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The mystery of Wagatha Christie Hidden melodrama lurks behind this petty spectacle

(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)


May 14, 2022   7 mins


Like most sane, sensible people, I’ve been following the great news story of the age — the Wagatha Christie trial, in which Rebekah Vardy is suing fellow footballer’s wife Coleen Rooney for libel — with immense interest and attention to detail. In good courtroom drama style, we’ve already had at least one sensational twist, with Mrs Vardy twice bursting into tears on Thursday before admitting that she did, after all, try to sell stories to the Sun.

Then there’s her agent’s missing phone — lost, with all its crucial WhatsApp messages, in the freezing depths of the North Sea. What a mystery! And how our descendants will treasure that priceless exchange between Rooney’s barrister and Mrs Vardy:

“We know that Ms Watt’s phone is now in Davy Jones’s locker, don’t we, Mrs Vardy?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know who Davy Jones is.”

No novelist, surely, would dare to invent such a detail. Or would they?

After all, the first act of the entire drama, Coleen Rooney’s Twitter post in October 2019, was a consummate literary production. From the very first line — “This has been a burden in my life for a few years now and finally I have got to the bottom of it” — the tension built and built. The suspects had been assembled. The detective described the crime. She set out her methods. She announced that she knew the identity of the culprit: “Now I know for certain
”

She paused, as if to ratchet up the excitement still further. And then, finally, devastatingly, that pay-off: “It’s
 Rebekah Vardy’s account.”

On the face of it, I admit, the Agatha Christie analogy seems utterly ridiculous. When we think of Christie, we typically think of people sipping cocktails on country-house lawns, before a piercing scream announces that somebody has bashed in the paterfamilias’s head with an exotic paperweight. We think of a cruise ship gliding down the Nile; of the Orient Express stranded in a Balkan snowdrift; of a group of hotel guests being bumped off, one by one, on a remote island. We don’t think of footballers’ WAGs arguing about leaking Instagram posts to the tabloid press.

But would Agatha Christie — with her profoundly bleak sense of human nature, her voyeuristic fascination with the intimate details of other people’s emotional lives, her obsessions with greed, envy, jealousy and resentment — really have been shocked by the Rooney-Vardy imbroglio? I don’t think so. In fact, the more I think about it, the more splendidly appropriate the comparison becomes.

Christie was no stranger to the elaborate game played out between celebrities and the media, since she was the central character in one of the great tabloid sensations of the twentieth century. The circus of her disappearance in December 1926, when she walked out of her front door in the Berkshire stockbroker belt and appeared to vanish off the face of the earth, makes the current libel trial look like a total non-story.

At the time Christie was one of the most famous young writers in the country, having just published her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In the world of popular fiction, she was Wayne Rooney in the summer of 2004, a youthful tyro hammering in goals for fun. And if the young Wayne himself had gone missing, the impact could hardly have been more dramatic.

Day after day the newspapers ran enormous banner headlines. The local police mobilised a thousand officers to help with the search, while volunteers chartered aeroplanes to scour the local countryside. Christie’s rival Dorothy L. Sayers visited her house to look for clues, while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle consulted a medium to get advice from the spirit world, as was his wont in those days.

And then — the twist! After ten days Christie turned up in the genteel Swan Hydro Hotel in Harrogate under an assumed name. She had spent the intervening period enjoying the hotel’s bridge and dancing programme, and when she was recognised, she claimed to have lost her memory. The strangest thing of all, though, was that she had checked in under the surname Neele. For as it turned out, her husband had been having an affair with a fellow golfing enthusiast whose surname was — well, you guessed it.

“It’s
 Nancy Neele’s account.”

The odd thing about Agatha Christie is that even though she was by far the most successful writer of the twentieth century, with an estimated two billion books sold worldwide, many people get her completely wrong. Self-consciously highbrow types — academics, Guardian readers, Arsenal fans — have always mocked and maligned her. To take a single example, Polly Toynbee once claimed that her books are “suffused with a peculiar English snobbery” and located in “a realm of quite extraordinary fantasy, firmly set among the middle classes, on the uncomfortable presumption, perhaps, that the lower classes are too boring to write books about”.

