Osborne's thoroughness in cataloging Dame Agatha's eighty-plus re-titled, repackaged, and republished books and 147 stories in their myriad and varied collections is admirable. That alone makes this book worth buying, but his literary criticism detracts from a complete enjoyment of what is otherwise a pretty good read.
Throughout, Osborne reveals a tri-fold misunderstanding of the essence of fiction. Despite his own comment, "It is fortunate that fictional chronology can be flexible," he tediously cites examples in which it is not. Also, he assumes that each story should be consistent with the others, and that full explanations should be given for what he considers to be improbable occurrences. Let us consider each of these problems in turn.
Rarely is fiction intended to occur in real time. Plays, novels or short stories often cover periods from a few hours to a lifetime, or longer. Regardless of the time taken to write or publish a work, it must always stand up on its own. The particular time period that elapses between the appearance of two works does not of itself imply the actual amount of time that the author intended should pass. For example, that Albert should be fifteen years old in Partners in Crime (1929) does not imply that he was only nine in The Secret Adversary (1922) as Osborne suggests (pp. 68-69). That real time is not intended is exemplified further when Miss Marple says in Nemesis (1971) that she met Jason Rafiel (A Caribbean Mystery, 1964), "just over a year ago. In the West Indies." The only chronology upon which we can rely is that provided by the author. We must take each story as a group of events in the characters' lives and avoid forcing our own sense of time on them.
Consistency and continuity
That Dame Agatha has given us clues to the actual whereabouts of her stories should be seen as remarkable, if not extraordinary. Fiction, after all, is constructed from the imaginings of the author. Unless we have been given clear evidence to the contrary, we must always assume that the people and places are made up. Because some authors appear to be more consistent from one story to another does not mean that all novelists must be. Fiction is fiction. It only has to be believable; it does not have to be true. Science fiction depends on this premise.
Of the apparent inconsistencies, Randall Toye (1980), author of The Agatha Christie Who's Who, graciously concedes that these caprices are "one more mystery for the readers of Agatha Christie to solve, a mystery for which you will have to rely on your own `little grey cells.'"
Osborne levies a number of criticisms at the plots themselves. In his entry for Sparkling Cyanide (p. 211), for example, he scoffs at the idea that a group of guests could leave a table, forget where they sat, and then re-seat themselves on the basis of the location of a purse. Perhaps in his own sterile study, this scenario seems implausible. However, it would be easy to become confused when everyone had left a large round table simultaneously and then tried, without such a landmark, to return to his or her own chair. Although it might feel a little awkward, in a low-lit room, after some drinks and dancing, a purse could be the only thing to indicate where people had sat earlier. Doubtless, Dame Agatha actually observed this confusion on some occasion.
In Dead Man's Folly, Osborne (p. 281) doubts that someone could change his appearance so as to become unrecognizable just by growing a beard, but, the narrative is quite clear - most of those who would have recognized him had moved away. Not only that, but war changes people - sometimes quite dramatically - literally aging their appearance by more years than the duration of the conflict. Noncombatants will never understand how war can change someone. More than that, we often see what we expect to see. If having been told that someone was killed during the war, why shouldn't we believe it? Indeed, a full beard would cover the most recognizable features of a man's face.
Improbables do not demand explanations. Just because a situation seems improbable to us, doesn't mean that it is. The available facts may not be all of the facts. Even when Dame Agatha does give us clues, most of us can't identify the murderer; and her alleged peccadilloes have done nothing to dissuade readers from buying hundreds of millions of her books.
Osborne's writing style
This review would be incomplete if it failed to mention Osborne's own struggle with words: split infinitives, the odd incomplete sentence, and excessively long constructions. Here is one example of the latter: "After some months, Agatha decided to join her husband in London where, after living briefly in service flats, first in Half Moon Street and then in Park Place, `with noisy sessions of bombs going off all around,' they were about to move into their house in Sheffield Terrace, the people to whom they had rented it having asked if they could be allowed to relinquish the lease, as they wished to leave London" (p. 180).
A more complete table of contents would have been helpful so that entries about specific works could have been found easily. As it is, one has to look up the publication date at the back, and then search for it in the relevant section. Overall, the reader should use this book for reference only and ignore the rest of it.