Friday, 22 December 2017

Book Review: Star Over Bethlehem by Agatha Christie Mallowan

Christmas is a time of many stories and not least thanks to the Holy Bible, but it seems to be part of the season’s magic to inspire writers to ever new ones. Sometimes the creative process is guided by strong religious belief or by the desire to capture the special mood that the Christian feast just after Midwinter spreads. Other reasons to write a Christmas book may be a lot more prosaic, not to say lamentably materialistic, and little wonder that more often than not the stories are worldly through and through. The all-time bestselling “Queen of Crime” too penned a few Christmassy works and some of them are quite out of her usual line. Star Over Bethlehem by Agatha Christie Mallowan is a little-known collection of poems and holiday stories about characters from the Bible (including a donkey), the fourteen auxiliary saints and ordinary English people instead of detectives and killers.

Agatha Christie was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller in Torquay, England, United Kingdom, in September 1890. While her husband Archibald Christie fought in World War I and she worked in a hospital dispensary, she started writing her first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). Only The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) fully established her as crime writer, though. After her divorce in 1928 she travelled the Middle East where she met her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. In the following decade novels like the first Miss Marple mystery The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), Murder on the Orient Express (1934), or And Then There Were None (1939) further increased her fame and as Mary Westmacott she also tried her hand at romances. Despite volunteering in a hospital pharmacy again during World War II, the prolific author never ceased to write. Maybe most notable among her post-war works are the plays The Mousetrap (1952) and The Witness for the Prosecution (1953). She also wrote the humorous travel account Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946) and the non-crime Christmas collection Star Over Bethlehem (1964). Knighted in 1971, Dame Agatha Christie died in Winterbrook, England, United Kingdom, in January 1976. Agatha Christie: An Autobiography appeared posthumously in 1977.

After a rhymed greeting to the children on the morning of Christmas Day, the title-giving first of six short stories gives the Star Over Bethlehem quite a different, i.e. satanic origin and makes Mother Mary’s unshakable faith in God’s wisdom the cause for its rise. Mother Mary also makes the holly wreath for Christmas in the following poem, before The Naughty Donkey takes the lead and gives himself as a gift to Baby Jesus after having had a vision just like his grandmother from the Old Testament. A poem linking the gifts of the Three Wise Men with the crucifixion some thirty years later ends the cycle of texts directly related to the Bible. What follows are two stories set in contemporary England, namely The Water Bus and In the Cool of the Evening. The first surrounds a charitable, though emotionally cold widow from London who feels unable to console her cleaning woman fearing for the life of her daughter after an illegal abortion, while the latter is about the mother of a retarded thirteen-year-old boy who keeps praying to God for a miracle to make him “normal” at last although he is as happy as can be. Rhymed reflections on the unconditional love of the Creator to his creation follow. The next story is set on New Year’s Day 2000. The fourteen auxiliary saints plead before the Recording Angel to be sent back to men to help them find their way to Heaven and they really get their Promotion in the Highest. A subsequent poem summarises their petition. The final story is again about Mother Mary, but now she’s an elderly woman living on The Island with her adopted son John the Evangelist of Patmos. Strangers come to meet the Queen of Heaven, but they fail to recognise her.

Although usually labelled as a book for children because of the opening poem that explicitly addresses them and of the stories’ fairy-tale touch, Star Over Bethlehem clearly targets an adult audience able to understand the serious matters hinted at in two stories and the deeper meaning of all others. Except the last, the stories and poems are assembled in chronological order starting in a past set around the Nativity more than 2000 years ago, passing through the present of the mid-1960s when the collection was first released on to the year 2000 that wasn’t even near future then to return to the first century A.D. They all tell not only of Agatha Christie’s own strong Christian belief, but also of her critical mind and of her sense of humour. In style the stories written from the perspective of an unconcerned and omniscient third-person narrator evoke to some extent the Scriptures of the Holy Bible, while the poems reminded me of church hymns. The tone of the slim book is generally warm though permeated with subtle irony. Thanks to the simple and unpretentious language it’s an easy and very enjoyable read. And short as it is, it’s also a quick one.

It was by mere chance that many years ago I came across a German edition of Star Over Bethlehem by Agatha Christie Mallowan. Until then I had had no idea that the author had also written some, even though very little non-crime fiction. This Christmas I felt like re-reading the short story collection in the original English version and was surprised to find that it was published under the author’s complete name after her second marriage instead of just Agatha Christie and that it included poems as well as original illustrations by Elise Wrigley. Nowhere in the German edition could I find the slightest hint that it wasn’t complete! Thus my mistrust of translations was once more confirmed. As for the book, it was a pleasant and edifying read that I truly enjoyed although in general I’m not particularly fond of religious fiction. As a nice and quick Christmas read, I gladly recommend it.

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