But this is nonsense. Christie’s books are virtually never snobbish. Working-class characters, notably domestic servants, are usually drawn sympathetically, while her aristocrats are usually faintly ridiculous figures. In one book a conservative businessman, whom Poirot lauds as the embodiment of “sanity and balance and stability and honest dealing”, actually turns out to be the murderer! And are the books really nothing but Tory middle-class fantasies? If so, how come Poirot is, of all things, a Belgian refugee — whom other characters, very foolishly, dismiss as a “bloody foreigner” or a “funny little Frenchman”? And how come so many of the killers are members of the aspirational middle classes?

The truth is that Christie would have loved the Wagatha trial, for at its heart are all the things that made her books tick: greed, jealousy, anxiety, ambition — and, of course, sex. Take her excellent Evil Under the Sun, which opens with a group of sunbathers watching a pouting, perma-tanned babe called Arlena Marshall. “Her arrival had all the importance of a stage entrance,” says Christie. “Every inch of her body was tanned a beautiful even shade of bronze.” As she passes, everybody stares. “That woman’s a personification of evil!” says a demented, sex-obsessed vicar. “She’s a bad lot through and through.” But is she? On that question hangs the entire mystery.

Or take another Christie classic, Death on the Nile, which has a similarly voyeuristic opening. This time two men are looking at Linnet Ridgeway, “a girl with golden hair
 a girl with a lovely shape — a girl such as was seldom seen in Malton-under Wode”. She has come into money and has bought the local manor house. “Going to spend thousands on the place. Swimming-pools there’s going to be.” The men don’t like it, of course. “Money and looks — it’s too much! If a girl’s as rich as that she’s no right to be a good looker as well!” There’s more than a hint there of the way people talk about footballers and their wives. And of course we know at once that things aren’t going to end well for Linnet Ridgeway.

As for the sheer pettiness of the Wagatha trial — the complicated mechanics of following and unfollowing people on social media, the frantic efforts to contrive photo opportunities for lurking paparazzi, the wild overreactions and simmering resentments (“Arguing with Coleen is like arguing with a pigeon. You can tell it that you are right and it is wrong but it’s still going to shit in your hair”) — all this feels very familiar. For Christie was always brilliant on the mundane resentments that fester behind the most boring facades: the downtrodden little man who secretly hates his domineering wife; the ageing film star anxious that the public are losing interest; the little girl furious that her grandfather won’t pay for her ballet lessons.

Indeed, time and again the baroque details of Christie’s crimes are simply clever distractions, diverting our attention from the basic simplicity of her killers’ motives. In her splendid book The ABC Murders we think we are reading about a serial killer, apparently picking his victims from an ABC railway guide — Alice Ascher in Andover, Betty Barnard in Bexhill, Sir Carmichael Clarke in Churston. But in reality, we’re dealing with that most banal of killers, a younger brother who wants to get his hands on the family money.

Contrary to what you might expect, Christie’s killers are almost always driven by very familiar impulses. When the Belgian scholar Aagje Verbogen examined the Miss Marple books in detail, she found that Christie only used four motives: greed, sex, revenge and fear of exposure. The most frequent? Greed. As the supremely unsentimental Christie knew very well, nothing matters more to most people than money.

Even the poisonous world of social media, which plays such a crucial part in the Wagatha trial, would surely have come have no surprise. Christie had a profoundly bleak view of human nature, and knew that we all have an inner bully. Indeed, in one of her very best books, The Moving Finger, what we’d now call trolling is at the very core of the mystery.

