The Usual Suspects

I will never get closer to one of my all-time heroes than I am right now.

I have crossed the border into England and am currently standing in the lobby of the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. It’s a hideously expensive place full of high-backed leather armchairs and polished mahogany and as an impoverished teacher and translator there’s no way I could ever afford to stay here.

My Dad is making a show of interest in the antique fair to be held here next month in order to distract the reception staff while I get a picture of myself next to a plaque on the wall in honour of the hotel’s most famous guest.

I should make it clear right from the start that, although the phrase “one of my all-time heroes” is in every sense grammatically correct, it may be misleading. My “hero” is actually a heroine. Language can be deceptive, as we will see later on.

As she died in 1976, a year before I was born, I will never get to meet her. Our paths have crossed, but only in the places made famous through her fiction.

I’ve been to Spa in Belgium, home town of Hercule Poirot, her most famous creation. I’ve taken the train through what is now Croatia along the route of the Orient Express and felt the inescapable urge to pull the emergency cord at the murder scene between Vinkovci and Slavonski Brod.

But never before have I ever stood in the same room as Dame Agatha Christie. I feel like I can actually see her checking out of this place, back in December 1926.

Agatha Christie doubtless stayed in a lot of hotels but this one will always be the most famous. It was here that she was found after an eleven-day disappearance which shocked the nation. This hotel marked the end of one of the largest man hunts in British history. Between Friday 3 December and Tuesday 14 December as many as 15,000 people were involved in a nationwide search for the missing author.

At the time, Christie was already a very successful crime writer, and it seems as if the only clues she left were planted deliberately in order to put the police off the scent. Her car and driving licence were found down in Devon while she checked in here under the name of Neele, the surname of her husband’s lover.

As to why she did it, her autobiography reveals nothing. She claimed amnesia and this may very well be the case, although the fact that her husband was having an affair must surely have been a contributing factor.

According to the plaque on the wall, she behaved like every other guest while she was here, joining in with the balls and dances organised by the hotel. She apparently failed to recognise her photographs in the newspaper and would have escaped notice completely had one of the hotel’s musicians recognised her and, instead of accepting the hundred pound reward offered by the press, sent word to her husband.

When Colonel Christie appeared in Yorkshire to collect his wife and demanded that he return home, she seemed calm. She made him wait here in the lobby while she went upstairs to change into her evening dress, checked out and never spoke of the incident again.

Nevertheless, the incident proved to be cathartic. Shortly after, she divorced Archie Christie and met Max Mallowan, who would eventually become her second husband. She retained the Christie name for writing purposes. Curiously enough, the only other woman I know to remarry and retain her ex-husband’s name is Angela Merkel.

At around this time, Miss Marple solved her first case.

It’s easy to lose yourself in Christie’s world as you walk the streets of Harrogate. Back then, the town was a playground for the rich and famous who flocked here to take the waters and it’s still a fully functioning spa town. The Royal Baths and the pump house are still here; you can still smell the sulphur if you stand close enough.

On the crest of the hill I spy the Majestic Hotel, a name I know from one of Miss Marple’s most famous cases, The Murder In The Library. There is a good chance that the name came from here because part of the secret of Christie’s success was that she drew her inspiration from personal experience.

Trust me here, I know my stuff. In total, she wrote around eighty crime stories and I have read at least half of them, successfully guessing the murderer once.

Perhaps the greatest Christie mystery is just how she managed to conjure up so many plots in such a way that the reader almost never guesses the ending even though the truth is staring you in the face from the very beginning.

How did she do it? Well, real-life experience certainly helped her. Hercule Poirot, himself a Belgian refugee, was probably inspired by exiled Belgians she met while working as a nurse during the First World War. The same line of war work gave her an intimate knowledge of pharmacy, and poison is the murder weapon in around half of her crimes as a result.

The more I try and fail to solve her mysteries, the more I realise that she has one crucial advantage over the reader: She knows the ending, we don’t. Plots were worked out in advance and written down in notebooks. Having established the truth, the next stage was to throw the reader off the scent with the famous Christie red herring.

Starting from the other end, it’s much harder to get to the bottom of the mystery. A panel of experts commissioned by UKTV once tried to decipher the “Christie formula” with limited success.

Statistics may help you in your detective work. If the setting is a country house then there is a 75% chance that the killer is female for example. Oh, and the murderer is never the butler.

If you apply their findings when you’re actually reading the books then there is a high probability that you’ll kill of your enjoyment completely, but one aspect of their research is worth bearing in mind whenever you read anything. Language can be deceptive — and Christie knew this intuitively.

She tends to keep her own phrases short and simple. One of the reasons I’ve read so many of her books is that in the days before e-readers I used to pick them up in secondhand shops in Germany, cast-offs from German readers who’d used them to improve their English.

She varies her sentence length like all good writers. She uses short sentences draw the reader in. Her longer ones may well reflect a higher degree of accuracy or convey a greater degree of meaning but they are forced to compete with our often fleeting attention span so that truths can be overlooked or even hidden. Her words play tricks.

Christie used short sentences to take her readers to the wrong places. In many ways it’s a form of hypnotism. It’s certainly not rocket science.

She had other relatively primitive techniques in her arsenal. She also realised that the key to association is repetition. The more often you say “knife”, “blade” or “dagger”, the less likely your readers are to guess that the murder was actually done with cyanide.

Here’s a test for you to illustrate the point. Read my last entry about the hotel in Scotland again, especially the bit about the list of charges, and tell me how much my friends paid to use their credit card. I’ll give you the answer later.

Language can be manipulative alright. While it conveys the truth, it can also hide it — or even lead us away from it. Some people understand this better than others. Donald Trump does the repetition thing well, very well.

The lady at the reception desk is giving us a frosty look and so we step outside onto the windy streets of Harrogate. A bell rings in my head — on the subject of unwelcome guests.

On my phone I find it, a headline from the Sunday Express that in 2012 gripped a nation. “Now 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians can soon move to Britain” proclaims the article, a short piece heavily laced with words such as “wave”, “flood”, and “influx”.

Terrifying stuff when taken at face value: 29 million migrants could invade our shores at any moment. But all it really does is tell you the population of Bulgaria and Romania. Five years on the overwhelming majority of these people are still there. The Office For National Statistics put the number Romanians and Bulgarians living in the UK at around 290,000. That’s quite a difference.

You’re high up in the hills here and the wind blows right through you from the nearby Pennines. A perfect misanthropist’s heaven, as another local author once said. I can understand why Christie came here to be alone — nothing clears the head like the northern English weather.

Time is up for me in the UK. The next stop is Leeds airport, just over those hills, and back to Germany.

How much do you think my friends paid to use their credit card? Ten pounds?

Ten pounds? I never said anything about ten pounds, not for a credit charge anyway. One pound fifty was what they paid — but there’s no way you could have known that.

That’s a very poor attempt at a red herring. Agatha Christie had an innate genius which I quite frankly don’t possess. Even so, it’s been good to touch base with her.

See you in Germany.


2 thoughts on “The Usual Suspects

  1. Wonder what Agatha would make of the Royal Baths now being a Chinese restaurant. Not a lot probably, she`d been around the bazaars a bit, and was most likely used to slightly soggy fried rice.

    Hercule Poirot would be more picky, but then he was a Eurosleuth – a bit like M. Garnier, looking for clues about where D Davis is coming from, or indeed privately wondering if DD has any of `ze little grey cells`.


    1. Rien du tout as far as ze Davees grey cells are concerned. Belgian police have issued traffic warnings during this week’s negotiations — watch out for British diplomats pulling u-turns and backtracking.


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