The Queen of Crime – Agatha Christie
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I hope you all are doing OK during this event of Malthusian proportions. I am in partial social isolation and I thought I would do something light for those of you compelled to stay at home.
One of my favourite things to do is to read and watch murder mysteries. I have done this religiously since the first time I picked up an Agatha Christie murder mystery at the age of 11. And that’s what I want to talk about today. The life and work of the Queen of Crime: Agatha Christie.
Did you know that she disappeared for 10 days at one point and no one ever found out what happened and where she went? More about that later.
Let’s start from the usual. Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on September 15, 1890 in Torquey in England.
She was educated at home by her mother and served as a nurse during the First World War. This is when she started writing detective fiction and introduced us to that amazing round little Belgian known as Hercule Poirot. After the rejection of her first six books, she found success with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Her first published book and the first appearance of Hercule Poirot in 1920.
Agatha Miller met Archibald Christie at a dance in 1913 and they fell in love and got married in 1914 just before the First World War, during which Archibald was sent to France and Agatha remained in Torquey, serving as a nurse.
Christie had always been a fan of detective fiction, reading the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – he of Sherlock Holmes fame and novels by Wilkie Collins.
She based her Belgian detective on real Belgian refugees living in Torquey during the War. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was rejected at first but she kept submitting it for many months. With its publication in 1920, there was no turning back. By this time Agatha had become a mother to her only child – a daughter called Rosalind Christie.
Christie’s second novel, The Secret Adversary, published in 1922 earned her 50 pounds. She continued to write while her husband worked in the city. But in 1926 her life was to change completely. First, her mother, to whom she was very close, died in April of that year and Agatha went into depression. And then, in August, her husband told her he wanted a divorce because he was having an affair with another woman. On December 3, 1926 after a quarrel with him, Agatha Christie disappeared from her home. Her car was later found above a chalk quarry with an expired license and some clothes.
She was gone for 10 days and her disappearance resulted in an extensive manhunt, involving over a thousand police officers, 15,000 volunteers, and several aeroplanes. Many newspapers including the New York Time covered it and one even offered a reward of 100 pounds for information on her whereabouts. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle consulted a medium to find her.
Finally, on December 14, she was found at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, registered as Mrs. Tressa Neele (Neele was the surname of her husband’s lover). The next day she went to her sister’s house in Cheadle and basically indulged in social isolation herself. No one knows what happened to her during the 10 days and her autobiography does not even mention this event. Doctors who checked her out diagnosed her with memory loss. Biographers and historians are divided on the reasons for her disappearance; some think she had a nervous breakdown, while others concluded that she deliberately planned it to embarrass her husband.
She eventually divorced Archibald Christie in 1928 but retained her surname for her writing and the custody of her daughter.
Her famous book Murder on the Orient Express is the result of her travel to Istanbul on the Orient Express in 1928. She wrote the novel in her room at the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, and the room remains a memorial to her to this day. From Istanbul, she went on to Iraq where she became friends with archaeologist Leonard Woolly and his wife. Upon her return to the Woolley’s dig a year later, she met Max Mallowan, a young archaeologist, who was 13 years her junior. But they fell in love and married in September 1930; a long and happy marriage that lasted till her death. Christie did much of her writing at Winterbrook House, the couple’s residence near Wallingford. She was a private person, who loved gardening.
Because she often accompanied Max on his archaeological digs, many of her stories are set in digs, especially in the Middle-East. The couple bought the Greenway Estate as their summer residence in 1938, which is now in the care of the National Trust.
Her book Death on the Nile is set on the Steamship Sudan, the oldest steam boat still running on the Nile today and on which Christies travelled down the Nile in 1937.
In the context of Agatha Christie, life imitating her books doesn’t end with her disappearance. During the 2nd World War, she worked at a pharmacy at University College London and acquired a prodigious level of knowledge about poisons and frequently used it in her books. Her knowledge of thallium poisoning symptoms was used in her book The Pale Horse and was so accurate that it helped solve a case that was baffling doctors.
In 1941 and 42, Agatha Christie was investigated by MI5 because a character in her book N or M? was called Major Bletchley and MI5 were afraid that she had a spy at Bletchley Park, which was Britain’s top code-breaking centre.
Christie was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1971. She died on January 2, 1976 at the age of 85 at Winterbrook and is buried in the nearby churchyard of St. Mary in Cholsey.
Her books have sold more than a 2 billion copies and have been translated into more than a 100 languages. In total she wrote 66 novels and 14 short stories, featuring not only Poirot (who by the way is my favourite) but also other characters such as Miss Marple, the non-descript old lady who solved cases based on her experiences in her village of St. Mary Meade and first appeared in The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930. There were also the detective couple Tommy and Tuppence, who made their appearance in Christie’s 2nd novel The Secret Adversary, as well as Mr. Satterthwaite and Harley Quin, all of whom solved mysteries in their own idiosyncratic ways.
But that’s not all, Agatha Christie also wrote the world’s longest running play The Mousetrap, which is still running after over 27,000 performances—from its debut in 1952 at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, as well as 6 romances under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Guinness Book of World records lists her as the bestselling novelist of all time. Most of her books and short stories have been adapted for television, radio, video games, and comics, and more than 30 feature films have been based on her work. Now THAT’s what I call a writer!
Thank you for joining me on 360 on History. I hope this helps you pass some of your free time and encourages you to read some murder mysteries written by the undisputed queen of crime.
Music: Moonrise by Chad Crouch – Instrumental from Free Music Archive.
Featured Images: Wikemedia Commons (Public Domain) and Fair Use