Peter Sheeran’s Swigatha: A Re-read of Agatha Christie, published in 2021, is an interesting look at the works of the Duchess of Death. Christie’s long and active life yielded an unsurpassed, lasting legacy. From her first publication in 1920 to the release of her final one shortly after her death in 1976, fans devoured every word. While most writers who found success early in their careers become less relevant with time, with later works seldom selling the same quantity, Christie’s popularity only grew. Her last few books may have been the weakest in terms of plot and believability (yet are still quite readable), but they still topped the bestseller charts upon release and mostly escaped scathing reviews – everyone knew that Christie was a treasure.
Like many ardent fans who have read and re-read the entire Christie oeuvre, Sheeran formed an attachment to the original copies of the books he read, the inexpensive paperback editions published by Fontana and Pan in the 1960s and 70s, usually with colorful and dramatic covers that caught the reader’s eye at bookstalls in airports and train stations. I was pleased to see that most of Sheeran’s original books came secondhand, as did my own set – which, some 40 years later, is still intact, though much-thumbed and with collateral damage to spines and covers along the way.
We seemed to have faced the same problem – not knowing exactly how many titles there were out there, or the order that they were published in. While that information can be found with the click of a button today, it was far more difficult to find back then, and certainly not something a pre-teenager would likely do. Instead we lived vicariously, stumbling across a new title, gleefully forking over a few coins for each book, then racing home to devour them, usually in just a single sitting because, really, who could stop? For Sheeran and his brother Bill each new title was a “swigatha” – a play on words, short for Swigatha Whiskey, and quite fitting since most of us who have read one novel soon become Christieholics.
Agatha, who was one of the first non-native women to surf in South Africa and Hawaii in the 1920s, also ably surfed the changing times. Over time, one can graph in her books the trend from country houses with a full staff of servants, to just a live-in cook and maid, to the presence of a cleaning lady who occasionally “did,” to people realizing they could actually cook and clean on their own. Changes in popular culture were also noted by Christie, and a few of her later novels feature sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll – not exactly what readers would have expected from an octogenarian! Few authors remain relevant decades after their death, yet Christie endures, with billions of books sold – only the Bible and Shakespeare have outsold her, though, to be fair, they’ve had many centuries head start! Why Agatha has stayed in fashion may never be truly figured out, but those of us who love her works are glad that she has.
Swigatha, the book, is laid out in chronological order of publication – clearly not a way that most people would ever have first read the books, but a useful manner to re-read them, to reflect on how the artist grew and changed over time. Sheeran discusses each book individually, with a brief review of the plot and characters, and when a spoiler is included in this summary it is noted as such, though one suspects that few readers of this book will not have already devoured every Christie story, usually multiple times. This chronological ordering makes it easy to either read from beginning to end, or to just take a look at the chapter on an individual title, perhaps after you’ve finished reading it and the story is fresh in your mind.
The front and (often) back covers of each of Sheeran’s paperback versions are illustrated in full color; some of the covers are wonderfully done (even giving away a few clues to sharp-eyed readers), while others appear to have been created by someone who had not bothered to actually read the book at all. As usual, Tom Adams’ evocative covers are the best of the lot and a joy to see. Just don’t expect mint condition copies, carefully preserved – these are often well-worn books, likely the same condition that most of us have on our own shelves.
A section on “attitudes” often gives quotes from the book, sometimes dealing with stereotypes or racially insensitive issues. These things are sometimes there in Christie’s works, as they are in other writers of her era – but Sheeran aptly notes that when they occur in Christie, they are usually in the mouths of characters who are unsympathetic at best – and murderers at worst. Christie, the writer, may not have shared these attitudes, but instead used them to subtly influence the reader to dislike a specific character – one reason she was able to fool so many readers, for so long, was her ability to take us by the hand and lead us wherever she wanted (while, of course, we were firmly convinced we were finding our own way).
An enjoyable part of Swigatha is the “what happened next” section, with interesting tidbits of information about the book being discussed, characters in it, or contemporary occurrences relevant to the storyline. Each book also has television and movie adaptations discussed, often with brutally honest reviews.
Finally, each book is given a rating from one to ten. The author makes it clear that these ratings are his personal ones, but it is guaranteed that just about every reader will disagree and have their own idea of where a book ranks and why. I was shocked to see some titles given low ratings, such as her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, receiving just 5 out of 10. But I was pleased to see some personal favorites like The Man in the Brown Suit and The Secret of Chimneys receive scores of 7 and 8 respectively, despite being dismissed as fluff by some readers, likely because Poirot and Marple were not in them (though I was soon disappointed that another favorite, The Seven Dials Mystery, was back down to a 5 rating). We all have our own opinions, and I’m sure there is someone out there who thinks Postern of Fate is a very good book indeed. The ratings are food for thought, and while they will not sway any reader to turn their back on a favorite title, they may inspire some to reread what they had considered a lesser book that here gets a higher rating.
In all, Swigatha is an enjoyable read, equal parts history and opinion. What sets this book apart from many is that it was clearly not written by someone looking for academic glory by trying to topple the Queen of Crime from her throne, but rather by a true fan, one who finds something worthwhile and interesting in every story – as indeed there is, which is why they have lasted. These labors of love are enjoyable to read and yes, thank you, I will have another swig.