My experiences meeting famous people have been few and far between – and they never turned out as I might have expected. I’m not an autograph (or, in these days, selfie) hound. I don’t want to bother someone who has just performed for me or who is on vacation in order, just so I can provide proof that we met for an awkward moment. (Now, if it turns into a lovely moment, as it did with Glenn Close or Laura Benanti, then it’s pretty darn nice.) Only a couple of times did the meeting turn into something memorable. There was the fact that my great-uncle Mel was best friends with comedian Morey Amsterdam, and that I met “Buddy Sorrell” (from my favorite sitcom The Dick V an Dyke Show) a few times, including at Mel’s funeral. The first time we met, Morey was convinced that putting another Statue of Liberty on top of Alcatraz would create the perfect “bookend” effect for our nation. I, at the all-wise age of eight, strongly disagreed with him. He took it well.


(from top l.) Rose Marie, Mary Tyler Moore, and Morey (dreaming of two Liberty’s) all flank the great Dick Van Dyke

I have never met a personal idol and, to be frank, I think I probably dodged a bullet there. The closest I came was when I sat down with a group of people to watch a nightclub act, and one of them turned out to be Ella Fitzgerald’s longtime drummer. We didn’t talk much – he was tired after a long set with singer Mel Torme (who was sitting with us and was not as pleasant as one might have wished . . . another story for coffee time) – but I at least got to express my appreciation for my all-time favorite singer to someone who would later jam with her and tell her that her fandom was ever thriving. 

Probably like most of you, I never met my favorite author – which is too bad because my experience with meeting authors has been generally very favorable. Agatha Christie died an ocean away from me when I was twenty, and I never got to tell her what she meant to me. Honestly, though, I didn’t know then what I know now, and I think a meeting with Christie would have gone more swimmingly if I could have addressed her as my present self. I would have spoken more intelligently about my relationship to her writing. I would have asked more cogent questions . . . and I would not have taken “no” for an answer!

All this comes to mind because of a recent episode of the podcast All About Agatha, where Kemper Donovan related three stories about living people who met the author. All of the stories were truly wonderful, especially that came straight from the mouth of an archaeology professor named Ernestine who met Christie at a cocktail party in L.A. given in honor of Max Mallowan, who was doing a lecture tour in America, accompanied by his famous wife. 

Keep your mind off all the wonderful poisoned cocktails in the Christie canon, and listen to this episode right away. One salient fact that comes across in all three experiences was Christie’s accessibility, her warmth and friendliness. All of us who have spent a great deal of time in the presence of her writing and biographical material might have gotten the idea that Agatha was shy to the point of being stand-offish. That may have been true – if you were a representative from a film studio or an extremely nosy member of the fourth estate. But a genuine person behaving kindly and respectfully just might have had their moment with their beloved author. 

Kemper talked a bit about time machines and traveling to the past to meet people you wanted to meet. He talked about England in the time of Shakespeare or maybe further along to the days of Dickens, the Brontes and Wilkie Collins. Ultimately, none of this would work for me because I’m too find of clean, modern plumbing. No, if I had a time machine (and it would have to be exactly like the Wayback Machine run by the brilliant dog Peabody and his boy, Sherman), I would travel back to the mid-1930’s and get a ticket for every Broadway show I could for the next fifteen to twenty years. And somewhere along the way, I would take a transatlantic ocean liner to Great Britain and spend a few days at Greenway House with the Mallowans. 

Mr. Peabody guiding me back to the Golden Age of Detection!

Since this can’t possibly happen, I want you to know that I would not have been a passive fan. I would have played with the dogs, plied Agatha with sweets, and asked (if not demanded) some favors from her. I wouldn’t be rude about it! No “Stop dawdling, woman: sixty-six novels, dozens of stories and fifteen plays is simply not enough!” from me. No, I have some specific requests – seven of them, in fact – that I would address to the author. Then, I would refuse to leave until she promised to honor them. Now, I have no idea what any of you would do if you were given the chance to ask your favorite author to make some changes or produce some additional material. But here’s my own wish list . . . 

