For the first time, I’ve had the opportunity to interview an author and share the experience with readers here on The Poisoned Martini. In this first interview, The Poisoned Martini is fortunate to have the privilege of speaking with Len Lovallo, co-author of The Agatha Christie Companion: The Complete Guide to Agatha Christie’s Life And Works.
The Poisoned Martini: What was your first experience with Agatha Christie’s works?
Len Lovallo: It was on July 4th, 1970, while I was in Oslo, Norway. I quote from a diary I kept on that trip, “I had about 8 hours before my train would leave–so I bought an Agatha Christie novel. The book was 4:50 from Paddington, and it was terrific and I really was into it when suddenly I realized my brown leather case was missing with my Passport and Eu Rail pass.”
I remember that in the train station there was a circular rack with all Agatha Christie novels displayed on it—each side displayed her books in a different language.
Oh, a week later, in case you are all wondering, my leather case was found and returned to the American Embassy with my passport and stuff, except for the Travels Checks.
For the extra week I was in Oslo, I read about 4 or 5 other Christie novels.
The PM: You co-wrote the book with Dennis Sanders. How did the two of you meet?
Len: We met at a Dinner Party in Greenwich Village. It was around 1973 or 74.
The PM: How did you come to decide to write a companion volume about Christie’s life and works?
Len: Dennis Sanders and I were having dinner at my apartment on East 38th Street in Manhattan, and we had both recently finished reading Sleeping Murder. We had also read her An Autobiography a few months earlier.
While discussing Sleeping Murder, I commented to Dennis that there was a passage in Chapter 4 when Miss Marple is talking about her “mauve irises on my nursery walls”. I said to Dennis that in Christie’s Autobiography, Christie mentions that her nursery in her family house in Ashfield has said wallpaper, and that this had been one of her earliest memories.
From that comment, the “Christie Companion” was born.
The PM: Tell us a little bit about the process of researching the book.
Len: I can tell you now, I wish we had the research Internet tools available today when we began researching the book in 1977.
I did most of the research at the New York Public Library Main Branch on 5th Avenue and East 42nd Street. I started by looking at every 1st edition copy of the English and American editions. Since I could only request about 3 or 4 books at a time from the archives at the Library, it took quite a while to get all the books. What I was looking for was all the exact publication info on each of her books; dedications in any (some of Christie’s dedications did not show up in later editions); and any other information that we could gather from these first editions reading their dust covers, etc. As for the dedications, I thought it would be interesting to follow up on who and why Christie dedicated books to.
I then looked up and read every article I could find published on Christie in newspapers, magazines, [and in] book, movie, and theatre reviews. There were so many to read and make copies of.
We also read every published book available at that time on Agatha Christie’s life and work. From these books we looked at their Bibliographies and searched them out if we had not already read them.
While I was doing all this research, Dennis was re-reading all the books and doing a time line to enter the facts that I found so we could get an idea where Christie may have written her book, and what real life events led her to create plots, such as in Murder on the Orient Express and The Mirror Crack’d, to name two.
Dennis and I decided to split writing. He concentrated on the Poirot novels, and I on Miss Marple and all the other books. I researched all the Film, TV, and Theatre section.
The PM: What was the most difficult aspect of the companion volume to research?
Len: This is a difficult question. When we began researching, it all seemed so overwhelming and sometimes impossible to seek out information and facts on Agatha Christie’s personal life. We had to determine, after reading and studying her autobiography, as well as her second husband’s book of memoirs, Max Mallowan, where we should spend time searching for more detailed information on facts they wrote about that we thought warranted further follow up. This was a judgment call on our part. Some of the searching led nowhere.
The PM: Did you find it difficult to get people to talk to you about Christie or did you find them more than happy to share their stories?
Len: We did not interview anyone who knew Christie. We had thought of traveling to London to do some research and seek out some people who knew Christie. But, we did not have the funds to travel. There would have been no way we could have had access to Christie’s private papers or a meeting with her daughter, Rosalind Hicks, since we were told she was not too happy about this book being written and would not cooperate with granting us an interview or answering any written questions. For the revised edition, her opinion had changed.
The PM: How did Rosalind Hicks find out about the book prior to its publication?
Len: We needed the Christie Estate’s approval to use all the quotes from all the Christie works including Christie’s “An Autobiography.” It was essential to our book to get the permission—and Rosalind Hicks held the cards. So she had to get a copy of the manuscript before giving us the approval.
This ends Part One of the interview. I’ve chosen to post the interview in sections for easier reading and to give readers the chance to digest the text. Stay tuned for more of my interview with Len Lovallo. Read Part II here.