The One with the Breakdown in the Desert

Mary Westmacott (aka Agatha Christie), Absent in the Spring (1944)

[This is the first in a series of posts related to books read in 2017, because my reading pace completely outran my blogging time. No reason to forego a blog post, right?]

I don’t remember how I came to think that Agatha Christie wrote romance novels under the name of Mary Westmacott… This is SO entirely wrong! There’s nothing romantic in this book, on the contrary!

Now, I remember that I read somewhere that the novels written under this pen name dealt with “crimes of the heart”, whatever that means. I took it to mean romances (as in agonizing over heart issues), but I am now sorry I didn’t even try to make sure I was right.

It’s obvious that I misread and that “crimes of the heart” meant psychologically heavy subjects, because this book is about what happens when a woman suddenly bares her soul and finds there something not totally appealing. This is such a departure from the usual Agatha Christie characters, who are often archetypal and whose psychology is described in broad strokes. (I’m a fan, so I don’t mean to say that they are uni-dimensional cardboard characters, but I’m aware some people say so).

Mrs Joan Scudamore is the proud wife to a country notary and the self-satisfied mother to three adult children, all apparently very successful. She is returning to London after visiting her daughter who lives with her husband in Baghdad as expats, when she finds herself unexpectedly stranded on her own waiting for a train. It’s the first time she is alone and has nothing to distract herself with, so after a few days the only thing she has is her memories, her doubts and her feelings. Something is rotten in the state of the Scudamores, and Joan, with all her British stiff upper lip, is close to having a full-blown mental breakdown. Her perfect life has big cracks in it, and the truth is not so pretty. People have been lying to her, and she lied to herself too.

I guess Agatha Christie’s goal was to make the reader uncomfortable and she succeeded all too well! Her main character is not very likeable; and she grows worse by the minute as we get to read her thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. The book is called by the publisher “bittersweet with a jagged edge”, and I do see what they mean. For people used to Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, you know you’re onto something dark and raw when within the first dozen pages, someone casually says to Mrs. Scudamore: “You know, you’re the sort of woman who ought to be raped. It might do you good.” How shocking! Not your typical body in the library indeed. Likewise, the resolution of this “crime of the heart” does not tie neatly every strand, we are left wondering how much the desert episode has really changed Mrs. Scudamore.

I’m sorry that it took me that long to try Agatha’s “crimes of the heart”, but it won’t be the last for me.

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4 thoughts on “The One with the Breakdown in the Desert

  1. You con’t find many references to this book. I read it some years ago out of curiosity. It is not “typical” Christie and yet it is. Just as murder is the dark side of human action, the woman’s motivations turn out to come from the dark side. Also, there is a circularity to the plot, with matters resolved at the end, although not as you might expect.

  2. I was also unaware of this pen name and book. How fascinating! As I read your review I thought of Ruth Rendell’s darh psychological standalone novels. I wonder how they compare. I might have to give this a try after I read a few more of her standard mysteries.

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