UK’s Laura Thompson on Agatha Christie, Queen of Crime Mystery

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[00:00:00] Mariam: Hello, and welcome back to The Learning Curve. I’m Mariam Memarsadeghi, and I’m here with my guest co-host, Mary Connaughton. Hi, Mary.

[00:00:42] Mary: It’s great to be back on The Learning Curve, Mariam. I’m the Chief Operating Officer of Pioneer Institute. I’m also its Director of Government Transparency. We believe that a healthy democracy requires an engaged citizenry, and that transparency is crucial for engagement. I’m pleased to be back on the podcast.  [00:01:00]

[00:01:01] Mariam:. Fantastic. So, something that caught my eye in the news this week, Mary, is about Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. The Constitution Center provided an overview pretty comprehensive about the History of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day lots of things that people might not know, a lot of sacrifices and civic action that went into making this a federal holiday and a time for Americans across the country to, to recognize what makes America that makes the democracy that it is their roles their rights, responsibilities as, as citizens, and what makes the Constitution so fundamental to the freedoms that we, we hold dear.

[00:01:46] Mariam: But I was struck as I was reading it about, you know, whether, how much we do hold the Constitution dear and how much we do recognize that our freedoms are rooted in the document particularly because I think that the Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, federal holidays are really rooted in a sense of pride and, and self awareness about what it is to be an American. Those kinds of sentiments civic pride, a sense of belonging a rootedness , in our founding documents and our, founding as a nation are really kind of lacking and they’re lacking particularly in our institutions that are the most elite and, and scholarly so what used to be really a time for people to think back be proud and recognize what makes us one nation. And coherent political body that is founded by the Constitution really formed by the Constitution.

[00:02:52] Mariam: Instead of that, we have a lot of self loathing embarrassment or reluctance to talk about the founding or reluctance to, take pride in the Constitution. And I was really struck by that. Mary, what’s caught your eye these days?

[00:03:07] Mary: My story goes back to Boston being the birthplace of American public education. But in recent years, Boston public schools, they’ve been engaged in turmoil as two state audits showed widespread academic and administrative troubles. At the same time, Boston spends over $31,000 per student per year. More than any other large district in the country. Now, in addition to Boston’s nation leading charter schools, Boston parents have other excellent public education options.

[00:03:40] Mary: Its three celebrated exam schools, Latin Academy, The John D. O’Brien School of Mathematics and Science, and Boston Latin. But in 2021, the Boston School Committee approved a new admissions policy for the exam schools. Under the new plan, applicants are evaluated in two ways. First, a combined score based on academic success.

[00:04:04] Mary: And second, the socio economic situation of their neighborhoods. While it may be too early to tell, the admission changes are coming due, and they’re really not looking that good, Mariam. Scott Van Voorhis in Contrarian Boston writes, quote, “The most dramatic drop? Hello, Boston Academy, where just 38 percent of 7th graders met or exceeded expectations on the Language Arts section of the state test in 2023. That’s down from roughly 72 percent in pre COVID years, with a similar drop for math. Similarly, at the John D. O’Brien School of Mathematics and Science, just 50 percent of 7th graders met or exceeded expectations in math, down from 85 percent as recently as 2019. Nor was the Boston Latin School the crown jewel of the system immune.

[00:05:01] Mary: Just 70 percent of 7th graders at the school either met or exceeded expectations in math, down from 94 percent three years ago.” Now, as Boston and Massachusetts are trying to compete in the world to raise high performing students for college, we have to make sure that public education doesn’t lower admissions requirements and water down academic expectations.

[00:05:27] Mary: Now, the teachers unions, their recent move was to put the state’s MCAS test on the ballot and scrap it as a graduation requirement. And this seems to be a growing trend in K 12 education, where special interests are trying to create equity by attacking excellence. Now this story. Reviews that they may wind up with neither.

[00:05:50] Mariam: Yeah, that’s truly alarming. And I guess the only silver lining is that we’re tracking this with real assessments and the numbers are starting to come forth in our, in our media and parents and others in the community are bound to be extremely disappointed and pressing for school systems to do better.

[00:06:11] Mariam: So Mary, coming up after the break, we have Laura Thompson, biographer of Agatha Christie.

