For those of us who love the book as a physical, aesthetic object, the Folio Society is spoken of with breathless delight. They are the antidote to the ebook or the mass market paperback – their beautiful hardbacks with slipcovers, with exquisite paper and specially commissioned illustrations, are joys on anybody’s shelves. Since they’re at the pricier end of the book market, I don’t have huge numbers, although I do prize the first one I ever owned – Selected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, given by my friend Barbara, which not only introduced me to one of my favourite writers, but to the beauty of Folio. I’m under no obligations to say anything about them, I should mention, but they really are perfect gift books, and I aspire to having shelves full of them one day.
This became all the clearer when, yesterday evening, I sat in their members’ room in Bloomsbury, shelves and tables filled with their beautiful books. I managed not to shove any in my bag, you’ll be pleased to know – except for the one they sent me home with in my goody bag, which was the Miss Marple Short Stories – because I was in London to hear a talk about Agatha Christie by her biographer Laura Thompson, in the company of various other bloggers. I’d only actually met one before, and we just said hello across the room – most of those present seemed to be crime bloggers, and know each other, but I did get to chat to a lady from a fashion blog with a sideline in book blogs. If a fashionista is going to like any books, they ought to be Folio books.
Anyway, there is nothing quite like hearing about Agatha Christie. I think only Jane Austen unites so many diverse readers in eager agreement and enthusiasm – but, while most Austen fanatics have read all her novels (even if not her abbreviated novels, letters etc.) it’s quite possible to love Agatha Christie without having read a very big percentage of her prolific output. Take me, for instance – I love Dame Agatha. Like many people, she was my transition from teenage reading to adult reading. And yet I’ve only read (quick scurry to Wikipedia) 16 or 17 of her novels. So many left to discover!
Thankfully Laura Thompson didn’t assume we’d all have read everything by Christie, and so she didn’t give away endings – or at least she didn’t give away specific endings, so she mentioned that a murderer turned out to be a child, or every possible candidate, or a suicide – but didn’t spoil which novels these endings belonged to. (Please be similarly considerate in the comments!)
And, indeed, Laura Thompson’s talk and Q&A afterwards was brilliant all round. She was very personable, and obviously a big fan of Christie as well as a biographer (has anybody read her biography, incidentally? I haven’t, but want to now.) Her favourite Christie novel is Five Little Pigs – she said that the plot movements and character movements work in sync beautifully, which makes me want to read that too – and, conversely, The Clocks is her least favourite. My favourite comment she made was that Agatha Christie didn’t feel the need to prove herself better than the detective novel genre. She embraced it, and (as Thompson said too) although she thought a lot about what she did, she didn’t analyse what she did.
My feelings are that Agatha Christie is such a perfect detective novelist that other authors don’t only seem inferior, but seem failures. They have wandered from the blueprint Christie excelled at – her plots are almost always breathtakingly flawless – and so people like Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham barely even qualify as detective novelists to me, however enjoyable they may be in other qualities (and, for my money, Sayers is short of those too!)
I asked a question about Christie’s romantic novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott – which I’ve never read – and turns out they were better reviewed than her main output! Thompson adds that some are, indeed, very good.
All in all, a highly enjoyable (if swelteringly hot) evening, which has cemented my admiration for Folio books and my affection for Agatha Christie. Thank you, Folio!