AGATHA CHRISTIE (1890-1976)
posted by Judy Harris
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source: CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS, Volume 10
Agatha Miller was born in Torquay in 1890 to an English mother and American father; she spent her childhood and teen years mainly in Torquay in a large home called Ashfield. Even as a child she was very imaginative and, being much younger than her sister and brother, was on her own a lot, so she told herself stories and invented characters. Her fond remembrances of her favorite children's books and toys were memorialized in POSTERN OF FATE. She was educated mostly at home but "finished" in Paris. She was good at math and quite musical, and considered a career both as a concert pianist and an opera singer, but was discouraged by the teachers with whom she was studying. Her older sister Madge had a book published but it never occurred to Agatha that she could write, until her mother suggested it when Agatha was recovering from the 'flu. She wrote several non-mysteries which were all rejected by various publishers. Many years later, she ascribed her first unpublished novel SNOW ON THE DESERT'S FACE to Mrs. Otterbourne, a character in DEATH ON THE NILE.
She met a young subaltern named Archie Christie and became engaged; the engagement lasted two years because World War I broke out. They were married in 1914 on the spur of the moment when Archie was home on leave. During the war, Agatha was a volunteer nurse for soldiers sent to Torquay to be treated for their battle wounds; later she was promoted to the dispensary where she picked up a knowledge of poisons that was to stand her in good stead in her mystery stories. She was instructed for her Apothecary examination by a Torquay chemist whom she later memorialized as the murderer in PALE HORSE.
A discussion with her sister Madge of the new Gaston LeRoux detective story, MYSTERY OF THE YELLOW ROOM led Madge to casually challenge Agatha to write her own mystery. Stuck in the dispensary with time on her hands, she had the leisure to plot it out, finishing it during a holiday to Dartmoor.
THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES was rejected by various publishers before the ending was reworked at the request of the editors at Bodley Head who published it in 1920. She made her detective a Belgian refugee having seen actual Belgian refugees in Torquay, although she realized early on that she should not have made him elderly.
In 1919 her marriage to Christie produced a daughter, Rosalind, who was sent to live with Agatha's sister and mother whenever Agatha gave in to her yen to travel abroad. Archie was offered a position which involved traveling on behalf of the upcoming Empire Exhibition; Agatha accompanied him, and she and Archie surfed during this tour in South Africa and Hawaii. The tour was led by Major Belcher who formed the basis for Sir Eustace Pedler in THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT, which also profited from Agatha's first hand knowledge of South Africa.
When Agatha's beloved mother died, this caused an enforced separation from Christie while Agatha sorted out the belongings at the family home in Torquay. During this time, Christie fell in love with another woman and demanded a divorce. Christie wrote about her childhood and first marriage and its unhappy end under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott in a novel entitled UNFINISHED PORTRAIT published in 1934.
Upon her divorce from Christie, Agatha treated herself to a trip on the Orient Express. While visiting Ur, she discovered an interest in antiquities and archeology. Returning the following year, she met Max Mallowan, an archeologist, who became her second husband in 1930.
MURDER AT THE VICARAGE was the first MISS MARPLE. The character suggested itself to Agatha from the sister of Dr. Shepherd, a character from THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, and also had some characteristics of Agatha's grandmother. In her autobiography, Agatha writes: Miss Marple was born at the age of 65 to 70, which, as with Poirot, proved unfortunate, because she was going to have to last a long time in my life.
The idea for LORD EDGWARE DIES came to Agatha after seeing Ruth Draper perform her one-woman show. She wrote it while helping Max with the dig at Nineveh.
She worked again in the dispensary during World War II, and gave up several of her houses for use by the Admiralty or to house children during the time of the evacuations while London was being bombed.
She wrote non-mysteries under the name Mary Westmacott. Her favorite detective books were CROOKED HOUSE, ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE and THE MOVING FINGER. Her least favorite was THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN. Although primarily known as the author of mystery novels, she has the unique distinction of having written the world's longest running play, THE MOUSETRAP, which first appeared on the radio as THREE BLIND MICE, commissioned by the BBC as a birthday treat for Queen Mary in 1947. The play has been running continuously in London's West End since 1952.