[00:06:43] Mariam: So let me introduce Laura Thompson. Laura Thompson won the Somerset Maugham Award for her first book, The Dogs, and is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Six, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters. Her other books include the critically acclaimed Life in a Cold Climate. A biography of Nancy Mitford and Agatha Christie, A Mysterious Life, which was nominated for an Edgar Allen Poe Award in 2019. She lives in London.

Ms. Thompson, your elegantly written biography, Agatha Christie, A Mysterious Life, is definitive. Dame Agatha authored nearly 100 whodunit mysteries, selling over 2 billion copies worldwide, making her the best selling novelist of all time. Would you please briefly share what people should know about the queen of crime’s life?

[00:07:32] Laura: Yes, hello, and thank you so much for having me. Yes, well the basic fact I’ll start with Agatha Miller, as she was, was born on the 15th of September 1890. In Torquay, in Devon, which is the southwest of England. Her first published novel was The Mysterious Affair at Style, which was published in 1920 four years after she wrote it was turned down by lots of people, I imagine, of how she felt afterwards.

[00:08:04] Laura: And she wrote, in the end, she wrote 66 detective fiction novels. She also wrote six novels under pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Which I think are rather rather interesting novels, not detective fiction at all. Then she wrote about 166 short stories, this is unbelievable, isn’t it? And some 20 plays.

[00:08:28] Laura: I know. She lived to 85, but it’s still cramming a lot in. She died in 1976, on January the 12th. She was married twice to Archie Christie in 1914 and to Max Malloran in 1930, and she had one child, Rosalind with Archie, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting not long before she died.

[00:08:58] Mariam: Fascinating. So Agatha Christie wrote in her autobiography, quote, until one looks back on one’s own past one fails to realize what an extraordinary view of the world a child has. The angle of vision is entirely different from that of the adult. Could you talk about Agatha’s family, her childhood, and intellectual influences, including England’s cultural sensibilities during her formative years?

[00:09:24] Laura: Yes, that’s such a great quote, isn’t it? She was fascinated by childhood. She was… Not sentimental about, you know, in her novels she’ll have children murdered. She will have them as killers or young people as killers. But she was a bit in love with her own childhood. I think. It was, it was conventional and not conventional. She grew up in a protective, structured household. Her parents had a loving marriage. She had two much older siblings, Mag. And Monty, Mag was very clever. Mag had a play on in London before Agatha did, but that sort of petered out. And Monty, Monty was a charming, rather dissolute, you know, a type that recurs in Agatha’s books, in fact.

[00:10:12] Laura: But because they were so much older… And then her father died when she was just 11. So the bond between Agatha and her mother, Clara, was extremely strong. I would go so far as to say it was the most intense relationship of her life. Clara was a tremendous intellectual influence, in fact. She although she, she had an odd… by modern standards. I guess she had very little formal education and she always said she taught herself to read. It seems incredible, but she, you know, they were, they were an intelligent household and there were loads of books and all her life. She loved Charles Dickens and she sort of she adored Shakespeare.

[00:10:59] Laura: [00:11:00] There were lots of literary references in her novels Tennyson. The Bible, it was the religious, you know, it was always, she had a Christian upbringing. But although by modern standards, we might say, oh, solitary, no, no, you know, no school, no siblings. She, she was so imaginative as you, you get from that quote that you spoke.

[00:11:22] Laura: You the house, her beloved house, Ashfield, was, was her imaginative play thing. But at the same time with its structure and, the servants and the. The formality of the life around her belonging to the sort of upper middle class, even though they weren’t rich. But then, in a weird way, money didn’t matter so much in those days. So it was this mixture of formal structures and imaginative freedom that I think became the hallmark of her life, really.

[00:11:56] Mariam: Yes. Her mysteries have subtle nuanced [00:12:00] plots that frequently play out in cozy, isolated and exotic settings like islands, trains, ships, country estates. They’re a collection of often financially motivated murder suspects, are gradually whittled down and the perpetrator is brought to justice by the logical reasoning of one of her detectives. Would you discuss the structure of her plots and how Agatha Christie went about crafting them?

