Make Something Up About Agatha Christie, and Other News


On the Shelf

From the cover of A Talent for Murder.


  • In 1926, Agatha Christie went missing—she turned up at a hotel ten days later with a case of amnesia. Her disappearance has never been properly explained, and you know how people are about explanations: they’ve gotta have ’em. In the absence of facts, they’ll just as soon make something up. And so it went with Christie—as Andrew Wilson writes, all sorts of wacky theories about her were aired as “news,” and even today people continue to postulate: “Newspapers were fascinated by the idea that her husband Archie Christie might have killed the author so he could marry his mistress, Nancy Neele. But those ten days in 1926 were in effect a news vacuum. Despite an extensive search of the Surrey Downs and the dredging of nearby pools, the police discovered precious few clues, let alone a body—so journalists began to manufacture news of their own. The Daily Sketch claimed that it had employed the services of a medium, whose spirit guide was Maisie, a ‘twelve-year-old African girl, tribe unknown.’ ‘As soon as the medium went into a trance Maisie took command,’ the paper reported. ‘Sensational claims were made by the medium, who afterwards described Mrs Christie’s fate as a tragedy almost too terrible to speak about.’ ”
  • Christian Lorentzen weighs in on “Formentera Storyline,” the photo-novella in our Spring issue: “Journals like The Paris Review and NOON have risked their pages on unlisted unknowns (who prove that publicity isn’t the oxygen that keeps fiction alive). It was in one of those magazines that, to my mind, the knockout discovery of 2017 appeared: ‘Formentera Storyline,’ by Jean-René Étienne and Lola Raban-Oliva, a ‘photo-novella’ in the Spring issue of The Paris Review, about a Spanish-island group vacation that devolves across 150 pages—most of which feature a banal photo from a Mediterranean villa (e.g., the washing machine) and a deadpan sentence or two—from Pilates and talk therapy into druggy chaos and bad Instagram behavior. All told, a party where everybody stays too long. It’s funny, sly, and very much of the Fyre Festival moment.”

  • Sarah Archer can’t stop looking at McMansion Hell, a blog by Kate Wagner that keeps very close tabs on the aesthetic sins of cookie-cutter developers: “McMansion Hell is like a snarky DSM-IV for all that ails contemporary over-building in suburban developments, with a particular focus on the visual language of the odd houses it profiles. Though a quick read can give the impression that the blog is about taste in a general sense, Wagner is at heart an architectural grammar scold: She hates ugly chandeliers, but what really fuels the ire of McMansion Hell is the misuse and decontextualization of elements that are supposed to carry architectural meaning … ‘The great irony of McMansions is it’s all about using architectural symbolism and class symbolism but expressing it in the least expensive way possible,’ Wagner says. ‘Take the tall entryway—the “lawyer foyer.” This is a design trope borrowed from institutions of power, especially banks, but it’s expressed with foam columns and cheap veneer.’ ”
  • While we’re talking architecture: if you’re getting rich from it, you’re probably doing it wrong. Thomas de Monchaux writes, “Prominent architects, from Palladio to Mies, were sons of stonemasons who jumped up socially thanks to gentleman patrons. The class ambiguity persists to this day; the architecture studios I teach are full of people who are the first in their families to enter any of the professions. Or are the opposite: would-be bohemian artiste children of first-generation professionals who have compromised with their elders. These exchanges of capital and class, style and status, are complicated: ever since the upstart Medici family employed Giorgio Vasari to put up pageants and palaces to substitute for pedigree, the ornamental company of architects—though themselves only tradesmen and servants—has conferred a touch of the very class to which architects also aspire. The slow and resource-rich making of buildings is impossible without the patronage of invested clients. Architecture, like certain kinds of filmmaking, is an art of spending a lot of other people’s money: a successful architect, said the teacher of the single business class my design school obliged me to take, should be the poorest person in any room. Architects, relieved just to build, work for a tiny fractional fee of projects’ construction costs. And, pleased to imagine themselves worldly, they work without managers and agents. The hours are long. The pay is bad.”