Agatha Christie was awarded the CBE in 1956 and was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1971.
I was still a child when I discovered Agatha Christie. Back in the late 1950s you could buy a paperback book for 35 or 40 cents at Woolworth's. The covers were often delightfully lurid. I was already an Anglophile and the British settings of most of these books appealed to me.
One of the things which makes Christie mysteries universally appealing, I believe, is that they are not about unlikable characters. When you watch today's mysteries on TV, such as MURDER, SHE WROTE or MONK, the person murdered is often odious and nearly everyone is a suspect because they all had a reason to hate the victim, but while this was sometimes the case in a Christie book, most often it was not, and part of the mystery that the reader (or Poirot or Miss Marple) had to unravel was the motive for the crime.
Another appealing aspect of the books is that they are so readable. You don't have to go back over a paragraph because you didn't understand what was being conveyed. There are no obscure words which conceal an important clue (something that Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine uses occasionally). There is not a lot of description, architectural detail of buildings or comparisons of people to famous portraits (all of which Ruth Rendell does). There is mostly dialogue.
On the other hand, Christie often withholds important information from the reader or conceals it in a way that is actually preferable, I find, to that heavy handed close-up in MURDER, SHE WROTE of a desk drawer (for example), which you know Jessica Fletcher is going to explain in the closing minutes.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of her writing is that frequently the murderer is truly the last person you might suspect. And this is generally achieved so cleverly that there is no sense that, despite the fact that Christie may have withheld information or concealed a clue, she has cheated at all. One of the joys of her plotting is the way she persuades you that first this suspect, then that one, had the motive and opportunity, before finally revealing the actual murderer was someone else entirely.
She also achieved uniqueness in several of her novels, coming up with plot devices that no one had thought of before and no one dared to do after, such as the murderer actually being the narrator, the murderer being ALL the suspects, the murderer turning out to be the very person the reader probably liked best and who had an unshakable alibi, an intentional murder being concealed in a series of seemingly random murders, a murder being done during a bridge game by one of the four players, a whittling down of people trapped on an island with the murderer turning out to be one of the earlier victims.
Another thing Christie was famous for was her use of poison as the means of committing murder. This comes from her own experience during World War I in a drug dispensary. She also seems somewhat unique for providing a "cast of characters" or list of suspects in the front of many of her novels.
One of the delights of many of the Christie stories is their period settings, so wonderfully visualized with loving detail by London Weekend Television in the series POIROT made with David Suchet, and the BBC series MISS MARPLE made with Joan Hickson. The lovely thatched cottages, period cars and trains, fashionable clothing and other trappings British TV does so well. Christie books set in the 60s generally lack this charm.
Finally, Christie plots are always tasteful; although many of her books are technically about serial killers, that is, someone who murders several people, there is none of the gleeful lingering over gory and sadistic forensic details that characterizes the popular serial killer novels of the last 20 years or so.
As I reread these Christie books as an adult, I have come across various odd facts which I had not noticed before, such as that Poirot is Catholic; Miss Marple as a teenager was "finished" in France. I also notice that characters in one novel, such as Major Despard, sometimes show up in another, in a more minor role. It's clear that Christie invented the character of Ariadne Oliver as an alter ego for herself; an apple-eating author whose Finnish detective she now rues because she knows nothing of Finland and its customs. But probably Christie herself was more like the gentile Miss Marple (who, like Christie, was mainly educated at home with governesses) whose mild exterior hid a cunning wit and unbeatable common sense.
In her autobiography published in 1977, she wrote: I like sunshine, apples, almost any kind of music, railway trains, numerical puzzles and anything to do with numbers, going to the sea, bathing and swimming, silence, sleeping, dreaming, eating, the smell of coffee, lilies of the valley, most dogs and going to the theatre.