[00:12:29] Laura: Yes. It’s, it’s the greatest mystery of all, really, because she seemed instinctively to understand how to do it. What you’ve just said that the multiple versions of the, you know, the closed circle, the locked room, et cetera, et cetera. But she, she seems to me to have a key to her seems to be this kind of sublime simplicity that she had, which certainly when I was growing up in this country was, I, I think [00:13:00] people, confused simple with simplicity because her reputation was not that good at the end of the 20th century, you know it was sort of oh her characters are just ciphers and their animated algebra was one description which and I thought that was ridiculous really and that was really why I wanted to write this book which I sort of began about 20 years ago because it was reissued but it’s this specificity that she has, this ability to distill so much into this incredible geometry.

[00:13:37] Laura: And what I think she can do at her very, very best, she knows, she’s always, she sort of defines the genre, but at the same time, she’s… she observes the genre. You know, her books are impersonal. She never strays beyond the way that people like Dorothy L. Sayers and most crime writers, in fact. Almost like they’re trying to say, I’m doing this genre, but I’m also capable of other things.

[00:13:59] Laura: She [00:14:00] never felt the need to do that. So they’re quite impersonal. They’re short. They’re simple. They’re almost stark. And they’re tremendously distilled. But if you turn them upside down, there’s a huge amount of stuff there, it seems to me. And if you take a book like the one I think is our very best, which is Five Little Pigs, and it’s very character based, the human dynamic is very, very realistic, even though the plots are not realistic, I think how people are true.

[00:14:29] Laura: And every time there’s a movement of the plot, it is motivated by one of the characters. But the plot and the character move quite literally at once, and that, to me, is a remarkable, astonishing thing to be able to do. Nobody else quite does it, and what she can do with the sheer, she’s so conceptual, you know?

[00:14:51] Laura: It’s very rarely, oh, here are ten people and one of them did it, and here are some red herrings, but still one of them did it. She sort of plays with the whole [00:15:00] idea of what a solution is, you know? It’s everybody, or it’s nobody, or a suicide, even though it looks like a murder, or it’s a child, or it’s a policeman, or it’s…

[00:15:10] Laura: She’s incredibly bold and conceptual with what it would… Just the whole idea of what the genre is, while at the same time observing the formalities of it, if you know what I mean. Yes, but I think it’s that simplicity that obviously enables her to be massively translated and under, you know, I started reading her very, very young.

[00:15:34] Laura: To me, they’re almost like fairy tales for adults. There’s this pleasure in the resolution that is so intense. It’s like when you’re a kid and the fairy tale comes out the way it should. Her books are with it. Because they’re with, because in some profound way, they’re, the solution is also dependent upon the truth.

[00:15:55] Laura: Some sort of truth about human nature. I do think that. However [00:16:00] improbable, whatever artistic sphere she has created, In which, reality of her plot is not actual reality. There is an artistic construct. Nevertheless, I think there’s, truth that we recognize, while at the same time taking pleasure in the artistic sphere.

[00:16:19] Laura: and that gives them an almost the simplicity gives them an almost semi mythic quality, to my mind. At her best. Something like, and then there were none, you know. But at the same time, she’s got this gift for the ordinary. She’s very good on things like shopping, and how her house is run, and how, you know, the maid must have been killed because otherwise she would have taken in the second tea tray.

[00:16:41] Laura: You know, this, this brilliant, sort of, That’s a pocket full of rye. This brilliant, sort of, down to earth thing that she’s got going on as well.

[00:16:52] Mariam: That’s fascinating. Yeah. Okay. Fascinating. I’m a super fan. So, you know.

[00:17:01] Laura: but she’s what she did, she did it, unlike anybody else.

Mariam: That’s my feeling. Right. Right. Agatha Christie’s critics falsely claim she wasn’t strong on developing characters. And you, you already alluded to this a bit by saying that they thought she was formulaic. Nevertheless, her unique detectives like Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple are world famous and been widely emulated in fiction, theater, and film, while her villains are also timeless. Could you talk about… Some of her greatest, most memorable characters?

[00:17:40] Laura: Yes. Poirot and Miss Marple are very differently conceived because Poirot is, I saw the Kenneth Branagh film not that long ago, the most recent one, and I really enjoyed it. But he gives Poirot this kind of inner life, which obviously he wants to do as an actor.

