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Review: Absent in the Spring by Agatha Christie, writing as Mary Westmacott

My Interest

This is the second book I’ve read by a famous author “writing as X.” The other was The Long Walk by Stephen King “writing as Richard Bachman”–it remains the only Stephen King book I’ve read. Today, it’s dear Agatha writing as Mary,

Thank you to blogger Margaret at Books Please whose post introduced me to this book.

One of my goals this year was to read more “seasonally.” The title of this book fit Spring–a season in which I did not do very well with this goal. I actually had this review ready to go a few weeks ago, but forgot it!

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1930s Baghdad, Iraq. Photo credit.

The Story

“From you have I been absent in the spring”

Shakespeare Sonnet 98

While stranded at the Iraq-Turkey boarder waiting for a washed out train, Joan Scudamore, for the first time in her middle aged life, has nothing left to read, nothing to do, and so turns inward. She does so with a vengeance. Her inward journey starts when she encounters an old school friend on the first stage of her journey home–the stage that ends with her being stranded as the sole resident of the Rest House at the Turkish border. This friend, Blanche, has “gone down in the world” since their school days, but knows Baghdad’s British colony very well–including Joan’s younger daughter, the recently married Barbara. Blanche’s comment on Barbara having married the first man who asked to escape home shows Joan all is now what it seems. Arriving at the Rest House and learning of her journey’s delay leaves Joan adrift mentally. She starts a sort of mental pilgrimage–finally looking back at her life as the other players in it may see it. She has always been so certain, so sure. But was her perception of her life and it’s events accurate?

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Hapless Richard Bucket with wife Hyacinth on Keeping Up Appearances
Photo Credit llstar/BBC

My Thoughts

My first thought was a funny one–that Rodney Scudamore could have been the inspiration for the hapless Richard Bucket–husband of Hyacinth in t.v.’s Keeping Up Appearances. Joan is a person who thinks in black or white. Something is “right” or “sensible” or it is wrong. She has gone to great pains to do the “right” things for her children–the best nannies, schools, etc. Her husband she talked out of a fanciful dream of farming and had him stay in the family law firm because one had to be practical. She loves Rodney and likes that he is successful. She is sincere. Rodney is hardworking, a good man and acknowledged as such by all. His children come to him and not their mother with their troubles. Does this mean they do not like Joan? This is a very clever set-up for the story.

I enjoyed this book much more than Agatha’s usual mysteries. In Wikipedia that hallowed resource of truths, half-truths, and out-right-lies, (most of the topics are absolutely fine–they have dedicated amateurs who check them) the author of the Agatha article says that her books written as Mary Westmacott generally received much better reviews than her formula who-done-its. Very interesting comment. I would like to read the other five books she wrote under this name even as I continue to enjoy listening my way through the mysteries.

One Character’s Comment Did Not Age Well at All

One jarring note on how books age was near the end. As she is finally homeward bound Joan shares a train compartment with a rather grand woman–a minor royal. That woman makes the awful remark that she does not want to “eliminate all of the Jews” (paraphrased) because some are “so clever” (paraphrase). She tells Joan war is a certainty. Joan who “feels provincial” next to the grand lady says that several friends have been to Germany and that there is much to be admired in National Socialism. That whole passage is a rough one today. The book was published in 1944 before the horrific images of the concentration camps were revealed.

Absent in the Spring by Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott is NOT available on Kindle in the USA. I listened to the audio performed by Jacqui Crago

Have you read any of the Mary Westmacott novels? Or any by another author writing in a genre other than their normal one and under a non de plum? Leave me a comment or a link to your review.

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