Agatha Christie is the author of some of the most twisted, cunning, and unexpected murder mysteries, but would she be just as good investigating real-life crimes?
In my new book, Murder at Mallowan Hall, Ms. Christie says certainly not—even when a dead body shows up in her library during a house party. “It’s difficult enough to write the dratted things,” she says when the idea is proposed by her housekeeper and friend Phyllida Bright. “I’m not about to try and follow clues in real life—mainly because I can’t put them where I want them!”
As a murder mystery writer myself, I concur with this position. It’s far easier to construct a mystifying puzzle—and a surprise solution—on paper than to attempt to discover clues in real life. After all, we writers are known for going back into our stories to “pepper” them with clues in order to lead our detectives—and readers—to the proper solution. Attempting to find relevant information about actual murders would surely be frustrating—and, let’s be honest, quite boring. Real life crimes rarely have the twisted, unexpected solutions of a Christie novel.
Agatha Christie had plenty of her own real-life drama when she famously disappeared for 11 days, and it seems obvious that, having lived through the ensuing public uproar, she would avoid anything related to newsworthy events—including getting herself involved in investigating a murder. In fact, she was always quite shy, but after her disappearance, she became even more so—and one can hardly blame her, for every interview or story about her after those events always focused on why she went away, what she did, and where she was for those 11 days. She came to dislike the press and publicity—although even in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, it was expected for a popular writer to participate in the promotion of their works.
Thus, when Phyllida Bright proposes the idea that Agatha should follow in M. Poirot’s or Miss Marple’s footsteps and attempt to find out who murdered someone in the home she shares with her second husband, Max Mallowan, it seems logical that Agatha would shut that idea down quite firmly. In fact, she suggests that Phyllida should take on the investigation—because neither Phyllida nor Agatha want the press hovering about, and clearly the authorities need assistance.
Needless to say, Phylllida Bright turns out to be an extremely capable detective. Already with her thumbs on everything happening in the household at Mallowan Hall, she has a built-in opportunity to poke around the guests’ bedchambers, looking for clues. Aside from that, as housekeeper of a very large estate (think "Downton Abbey," although Mallowan Hall is quite fictional), Phyllida is required to be organized, proactive, and very efficient—all characteristics of an excellent detective as well.
She also has the sources of her own staff, who are meant to be unseen and unnoticed as they go about doing their business. The fact that people ignore servants and forget they’re present leaves plenty of opportunity for a maid to overhear something while straightening in the sitting room, or a footman to notice something while helping to serve dinner. And they’re far more likely to share that information with another servant than the authorities.
One might think that Phyllida wouldn’t have the time to properly investigate a crime when running such a vast household but, surprisingly, that’s not the case. An excellent housekeeper (which of course Phyllida is) would employ a competent staff, and therefore she would leave the bulk of the work to the housemaids, kitchen maids, footmen, and outside staff. She’s responsible for meeting with vendors and suppliers, paying their bills, and managing the menu, but most exceptional housekeepers had a surprising amount of time on their hands.
In fact, they usually rose later than the rest of the household staff and would be served their meals and tea by lower-ranked servants. Only the butler would rank higher than the housekeeper—a fact that Mr. Dobble, Mallowan Hall’s butler, never hesitates to remind Phyllida.
As it turns out, all of these characteristics—along with the fact that Phyllida adores mystery novels—do assist her in solving the murder of Mr. Waring at Mallowan Hall. She manages to do so while continuing to manage a busy household filled with guests—even when one of her maids is murdered, and a footman goes missing.
Thus, in my mind, Phyllida was the far better choice for detective that Agatha Christie—even though the celebrated author was able to glean some ideas for her own works during the murderous events at Mallowan Hall. Whatever works, right?