[00:17:58] Laura: But Poirot doesn’t [00:18:00] really have an inner life. He is pure detective. has charm, he has a cosmopolitan sort of aplomb, I think her phrase is. But he’s a brain, he’s omniscient. He has a non judgmental morality. He’s pure, pure detective, unlike the others, unlike Lord Peter Winsden, who are, you know, they’re over and above detectives.

[00:18:23] Laura: They’re almost something else. Miss Marple has a, has a world. She has a, you know, I grew up in a village. They are a bit like that. , she’s a bit based on Agatha’s grandmothers. She had two grandmothers who weren’t it’s a bit complicated. They both had this kind of, one in particular, Margaret Miller, who was the stepmother of Agatha’s father.

[00:18:50] Laura: He had, in fact, grown up in New York, amazingly. There was quite a strong American connection. But Margaret Miller had that sort of instinctive, female [00:19:00] sensibility that could spot an affair at a hundred places you know, and hoped for the best and thought the worst about everybody. A lot of that is in Miss Marple.

[00:19:10] Laura: Even though Ms. Marple does it through observation rather than life experience, she has this beautiful separation from actual experience, as it were. She’s an observer. But they’re both fantastic creations, even though Poirot, I think, is almost like a, he’s like a fantastic line drawer. But all her characters are very vivid on the page.

[00:19:36] Laura: She’s very good at, Names. She always said, I can’t, I can’t do it until I get the names right, and her names are brilliant. But occasionally, and I think she was, my belief is she was writing her best sort of, during the Second World War, the years around the Second World War, occasionally you’ll get a book where there’s a bit more depth, and you think, oh, hang on, there’s a little bit of you in here, there’s a bit more than [00:20:00] you’re letting on.

[00:20:01] Laura: Like Five Little Pigs, but the marriage in Five Little Pigs not unlike her first marriage to Archie Christie, which went wrong. the Hollow, which I think is a wonderful book, who has as its center a very sympathetic female character who is an artist, she’s a sculptor, I think a little bit of a self-portrait

[00:20:21] Laura: those characters are, are given a bit more depth. And they’re very appealing, and they, they stay with you. But even her, you know, even her sort of sketch characters, stay with you. They’re, they’re, she’s got this, she’s got the gift of aliveness, alive on the page, which is unteachable. And just absolutely, she’s, she’s like this, her workings out in her notebooks are quite strenuous, you know, she obviously worked hard at these things.

[00:20:50] Laura: But at the same time, you feel the instinct, you feel the quickness with which she’s done it. This almost scenic sensibility, she loved the theatre. [00:21:00] Her books are, you could almost translate them straight to a, a stage as they are because they’re character in action. Very little description, you know. And they’ve got this tremendous pace and vividness.

[00:21:13] Laura: So when people say her characters aren’t made for it, I sort of think that’s irrelevant.

[00:21:21] Mary: Ms. Thompson, you mentioned in Then There Were None. Now that masterpiece sold 100 million copies, making it the best selling mystery of all time, her other novels Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile are also international bestsellers. Can you talk a little bit about these books and the common literary qualities that made her fiction so exceptional and widely read?

[00:21:48] Laura: Yes, well, and Then There Were None was incredible. I mean, it’s a sort of masterpiece, really. The first time I read it, I was pretty young. I mean, I was petrified by it. the sheer sort of genius of this expressionist horror that’s going on on this island with this, and the brilliance of making the house where people are being killed, making a sort of modern house with no atmosphere.

[00:22:15] Laura: And that’s the most frightening thing of all, she says, and that’s, that’s so clever. But I think it has a lot in common with… Murder on the Orient Express which I suppose is that other sort of SNO maybe in that they’re both about justice. They’re both about legal, what does human justice have the right to do when legal justice has not done its job?

[00:22:39] Laura: They both have that at their heart, I think, even though the resolution is very different in both of them, but you know, one is benign and one is malign, if you like. But I think, because they’re underpinned by that strong foundation, strong morality, if you like, which it, which is in [00:23:00] Agatha, I suppose it’s in all detective fiction, but she’s, she’s unabashed about it, you know, she’s, she, she doesn’t really do moral ambivalence because her, profound belief in the book and in life was that the innocent must be protected.

