Duchess of Death

It is always difficult to come second and later. When writing a biography, it makes your job as a writer that much harder and your research must be more thorough than that previously done. Still, the outcome might be a book that contains nothing new over what has already been written. It ends up being a rehash of well known and acclaimed books with no merit of its own.

Richard Hack’s Duchess Of Death was published by JR Books. The biography about Dame Agatha Christie was comprehensive, but it contained nothing new that was not already known. The cover claimed that the author studied 5,000 unpublished letters, documents, and notes to compile it. Apart from being not new, they seem to have been the wrong letters, documents and notes to study.

The author spent weeks studying the Agatha Christie Collection at the University of Exeter. That collection does indeed contain over 5,000 unpublished letters, documents, and notes from Agatha Christie's estate. With any luck, they will remain unpublished. I for one am not interested in her day to day correspondence with her bank managers and other business people. And orders for milk and eggs fail to tickle my sense of the momentous. Maybe others are more interested in her tax return instructions and car hires than I am, but I don't think that the amount of eggs eaten in the Christie household adds valuable clues to her writing prowess.

Worse yet, these papers had been covered extensively by Janet Morgan in her 1984 biography of Agatha Christie. Richard Hack therefore spent weeks on no news. Having squandered so much time, he deemed he had earned the right to publish a book. Maybe he had, but the resulting book is not one of the must reads.

It is quite obvious, too, that the author had no access to the primary papers of Christie’s which are held by her family. But, in his defense, he most probably wouldn't have been able to find anything new in those either and would just have wasted more of his time and even more valuable printing paper. Janet Morgan had been meticulous, after all, when she wrote her much more detailed and much acclaimed biography.

Accordingly, Richard Hack desperately built up to several grand revelations which fell disappointingly flat if you read Janet Morgan's 1984 book at any time. It had all been said before. A biography might gain acceptance by combining information from several previous publications into one; but due to the thoroughness of Morgan’s work, Hack was denied even that reprieve.

On a positive vein, Richard Hack refused to invent. He stuck to what he could prove from primary and good secondary sources. He didn't descend into inventing anything to infuse the biography with sensational news just for the sake of a scoop. The book might not be the best, but it might serve until you can lay your hands on Janet Morgan’s.

If you need a complete listing of the papers at the University of Exeter and a numbered list of all her crime stories, this book offers just that. The publications are accompanied by critics’ quotes from obscure sources. Whenever Richard Hack waxed original in his writing, he was hampered by his lack of knowledge about England, its people and its customs. His stocky prose was painful to read and not reader friendly. If you don’t have to read it, don’t; there are better books to get your nose into. And keep on looking for Janet Morgan's seminal book.