1. I wish that Agatha Christie had been franker in her Autobiography . . . but not about what you think. The year 1926 is none of our damn business. I don’t want to know about Archie or the quarry or the amnesia – even if it turns out it was “amnesia.” My interests are wholly professional. I wish Christie had talked at length about her work: about the process, the notebooks, the stories she loved, the ones she hated, the ones that got away. What was her system for clueing? How did she feel about the changes wrought on the genre after WWII? 

Nearly every day, I give thanks for John Curran’s research that led to the creation of his two volumes about this very thing. In that sense, a lot of the gaps have been filled. But, oh man, what I would give to have a conversation about mystery writing with my favorite mystery writer herself. The things I could learn from her . . . 

2. If we’re sitting down in the late 40’s, early 50’s, I wish I could exact a promise from Agatha that, from 1963 – 1973, her final decade of novel-writing, she would seek greater support from her editors. Granted that she recycled old tricks to lesser effect throughout this period (the murder plots of The Clocks, Third Girl, and Hallowe’en Partyreuse similar elements from an idea going back to 1940), but some novels are weaker than that, and the problems of continuity and downright coherence only grew and grew as the 60’s became the 70’s. 

Far be it from me to simply say, “Um . . . don’t publish Elephants Can Remember or Postern of Fate.” We don’t want less Agatha, but we also don’t want weak Agatha. I can only imagine that much of the fault lay with the publishers, who should have done more with the texts they received. I don’t need to dish the dirt about this; I just want Christie and her team to fix it!

3. I wish the solution to her novel Appointment with Death had been the same solution that she used in the play. 

SPOILER ALERT (if you haven’t read the novel or seen/read the play, skip this.)

In 1938, Christie produced a pair of novels that feature two of her most despicable victims. One of them is the world’s worst father (Simeon Lee of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas), and in Appointment with Death, we get the wickedest of stepmothers. Christie’s take on this trope is fascinating: Mrs. Boynton did not simply marry a wealthy man, drive him to his grave, and then set about destroying his children. (She is arguably as awful to her own daughter as she is to her three steps.) The woman is a sadist who, in her younger years, could give full vent to her lust for power in her job as the warden of a prison. Now, old and sick, she derives her greatest pleasure from tormenting the Boynton kids and those in their orbit. 

While Christmas embodies the glories of the country house mystery, Appointment is one of the Poirot travel books of the 30’s (along with Murder on the Orient Express, Murder in Mesopotamia, and Death on the Nile . . . with Death in the Clouds a bit of a hybrid). Here, we are in Jordan, in a travelers camp at the ancient city of Petra. With a large group of family and friends to torture, Mrs. Boynton oddly sends everyone away because, evidently, she is hatching up some new scheme!

In the end, Hercule Poirot proves that this scheme involved Mrs. Boynton finding a new victim amongst the party and setting about to toy with her prey. This outsider ends up killing the old woman while disguised as a native servant and then using the force of their personality to convince a weak-minded companion that, as they were strolling past Mrs. Boynton, the dead or dying woman had addressed them (thus supplying the murderer with an alibi.) 

This solution is perfectly . . . okay. But when she wrote the play, Christie went in another direction, as described by Julius Green in Curtain Up:

Again, Poirot is removed from the story, and there is a significant change in the outcome of the plot, which aficionados of the detective genre may justifiably find frustrating, but which, once again, demonstrates Christie’s eagerness to experiment when adapting her work for the stage. The characterization of the dramatis personae, in particular of the Boynton family, and its tyrannous matriarch, are of more interest to Christie the playwright than the trail of clues and, as so often in her stage work, ‘whydunit’ takes precedence over ‘whodunit.’”

I’m not going to argue that Appointment with Death is not a problematical piece of theatre: with two major sets and a cast of eighteen, it’s highly expensive, and the “stuck in its time” elements will not endear the play to many modern communities. However, Christie’s new solution here takes the character of Mrs. Boynton – arguably the most dynamic one in the story – to its fascinating and logical end: realizing that she is dying, she decides to stage her own “murder” to leave full chaos and misery for the family in her wake. It’s the ultimate act of sadistic self-gratification, and its dramatic effect is powerful. I venture to say that if Christie had used this ending in her novel, clueing it with the same pains she took for her novels (and mostly excised from her dramatic work), thenAppointment with Death might have joined that small coterie of classic titles with “big” endings. 