[00:23:14] Laura: , so that’s the moral certainty at the heart of it. But those books have got that profound underpinning of what is justice, if you like. And I think, okay, we’re not reading these… Light, simple books thinking, gosh, I must think about what justice is, you know, that it’s subliminal. But I think we’re still aware of these things, even though they’re subliminal.

[00:23:39] Laura: Death on the Nile is a bit different. I suppose that’s very well known because of the films. The films did a tremendous job. They’re full of A-list people. And it sort of was saying, she’s A-list as well, if you like. I mean, she was, you know, films and plays were really what put her in the stratosphere back in the 1950s.

[00:23:59] Laura: It was really, she was successful. She was always successful. But in the 50s, she went mega. And a lot of it was to do with Witness for the Prosecution. The play, which was huge in London, huge on Broadway. And then the film, the Billy Wilder film. Which was the only film of her books that she really liked, that’s very theatrical.

[00:24:23] Laura: great, but it, you know, it’s almost like play. But, translation to screen really sent her into the, you know, the celebrity stratosphere. And I think the films, I think the Murder on the Orient Express film, the 74 one, I think is a really marvelous film because I think it does understand that, although it, this is detective fiction, it’s not Hamlet or anything, but there is a seriousness in there, there is something important in there, and I think that film appreciated that.

[00:24:57] Mary: Thank you.  Now, the year 1926 ended as the most mysterious of Agatha Christie’s life. Her husband, Archie, asked for divorce, they quarreled, and then she suddenly disappeared for 11 days. Her disappearance became an international front page story of intrigue and scandal. Can you shed some light on this episode in her life and tell why you think it still remains such an elusive chapter?

[00:25:24] Laura: Yes, I think the bit that’s sometimes forgotten about 1926 is that her mother died. Her mother died in April, and as I’ve said, she was incredibly close to her mother, incredibly close to her mother. The only time she didn’t do what her mother told her to do, more or less, was when she married Archie. Her mother, who was such an interesting woman, Clara, really, very, very strong personality, really strong, too strong Agatha’s daughter said to me, but because Agatha was so devoted to [00:26:00] Clara that she was, she was not particularly maternal, I mean, that one can’t claim for her.

[00:26:05] Laura: Although Rosalind wasn’t, you know, she wasn’t that kind of person to say, oh, my mother wasn’t maternal. But she wasn’t, really. And she was so devoted to Clara. And Clara was very interesting in that she encouraged Agatha to develop her creativity. Which was initially she wanted to be an opera singer.

[00:26:25] Laura: That was her dream. And then she became a writer because she, her voice wasn’t strong enough to be an actress. But her mother always encouraged her to be creative and at the same time to marry and fulfill her domestic life, which then was pretty unusual. So, she was unusual and she made Agatha, I think, believe that she could, forgive the cliche, have it all.

[00:26:51] Laura: Have the career, have the man, have it all, because she was very, very, very deeply in love with Archie. He was a very attractive man, [00:27:00] he pursued her very hard, his love letters, which I saw, which she always kept, very passionate. it was a huge, yeah, it was a real, you know, you just said a real love match.

[00:27:10] Laura: And he encouraged her to write, he encouraged her to write The Mysterious Affair at Styles. So you would think, wow, this is, this is pretty great. But behind the scenes, after the sort of the first 12 wars, he came back okay, but quite damaged in his nerves and what have you, and things started to fall apart.

[00:27:30] Laura: But very, very slowly, you wouldn’t necessarily have seen it. And Agatha didn’t see it. And her mother would sort of say to her, you know, don’t take Archie for granted, he’s very attractive, blah, blah, blah, not very feminist, but, you know, she wanted her to be happy and she did take, she didn’t really see what was coming.

[00:27:49] Laura: And then her mother died in April 1926, which was so huge, so massive for her. And she went down to Ashfield, the house in Torquay, [00:28:00] where she grew up, where she was born, which she loved so desperately, and was sort of turning out her mother’s things, that awful thing. And she left Archie alone all that summer.

[00:28:10] Laura: And her daughter said to me she always thought she shouldn’t have done that. Which, doesn’t sound great, but… Anyway, he got friendly with this other woman, Nancy Neal, a younger, you know, all the cliches. And then he came down to Ashfield in August for Rosalind’s birthday, her seventh birthday.

