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That Time Agatha Christie Was a Deplorable Hack (Or — The Authoress Suck’d)
July 18, 2012 3:08 PM   Subscribe

However, I do have a major criticism of her work, and fans be forewarned, it makes Agatha Christie sound like a cheap, opportunistic, exploitative monster that would have made Harvey Levin proud. Agatha Christie's book The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side, later made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor, turns out to have been very loosely based on the tragic case of Gene Tierney's daughter, born deaf and severely mentally disabled after a fan snuck out of quarantine for Rubella to get an autograph from the actress. Drew Mackie explains.
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me (35 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Disgusting! Just like those hacks Márquez and Capote.
posted by howfar at 3:18 PM on July 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


That is a bad article. People have been writing stories based on real events since the dawn of time. Weird reaction to this one particular case.
posted by bongo_x at 3:22 PM on July 18, 2012 [11 favorites]


Ten Little Niggers, people.
posted by clarknova at 3:22 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting link, though I don't think it makes Agatha Christie a monster. From the description of what happened in that blog post, IF (the links is just theory after all) Christie based her book on this real-life story, she would have most likely heard of it as a gossip and rumor prior to 1962 (unless she was a confidante of Tierney's or Tierney's very close associates prior to 1962 - seems unlikely), not as confirmed fact (post-1979 Tierney biography). So this isn't the equivalent of TMZ/Harvey Levin, or even of Law & Order: SVU running an episode with a sex murder plot ripped from last month's headlines... it's more like someone writing a story based on a juicy is-it-urban-legend-or-not tale from Snopes.com
posted by Bwithh at 3:25 PM on July 18, 2012


It makes the story even more compelling that it is based on a true one. I'm fascinated to learn that.

Also, that is one of the best movie versions of a book. Although Murder on the Orient Express was very well done on the big screen too.
posted by bearwife at 3:26 PM on July 18, 2012


Yeah, I disagree with the author that this makes Christie look like a monster. I quickly wandered off into a story I found much more interesting.
posted by EvaDestruction at 3:28 PM on July 18, 2012 [15 favorites]


There’s never been any mention of Christie asking permission to use Tierney’s story in a book.

This guy works in publishing?
posted by Ideefixe at 3:29 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


So this ...

In her 1979 autobiography Self-Portrait, Tierney confirmed a rumor that for years had been repeated in Hollywood circles: that her daughter’s condition resulted from Tierney being exposed to rubella while she was pregnant.

And then:

The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side was published in 1962.

... means that Christie didn't use the terrible facts of the actress's life, but instead used a rumor about a Hollywood actress. Two completely different things. There's a cheap low-blowing hack in this article, but it's not Christie.
posted by Bookhouse at 3:37 PM on July 18, 2012 [14 favorites]


Turns out to have been? I'd heard that it was based on a real story years ago. It doesn't sound monstrous at all, to me. It's not like a giant secret.
posted by gracedissolved at 3:37 PM on July 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


If there is a monster in this tale, it was probably the autograph-seeker, although the recklessness could have been due to simple ignorance on her part. Mackie simply doesn't seem to like Christie very much!

I first heard about the Tierney/Mirror Crack'd connection a few months ago; my initial impression was that if anything, Christie immortalized the wrong that was done to Tierney.

Also, not everyone responds to the birth of a child with severe handicaps the way Tierney did; she seems to have been pretty fragile to start out with. Apparently her father stole most or all of her movie earnings along the way, so that didn't help either.
posted by Currer Belfry at 3:38 PM on July 18, 2012


Ten Little Niggers, people.

have you read the book? Apart from that word choice (and arguably the Indian substitute in later editions - current editions use "Soldier Boy"), race doesn't come into it at all.
I suspect Christie chose that original title (and the key rhyme in the book) partly because of "Christy's Minstrels" , and it's probably meant as a morbid joke about the "performance" in the book and the author's role in constructing it.
posted by Bwithh at 3:38 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hmm.
Either I'm already outraged-out this week, or I have reached some new state of post-blogism.

Post-blogism suggests that a good writer could make me care about this as an interesting story, and leave some room for the reader to make their own conclusions about the morality of Christie's using the story, and how Gene Tierney might have felt about it (the blogger has no data on this point), without Bludgeoning! Readers! With! Words! Like! Monster!

Also, you know, if you are going to set out to "take a dig" at an Author, this "I watched the film version with Elizabeth Taylor as Marina in lieu of reading the novel " is not a very credible admission.

Pot calls kettle hack?
posted by Catch at 3:41 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Man, wait till this guy finds out about Law & Order.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:42 PM on July 18, 2012 [24 favorites]


Yeah, I disagree with the author that this makes Christie look like a monster. I quickly wandered off into a story I found much more interesting.

Queen of Whale Cay, the biography that Mackie mentions in the Joe Carstairs post, is really wonderful. I recommend it.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 3:48 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am sure I've heard that the Christie novel was inspired by a true story before. I don't see how "mystery author loosely bases novel on true story" is news to anybody.
posted by interplanetjanet at 4:05 PM on July 18, 2012


If he wanted to be outraged he should have picked on Enid Blyton.
posted by Elmore at 4:06 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, you know, if you are going to set out to "take a dig" at an Author, this "I watched the film version with Elizabeth Taylor as Marina in lieu of reading the novel " is not a very credible admission.

