Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie)

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I love Agatha Christie’s crime fiction but I’ve held back from reading her other books written under the name of Mary Westmacott, not sure just what to expect. So, I was very glad to find that Absent in the Spring is just as good as her other books and I was thoroughly absorbed in the story of Joan Scudamore who was stranded in the desert, after visiting her daughter in Baghdad.

Agatha Christie managed to keep the true identity of Mary Westmacott a secret for fifteen years! Absent in the Spring is the one book she wrote that  satisfied her completely – and having now read it I can see why. She wrote the book in just three days in 1944. It had ‘grown inside‘ her for six or seven years. She had visualised all the characters and they were there ready for her to write about them and she just had to get it down on paper, writing in a ‘white heat‘, without interruptions until it was finished, leaving her exhausted. She slept for more or less twenty-four hours afterwards. She took the title from Shakespeare’s sonnet that begins ‘From you I have been absent in the spring.’ (Sonnet 98)

It is a great example of an unlikeable character that makes fascinating reading – you don’t have to like a character to love a book. In her Autobiography she wrote that it was:

… the picture of a woman with a complete image of herself, of what she was, but about which she was completely mistaken. Through her actions, her feelings and thoughts this would be revealed to the reader. She would be, as it were, continually meeting herself, not recognising herself, but becoming increasingly uneasy. What brought about this revelation would be the fact that for the first time in her life she was alone – completely alone – for four or five days. (page 516)

The novel is set in Mesopotamia (corresponding to today’s Iraq, mostly, but also parts of modern-day Iran, Syria and Turkey) in a railway rest-house at Tel Abu Hamid on the Turkish border, where Joan is stranded, delayed by floods – no trains or vehicles can get through to Mosul, her next stop on her journey home to London. There are no other travellers there, only an Arab boy and an Indian servant who brings her meals, but who speak little English and there is nowhere to go, except to walk in the desert.

At first she occupies herself writing letters and reading the two books she has with her, The Power House by John Buchan and Memoirs of Lady Catherine Dysart. Then she starts thinking about herself and gradually relives her past life, all the time with a growing feeling of unease and anxiety as she reinterprets her past. She wonders, for the first time in her life what she is really like and what other people think of her, with that unsettling, anxious feeling that she is not the person she thought she was. And she resolves to put things right when she returns home.

She is jolted out of her complacency  and self deception as she remembers how Rodney had looked as she watched him leave Victoria Station:

Suddenly, in the desert,with the sun pouring down on her, Joan gave a quick uncontrollable shiver.

She thought, No, no – I don’t want to go on – I don’t want to think about this …

Rodney, striding up the platform, his head thrown back, the tired sag of his shoulders all gone. A man who had been relieved of an intolerable burden …

Really, what was the matter with her? She was imagining things, inventing them. Her eyes had played a trick on her.

Why hadn’t he waited to see the train pull out?

She was imagining – Stop, that didn’t make it any better. If you imagined a thing like that, it meant that such an idea was already in your head.

And it couldn’t be true – the inference that she had drawn simply could not be true.

She was saying to herself (wasn’t she?) that Rodney was glad she was going away …

And that simply couldn’t be true! (pages 55-56)

It really is a most remarkable book. On the surface it is a simple story, but in fact it is a complex and in-depth character study, with a growing sense of tension. The setting adds to the uneasiness as Joan walks in the desert to get away from the rest-house, with its refuse dump of tins enclosed by a tangle of barbed wire,  and a space where skinny chickens run about squawking loudly and with clouds of flies surrounding the area. There is a twist at the end of the book, which I had begun to anticipate as I approached the final pages, which rounded it off very well. An excellent book.

Now, I really must get hold of her other Mary Westmacott books!

My copy is a paperback, published by Fontana, 2nd impression 1983, 192 pages. This is the 4th book for my 10 Books of Summer 2018 Challenge.

20 thoughts on “Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie)”

  1. i always forget that she wrote under this name. The setting would have been familiar to her from all the travels she did with her husband but even so, writing a whole novel in 3 days is quite a feat

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    1. Yes, have you read – Come Tell Me How You Live? It’s a memoir about her life when she accompanied her husband Max Mallowan on his excavations in Syria and Iraq in the 1930s. It’s fascinating.

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  2. I like that image of Christie, imagining and planning a story for several years, and then writing it down in one go. And I can see how the character of Joan would get hold of one, so that one would have to write about her. Fascinating, Margaret, and I’m very glad you liked it as well as you did.

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    1. Margot, one of the things I so enjoyed reading Christie’s ‘An Autobiography’ is that she does write about how went about writing and how she got inspiration for her books.

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    1. Jessie, I don’t think her Westmacott books have had much publicity – I found my copy of this book in a secondhand bookshop but it is available on Amazon both as a paperback and an e-book.

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  3. I, too, have not read any of Christie’s books written under the Westmacott name. I think I tend to forget about them. Interesting that she kept her ‘real’ identity a secret for 15 years. Bet you couldn’t do that these days. I’m also fascinated by the fact that she wrote this one so fast, but had been thinking about it for such a long time – and that she was pleased with it. I definitely need to check it out. Wonder if my library has it.

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  4. Ooh, I’ve always avoided her Westmacott novels because I thought they were just fluffy romances, but this sounds excellent – what a great quote that is! I shall hurry off to see if it’s available for Kindle…

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    1. I thought they might be fluffy romances too – I don’t know anything about the other Westmacott novels, but Absent in the Spring certainly isn’t fluffy. It is on Kindle. 🙂

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  5. I haven’t read any of the Mary Westmacott books, but I have often wondered what they were like. I’ll have to think about reading this one. The setting sounds interesting.

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    1. ‘Getting round to it’ is often the problem for me – there are always so many other books I want to read! I’m glad I managed to get round to this one. 🙂

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  6. I will just echo Cath’s comment. I am going to have to try one of her books as Mary Westmacott. I had been curious about them, so very glad to see this post.

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  7. I have read all 6 of Westmacotts and i think the best 2 are ABSENT IN THE SPRING and A DAUGHTERS A DAUGHTER.Really satisfying stories.

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