[00:28:32] Laura: And he said, I want a divorce, I’ve fallen in love with another woman. So, what I’ve always felt about the disappearance is that it was not just Archie, it was, she lost everything. She was thirty five, thirty six. She’d had a good life, a lovely life, really. And then, in the space of, like, four months, she lost her mother and her husband.

[00:28:54] Laura: And, I suppose today, we would diagnose it in some way. We would, there would be some sort of mental health [00:29:00] diagnosis that you could give, or something. I don’t know what it was, a breakdown. But she sort of broke down like Agatha Christie. She left her car over the edge of a quarry, near where she lived.

[00:29:13] Laura: Like a clue, she left her driving license there, like a clue. And then she went up the north of England, registered in a hotel, under the name of her husband’s girlfriend. And I think she just, yeah, I mean, I have to say it’s better than any Agatha Christie. Um, I suppose because it’s not solved, and that’s always so intriguing.

[00:29:37] Laura: But I think it was just a desperate attempt at making things. guilty to getting, and to getting back. Because I think she always was in love with him. Nobody could really talk about him. Rosalind said to me, if I saw him, I couldn’t tell her, you know, et cetera. And it was just this terrible rupture but then it became like a public [00:30:00] scandal.

[00:30:00] Laura: She hadn’t thought it through, but it would become a public matter. And it was, as you said, all over all the newspapers, it was for 11 days. It was a national furore, almost like today, you know, you can imagine social media, but the papers were just as hysterical. And then when she was found after the 11 days and Archie still didn’t want her and she’d done it all for nothing.

[00:30:27] Laura: I think that was you know, my heart goes out to her in the biggest possible way. I mean, it’s an extraordinary thing to have done, but she was sort of thinking, but not in her right mind, if you know what I mean. that’s my reading of it. I sort of retraced the journey and what have you, and you just, you just feel for her so much.

[00:30:47] Laura: And eventually she did rebuild her life and remarried in 1930, Max Mallon, who was an archaeologist, intellectual companion. And she became, I guess, Agatha Christie, if you like. [00:31:00] Writing became of her life, I think. I don’t think it would have been quite the same if she’d stayed with Archie. So, it’s an interesting, you know, counterfactual, really.

[00:31:11] Mary: What a story that is, I’ll tell you. Wow. Okay,

[00:31:16] Laura: wow. It really gets me every time I talk about it, actually, because I just feel so… desperately for her,

[00:31:23] Mary: amazing. As your biography reveals, in 1970, Agatha wrote, quote, “What a world it was nowadays. Everything was used to arouse emotion. Nothing matters but to feel. What sort of world could that make?” Can you explain this quote and her distrust of England’s youth culture?

[00:31:48] Laura: Yes, she did. That Passenger to Frankfurt, which is not much of a regarded book, but it’s quite interesting. And I think her books [00:32:00] from the 1960s are really interesting.

[00:32:03] Laura: And I suppose some people would say, well, she was a woman born… You know, late Victorian era, upper middle class, she, obviously she didn’t like the way the world was going. But I think that’s sort of a disservice, I think she was more, she moved with the times, you know, she really did move with the times, more than, more than I think is sometimes recognized.

[00:32:24] Laura: She was a sort of incidental social historian, really. And, and she writes about youth culture in… You know, a book like Third Girl in 1965, which is set in swinging London, and quite good, you know, quite well done. I mean, really well done. That sounded quite patronising. No, I mean, it’s brilliant. And Endless Night.

[00:32:47] Laura: Which is done in the voice of a male narrator, who, this young, sexy guy, who, we wanted the world, he says, we wanted the world, and he wants everything, you know, this kind of instant gratification culture[00:33:00] summed up in this character. Halloween party, 1969, she talks a lot about societal breakdown, social change, etc.

[00:33:10] Laura: But she doesn’t do it… I think she felt that youth culture, I think she felt that if you worship youth rather than experience, wisdom, you’re kind of missing out a whole chunk of what, society should be, but youth is beautiful, youth is a wonderful thing.

[00:33:29] Laura: She loved her own youth. But youth is not an achievement, as such, and it’s really when people through their lives that you sort of see what they’re made of, character wise. And I think she felt that emphasis upon youth… Rather than, I suppose, the values that she had grown up with. That they were a trick, really.

