Wednesday 12 June 2013

Folio & Agatha

photo source

For those of us who love the book as a physical, aesthetic object, the Folio Society is spoken of with breathless delight.  They are the antidote to the ebook or the mass market paperback - their beautiful hardbacks with slipcovers, with exquisite paper and specially commissioned illustrations, are joys on anybody's shelves.  Since they're at the pricier end of the book market, I don't have huge numbers, although I do prize the first one I ever owned - Selected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, given by my friend Barbara, which not only introduced me to one of my favourite writers, but to the beauty of Folio.  I'm under no obligations to say anything about them, I should mention, but they really are perfect gift books, and I aspire to having shelves full of them one day.

This became all the clearer when, yesterday evening, I sat in their members' room in Bloomsbury, shelves and tables filled with their beautiful books.  I managed not to shove any in my bag, you'll be pleased to know - except for the one they sent me home with in my goody bag, which was the Miss Marple Short Stories - because I was in London to hear a talk about Agatha Christie by her biographer Laura Thompson, in the company of various other bloggers.  I'd only actually met one before, and we just said hello across the room - most of those present seemed to be crime bloggers, and know each other, but I did get to chat to a lady from a fashion blog with a sideline in book blogs.  If a fashionista is going to like any books, they ought to be Folio books.

Anyway, there is nothing quite like hearing about Agatha Christie.  I think only Jane Austen unites so many diverse readers in eager agreement and enthusiasm - but, while most Austen fanatics have read all her novels (even if not her abbreviated novels, letters etc.) it's quite possible to love Agatha Christie without having read a very big percentage of her prolific output.  Take me, for instance - I love Dame Agatha.  Like many people, she was my transition from teenage reading to adult reading.  And yet I've only read (quick scurry to Wikipedia) 16 or 17 of her novels.  So many left to discover!

Thankfully Laura Thompson didn't assume we'd all have read everything by Christie, and so she didn't give away endings - or at least she didn't give away specific endings, so she mentioned that a murderer turned out to be a child, or every possible candidate, or a suicide - but didn't spoil which novels these endings belonged to.  (Please be similarly considerate in the comments!)

And, indeed, Laura Thompson's talk and Q&A afterwards was brilliant all round.  She was very personable, and obviously a big fan of Christie as well as a biographer (has anybody read her biography, incidentally?  I haven't, but want to now.)  Her favourite Christie novel is Five Little Pigs - she said that the plot movements and character movements work in sync beautifully, which makes me want to read that too - and, conversely, The Clocks is her least favourite.  My favourite comment she made was that Agatha Christie didn't feel the need to prove herself better than the detective novel genre.  She embraced it, and (as Thompson said too) although she thought a lot about what she did, she didn't analyse what she did.

My feelings are that Agatha Christie is such a perfect detective novelist that other authors don't only seem inferior, but seem failures.  They have wandered from the blueprint Christie excelled at - her plots are almost always breathtakingly flawless - and so people like Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham barely even qualify as detective novelists to me, however enjoyable they may be in other  qualities (and, for my money, Sayers is short of those too!)

I asked a question about Christie's romantic novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott - which I've never read - and turns out they were better reviewed than her main output!  Thompson adds that some are, indeed, very good.

All in all, a highly enjoyable (if swelteringly hot) evening, which has cemented my admiration for Folio books and my affection for Agatha Christie.  Thank you, Folio!


  1. Hello Simon, I enjoyed this one, as I have been an avid Agatha Christie fan since the age of eleven. I agree that she is a perfect novelist, but can't agree on Dorothy L.Sayers, as I love her books.
    You are so fortunate to get to see all those lovely Folio Society books; I've been lusting after some of those, wondering if I should indulge myself.
    p.s. Good that you managed to restrain yourself from carrying some away!

  2. I love Agatha Christie's books and am slowly reading through her work. And just last week I borrowed Laura Thompson's biography of Agatha and have really only just started reading it, after dipping into it in various places. It looks comprehensive, although I've read a few reviews that are rather critical of the book. I'll have to see what I think.

