Agatha, a biography in graphic novel form written by Anne Martinetti and Guillaume Lebeau and illustrated by Alexandre Franc, opens – appropriately – with the real-life mystery at the heart of Agatha Christie’s story. In December 1926 the celebrated crime novelist disappeared, prompting a full-scale police investigation. She had abandoned her car by a lake in Surrey and traveled by train to Harrogate, where she checked into a hotel under a false name. Was it all an elaborate act of revenge for her husband’s philandering? Christie strikes up a conversation with Hercule Poirot, her most famous creation, in the hotel room, while back in London a clairvoyant is brought in to confirm she is alive. The medium’s look into Christie’s past sets up the novel’s first half as an extended flashback giving her history up until 1926.
Agatha Miller was raised in a wealthy household in Torquay, Devon. I never knew that she was a flaming redhead or that her father was American. His death when she was 11 was an early pall on an idyllic childhood of outdoor exploration and escape into books – even though her mother opined, “No child ought to be allowed to read until the age of 8. Better for the eyes and the brain.” She first turned her hand to writing while laid up in bed in 1908, completing her first story in two days. She and her mother took an exciting trip to Egypt, and in 1912 she met Lieutenant Archibald Christie at a ball. During the First World War she was a nurse at the town hospital in Torquay, where she came across a Belgian refugee who – at least in the authors’ theory – served as the inspiration for Poirot.
The Christies’ only daughter, Rosalind, was born in 1919. The following year The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first Poirot mystery, was published. Christie’s career successes are intercut with her round-the-world travels (portrayed as sepia photographs), marriage difficulty and a new romance with archaeologist Max Mallowan, and the occasional intrusion of real-world events like World War II.
Meanwhile, her invented detectives jockey for her attention: not just Poirot, but Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence too. You have to suspend your disbelief during these scenes. I don’t think the authors are literally suggesting that Christie hallucinated conversations with her characters. Rather, it’s a whimsical way of imagining how her detectives took on lives of their own and became ‘real people’ she cared for yet found exasperating – she often threatens to do away with Poirot as Arthur Conan Doyle tried to do with Sherlock Holmes. There were only a couple of pages where I felt that a conversation with Poirot was a false way of conveying information. For the most part, this strategy works well; when coupled with the opening scene in 1926, it keeps the biography from being too much of a chronological slog.
With the exception of the sepia-tinged travel sections, this is a book packed with bright colors, particularly with Christie’s flash of red hair animating the first three quarters. It finishes with a timeline of Christie’s life and a complete bibliography of her works – no doubt invaluable references for diehard fans. I’ve only read one or two Christie books myself (my mother is the real devotee), but I enjoyed this quick peek into a legendary writer’s life. I was reminded of just how broad her reach was: from Hollywood studios to the West End, where The Mousetrap has been showing for a record-breaking 63 years. Her influence cannot be denied.
With thanks to the publisher, SelfMadeHero, for the free copy. Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin. (This one is in paperback!)
Are you an Agatha Christie fan? Does this tempt you to read more by or about her?
Barbara Yelin’s Irmina is one of the most visually stunning graphic novels I’ve ever come across. Not only that, but it’s based on a fascinating family story: after her grandmother’s death Yelin, a Munich-based artist, found a box of diaries and letters that told the story of a budding love affair that was not to be and charted a young woman’s gradual capitulation to Nazi ideology. How could her grandmother go from being a brave rule-breaker to a cowed regime supporter in just a few short years, she wondered? This fictionalized biography is her attempt to reconcile the ironies and hard facts of her ancestor’s life.
In 1934 Irmina von Behdinger arrives in London for a cultural exchange, attending a commercial school to train as a typist. One night she accompanies a friend to a fancy party and meets Howard, a young Barbados native she initially assumes to be a bartender. It turns out he actually has a scholarship to study law at Oxford. He’s learned, dignified and charming, and soon he and Irmina begin spending a lot of time together. Although she wishes she, too, could study at a proper university, women’s education is not valued in Germany.
Irmina and Howard’s carefree explorations of Oxford and London contrast with the increasingly bleak news coming from Germany about Hitler and his treatment of Jews. As her host family decries Nazism, Irmina tries to protest: “they are not MY Germans … this is politics! It doesn’t affect the average person.” She dreams of being an independent working woman and pursuing a relationship with Howard, but a change in her financial circumstances means she has to go back to Stuttgart instead. Promising to return to England as soon as she can raise some money, Irmina bids farewell to Howard at Portsmouth harbor in April 1935.
Back in Germany, she finds a translation job with the Ministry of War, hoping desperately to be transferred to the German consulate in London once she proves herself. But as the years pass and German relations with the rest of Europe grow strained, her dream seems increasingly unlikely. Having recently lost touch with Howard, she meets Gregor Meinrich, an architect for the SS, and gives up work when they marry and have a son. With the rare exception of a shocking event like Kristallnacht, it’s all too easy to ignore what’s happening to the nation’s Jews and absorb the propaganda that says they have earned their misfortune.