The setting is a sleepy West Country village, Lymstock, to which Jerry and Joanna Burton, a brother and sister from London, have moved to help him recover from his plane-crash injuries. Lymstock is “so sweet and funny and old-world,” gushes Joanna in the first chapter. “You just can’t think of anything nasty happening here, can you?” (Do people say that about footballers’ enclaves like Knutsford or Alderley Edge? Perhaps they do.)

Just two pages later, however, they get the first of a series of anonymous letters, alleging in “terms of the coarsest character” that, far from being brother and sister, they are living in sin. “What is this place?” asks a disbelieving Joanna. “It looks the most innocent sleepy harmless little bit of England you can imagine.”

Fifty pages into the book, as the letters continue, Jerry reflects that Lymstock may look “as peaceful and as innocent as the Garden of Eden”, but it is “full of festering poison”. And as people start to die, he notes “a half-scared, half-avid gleam in almost everybody’s eye. Neighbour looked at neighbour.” Half-scared, half-avid: it’s like a night out with the WAGs in Baden-Baden.

Perhaps it’s too tempting to laugh at all this, though. Yes, there’s something enormously entertaining about the spectacle of Rooney and Vardy going tan-to-tan in court. But one of the things Christie captured so well is that behind even the most showy, comical, ridiculous melodrama there’s a private bitterness, even sadness, that the rest of us don’t see. What made Rebekah Vardy — or, as she insists, her agent — sell stories to the Sun? Why was she so determined to sue for libel? What desires, what ambitions, what resentments drove her on?

Perhaps she doesn’t really know herself. Does any of us truly understand what makes us tick? When Agatha Christie drove away from her family home on the night of 3 December 1926, her mind in a whirl after the revelation of her husband’s affair, what was going through her head? What was she planning? Why on earth did she go to Harrogate? Why did she check in under her rival’s name, such a weird and ridiculous thing to do?

But that’s human nature for you — at once utterly comical and serious, mundane and melodramatic, petty and profound. And somewhere, swirling at the bottom, a cocktail of anxieties and jealousies with which Agatha Christie was only too familiar. It’s hard to imagine that she would have written of Nancy Neele, as Rebekah did of Coleen: “OMG what a cunt.” I bet she thought it, though.

***

Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland will be exploring the life and times of Agatha Christie on Monday’s episode of  The Rest is History.

Dominic Sandbrook is an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982

dcsandbrook

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Kevin Henderson
Kevin Henderson
2 years ago

That has made me want to read Agatha Christie again.

Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
2 years ago

Self-consciously highbrow types — academics, Guardian readers, Arsenal fans” – lol!
A highly entertaining read indeed.

Arianna Reece
Arianna Reece
2 years ago

I know nothing about this trial, but thanks for an extremely entertaining read.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

No mention of toxic femininity? The practice of pretending to be best friends with someone you loathe? The desire to make money out of your “friends'” misfortunes even though you are already monstrously rich? The need to protect a reputation that only you think you have? The belief that you played a central role in your husband’s achievements?

The people I feel sorry for are Jamie Vardy and the Vardy children. Jamie presumably was given a choice between supporting his wife through her legal campaign and the break-up of his family. The poor children, what they must be going through in the playground.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
2 years ago

Wonderful article

Robert Eagle
Robert Eagle
2 years ago

What a relief! I thought I was a prurient creep for enjoying the WAGsaga; but now thanks to D Sandbrook I realise that I am a serious student of human nature.

R S Foster
R S Foster
2 years ago

…I’d suggest Agatha Christie used her rival’s name to make absolutely sure that it got out into the public domain…with the inevitable social consequences attached to being caught “In flagrante…” in those more censorious days. I believe the modern term is “s**t-shaming”…

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

The media always get nervous when there are libel writs flying around. Do not ascribe to conspiracy what can adequately be accounted for by good old fear for for your bank account.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Thanks!
As at 12.13 BST the Censor seems to have relented and the mildly contentious remarks about Giles Frasers’s ‘God’ essay have been restored.Hallelujah!

