in a world of mystery and contentment."

Prichard says he himself still has a bookshelf full of his grandmother's work — his favorite is one of her last books, Endless Night. "It had this almost eerie feeling that evil really exists, which I know from talking to her, she really believed in," he says. The book, though, was less popular than the books that starred Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.

The cover of The Grand Tour features a photo of Agatha Christie on a boat, relaxed and happy. That, Prichard says, reflects Christie's happiness on the trip. "I think it is a marvelous recreation of life, almost a part of social history that she gives us a glimpse of in the letters and photographs."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Agatha Christie is the best-selling murder writer of all time, and she created two of the best-known detectives in crime fiction: Miss Jane Marple and of course...

(SOUNDBITE OF A MOVIE)

PETER USTINOV: (as Hercule Poirot) My name is Poirot. Hercule Poirot.

MARTIN: Peter Ustinov was just one of the actors to take on the role of Poirot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DEATH ON THE NILE")

DAVID NIVEN: (as Colonel Race) Might I ask, what are you doing here?

USTINOV: (as Hercule Poirot) An early vacance. Shortly I'm going up the Nile on the steamer. And you?

MARTIN: But before she ever wrote "Death on the Nile" or "Murder on the Orient Express," Agatha Christie took her own less perilous journey in 1922, when she set sail on a trip around the world, including South Africa and Australia.

Now, Agatha Christie's grandson, Mathew Prichard, has edited and published the letters that Agatha Christie wrote while on that journey. They're all compiled in a book called "The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery."

I spoke with Prichard from the BBC Studios in London about his grandmother and what those letters revealed.

MATHEW PRICHARD: I was in my mid 30's when she died. I know grandsons, you tend to think of them as children. You can't see me but I'm hardly a child.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICHARD: And, you know, I knew her as well as anybody probably, you know, during the latter half of her life.

MARTIN: So let's talk about this grand tour, this journey around the world chronicled in this book. She and your grandfather, Archie, traveled to what were then colonies in the British Empire. And all along the way, Agatha Christie is chronicling her journey by writing letters to her mother.

PRICHARD: That is right, yes.

MARTIN: Did she have a close relationship with her mother?

PRICHARD: The closest, I think. I think the trip is notable for several reasons. I mean, not only because now my grandmother is such a famous person, but it exhibits all sorts of things about the 1920s, the first of which, I suppose, is the art of letter writing, which I sometimes think we've forgotten about completely these days.

The other thing is that, of course, whilst you read the letters you learn of the comparative simplicity of communications in those days. I mean no emails, hardly any telephones. Communications with her three-year-old daughter, who they left behind, were rudimentary. And how many mothers these days would leave a three-year-old child in the care of a nanny and a sister and a mother, you know. It seems very strange to us but in those sort of times it wasn't perhaps so unusual.

MARTIN: You mention the lost art of letter writing and how this book tries to recapture some of that. Do you have one or two favorite letters that are included in the book?

PRICHARD: I do. I'll just read you one which is quite short, written to her daughter, which says: (Reading) My darling little girl, some butterflies for you from Mummy and Daddy, and a picture of Pretoria, where Mummy and Daddy are. There are no choo-choos - that means trains, I think - so they will have to stay there for a long time. Mummy had brought a bottle of burgundy, but now martial law has come and they have locked it up in the bar.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICHARD: (Reading) I think about you such a lot, my own baby. I shall come back, by and by, to my little Rosalind. Lots of love from Mommy.

MARTIN: I'd like to ask you about that. It was a big deal to leave behind her small daughter. What was so important to your grandmother about this journey?

PRICHARD: You know, in those days she couldn't really foresee a time when she'd ever be able to visit these places ever again. So it was partly duty to accompany her husband, which was very strong in those days; and partly, quite honestly, opportunity.

MARTIN: Your grandmother's mysteries, viewed through a kind of modern lens, can appear to be these rather quaint stories. But they are still so captivating to so many readers. Why do you think that is so?

PRICHARD: I think they are simple. They reflect people who appear in most people's lives. So people, when they read the books, they feel quite comfortable with the characters. They are easily adaptable, whether to different languages or to television, and I think that, you know, you can pick up an Agatha Christie and in - what - four or five hours, you can lose yourself in a world of mystery and contentment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY")

FREDERICK JAEGER: (as Colonel Melchett) Thank you, Miss Marple, for the tea.

JOAN HICKSON: (as Miss Marple) Oh, a pleasure, Colonel. And I wish you the best of luck.

JAEGER: (as Colonel Melchett) Yes.

HICKSON: (as Miss Marple) One of those cases isn't it, when one could so easily find oneself barking up the wrong tree.

JAEGER: (as Colonel Melchett) What tree might that be?

HICKSON: (as Miss Marple) The (unintelligible) of what one might be asking oneself why the girl was either killed here and taken to Colonel Bantry's, or why she was taken there first and then killed.

JAEGER: (as Colonel Melchett) Yes, but...

HICKSON: (as Miss Marple) But that of course, would be the wrong question, wouldn't it?

JAEGER: (as Colonel Melchett) Would it?

MARTIN: Do you still pick up one of your grandmother's books from time to time? Do you have them in your house on your bookshelf?

PRICHARD: I'm afraid I do, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICHARD: I mean, you were just about to ask me which is my favorite one, I suspect.

MARTIN: Yeah, maybe.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICHARD: Well, I have a favorite story called "Endless Night," which was written right at the end of her life in about 1967. And it had this almost eerie feeling that evil really exists, which I know from talking to her, she really believed in. And it was a hugely modern book; fewer people read that than other of her more famous books now, because it doesn't have Poirot or Miss Marple in it. But any of your listeners who can pick up a copy of "Endless Night," I can highly recommend it to them.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, I do want to ask you about the photograph on the cover of this book. It's a lovely picture of your grandmother. I wonder if you could just tell me what you like about this photo.

PRICHARD: Well, she's on a boat. But, you know, that doesn't tell you much, 'cause you would have worked that out for yourself.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICHARD: But I think happy. You would say relaxed, wouldn't you? Somebody who was quite at peace with herself and where she was at. And I think, for my mind, that and one other picture in the book - in a sort of floral one-piece dress - are perhaps the best representations of what I think, you know, what a happy state of mind she was on this trip. And I think that that reflects itself not only in the photographs in the book - a lot of which, by the way, she took herself - and in the tone of the letters.

You know, I think it is a marvelous recreation of life, in an almost a part of social history that she gives us a glimpse of in the letters and photographs.

MARTIN: The book is called "The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery," Agatha Christie. Agatha Christie's grandson, Mathew Prichard, edited the book and he joined us from the BBC.

Mr. Prichard, thank you so much.

PRICHARD: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.