    It's interesting to see that some of Christie's romantic novels are 'very good'. I haven't read any - did she mention which are the 'very good' ones?

    One of my favourite Agatha books is her Autobiography - as well as a record of her life it's full of her thoughts on life and writing.

  3. I have read every single Christie going and can tell you the identity of the murderer in each one, but I wont! I have also read the Thompson biography and it is excellent. The Westmacott books are worth getting hold of, one of them I cannot remember which, is almost straight autobiography of AC's childhood.

    And I agree Five Little Pigs is my favourite too

  4. Wow, fighting words re Sayers!

  5. Sounds like a good night Simon, but what a sweeping statement about Sayers! I love her novels, particularly the later ones - "Gaudy Night" I could pick up and read again and again at any point in my life! Have you actually tried any of her books, and which ones???

    1. It looks like we Sayers fans are somewhat shocked at Simon's views on her books!

  6. I believe Agatha Christie wrote only 5 straight novels, under the name Mary Westmacott. For me, the most compelling is Unfinished Portrait, which draws heavily from her own life. Some of the scenes are identical to those in An Autobiography.

    I have reread Gaudy Night a number of times too. I feel like I'm peeking into life in a womens' college in Oxford in the 1930s. All those characters!

  7. Agatha Christie is the one who started my love affair with crime novels. I've read all of them and I think I owned about half. But I do love Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey books too.

    Looks like you had a wonderful time. I haven't read any biographies although I've watched a number of programmes about Christie's life.

  8. I absolutely adore the Folio books, but have yet to own one. However, ever since I visited their website, adverts for their books appear on almost every webpage I visit. And I still can't helping clicking on the adverts and staring at their books ever time!

  9. Not only her mysteries are great, but I am reading 'Come tell me how you live' and in this book she tells about her second husband and how she goes with him to the Middle East on archeological digs etc. It is very entertaining, she is very funny and has an eye for the absurd.

    Kind regards,

  10. You might also like The Grand Tour, which I just recommended on another blog site. It's a collection of Agatha Christie's letters home and photos from an official 1922 trip she and her first husband took to parts of the British Empire. I'll never forget the photos of a young Agatha and her husband surfboarding! They loved surfing! I've read her autobiography, but this is a less filtered sort of autobiography in that it's letters written at the time.

  11. Haven't read a Christie for years but since the library have a whole shelf in a lovely reprint which look like they would have when they first came out (or maybe being North Yorkshire they ARE originals - will have to look closer) I am tempted to revisit some of them!
    I have yet to read a Sayers so I can't comment but I know just what you mean about those Folio editions!
    I really crave the Fairy books and some of the childrens' classics but I very much doubt that I will ever be able to justify paying the sort of prices they charge!

  12. I've read Laura Thompson's biography of Nancy Mitford but didn't realise she'd written one of Agatha Christie. I love Christie, so I'll look out for this.

  13. I've read most of Christie's books, except the Tommy & Tuppence books which I didn't enjoy, though it's been so long I've forgotten most of them. I do remember my favorites being The Pale Horse and Murder on the Orient Express. My mother took me to see the 1974 film version when I was just a young child!! I'm surprised it didn't scar me for life, but I still love it (as do my own children).

    I think Christie really set the standard for mystery fiction. Even today, a lot of modern mystery writers just don't measure up. I've never tried Sayers but I'm not much of a mystery reader these days.

  14. As a huge Agatha fan, I read your review with much interest and enjoyment. Like others have commented, I, too, started reading her as a child (eleven). I have read and re-read most of her mysteries several times as an adult, and somehow, unlike other crime novels, they still retain my full interest. Even though I know the outcome, its the setting of the scenes, the gathering of the threads, the psychological nuances that beckon me. I find that elusive clue that eluded me earlier and that thrills me.

  15. Christie never wrote a romantic novel in her life! The Westmacotts are attempts at straight or 'psychological' novels (investing that word with her... unique... idea of its meaning). They are of interest only to those of us with a biographical/cultish interest in Christie, I guess, not to those who care for her plotting or storytelling. Thompson's biography is interesting but extremely sentimental. I hated it when it first came out, and now I find it fun to read from time to time.


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