The novel is in three parts: London, Berlin and Barbados – Irmina gets a brief, late chance to see what her life might have been like with Howard. Yelin’s usual palette is muted and melancholy: grays, charcoal, slate blue, browns and flesh tones. However, in each section she chooses one signature color that adds symbolic flashes of life. For London it’s the bright blue of Irmina’s scarf, mirrored in Oxford’s sky and river, as well as in the occasional shopfront and lady’s dress.
In Berlin the red of the Nazi flag crops up in lipstick, dress patterns, flowers, wine and the décor of a ballroom. In the most poignant scene of all, though, red is equated with the spilling of Jewish blood. As a friend discusses what she doesn’t want to hear – “they’re taking them all to the East now, where they kill them” – Irmina is getting a jar of berry preserves down from a high shelf and drops it, spattering scarlet everywhere. On the other hand, to evoke the calm and natural beauty of 1980s Barbados, the featured hue is a seafoam green.
I was particularly impressed with the two-page spreads showing city scenes. They range from Impressionist fog to Modernist detail, reminding me of everything from Monet to Modigliani. Although the artwork stands out a bit more than the story, this still strikes me as a fresh look at the lives of ordinary Germans who were kept in the dark (by themselves and others) about Hitler’s activities. In an afterword, Dr. Alexander Korb, Director of the University of Leicester’s Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, reflects on Irmina’s motivation:
Irmina had a full range of possibilities. Yet the fact that she chose the Nazi path from the wide variety in front of her, encompassing feminism, internationality and individuality, makes her story typical of this time. It was just as typical that she failed to find happiness in fascism, like millions of others.
For the out-of-the-ordinary window onto Third Reich history and the excellent illustrations, I highly recommend Irmina to graphic novel lovers and newbies alike.
With thanks to the publisher, SelfMadeHero, for the free copy. Translated from the German by Michael Waaler.
In the past few years I’ve made a conscious effort to get more into graphic novels. In that time I’ve discovered some real gems – highlighted in a previous post entitled “Graphic Novels for Newbies” – and Peter Kuper’s latest book, Ruins, is among my favorites. Kuper is a comics legend: he’s a long-time MAD Magazine illustrator and the author of more than 20 books, as well as a teacher at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
Ruins appealed to me because of its environmental theme, but I found so much more to love. I previewed it in my last post, “Books as Objects of Beauty,” because it’s a simply gorgeous physical book – what with the embossed title on the cover and spine, the red-edged pages, the built-in ribbon bookmark, and the entomological drawings on the endpapers. Luckily what’s inside is just as special as the packaging.
In essence, this is the bittersweet story of an American couple traveling from Manhattan to Oaxaca, Mexico for a sabbatical year. Samantha hopes to brush up on her Spanish, work on a book about Mexican history and legends, and finally get pregnant. George, recently laid off from his job as an entomologist at the Natural History Museum, is delighted with Oaxaca’s invertebrate life – leafcutter ants, edible grasshoppers, and a pesky scorpion – but not so convinced about having a baby; surely the world is too messed up to bring a new life into?
The novel’s small cast also includes Angelina, their housekeeper; another George, a British bookseller; and Al, a former photojournalist and heavy drinker who joins with our George to document the local teachers’ strike. We learn that Samantha has lived here before and has returned in part to exorcise tragic events from her past. The book’s title thus has many meanings in context: not only the ruined cities Samantha and George visit as tourists and the ruin corrupt Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz is currently making of the place, but also the decay of relationships old and new and the decline of the environment.
The environmental agenda comes through in the parallel story of one monarch’s migration. Sections set in Mexico alternate with short interludes showing the butterfly’s journey south from America to Michoacan, Mexico, where monarchs gather en masse in a pine forest. The limited palette of these spreads, in contrast with the vibrant colors of the Oaxaca scenes, is particularly effective: the monarch is generally the only speck of color against a monochrome blue-gray background showing rather dreary American scenes. Tagged in Pennsylvania, the monarch flies over polluted rivers, a nuclear power plant, an abandoned West Virginian mine, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Monsanto tomato pickers, a Texas border arrest, and a Mexican drug deal gone wrong – a symbol of precarious hope in spite of circumstance.
A Mexican folk belief has it that monarchs are the souls of dead children returning. At the end of the book a newly hatched butterfly starts its journey north – but what has become of our human heroes? That’s for readers lucky enough to get their hands on a copy of this wonderful book to find out.
Kuper and his family lived in Oaxaca from 2006 to 2008 and return annually for visits; you can see both familiarity and love in his terrific drawings of the city and its natural surroundings. Just as it tempers monochrome with color, Ruins carefully balances sadness and hope. If you think a graphic novel can’t sustain an involved and satisfying plot, think again. I’d especially recommend this to Barbara Kingsolver fans – the Mexican setting and monarch migration theme tie in with The Lacuna and Flight Behavior, respectively.
With thanks to the publisher, SelfMadeHero, for the free copy.