[00:33:52] Laura: That they were cheating society out of something that mattered. And, I sort of see her point, really. she [00:34:00] was old fashioned in some ways. And one could level certain criticisms at her, snobbery. And some of her attitudes. Are not ours today, but she did move at the time and she didn’t turn her face against them.

[00:34:14] Laura: She wanted to understand them. And I think that’s quite interesting, and to her credit.

[00:34:20] Mary: Now, finally, Ms. Thompson, only the Bible and Shakespeare have sold more than Dame Agatha has. Her murder drama, The Mousetrap, is the longest running play of the modern era, only stopping because of COVID. Could you please talk about the long standing dramatic appeal of The Mousetrap, as well as other characteristics of her enduring legacy?

[00:34:45] Laura: The mousetrap is it’s, like, you know, the Tower of London, it’s become, it had a very clever producer, Peter Saunders, and he saw that it was popular, and he just [00:35:00] publicized it so cleverly. And now I suppose it will outlive me which is rather a strange thought. I mean, it’s quite interesting.

[00:35:08] Laura: I’ve seen it a couple of times, and the second time I saw it, it had really good actors. And I sort of thought, gosh, I wonder what this would be like if you did it completely straight. Because at the heart of it is another profound theme, which is the theme of, of unwanted children.

[00:35:25] Laura: Children who are, given away, not wanted at birth. And oddly enough, that happened to Agatha’s mother, Clara. Whose mother, Mary, was a very poor widow. And she gave Clara to her sister, Margaret Miller. she gave her to Margaret to be raised and although that’s not like a full-blown giving away, think it went quite deep with Clara and I think it haunted Agatha, and it recurs in some of her novels, like Ordeal by Innocence and a couple of others, and [00:36:00] that is actually what’s at the heart of the Mousetrap.

[00:36:02] Laura: But of course, at the same time, it’s meant to be a jolly evening. And you sit there with your gin and tonic and your box of chocolates or whatever, and that, quite fun too, in its way. But it’s she, she always

[00:36:17] Laura: knew, almost always knew what worked. She knew how to please; she had the gift of entertaining.

[00:36:25] Laura: She had the gift of readability. It’s a rarer gift than we. She cared about her audience. She didn’t think she was better than, you know, detective fiction or anything like that. If she wanted to write something else, she got it out of our system with a Mary Weston cut. She cared about her readers.

[00:36:46] Laura: She cared about her audience, and she gave them what she thought they wanted, and they jolly well did want it. And she’s so, Amazing to me to see this resurgence that she’s had in the 21st century, [00:37:00] that people like Kenneth Branagh and people even things like Knives Out and know, all these really cool films that are still in some way feeding off what she symbolizes, her cultural significance.

[00:37:14] Laura: feels like… I can’t… What would the world be without her? It’s like a world with no Beatles.

[00:37:20] Mary: Great. Thank you so much, Ms. Thompson, for an absolutely wonderful interview. I’m sure you inspired many of our listeners to read up on read more of her books. Could you please close by reading a paragraph from your biography of Agatha Christie?

[00:37:41] Laura: Yes. That’s my absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.

[00:37:45] Laura: I’m so this is from a chapter called English Murder, where I try to sort of analyze the root of her, gift, which is almost impossible to do. “Her books are innately [00:38:00] virtuous because they’re on the side of the living. They take life, but not themselves, extremely seriously. They inhabit a world free of the creep of moral relativity.

[00:38:13] Laura: They exemplify harmony and order, clarity.

[00:38:19] Laura: I was asked what I read during my recent spell of captivity in South America. Wrote a man named Jeffrey Jackson to Agatha in 1971. My captors actually produced Spanish editions of your detective stories for me, which I read with vast enjoyment. What particularly helped was to be reminded by Ms. Marple and Monsieur Quahog that there was indeed another world where absolute values still applied.

[00:38:48] Laura: This could scarcely be more inimical. To the modern sensibility, which throws a veil of doubt and ambivalence over everything except its own politicized opinions. [00:39:00] And yet Agatha Christie survives, to the point where it seems as if she is still… Indeed, fulfilling the purpose.”

