What we’re reading today: “Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe

DUBAI: The late British novelist Agatha Christie – known as the ‘queen of crime’ – was a woman of extraordinary talent. Although she had no formal education as a child, she taught herself to read at the age of five and, at the time of her death, aged 85 in 1976, had written 66 mystery novels, including the highly acclaimed “Murder on the Orient Express”. and “Death on the Nile”.

It usually took three to four months for this prolific writer to write a novel. “There’s nothing like boredom to get you writing,” she once said. A particular quote from someone whose life – full of adventurous journeys and emotional ups and downs – was anything but boring.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Christie’s 10-month international journey, which took her to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii, where she learned to surf.

Murder on the Orient Express 1974 film poster. File/Getty

Christie, who was then in her early thirties, was traveling with her first husband Archie, an army officer. “Today everyone would shiver, but (back then) it was called an ’empire’ tour,” Laura Thompson, Agatha Christie’s biographer, told Arab News. “Archie was kind of working and they were almost playing a quasi-ambassador role.”

Archie’s infidelity led the couple to separate in 1928, after which the unorthodox Christie traveled – alone – to the Middle East on the iconic luxury train from Paris to Istanbul, after which she would name later one of his novels.

“I thought: it’s now or never,” Christie reflected on the bold decision. “Either I stick to whatever is safe and that I know, or I develop more initiative, do things on my own.”

“I guess the (daringest) thing she did was travel alone,” Thompson says. “It would be his salvation in a way. Going to Iraq, which was very different at the time, all alone on the Orient Express… that, for me, is impressive. She intended to get rid of the annoying Brits who wanted her to go play tennis. She was a real traveler.

As evidenced by its titles, “Murder in Mesopotamia” and “They Came to Baghdad”, the sights and sounds of the Middle East had a huge impact on Christie.

In a way, her time in the Arab world helped launch her comeback after things went horribly wrong with her marriage. “How I loved this part of the world. I still love it and I always will,” she said of the area.

Her first encounter with Egypt, then a British protectorate, took place in 1910, when she was a young beginner at a coming-out party. It was there that 19-year-old Christie wrote her first love story “Snow Upon the Desert” (which has not been published).

Her second and final marriage, to archaeologist Max Mallowan, 14 years her junior, further intensified her interest in the Arab world. The couple met in Iraq, were soon married in 1930, and over the next 18 years carried out archaeological digs in Syria and Iraq, both custodians of rich civilizations. “All of these worlds never would have come to her if she had stayed with Archie,” Thompson says.

Such expeditions were difficult, especially due to the region’s hot weather and lack of air conditioning, but Christie was up for it. “She was quite playful and tough,” Thompson says. “I remember his daughter, Rosalind, telling me, ‘Everything she does, she does her best to enjoy it.'”

In the 1940s, Christie chronicled her Levantine experiences in a non-fiction account titled “Come, Tell Me How You Live” – a work which, according to Thompson, was a gift to her husband. “She helped fund his brilliant career and helped with the digs,” she explained. “I think as she became more famous it was a refuge to be there, to be Mrs Mallowan and not Agatha Christie fame.”

One of Christie’s most famous Arabic novels, “Death on the Nile”, was recently adapted into a film by Kenneth Branagh. Christie was 47 when the book, based on her trip down the Nile on a winter steamer, was published in 1937.

Laura Thompson, author of Agatha Christie’s “A Mysterious Life”. Provided

The plot follows Belgian detective extraordinaire Hercule Poirot as he investigates the murder of a socialite while on a Nile cruise aboard the SS Karnak. “It’s an exceptionally descriptive book,” says Thompson. “You get these pretty powerful descriptions of the Nile and the Pharaohs.”

The biographer believes that “Death on the Nile” was the beginning of an evolution in Christie’s writing.

“There seems to be a slightly stronger emotional undercurrent that has elements of autobiography,” she observes. The narrative contains a love triangle, something Christie experienced herself that would certainly have had painful connotations for her.

Although written decades ago, Christie’s books still resonate and capture the imagination and hearts of audiences. Over two billion copies of his novels have been sold. “Her audacity is thrilling and at the same time she translates easily,” says Thompson. “She’s like the Beatles. What would the world be without her?