It boggles the mind to think that when she was young, there were no passports and bureaucracy of that type; during her lifetime she saw the introduction of the automobile and the airplane. In her youth, women were required to bathe at segregated beaches in bathing costumes that covered their arms and legs. Despite all the difficulties of travel which often required days on trains and the primitive state of medicine in foreign countries, she was a world traveler.
Her books have sold over a billion copies in the English language with another billion in 44 foreign languages. She is the most widely published author of all time and in any language, outsold by only the Bible and Shakespeare. Agatha Christie is about to break new ground in the new millennium as her novels become available as ebooks and updated versions will be made into new films.
1920 THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES (Poirot) 1922 THE SECRET ADVERSARY 1923 THE MURDER ON THE LINKS (Poirot) 1924 THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT 1924 POIROT INVESTIGATES (short stories) 1925 THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS 1926 THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD (Poirot) 1927 THE BIG FOUR (Poirot) 1928 THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN (Poirot) 1929 THE SEVEN DIALS MYSTERY 1929 PARTNERS IN CRIME/THE SUNNINGDALE MYSTERY (short stories) 1929 THE UNDER DOG, AND OTHER STORIES (short stories) 1930 THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE (Miss Marple) 1930 THE MYSTERIOUS MR. QUIN (short stories) 1931 THE MURDER AT HAZELMOOR/THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY 1932 PERIL AT END HOUSE (Poirot) 1932 THE THIRTEEN PROBLEMS/THE TUESDAY CLUB MURDERS/ THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE GERANIUMS (short stories) 1933 THIRTEEN AT DINNER/LORD EDGWARE DIES (Poirot) 1933 THE HOUND OF DEATH, AND OTHER STORIES (short stories) 1934 WHY DIDN'T THEY ASK EVANS?/THE BOOMERANG CLUE 1934 MURDER IN THREE ACTS/THREE ACT TRAGEDY (Poirot) 1934 MURDER ON THE CALAIS COACH/MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (Poirot) 1934 MR. PARKER PYNE, DETECTIVE/PARKER PYNE INVESTIGATES (short stories) 1934 THE LISTERDALE MYSTERY, AND OTHER STORIES (short stories) 1935 DEATH IN THE AIR/DEATH IN THE CLOUDS (Poirot) 1936 THE A.B.C. MURDERS/THE ALPHABET MURDERS (Poirot) 1936 CARDS ON THE TABLE (Poirot) 1936 MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA (Poirot) 1937 POIROT LOSES A CLIENT/DUMB WITNESS (Poirot) 1937 DEATH ON THE NILE (Poirot) 1937 DEAD MAN'S MIRROR, AND OTHER STORIES/MURDER IN THE MEWS, AND OTHER STORIES (short stories) 1938 APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH (Poirot) 1938 HERCULE POIROT'S CHRISTMAS/MURDER FOR CHRISTMAS /HOLIDAY FOR MURDER (Poirot) 1939 EASY TO KILL/MURDER IS EASY 1939 TEN LITTLE NIGGERS/TEN LITTLE INDIANS/AND THEN THERE WERE NONE 1939 THE REGATTA MYSTERY, AND OTHER STORIES (short stories) 1940 ONE TWO, BUCKLE MY SHOE/THE PATRIOTIC MURDERS /AN OVERDOSE OF DEATH (Poirot) 1940 SAD CYPRESS (Poirot) 1941 EVIL UNDER THE SUN (Poirot) 1941 N OR M? 1942 THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY (Miss Marple) 1942 THE MOVING FINGER (Miss Marple) 1942 MURDER IN RETROSPECT/FIVE LITTLE PIGS (Poirot) 1943 THE MYSTERY OF THE BAGHDAD CHEST (short stories) 