On a recent trip to Torquay, today’s guest blogger (while Simon has a bit of a rest) Matthew Batten discovered that you should always judge an Agatha Christie book by its cover!
My love affair with Agatha Christie began many years ago with the wonderful Joan Hickson investigating a Sleeping Murder in the classic BBC Miss Marple series. As a nervy child, the image of the murderer’s gloved hands inching their way towards a young girl’s throat absolutely terrified me! And I loved it! Staff at my local library were delighted with my new found enthusiasm for Agatha Christie and set about introducing me to a back catalogue of crime delights.
I’ve always wanted to visit Torquay, Agatha Christie’s birthplace and the setting for many a classic murder mystery. So, my partner and I decided on a last minute seaside break in the English Riveria to discover more about our favourite crime author.
As a young boy, one of my favourite Agatha Christie books was At Bertram’s Hotel. Granted, it’s not considered a Christie classic but the paperback version I read had a deeply mysterious and haunting cover; the hand of a glamorous woman holding a bullet and a decorative object while a menacing figure looks on from the shadows of the hotel. I would stare at that cover and imagine all the untold secrets of Bertram’s Hotel.
Imagine my delight when a last minute weekend away to Torquay just happened to coincide with an exhibition of Agatha Christie book cover artwork by Tom Adams. And amongst the many book covers was my favourite –At Bertram’s Hotel – looking just as mysterious and enticing as I remembered it.
Tom Adams painted over 100 covers for Agatha Christie’s paperback editions. He would read the novels three times; quickly at first and then more in depth, making notes of characters, incidents and events. Adams avoided the more obvious crime imagery and instead created a macabre atmosphere through symbolism and often surrealist imagery.
The book covers are extraordinary pieces of art in their own right but they also fit perfectly well on the front of a juicy Agatha Christie novel. Take Death in the Clouds, for example. A surrealist image of a giant wasp looming over a soaring airplane hinting at the plot involving murder and an insect sting on a plane! Or, the deliciously macabre Hallowe’en Party, the dripping apple/skull, the murderous looking carved pumpkin and an innocent girl reflecting in a looking glass – images that are impossible to resist!
But not all of Adams’ covers were so dark. The simplicity of Sparkling Cyanide offers the reader clues of what to expect – a champagne glass, a stylish clutch purse and of course a sachet of deadly poison! Murder at a glamorous party, perhaps? How delicious!
This rather superb, but sadly temporary, exhibition was held at Torquay Museum. However, the museum also houses a permanent Agatha Christie exhibition and tells the story of the Queen of Crime at Torquay. Fans of Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple and John Suchet’s Poirot will enjoy the seeing their costumes from both TV series’. There are also early edition books on display and plenty of photos of Agatha Christie’s life.
The permanent exhibition takes up only one room but the rest of the museum tells the exciting story of past local explorers discovering the then uncharted continents and the exotic objects they brought back. Think Indiana Jones and you get the idea! It was absolutely fascinating and well worth a visit.
No trip to Torquay would be complete without a visit to Agatha Christie’s summer house, Greenway, now a National Trust property. Driving to Greenway house is discouraged as the property can only be accessed by a very narrow country road. But why drive, when you can hop on board a vintage Agatha Christie tour bus and hear about the life and times of Agatha Christie from a very friendly and knowledgeable driver. The bus certainly drew some bemused looks from other tourists as we drove 40 minutes from Torquay to Greenway House.
Entering Greenway House was like stepping back in time. It was a glimpse of another world. National Trust staff were also on hand to tell you more about the history of the house before and after Agatha lived there.
Each room told the personal story of Agatha Christie, her hobbies, her lifestyle and her penchant for collecting small decorative boxes. These boxes were in nearly all the rooms but perhaps my favourite were the commemorative boxes for The Mousetrap. Little did she know her play would still be running 60 years on!
There is a fully tuned piano in the living room, and National Trust staff encourage piano-playing visitors to tickle the ivories. I was so pleased when one visitor took up the offer as the music provided the perfect backdrop for exploring this elegant property.
No visit would be complete without spending some time admiring the magnificent frieze running along the top of the library wall. Painted in 1943, while the house was occupied by the US coatguard, the frieze depicts key events of the Second World War. After the War an offer was made to paint over it but Agatha Christie insisted it remain. It is a striking image and quite breath-taking.
After a very pleasant couple of hours at Greenway house, it was all aboard the vintage bus to hear more about Agatha’s life in Torquay as we headed back to town. But our Agatha Christie adventure didn’t end at the bus stop! Oh no, we went on to watch an am-dram production of Cards on the Table which was showing at a converted church. There is no such thing as too much murder mystery on the English Riviera!
I absolutely loved exploring Agatha Christie’s Torquay and finding out more about her life and influences. I look forward to re-reading her Torquay based novels with a renewed passion for classic Christie crime.
There is even an annual Agatha Christie Festival each September – perhaps I’ll see you there next year?
I really fancy that Festival, I do love a good Agatha Christie after all. A big thank you to Matthew for doing this for me. I almost feel like I managed to go myself.