May 14, 2022


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.

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