My library has recently acquired the complete set of Agatha Christie novels in attractive new editions. They take up two long shelves and I was immediately drawn to them. As with most of my generation, Agatha Christie was a must read. We were intrigued and impressed by the eccentricities and grey cells of Hercule Poirot and the genteel but no-nonsense sharp mind of Miss Jane Marple.
Agatha Christie, the Queen of murder mysteries, outsold, it is said, only by the Bible and Shakespeare! The best-selling novelist of all time with her 66 detective novels and the world’s longest-running play The Mousetrap.
While I was browsing the shelves, I also saw books by the name Mary Westmacott alongside. And it is these that I decided to explore. These are the books that Agatha Christie wrote under the pen name or pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Why a pen name? Explaining this in a piece written for her centenary celebrations in 1990, Christie’s daughter wrote “As early as 1930, my mother wrote her first novel using the name Mary Westmacott. These novels, six in all, were a complete departure from the usual sphere of Agatha Christie Queen of Crime.” The novels explored human psychology and emotions and relationships that intrigued her, in a genre that was totally different from her murder mysteries, and writing under a different name freed her from the expectations of her mystery fans.
How did she choose the name? It seems that Mary was Agatha’s second name and Westmacott the name of some distant relatives. She succeeded in keeping her identity as Mary Westmacott unknown for nearly twenty years and the books, much to her pleasure, were modestly successful.
I have so far read two of her six Westmacott novels and am enjoying the language, style and substance greatly. They so sensitively capture what seem to be very contemporary intricacies of human psyches and complexities of relationships, even though they were written in the period of 1930s and 1940s. One of these, Absent in the Spring, was published in 1944. About this book Agatha/Mary wrote: “I wrote that book in three days flat…I went straight through…I don’t think I have ever been so tired…I didn’t want to change a word and although I don’t know myself of course what it is really like, it was written as I meant to write it, and that is the proudest joy and author can have.”
Using a nom de plume has been common throughout the history of literature. Authors have adopted pseudonyms for different reasons. Some to make their voice heard under authoritarian regimes; some to break the mould of what their readers expect from them, and, in some cases, women have used masculine noms de plume during times when men had an easier time getting published. While the phrase nom de plume means “pen name” in French, it doesn’t come from French speakers, but was coined in English, using French words.
An antithesis of Agatha Christie is JK Rowling, who after her huge success as the creator of Harry Potter, moved from Muggles and Magic, to murder and detective Cormoran, under the name Robert Galbraith. Her intention in taking on the nom de plume was for her crime fiction books to be judged on their own merit.
As for me, Christie or Rowling, by any other name, are favourite reads all the same!