Agatha Christie at the Detection Club
Memories of Detection Club Meetings by H.R.F. Keating
When Agatha Christie was asked to be President of the Detection Club in 1958, the only possible successor to Dorothy L. Sayers, she agreed but made it a condition that she should not be asked to speak at its public meetings. Nor, living comparatively far out of London and increasingly aged, did she often attend our gatherings. However I remember some occasions when she was present and feel they are worth recording.
The first in order of date I think (the past is a series of rolling fog--banks to me) was when, rather unexpectedly Agatha came to the Club's annual general meeting, held principally to decide whom to propose for our somewhat exclusive ranks. This was a highly informal affair. I see, through those fog-banks, a circle of us sitting round tossing up possible names. Agatha, as it chanced was next to me, then a member of only a few years standing, eagerly taking part. So, imagine my dismay and others' embarrassment when she threw in a suggestion, "Isn't there a young man who writes books set in India?" One of those times when, as my character Inspector Ghote might say "I wanted to sink into the earth like the Goddess Sita." However, in those days the Club was run, on Agatha's behalf, by that excellent writer of legal mysteries, Michael Underwood, and, with all of a lawyer's quick tact, he managed to say something that put our slightly out-of-touch President into the picture. What it was exactly I was too deep under the earth to hear.
Another occasion, again in my early days as a club member: At our Annual Dinner my wife, Sheila, found herself sitting next to Agatha. Can it have been at the Dinner in which, with Dick Francis, I was inaugurated into membership, swearing on Eric the Skull to uphold the Queen's English? Sheila, recalling that Agatha much disliked talking about her books ("Where do I get my ideas?" she said once with a touch of acerbity. "At Marks and Spencer's stores."), was struck almost dumb. However, at last rescue arrived. Sheila asked how Agatha had got up to London for the dinner and in replying motorways were mentioned. From then on conversation, on that ever-interesting if everyday subject, flourished. It gives us, I think, an insight into what made Agatha so popular, her shared everyday humanity.
There was, too, a significant incident that Julian Symons, who succeeded Agatha as President, has recorded. He had been delayed in arriving at one of the dinners for members and their guests which we hold twice a year at London's Garrick Club. He came in hurriedly, took an empty chair, opposite Agatha's, and settled down, only to realize that, without time to wash, his fingernails were black-rimmed with dirt. And, worse, he soon saw that Agatha was eying them speculatively. He felt he could almost read the thoughts passing through her mind. An otherwise respectable man sits down at a public dinner with his nails harbouring black dirt. Where had he just been? What has he just been doing? Could he have been burying the body of his wife? And be trying now to establish a hasty alibi? As Julian has pointed out, such everyday details used as clues were one of the things that made Agatha's detective stories so accessible.
And a final memory. There was one occasion when Agatha said she would, after all, take the Presidential role at the Club's annual dinner. So, clad in the red satin robe that had been made for the Club's first President, G.K. Chesterton--and, it has to be said, filling it as amply as that great rolling genius ever did--she read out her part of the ceremony of inauguration with totally unexpected gusto. It often happens with the reticently shy: put them on a stage, give them someone else's words to say, and they are transformed from shrinking violet into trumpeting fierce-coloured African Queen Lily. So, the sight of Agatha, proclaiming phrases like "Is there anything you hold sacred?" with just the right mixture of merry jokiness and public solemnity is one that will be with me, I am sure, for the rest of my life.
An Annotated Agatha Christie Reading List
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
And Then There Were None
The Thirteen Problems
The Man in the Brown Suit
Murder on the Orient Express
President of the Detection Club since 1985 as well as the recently-apponted vice-president of The Agatha Christie Society, H.R.F. Keating is the creator of the popular Bombay Inspector Ganesh Ghote (pronounced GO-Tay). His latest Inspector Ghote mystery is Asking Questions. His newest book is Jack The Lady Killer, a novel in easy-read verse set in India in the days of the British Raj to be published in Fall 1999 by Poisoned Pen Press in the U.S.A. and by Flambard Press in the U.K. In 1996 Keating received the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement from the Crime Writers' Association. He is also a distinguished critic of the mystery genre and an acknowledged expert on Agatha Christie.