1943 THE MYSTERY OF THE CRIME IN CABIN 66/ THE CRIME IN CABIN 66 (short stories) 1943 POIROT AND THE REGATTA MYSTERY (short stories) 1943 POIROT ON HOLIDAY (short stories) 1943 PROBLEM AT POLLENSA BAY [and] CHRISTMAS ADVENTURE (short stories) 1944 DEATH COMES AS THE END 1944 TOWARDS ZERO 1944 THE VEILED LADY [and] THE MYSTERY OF THE BAGHDAD CHEST (short stories) 1945 REMEMBERED DEATH/SPARKLING CYANIDE 1946 THE HOLLOW/MURDER AFTER HOURS (Poirot) 1946 POIROT KNOWS THE MURDERER (short stories) 1946 POIROT LENDS A HAND (short stories) 1947 THE LABOURS OF HERCULES (short stories) 1948 THERE IS A TIDE/TAKEN AT THE FLOOD (Poirot) 1949 THE CROOKED HOUSE 1949 WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, AND OTHER STORIES/ THREE BLIND MICE, AND OTHER STORIES (short stories) 1950 A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED (Miss Marple) 1951 THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD 1952 MURDER WITH MIRRORS/THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS (Miss Marple) 1952 MRS. MCGINTY'S DEAD (Poirot)) 1953 A POCKET FULL OF RYE (Miss Marple) 1953 FUNERALS ARE FATAL/AFTER THE FUNERAL/MURDER AT THE GALLOP (Poirot) 1954 DESTINATION UNKNOWN/SO MANY STEPS TO DEATH 1955 HICKORY DICKORY, DEATH/HICKORY, DICKORY, DOCK (Poirot) 1956 DEAD MAN'S FOLLY (Poirot) 1957 WHAT MRS. MCGILLICUDDY SAW!/4:50 FROM PADDINGTON /MURDER SHE SAID (Miss Marple) 1958 ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE 1959 CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS (Poirot) 1960 THE ADVENTURE OF THE CHRISTMAS PUDDING, AND SELECTION OF ENTREES (short stories) 1961 THE PALE HORSE 1961 DOUBLE SIN, AND OTHER STORIES (short stories) 1961 13 FOR LUCK! (short stories) 1962 THE MIRROR CRACK'D FROM SIDE TO SIDE/THE MIRROR CRACK'D (Miss Marple) 1963 THE CLOCKS (Poirot) 1964 A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY (Miss Marple) 1965 AT BERTRAM'S HOTEL (Miss Marple) 1965 SURPRISE! SURPRISE! A COLLECTION OF MYSTERY STORIES WITH UNEXPECTED ENDINGS (short stories) 1965 STAR OVER BETHLEHEM, AND OTHER STORIES (short stories) 1966 THIRD GIRL (Poirot) 1966 13 CLUES FOR MISS MARPLE (short stories) 1967 ENDLESS NIGHT 1968 BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUMBS 1969 HALLOWE'EN PARTY (Poirot) 1969 SELECTED STORIES (short stories) 1970 PASSENGER TO FRANKFURT 1971 NEMESIS (Miss Marple) 1971 THE GOLDEN BALL, AND OTHER STORIES (short stories) 1972 ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER (Poirot) 1973 POSTERN OF FATE 1974 MURDER ON BOARD 1974 POIROT'S EARLY CASES (short stories) 1975 CURTAIN: HERCULE POIROT'S LAST CASE (Poirot) 1976 SLEEPING MURDER (Miss Marple) 1979 MISS MARPLE'S FINAL CASES, AND OTHERS (short stories)
1931 BLACK COFFEE
1943 TEN LITTLE NIGGERS
1945 APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH
1945 LITTLE HORIZON
1951 THE HOLLOW
1952 THE MOUSETRAP
1953 WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
1954 SPIDER'S WEB
1956 TOWARDS ZERO
1958 THE UNEXPECTED GUEST
1960 GO BACK FOR MURDER
1962 RULE OF THREE
1971 FIDDLERS THREE
According to David J. Grossvogel in Mystery and Its Fictions: From Oedipus to Agatha Christie, Christie named Poirot after a vegetable - the leek (poireau, which also means a wart, in French)
See also http://www.who2.com/agathachristie.html and the official webpage: http://christie.mysterynet.com/