Back in the days of written correspondence, letter writing was a craft. And now a collection of missives clearly written to amuse showcases the British Empire of 1922 as well as the lighthearted — and light-minded — approach of an author soon to be known for darker writing.
Agatha Christie, the mother of the modern mystery novel, had her share of real-life intrigue. Born in 1890, the daughter of a well-to-do American father and an upper-class English mother, the young Agatha had every reason to expect a predictable and comfortable life. However, the death of her father in 1901 threw her family into uncertain circumstances, and the failing health of her mother drew the surviving family to Cairo, where Christie had her coming out — and developed her taste for travel.
The years leading up to World War I brought adventure of a different kind, as Christie — a noted beauty — married a dashing lieutenant. That officer, Archibald Christie, would eventually betray her, causing the author to disappear for 11 days, prompting a global manhunt. But before he did, he took her around the world on a trade mission to promote the British Empire Exposition, and it is the letters from that journey that are gathered here by Christie’s grandson into an odd but endearing reminiscence.
Although the author would later remarry and write 65 more detective novels, the Christie in these pages is still very much the carefree, young wife, enjoying the attention of her husband — and others — and the excitement of the 10-month adventure.
This fat volume, larded with Christie’s own photos and clippings, showcases the author as a young mother who has left her 2-year-old daughter, Rosalind, behind in England and had “written three books.’’
Although she frequently asks after “my Rosy Posy,” she clearly relishes her freedom, and the bulk of these letters are taken up by gossip and accounts of meals and recreation. With one foot in the Victorian world, another in what would be the Roaring Twenties, Christie is a bit wild — flirting and hiking. She even becomes fond of surfing while in Africa — all the while, as numerous receptions and dinners reveal, maintaining the prerequisites of rank and class.
Inadvertently, “The Grand Tour’’ is as much a profile of the last days of an empire as it is of the young Christie, who seems blithely unaware of the changing world. In South Africa during the Rand Rebellion, which began as a miner’s strike, she writes, “Of course Pretoria was quiet enough,” before noting the implementation of martial law. In retrospect, the young Christie is incredibly self-involved: “I was terrified I was going to miss the Falls after all with this strike trouble,” she notes.
Her utter faith in the continuation of the Anglo-American hegemony is bittersweet at best. “There are Japanese everywhere — all of the servants and waiters and most of the shops,” she observes in Honolulu. “Their English is not good, and they never understand a word one says.” Such casual racism pops up constantly, as when she feels “all queer” on seeing “little curly heads about Rosalind’s size” in Africa.
Christie wasn’t blind, simply unconcerned. When she did focus in on the personality quirks of those around her she could be quite biting. Her husband’s superior in the mission, the pompous Major Ernest Belcher, comes in for multiple humorous attacks, and both the flirtations and the fashion sense of those she meets are equally skewered for the amusement of those at home. It’s as if the reader has been invited to pull up a deck chair and have a good gossip with a carefree young woman enjoying the “delicious sunshine” of a fading world.
Clea Simon is the author of “True Grey’’ and 10 other mysteries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.