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  Many years later, she ascribed her first unpublished novel SNOW ON THE DESERT'S FACE to Mrs.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)

PLAYS:

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
1958  VERDICT
1960  GO BACK FOR MURDER
1962  RULE OF THREE
1971  FIDDLERS THREE
1979  AKHANATON

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/


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