4. Speaking of the plays, I wish Christie hadn’t had a bee in her bonnet about putting Poirot onstage. Oh, I get her contempt for the way the role had been cast: both Charles Laughton (in Alibi) and Francis L. Sullivan (in Black Coffee) were big men who bore little resemblance, either physically or temperamentally to the literary character. (Austin Trevor, who played the role in the movies, was no more accurate in his portrayal.) The appearance of Poirot got into Christie’s head, and she came to believe that it preoccupied the minds of her audience even more than the story itself. 

Charles Laughton as M. Poirot

To this I say . . . bushwah! Hercule Poirot is a magnificently dramatic figure, fitting easily into a “best of” list of 20th century literary characters. He lends a distinct flair to any story in which he appears. To those who pooh-pooh his appearance in the novel The Hollow, I say to you that the conflict between Poirot and the entire Angkatell family is a highpoint. To see that portrayed onstage would lift that play to the stratosphere. Think of how weak Go Back for Murder is as a work of drama; with Poirot there to take things personally, we have a better chance of viewing the glory that was Five Little Pigs. No goofy Alderman Higgs keeping an Appointment with Death or pompous Canon Pennefather trying to solve Murder on the Nile even as he emerges as the most interesting suspect! Let Poirot in on that new solution in Petra; let him pity poor Jacqueline as they sail for Wadi Haifa! 

And think of the plays that might have been: the meta-moments in Three-Act Tragedy, the make-up magic in After the Funeral, the muddy mistletoe of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.

All those missed opportunities!

5. At this point, Agatha Christie might be anxiously trying to shove me back into the Wayback Machine – but I will not be stopped. I would demand another plate of scones, look her in the eye and tell her how I wish she and the film industry could develop a successful and happy working relationship. Given the profit that the studios made with Sherlock Holmes, with Charlie Chan, with Nick Charles and Philip Marlowe, they were chomping at the bit to work with Christie. Let her lay down the law: “Adapt my plays properly and cast them appropriately!” And then watch the magic work. 

Claude Rains as the inimitable Hercule Poirot vs. . .

Can you imagine opening a copy today of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and seeing the following: 

  • Lord Edgware Dies (1938): d. H. Bruce Humberstone. Famed detective Hercule Poirot (Claude Rains) runs afoul of a stunning actress (Carole Lombard) whose wish to divorce her brutal husband leads to murder. 
  • N or M (1942): written and directed by Billy Wilder. Madcap sleuths Tommy and Tuppence Beresford (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are drawn back into the spy game as Nazi plotters infiltrate a seaside hotel. With William Frawley as Albert.
. . . glamorous Carole Lombard as Jane Wilkinson

  • A Murder Is Announced (1952): d. David Lean. Trouble at the home of Miss Blacklock (Judith Anderson) brings murder to a charming village and prompts the unwelcome assistance to the police of Miss Marple (Flora Robson). Margaret Rutherford appears as Bunny in this, her only role in a Christie film.
  • Third Girl (1970): d. Alfred Hitchcock. A disturbed girl (Hayley Mills) rejects the help of Hercule Poirot (Sir Alec Guinness), leading the sleuth and his author friend Mrs. Oliver (Angela Lansbury) on a hunt for murderers in Carnaby Street.

This game is a lot of fun to play . . . 

6. My “Ranking Marple” project is weighing heavily on my mind, I would love to tell Agatha how I wish, oh, I wish that she had written more Miss Marple novels set in St. Mary Mead and that she had included larger roles for the town “regulars.” Leonard and Griselda Clement are the best characters, and yet they are reduced to mere cameos in two or three subsequent appearances. We need more of the Bantrys. We need more of the “trio of crones”: Miss Wetherby, Miss Hartnell, and Mrs. Price Ridley. We don’t need much more of Raymond West, but I always like spending time in the company of his lovely wife – whatever her name is!