Seriously -- especially since as much as I love Elizabeth Taylor and Angela Lansbury, I don't even think it's the best adaptation for the screen (that would be the ITV Marple adaptation from a couple years back)

(But as I'm enough of an Agatha Christie fanboy as I was tempted to flag the post as offensive, I'm going to mostly stay out of this post all together.)

But before I do, one more thing: the timeline as argued by the blogger isn't exactly accurate. The entire tale wasn't a rumor that Tierney confirmed in 1979 -- for example, check out this article from 1958, which mean Christie created a tale based on one that was already being told quite publicly.

At the worst, this was Christie doing the Law and Order treatment. But I'd say, given that the Gene Tierney-based character is pretty fucking noble in her crimes -- and seen as sympathetic -- I'd say it's a tribute more than anything else.

(Yes, this is me staying out of it.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 4:07 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm also not sure why the writer seems to think it's a certainty that Tierney knew Christie had based the book on her. I know roughly 6 bazillion people who've never read an Agatha Christie novel or seen a film based on one, though I've read them all, and most multiple times. It's not as if The Mirror Crack'd was some massive media phenomenon one couldn't help but be familiar with, like Harry Potter or something.

It's quite an interesting genesis for a novel -- to hear the circulating story and think, "I bet that woman probably wanted to kill the fan . . . . what if she did?"
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:10 PM on July 18, 2012


I kind of had trouble reading past this nonsense in the first paragraph:

"... she gets to taunt the likes of Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steel with the fact that she’s actually quite a good writer: Say what you will about the denouement of Murder on the Orient Express, but Christie reveals it ingeniously."

Agatha Christie was never a good writer at all, and a denouement that bad cannot be revealed ingeniously. As Raymond Chandler said in his seminal work on the genre which Dashiell Hammett rescued from the desolate wastes of Christie's small-minded silliness, "The Simple Art Of Murder:"

"And there is a scheme of Agatha Christie’s featuring M. Hercule Poirot, that ingenius Belgian who talks in a literal translation of school-boy French, wherein, by duly messing around with his 'little gray cells,' M. Poirot decides that nobody on a certain through sleeper could have done the murder alone, therefore everybody did it together, breaking the process down into a series of simple operations, like assembling an egg-beater. This is the type that is guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop. Only a halfwit could guess it."

Agatha Christie was a terrible writer, but it wasn't because she was an evil laundress of Hollywood secrets. It was because she thought so much of her own wit and so little of her readers.
posted by koeselitz at 4:12 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


That quote always make me laugh, koeselitz. Chandler was a master of gorgeous description, hilarious dialogue and utterly incoherent plot. If only he could have mastered the third, there would have been two great Old Alleynian writers. As it is, Chandler ended up writing wonderful amusements, not good detective stories.
posted by howfar at 4:39 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Breaking - Author finds inspiration for genre fiction in non-fictional aspects of public life. Film at 11.
posted by jarvitron at 4:47 PM on July 18, 2012


Although Murder on the Orient Express was very well done on the big screen too.

Oh, SERIOUSLY. Once you've had Albert Finney, you can't go back to Peter Ustinov. Finney WAS Poirot.
posted by Gator at 5:05 PM on July 18, 2012


Agatha Christie used real-life events for her books all the time. I'm sure contemporary readers recognized them regularly. Christie borrowed details of the Lindbergh kidnapping for Murder on the Orient Express, based Mrs. McGinty's Dead on Crippen, and the Thompson/Bywaters affair is similar to the plot in Murder on the Links.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:43 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Once you've had Albert Finney, you can't go back to Peter Ustinov. Finney WAS Poirot.

And then David Suchet comes along and you discover perfection.
posted by SPrintF at 5:58 PM on July 18, 2012 [10 favorites]


Regarding Christie, I'm fond of some of her works for the same reason I'm fond of Conan Doyle: even if you find the story less than riveting, it's a period piece that speaks to its time and place, and that elevates it to literature, in my opinion.

Having said that, her earliest works (for example, the execrable Secret Adversary) are the dumbest sort of pulp rubbish. She eventually becomes worthwhile, sometime around The ABC Murders.

And, yes, many writers write about actual events. Example, Edgar Poe's Mystery of Marie Roget.
posted by SPrintF at 6:06 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


SPrintF: "And then David Suchet comes along and you discover perfection."

Indeed.
posted by Lexica at 8:57 PM on July 18, 2012


howfar: "That quote always make me laugh, koeselitz. Chandler was a master of gorgeous description, hilarious dialogue and utterly incoherent plot. If only he could have mastered the third, there would have been two great Old Alleynian writers. As it is, Chandler ended up writing wonderful amusements, not good detective stories."

