Saturday was a magnificent October day in San Francisco—sun sparkling on the Bay, tourists filling the streets, and the Blue Angels zooming their planes across the sky. But I didn’t spend it outdoors watching all the fun; instead I was inside all day with a group of about forty other women and a handful of men struggling with the joys and mysteries of writing mysteries. This was a conference of the Sisters in Crime group which offers fellowship and encouragement for those of us who follow the footsteps of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and the other fearless women who invaded the publishing world during the last century.
Mystery books and thrillers are the most popular genres of fiction and while both men and women read these books, statistics show that more women than men read books of all kinds. So it is not surprising that a group like Sisters in Crime was established to promote the advancement, recognition and professional development of women crime writers. As the publishing world changes year by year with more authors choosing to publish independently and social media becoming a major factor in book promotion, writers associations are more important than ever. Meeting aspiring writers as well as successful ones can lead to many fascinating conversations and introduce new worlds of experience and knowledge.
Agatha Christie probably could have used a support group of writers when she was building her writing career. The survivor of an unhappy marriage, Christie seems to have led a very lonely life during the years when she and her first husband were breaking up. She famously disappeared for eleven days, causing a police search and an enduring
mystery about whether she suffered from amnesia or had planned the disappearance to embarrass her unfaithful husband. After the couple divorced in 1928, Christie started on a long tour of the Middle East. She became fascinated by the area and by archaeology. Her new interest led to a second, happy marriage which lasted for the rest of her life.
The story of Agatha Christie’s trip to the Middle East has also led to a recent book, The 8:55 to Baghdad, by Andrew Eames, a Christie fan who in 2002 decided to follow Christie’s trip from London to Iraq. You don’t have to be a fan of Agatha Christie to enjoy his story. When Christie made the trip by train in 1928, intercontinental train travel was far more elegant than it is now in the 21st century. The famous Orient Express is a pale shadow of what it used to be and most travelers would have given up on the trip while the trains inched across Europe toward Turkey, but Eames pushed on. He tried to stay as close to Christie’s route as he could and sought out the hotels she stayed in and locations she mentioned, but 75 years makes a big difference in countries and cities, especially after World War II and several smaller wars since.
The most fascinating part of the book, to me, is Eames’s account of travelling through Iraq in the uneasy months after 9/11. For this part of the journey he joined a group that had been given permission to look at archeological treasures, but officials were suspicious and kept a close eye on the travelers. The Iraqis themselves were friendly for the most part, but all of them lived in fear that a another war would start, as indeed it did. As the group visits Aleppo, Palmyra, and other cities that have been in the news recently, we can understand more clearly what has been lost by ten years of fighting in the region. Many of the archeological treasures that Christie and her husband explored appear in the TV news that we watch today as ruined cities fought over by clashing groups. The book left me feeling profoundly sad for all the destruction that has been visited upon the Middle East and the people who live there.
The mysteries of the real world and its struggles are far more serious than the mysteries that appear in fiction, but telling stories has always strengthened the spirits of both writers and readers. Reading about a world in which reason prevails comforts us when the real world appears ever more chaotic. Perhaps that is why Agatha Christie has become, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the best-selling novelist of all time. And perhaps that is why so many of the authors of Sisters in Crime continue to write and readers continue to read their books.