During my write-up of The Body in the Library, I found myself fantasizing over how much better a mystery might have been created had Christie never let her characters leave St. Mary Mead. Think of the possibilities if she had expanded the role Basil Blake plays in the book: the town proper and the respectable Blake family in particular would not take kindly to the mischief done when Basil becomes a part of the London film community. All those parties, those ribald blondes, those dead bodies!! How wonderful it would be if the killer was one of those awful film people, the villagers would say . . . except this is Christie, and sometimes the source of evil is surprisingly close to home. 

7. Of course, I would spend most of my time with Christie thanking her for being the best. I would praise her puzzle plots to the skies, and I would tell her that M. Poirot, Aunt Jane, the Beresfords, and even Mr. Parker Pyne all felt like old friends. (I would say nothing about Harley Quin because I wouldn’t want to dim the festive mood.

And yet, after all was said, I would still want more. There are characters Christie created whose potential I feel has gone untapped. Her pantheon of sleuths could have been even bigger, and I wish I could convince her to write detective stories for a few of her best characters:

  • Ariadne Oliver – just as Miss Marple differs from the logical Poirot in her role as an instinctive sleuth, I say we need a detective like Mrs. Oliver, who isn’t particularly instinctive or logical. No, she bumbles along from one case to another, and yet she always solves them. How, you ask? Because she is being assisted by the spirit of her very own fictional detective, Sven Hjerson!! 
  •  Julia Upjohn – as much as I think Hercule Poirot deserves to be in The Hollow, that’s how much I think he is squandered in Cat Among the Pigeons. (Also, for that matter, in The Clocks. Let Colin Lamb do the sleuthing there.) Julia Upjohn would have been the perfect sleuth, helped along by her best friend Jennifer, her absent ex-spy mother, and the patient and lovely headmistress, Miss Bulstrode. So let’s give Julia a case of her own. It would give British schoolchildren a good name. 
  • Lucy Eyelesbarrow – she does all the work for Miss Marple anyway in 4:50 from Paddington, and she’s no diligent nurse, like Amy Leatheran (Murder in Mesopotamia) or newfound heiress, like Katherine Grey (The Mystery of the Blue Train). Rather than marry her off to a creep like Cedric Crackenthorpe, send Lucy to London and have her open her own cleaning agency – and then make her scrub the blood off crime scenes and solve each case. And just for fun, change her name to Cordelia Gray so that it gives P.D. James a pain. 
  • Dolly Bantry – let’s be real. Wasn’t the series Rosemary and Thyme simply wish fulfillment over having a lady gardener play detective? Why not employ the original and the best of these?
  • Mr. Satterthwaite – such an observant little fellow, Mr. S. has transcended multiple planes in the Christieverse, assisting both Mr. Quin and M. Poirot. Jusst as Anthony Berkeley let mild-mannered Mr. Chitterwick upstage Roger Sheringham and even have his own book, I think Mr. Satterthwaite has been short-changed. Give him a high society murder or two, and let his understanding of British social customs turn this Watson into a Holmes!
  • Wonky Pooh – why should my favorite Christie murder weapon not be allowed to take his talents further? Every cat deserves nine lives! Give Wonky Pooh eight more cases where his powers of extreme stillness to the point of somnolence and his ability to shed lead him to unmask one killer after another? Only, for heaven’s sake, somebody take care of poor baby’s painful ear!
  • Note: there are endless possibilities – the Beresford’s Albert, Caroline Sheppard (on vacation!), even that awful Victoria Jones! If Harper Collins wants to consider this as a follow-up to last year’s Miss Marple collection, I’m all ears.

And there you have it! My trip back in time to see Agatha Christie would be complete – and it would not have been wasted. The Butterfly Effect would have its effect, leading to a dozen new Christie titles and a hundred more films (and hopefully not the end of the world!)

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m setting the Wayback to New York in 1954, to the initial rehearsal of the musical Saturday Night and my momentous first meeting with Stephen Sondheim. 