[00:39:12] Laura: I’ve really enjoyed it.

[00:39:13] Laura: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.

[00:39:15] Mary: Thank you.

[00:39:39] Mariam: That was a fascinating interview, Mary. I’m so glad , that we got to spend some time in the world of Agatha Christie. So inspiring. So much hard work, a life of hard work and, True achievement. So I have a tweet that I want to share. It’s actually an article written by a young [00:40:00] student 13-year-old going into eighth grade writing for education next.

[00:40:05] Mariam: She compares, she reviews Khan Academy’s regular offering for math. Compares it to Han Amigo which is powered by, Chat GPT Four. And as a not a 13-year-old, it was fascinating for me to read it in her own words, what she finds helpful about Khan Academy, sort of the classic.

[00:40:29] Mariam: Original recipe, as she calls it, and then how seeing it, reading it prompt by prompt how Han Amigo, the AI component of Han Academy helps her to work through learning something new for the first time. In her case, it was scientific notation. It hadn’t been taught in school yet.

[00:40:52] Mariam: She was going to learn using just the chat GPT or AI enabled component of Khan Academy. And,[00:41:00] reading a step by step, it’s math, so that by itself is, it’s a little bit confusing, it’s not necessarily the easiest thing to read in prose and no video, you know, no person talking, no one waiting to see if, you know, looking into the student’s eyes to see if there’s a connection, if there’s a spark, but still seeing that there’s a lot of opportunity for feedback and for the student , to get to be self-aware about exactly which part she’s still not understanding.

[00:41:36] Mariam: My takeaway was that we’re just in the beginning stages and but even in this beginning stage of AI enabled student learning. There are some significant advantages for everybody sitting in a classroom with just a human. That said, the disadvantages are also [00:42:00] obvious as I mentioned, no, no emotional or very human connection and no sort of, connection attachment with a person who’s really invested in the person’s learning the classroom as a whole together, learning all together.

[00:42:16] Mariam: I couldn’t help but imagine and I’ve been gathering this from other experiences with AI in the classroom and AI at home with homework that we’re going to be creating hybrid solutions or cyborg sort of approaches to learning. And those things, it seems to me will take shape organically.

[00:42:39] Mariam: And I’m glad to see students, young people themselves saying what works for them and what doesn’t work for them because. Ultimately, it’s not just about whether the test scores reflect learning or not. It has to all, there also has to be a component of, is this enjoyable? Is this working for me?

[00:42:58] Mariam: Do I see this kind of [00:43:00] technology enriching my life or not? So, I wanted to share that with you. It’s, the article is called Comparing Online. An A. I. Assisted learning a student views by Daphne Goldstein in education next and the pleasure to co-host with you, Mary. Our next episode guest is Professor James Stigler.

[00:43:22] Mariam: James Stigler is distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA, where his research focuses on the teaching and learning of mathematics. Thank you so much for being with us.[00:44:00]

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts Mariam Memarsadeghi and Mary Connaughton interview Laura Thompson, a New York Times bestseller and the award-winning author of Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life. Ms. Thompson provides an overview of Agatha Christie’s life and career, gaining insights into her literary contributions and the enduring popularity of her detective novels. She explores the timeless appeal of Dame Agatha’s iconic characters, such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, and discusses the influence of her writing on the mystery genre as a whole. They weigh in on the various adaptations of Christie’s works into film, television, and theater, shedding light on the fascination with her intricate plots, and her own mysterious disappearance in 1926. Ms. Thompson concludes the interview with a reading from her biography of Agatha Christie.

Stories of the Week: Mariam cited a story from the National Constitution Center about Constitution Day and Citizenship Day celebrating American pride and civic awareness rooted in the Constitution’s significance, but there’s a growing reluctance to embrace this in elite institutions. Mary discussed a story from Contrarian Boston on Boston’s public education system, which despite high funding, is facing declining academic performance due to changes in admission policies for exam schools that consider socio-economic factors.


Laura Thompson won the Somerset Maugham award for her first book, The Dogs, and is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters. Her other books include the critically acclaimed Life in a Cold Climate, a biography of Nancy Mitford, and Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, which was nominated for an Edgar Allen Poe Award in 2019. She lives in London.


Tweet of the Week: