Friday, April 20, 2012

Adventure classics -- Art of murder made personal

Murder in Mesopotamia

By Agatha Christie


What’s a mystery writer to do when the wife of her husband’s boss tries to sabotage her marriage? For Agatha Christie, the temptation was overwhelming -- to kill the offender, in fiction if not in reality.

When young archeologist Max Mallowan joined the Iraqi archeological investigation at Ur, he soon learned the acid test of his qualifications was meeting Katharine Keeling, the future wife of his employer, Leonard Woolley.

Mallowan passed the test so well Katharine (by then Mrs. Woolley) deputized him as a tour guide when the famous mystery novelist Agatha Christie visited Ur. Katharine’s cordiality, however, dissolved at the unexpected mutual attraction between Agatha and the much-younger Max.

“I finally broke the news (of Mallowan’s proposal) to the Woolleys,” Agatha recounted in her autobiography. “They seemed pleased. . . .Only (Katherine) said firmly, ‘you mustn’t marry him for at least two years.. . . it would be fatal.’”

Of course, they married as soon as possible. And of course, the outcome was fatal -- just not to Max or the new Mrs. Mallowan.

The excavation season following Agatha and Max’s marriage was his last with the Woolleys. Given Agatha’s knowledge of poisons, it’s lucky Katharine’s notoriously poor health survived the encounter, and fascinating to speculate on what might have happened if she had succumbed to a bout of food poisoning during Agatha’s visit. Would the Queen of Crime have found herself a murder suspect?

Four years later, Agatha published Murder in Mesopotamia, whose victim was a thinly-disguised version of Katharine Woolley.

In his biography, Woolley of Ur, H.V.F. Winstone reports that another of Woolley’s assistants persuaded Agatha to give the central role of Murder in Mesopotamia to a character based on Katharine Woolley, the team leader’s wife, Louise Leidner. But only Agatha could have described the too-deserving victim’s sense of entitlement so acutely, as in the following exchange between members of the fictional excavation staff.

“‘She’s always known as Lovely Louise.’

“‘Is she so very handsome then?’ I asked.

“‘It’s taking her at her own valuation. She thinks she is!’”

Did the scent of libel hang in the air? Fortunately, according to Winstone, although everyone else on the excavation recognized the inspiration for Louise Leidner, “Katharine always believed that she was represented by a minor character named Emmott.”

In Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, Agatha refrains from any mention of Murder in Mesopotamia, speaking only graciously of Katharine, whose last words to her husband as she retired to bed November 7, 1945, were, “Leonard, I shall die this night.” And she did, apparently of natural causes.

The Mallowans called on Woolley the next day, paying their last respects to “the woman who perhaps found her only substantial reality,” Winstone writes, “as one of Agatha’s characters.”

(Next Friday -- Writers need jobs. They also need hobbies. Adventure classics takes counsel on sailing from Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mystery, The Case of the Crooked Candle.)

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