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago

This may well be the only good thing to come out of this rather pointless court case (the rest of the world having real problems to solve). Thanks – enjoyed it enormously.
Seriously, who needs a PR agent and why ? There might almost be a rule to be derived from this – “never trust anyone who employs a PR agent” ? Vardy, Markle, …
But perhaps celebs play a role similar to speculators in the financial markets – perhaps this apparently pointless activity keeps the newspaper business viable for the decreasing amount of useful content to be published.

Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
2 years ago

I liked Agatha Christie’s books some 60 years ago, and I enjoyed this article about them.
However, I was expecting more about the trial. What strikes me about that is that the Sun could set the matter at rest by disclosing their source.
In science – and other areas of scholarship – you strengthen your argument and add to you credibility by saying where your information comes from. Journalists refuse to do this, in the ‘public interest’.
There are some circumstances where silence really is in the public interest. For example, the case of Chris Mullin and the Birmingham Six. Mullin’s promise not to disclose his sources Recently vindicated in the courts) enabled innocent men to be freed. This was clearly in the public interest.
But the Wagatha case? Is it in the public interest that our courts of law should tied up for so long with such an unimportant affair? Would not the public interest be best served by the Sun settling the matter by saying where it got its stories from?

Last edited 2 years ago by Henry Haslam
Richard 0
Richard 0
2 years ago

Thank you, DS, you never write a dull piece. Enjoyed it thoroughly. Will look to read an Agatha Christie again as it has been a very long time.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

“To take a single example, Polly Toynbee once claimed that her books are “suffused with a peculiar English snobbery” and located in “a realm of quite extraordinary fantasy, firmly set among the middle classes, on the uncomfortable presumption, perhaps, that the lower classes are too boring to write books about”.”

My goodness isn’t that some exquisite irony. Or stunning lack of self awareness on the part of Toynbee. Or both.

Evil Under The Sun…the film adaptation, with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and Diana Rigg as Arlena, is splendid. As a kid, I wore out the VCR tape we had it recorded on at the point where Jane Birkin’s character descends the stairs at the end, wearing the most magnificent hat. It made your heart skip a beat it was so dashing.

The Wagatha Christie furore seems to combine the very best and the very worst of Britain. I mean, where else would you find such tabloid-friendly wit with a handle like that? It’s genius.
On the other hand, where else would you find such brainless sensationalism? If these two jokers weren’t married to obscenely overpaid footballers, they’d be settling the score outside a kebab shop at 1am, handbags whistling through the air, manicured nails a-clawing. We are not fooled by the fancy outfits, ladies.

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I suppose people in the olden days fought for every scrap of leisure reading material or entertainment they could get. A ‘realm of quite extraordinary fantasy’ may well have appealed to the increasingly bigger working-class group of readers. Christie must have sold millions, even tens of millions of books by the mid-1930s, world-wide.
And as well, with cinema gaining great prominence and influence in the 1920s, people could relate more and more to lifestyles that they saw in some detail or aspired to. So one might say that Agatha Christie’s books gave pleasure to a significant section of the reading public who were working class. That working class had no television, no antibiotics, TB was rife, and no Downton or Strictly beaming into their hard-to-heat living rooms. Did a bit of detective fiction set among the genteel and the privileged amuse the working class? And give them a bit of fantasy? No harm in that. Bollywood is in the business of providing cheer for the poor.

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Was Polly Toynbee talking about her own works (“suffused with a peculiar English snobbery” and located in “a realm of quite extraordinary fantasy, firmly set among the middle classes”) ?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 years ago

I see the… ahem… usual suspects are the first to post comments.

Who cares? Who, indeed!

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I suppose this is just human nature, however of low interest it is to some, it is of medium or high interest to others, makes a world. And better people to ‘fight in court’ that on the street: more civil society? Ad if it drives people to read more books (Agatha Christy in this case) that can only be for the better…. The world is not perfect, luckily…

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 years ago

Yes, i agee. My comment was a reference to the comment “Who cares?” by one of the ‘usual suspects’ i.e. they obviously do!