So many possibilities . . . 

14 thoughts on “THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT: My Tea with Agatha

  1. What a nice read (as always), Brad. I think you have captured exactly how so many of us feel having never had the opportunity to meet Christie for ourselves. As time marches on, it is becoming more and more difficult to even hear archival material from these GAD writers, so it is a nice fantasy to think about meeting them in the flesh.

    Your post also brings to mind a question which, I am sure, you have contemplated on many occasions. While you have nominated Third Girl as Hitchcock material, I wonder what Christie novel would have been the most successful in his hands. If I were to go back in time and try to convince Hitchcock to option one of Christie’s titles, I think I would encourage him to film Towards Zero . With the right structural changes (make the whole thing a howcatchem and make John Williams Superintendent Battle), the central murder sequence could have been a suspense sequence tour de force. And you know that Hitchcock would have found some perverse joy in casting some wholesome hero in the murderous role…

    Liked by 1 person

    • This conversation will add three hours to our Hitchcock draft!!!

      He was notoriously down on whodunits, and so even though I would love to see Farley Granger play Neville, with Vera Miles as Audrey and Rita Hayworth as Kay, I think Hitchcock could take one of the weaker thrillers – say, Destination:Unknown – and turn it into something glorious. Grace Kelly would play Hilary Craven. I’m not sure who the leading man would be, but but Jessop, the head of Intelligence, would have to be played by Leo G. Carroll!! 🙂


  2. Marvelous reading. Your joy, respect and love of Christie’s work palpably leap off my screen.

    I laughed out loud at the clever notion of the amazing Flora Robson as Miss Marple and Margaret Rutherford as Bunny in your filming of one of my favorite Christies, A Murder is Announced. I would pay good money to see that re-imagined version particularly given that Rutherford and Robson were together in Murder at the Gallop based loosely on another favorite, After the Funeral.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Regarding that pairing of Robson and Rutherford: yes, I was being very clever there. I always thought Robson was a bit too grim as Miss Gilchrist but might have made a credible Miss Marple. And Rutherford is utterly delightful . . . she’s just not right as Aunt Jane.

      Regarding a Hitchcock version of Endless Night, . . . well, Sidney Gilliat tried as hard as he could to be Hitchcockian, right down to the overwrought Bernard Herrmann score. I just don’t like that movie!


  3. I’m not sure even Alec Guinness and Angela Lansbury could save Third Girl, though they would certainly try their best.

    As for Appointment with Death: Oh yes. And I’m still hoping for the second best possibility, namely that someone made a movie/tv movie with this ending. If they change the endings left and right, why not at least use this good one, that Christie herself invented.


  4. What a truly beautiful setting Brad – meeting Christie herself! Wow!
    Yes, even I, from all that I seem to have read about her, sort of came to the conclusion that she was standoffish and remote, especially with fans like myself who would have loved to fawn over her! The fact that wasn’t is a pleasant surprise.

    I personally LOVE the following points you’ve made:

    1. Wishing she had been franker in her Autobiography – actually that’s the reason why I thought she was remote. I completely agree with you that we DO NOT need to know about 1926. ‘’I wish Christie had talked at length about her work: about the process, the notebooks, the stories she loved, the ones she hated, the ones that got away.’’ Touché! I know only one or two snippets – she really like Crooked House (writing it was ‘’pure pleasure’’), she intensely disliked Mystery of the Blue Train (God knows why, I have always enjoyed in my multiple rereads) and she wished she hadn’t listened to a certain someone and changed the ending of (I think) Death Comes As The End? Apart from that I remember reading that she was truly happy with the way And Then There Were None came together for her, after tons and tons and TONS of sheer hard work in making everything work.

    2. She should have DEFINITELY gotten more support from her editors in the late 1960s – early 70s. The one exception is Endless Night, which to me doesn’t read like something she wrote at the end of that decade (1960s). I feel quite sure Endless Night was something she wrote when she was at the peak of her powers – maybe 30s or 40s? At least that’s my conjecture.