This is true. But it doesn't change the fact that he's right here - hypocrites can be correct. Nor does it change the fact that Agatha Christie and her whole school were callous, heartless tourists as far as murder is concerned, finding it a fun little puzzle-solving diversion rather than the "frustration of the race" that Chandler rightly calls it in that essay.

When all is said and done, the precocious hacks of the fuddy-duddy branch of detective writing to which Christie belongs will not be remembered, and we'll all probably find ourselves forced to accept that there has only really been one great master of the detective novel.
posted by koeselitz at 9:18 PM on July 18, 2012


the precocious hacks of the fuddy-duddy branch of detective writing to which Christie belongs will not be remembered, and we'll all probably find ourselves forced to accept that there has only really been one great master of the detective novel

Oh, rubbish. Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr were champions of "the story as problem", the challenge to the reader. What could be more engaging, than to invite the reader in as a detective? Asimov's Black Widowers tales were of the same kind, and here we see where the "puzzle story" intersects with the science-fiction "problem story." Here is a problem of logic and narrative; can you solve it before they do?

We just noted the passing of Donald Sobal and "Encyclopedia Brown", a part of this tradition.

I acknowledge Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich (whom you appear to have overlooked), who extended the "problem story" into the realm of the human heart and literature. But, in the end, are they all so different?

You wake up in the morning, in the light of the gathering sky, and look down at the body, and wonder: "who did this?"
posted by SPrintF at 9:39 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


There are a couple of books that Christie wrote in her later years that are a bit disturbing. In one of them, a worldwide network of hippies turns out to be a front for some kind of horrible fascist leader or something. There's another similar book. In both of them, the implication is that the the modern protests have this sinister underbelly of fascism. I found them strangely out of place with the rest of her work and incredibly reactionary.

Found one of them -- Passenger to Frankfurt. A truly bad novel.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:11 PM on July 18, 2012


Having recently read a biography of her, and her own autobiography, I think it's safe to say that she kept writing a few books past the point where she really should have (and probably wanted to) quit writing. Her outlook was quite Victorian in many ways, and although she managed to adapt to new mores throughout her life, I think hippies were just a step too far for her to wrap her head around.

She certainly approached writing as 'Agatha Christie' as a job. One she was very lucky to have, and that she enjoyed, but nevertheless one that had to be done to keep up with the taxman. Her Mary Westmacott novels were written for her own personal enjoyment or need. But I don't think she was as calculating and callous as the author of the linked article would have us believe.
posted by harriet vane at 2:09 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is something writers do all the time, surely. There are other examples in Christie too - the kidnapping which forms the background to 'Murder on the Orient Express' has to be based on the Lindbergh baby case - right down to the maid who killed herself due to the pressure of police interrogation. But it doesn't make her a vile, callous hack.

I'm fond of some of her works for the same reason I'm fond of Conan Doyle: even if you find the story less than riveting, it's a period piece that speaks to its time and place, and that elevates it to literature, in my opinion.

Yes, they're marvellous period pieces. One of the things that still has the power to shock me about Christie even with my familiarity with her is that cocaine and its upper-class addicts are treated relatively casually in her work, whereas marijuana and psychedelics and their hippie users are BAD WRONG EVIL.

I also enjoy her books because they're wonderful entertainment when you're halfway through a 12-hour plane trip or you're sick in bed, and you don't have the brainpower to concentrate on anything demanding.
posted by andraste at 3:06 AM on July 19, 2012


And then David Suchet comes along and you discover perfection.

Yeah, he's great, but the baldness always distracted me. Poirot was too proud of his raven locks to be bald, and in fact took to wearing a wig in his final years (a plot point in Curtain).
posted by Gator at 5:12 AM on July 19, 2012


> Regarding Christie, I'm fond of some of her works for the same reason I'm fond of Conan Doyle: even if you find the story less
> than riveting, it's a period piece that speaks to its time and place, and that elevates it to literature, in my opinion.

Conan Doyle is unusual in having written many stories none of which count as great literature, but somehow in the midst of all that stands one single character, Holmes, who will be remembered as long as... I first wrote "as long as anyone still reads English" but honestly I think it's "as long as anyone still reads."

I am not a Poirot fan. For me Miss Marple stands in the same relation to the Miss Marple books as Holmes does to the Canon--in the midst of a collection of stories that nobody thinks are of the first rank, a single character who is legitimately great and deep.
posted by jfuller at 1:36 PM on July 20, 2012


Conan Doyle is unusual in having written many stories none of which count as great literature, but somehow in the midst of all that stands one single character, Holmes,

I don’t even think of it as just the character. The works as a whole are fantastic, while I’m not sure I could point out any one Holmes story that is.
posted by bongo_x at 2:29 PM on July 20, 2012


> posted by harriet vane at 5:09 AM on July 19 [1 favorite +] [!]

Speaking of whom, I wonder just how many writers of genre fiction there are who keep writing another and another, to keep the wolf from the door of course but also with the secret hope "My next one will be both a demon of a genre book and also one that totally transcends genre. My next one will be my Gaudy Night."
posted by jfuller at 3:43 PM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


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