Last edited 2 years ago by Steve Murray
AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

Entertaining fluff… but I read to the end.
Christie only used four motives: greed, sex, revenge and fear of exposure.”
I’d add desire for status or celebrity to that, but then Agatha Christie had a winning formula which worked well enough in the society she based her stories in.

harry storm
harry storm
2 years ago

The Moving Finger was the AC book and also the first adult book I read. Over the next few years I then read every novel and short story by Ms. Christie. Loved them. Still do. Not sure why.

Last edited 2 years ago by harry storm
Rod McLaughlin
Rod McLaughlin
2 years ago

Thanks. Very funny, and it blows a hole in my assumption that because Christie is popular, she must be lowbrow. People make the same mistake with Dickens. I’m going to get a load of Agatha from Amazon and read the lot.

Robin Palmer
Robin Palmer
2 years ago

Interesting stuff about Agatha. I wasn’t aware of the football wives’ story. Who the f*ck cares. Barf. Now, I’ll be sure to stay unaware of it.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

Agatha Christie presumably chose Harrogate because she felt no one would recognise her there. As for the choice of name, perhaps it is as mundane as her giving the first name that came into her mind when asked by the reception clerk at the hotel, that name being the name that had been going around her head ever since she had learnt of her husband’s infidelity.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

This article delivered orders of magnitude what I initially expected. I have to read Agatha Christie again!

neil collins
neil collins
2 years ago

This is a brilliant. and hugely entertaining, read. The serious point which is missing is the grotesque cost of mounting a defence against libel, which has been ruthlessly exploited by the Russian oligarchs to suppress exposure of their activities.
Still, at least we’ve got a great show here.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

This whole saga seems to have been going on for years like the Depp/Heard marathon. What is it with these people? And with us for taking such an interest? An outward and visible sign of an inner and invisible disgrace.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

It’s human nature to laugh at the weird obsessions of the rich. And quite rightly so

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

The remaining paragraphs don’t take long to read, and I promise you they’re enjoyable. What more worthwhile thing did you do in the minutes you saved by not reading them?

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

In ‘The Winslow Boy’, in the black-and-white film of the Terence Rattigan play about a young naval-academy boy accused by the Admiralty of stealing a small-sum postal order, if I recall correctly there is a scene in which, perhaps in the House of Commons, but probably also at a music hall during a performance, the wrongly accused boy’s lawyer or father is told to get real and drop the case as, to paraphrase, “even the Germans are poking fun at the British obsessiveness with the case” – with minor celebrity, if you will; and that that was undermining the morale of the nation in terms of the great squaring up of empires with each other: the unnecessary distraction of a lone person taking on the King in the courts was seen by the great and the good to be a self-inflicted thorn in the nation. (The play is set in the Edwardian era a little prior to WW1).
Where was I? Yes, this latest spat in the courts in the minor-celebrity field may have elements of the strong feelings of characters from Agatha Christie, but it is, I imagine, not something that gets any traction abroad, being not of the calibre of material that would appeal to the likes of top old playwrights.
Though perhaps Britain’s allies, and not enemies, abroad are actually noticing, and worrying, wondering if the Brits have it in them to actually offer their pledged support when they, the Finns, say, need it badly, as well the Finns might worry, when they consider the British obsession with minor celebrities (at a time like this) whose point of contention is with each other and not the King or Queen or the Establishment.
How very low-brow indeed the country has sunk!
How utterly boring!

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Just to add, to be clear, the Finns are not an industrious clan of English suburban twittering minor celebrities themselves.

Shaun Weston
Shaun Weston
2 years ago

Try the audio version of this article. Ted Lasso reads UnHerd! Coleen Rooney as a character from Ozark has made my day!

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

Brilliantly funny article. Thank you

ipaul321
ipaul321
2 years ago

Dominic tells a tale as few can. Cracking stuff!