    3. I guess I *would* have actually said, ‘’Please Agatha, don’t publish Postern or Elephants!’’ LOL!

    For me, breakfast at Ashfield and lunch / dinner at Greenway! 😊

    Thanks for the meticulous and the wonderful post, this was a joy to read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suspect Christie’s hate for Blue Train stems more from the time it was written than it’s content. It was shortly after her disappearance/her mother’s death/the end of her first marriage and she had to force herself writing it and hardly had any fond memories for this book. I don’t love it (at all), but I also don’t think it deserves the contempt Christie has for it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know that Blue Train was written during a difficult time for her, but I’ve never understood why she Christie herself had reason to dislike it so much. Was she so very dissatisfied with the final version of Blue Train because she had to struggle with it completing it amidst so much trauma in her personal life? I’ve always liked Blue Train, never mind it was an extended version of The Plymouth Express. Katherine Grey is a *wonderful* character.

        ”How old are you?” asks one of the village elderlies.

        ”33” says Katherine.

        ”Oh, that’s not so very old,” the spinster grudgingly replies. ”But you *are* past your prime of youth (something like that – don’t remember the exact words now).”

        ”I’m afraid so,” replies Katherine, very much entertained.

        Its the little touch of the ”very much entertained” phrase that adds so much charm to this scene – at least to me!

        Half the village turns out to see Katherine off and someone goes on to declare amidst her weeping after the train has departed, that she would have ”cut herself in pieces for her”. Its not very often that Christie’s characters generate *this* kind of loyalty and affection.

        Plus Katherine’s subsequent conversations with Ruth Kettering, how she emphatically says to the latter that ”broken hearts can be mended” and also the tedium of ‘confessions’ and how after one such in-depth confession, the confessor is most likely to be embarrassed and thus would give a cold shoulder subsequently! The cold shoulder is duly given but for an entirely different reason as we learn later.

        The Mystery of the Blue Train is replete with such engaging portions – I could quote many more such parts. Definitely it ranks among one of my favourites.

        Signing off defiantly,


    • Thank you, Mohan – this was as pleasurable to contemplate as it was to write. I do also feel often that Endless Night came from another time or place in Christie’s experience. I’m actually not very fond of that book, but the sense of authorial control is so strong compared with the other books she was turning out at this time that it begs a question. Also, hg beat me to the punch, but the final couple of years during the 20’s were a very unhappy time for Christie; hence, Blue Train and The Big Four, both of which have their points of enjoyment but are seriously lower tier.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Regarding Endless Night – as someone in another group many years ago said very aptly, ”I wouldn’t say that I actually like Endless Night, but to me it’s a remarkable book.” My very thoughts exactly! I don’t think I would reread Endless Night – it’s definitely one of her darker books and Agatha didn’t write many in that category! Curtain would definitely fall in that category (I can never bring myself to reread Curtain) and I suppose even And Then There Were None, but *that* is a different story altogether!


  5. Would Christie have liked to talk about her work process? It’s such a personal thing and she seemed like such a private (though gracious) person. She might rather have talked about 1926! I like the idea of Claude Rains as Poirot. Flora Robson always seemed rather regal to me, I would nominate Dame May Whitty as Miss M. She could be dithery as well as steely. I’d like to see William Powell as Tommy, but I’d really like to see Carole Lombard play Tuppence. I love Myrna Loy, but don’t see her as so bubbly and irrepressible, more like wry and unflappable. (Or you could pull a “Marple” and cast Loy as “Tommy”….) Who would you cast as the inimitable Lucy? And is it a given that Lucy ends up with Cedric? I always thought it was between Alexander’s dad and Inspector Craddock, and Miss Marple twinkling at Lucy and Dermot made me lean towards him. I could have missed something, though. Oh, and Alec Guinness as Mr Satterthwaite!


  6. Glad to know I’m not the only one who prefers the play ending of Appointment with Death. The book’s is certainly fine, but the play is far more compelling. But if they filmed it that way, who should play Mrs Boynton? Personally, I’d love to see Olivia Colman in that role.


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