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With memorable characters like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, it’s no mystery why Agatha Christie remains popular, a century after writing her first crime novel. Writer Cat Allen shares other important clues about Christie’s storied career.
Text: Cat Allen
Country: England

ith an estimated 2 billion books in print, British writer Agatha Christie is without doubt the bestselling crime fiction author of all time. Characters such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, and novels including Murder on the Orient Express and The Mousetrap have all led to Christie being highly regarded as the Queen of Crime. Her signature themes of murder, deception, and intrigue leave readers and audiences guessing until the final page or curtain call. Her literary journey began at age 26 when she was dared by her sister to write a detective novel. Thankfully for the crime fiction genre, Christie rose to the challenge. She continued to pen an impressive 80 novels and short story collections and a further 19 plays during a career that spanned more than five decades.

Born in 1890 in Torquay, England, as the youngest of three children of an American father and a British mother, Agatha Christie was homeschooled and taught herself to read at an early age. She initially showed an interest in becoming a classical musician, although stage fright deterred her. At age 24, Agatha Miller became Agatha Christie when she married a pilot named Archie Christie. After moving to London, Christie trained as a chemist as part of the war effort, and was in charge of dispensing pharmaceuticals. Although not particularly inspiring, the position helped her acquire an extensive knowledge of poisons. The writer later said, “Since I was surrounded by poisons, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected”. These less violent deaths were unusual for the crime fiction genre; however, the pattern worked.

Although it’s hard to believe now, literary fame did not come easily to Agatha Christie. After finishing her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, she had difficulty finding a publisher. It was three years later, in 1919, the same year Christie had her first and only child, a publisher was found for her debut novel, and Hercule Poirot entered the public imagination. He would become one of her most famous characters. Believed to be inspired by the influx of Belgian refugees to her hometown, Christie introduced Poirot to readers writing: “Poirot was an extraordinary looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity”. His first escapade featured him solving the murder of a poisoned lady. This would be the first of more than 40 appearances.

Following the initial success, the publishing house commissioned five more Poirot books. Christie and her family started travelling the world, inspiring her to use foreign locations in her novels. Throughout her career Christie averaged two novels a year, and soon she introduced her second, and equally popular, character. Miss Marple, an elderly spinster with a keen interest in acting as amateur sleuth. She finds herself entwined in many a “whodunnit” mystery, featuring everyone from the vicar to the housewife next door. The character was widely thought to be based on herself but in fact, according to Christie, Miss Marple reminded her of her grandmother and her circle of friends whom she would visit as a child. Miss Marple went on to feature in 12 of Christie’s novels and 20 short stories, and became a firm favourite amongst crime novel fans around the world. Christie is the only crime novelist to create two separate characters that reached comparable worldwide fame.

In 1926 Agatha Christie launched her own real life mystery. Reportedly unhappy in her marriage, she disappeared one day without a trace. Her car was found abandoned, sending the media into a speculative frenzy. She materialised two weeks later in a health spa in northern England. She never referred to the incident again, not even in her autobiography, but the incident is thought to be connected to her husband’s infidelities. Within two years the couple had divorced, and once again Christie travelled, taking her first journey on the Orient Express. At this time she was introduced by friends to a young archaeologist, Max Mallowan, who subsequently became her second husband and with whom she remained happily married until her death. Mallowan led Christie on travels to Syria and Iraq and beyond, where the novelist would find inspiration to write works such as Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express.

By this time Agatha Christie had a worldwide fan base, and her plays were on Broadway. She is to this day the only writer to have three plays running simultaneously in London’s West End. The most famous of her plays, The Mousetrap, originally a radio play written for Queen Mary’s birthday in 1947, features a group of seven people trapped in a cabin during a snowstorm with a murderer amongst them. It was adapted for the stage and debuted in 1952, and is still running now, making The Mousetrap the longest running play of all time. At the end of each performance the actors ask the audience to keep secret who committed the murder.

Although based in London and still traveling to Iraq and Syria, Christie and Mallowan loved spending time in Devon, where she grew up. They bought Greenway Estate, a beautiful Tudor mansion on the banks of the River Dart. They would spend their summers and Christmases there, and although Christie never wrote whilst there, she would read her latest manuscripts to guests. Greenway is now owned by The National Trust and is open to visitors who can explore the house and gardens and discover what Agatha Christie described as “the loveliest place in the world”.

Literary success continued throughout Agatha Christie’s prolific career; she is the most translated fiction author in the world. Her work has been translated into 103 languages, and only the Bible and William Shakespeare have outsold her. She was often on British bestselling lists, and her publishing house even used the marketing slogan “Christie for Christmas”. For her success she was awarded a Dame of the British Empire award in 1971. She became Dame Agatha Christie in honour of her contribution to literature. Her award is now on permanent display in her former holiday home. After her death, it was found hidden in a cupboard, evidence of how shy the author was. Despite her modesty, the following year Dame Agatha was given a highly coveted spot in London’s Madame Tussauds wax museum.

Christie continued writing until her death in 1976. Her final work, Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, was top of the UK, USA, and Japanese bestseller lists, even a year after it was released. An elderly Poirot, in a wheelchair, returns to the location of his first appearance, and solves the latest murder. After writing about the character so many times, Christie was heard saying: “Why, why, why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature . But now, I must confess it, Hercule Poirot has won. A reluctant affection has sprung up for him…” So well-loved was Poirot, that on his death, The New York Times wrote him a full-page obituary, the only time in history for a fictional character.

Agatha Christie’s work continues through the decades, despite her archaic language and old-fashioned feel. Her nonviolent murders and relatable characters are a winning combination. For her time she was often daring, including love triangles, trysts, and secrets. Newspaper reviews repeatedly exclaimed surprise at her original ideas. One critic wrote “more cheerful, more amusing, more seductive than the generality of detective novels” of Miss Marple’s debut. Another wrote: “There is a distinct originality in her new expedient for keeping the secret”.

Crime novel fans worldwide will always return to her stories. The next time you are looking to read or watch a murder mystery, be sure to make it an Agatha Christie classic. If you happen to find yourself in London’s West End, get yourself a ticket for The Mousetrap; it is certain to be playing. Don’t forget—you have to promise to keep the secret of “whodunit” locked in your heart.

FACT BOX

· Agatha Christie wrote six romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Christie kept the pen name secret for 20 years.

· Published editions of Murder on the Orient Express, one of her 80 novels, would stretch to the moon.

· Agatha Christie was a teetotaler, but drinking double cream was her indulgence.

· She earnt just £25 ($32USD) for her first novel.

· She despised marmalade and used it, disguised as poison, in one of her novels.

· In 2013 the Crime Writers Association voted “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” the best crime novel of all time.




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Agatha Christie: The 20th Century Queen of Crime


British writer Agatha Christie is the bestselling crime fiction author of all time. She wrote 80 novels and short story collections and 19 plays during a career that spanned more than five decades. There are regularly new printings of her books, with around 2 billion in print.

Christie was born in Torquay, England in 1890. Her mother was British and her father was American and she had 3 older siblings. She was homeschooled. At age 24 she married Archie Christie and moved to London. Here she trained as a chemist and learned a lot about poisons, her preferred method of murder in her novels. At the age of 26, her sister dared her to write a detective novel, and so began her career as an author.

It was difficult for her to find a publisher for her first book: The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Three years later, in 1919, she found a publisher and also gave birth to her only child. In her first book she introduced her most famous character, Hercule Poirot, whom she described as "an extraordinary looking little man." He appeared in over 40 of her books and plays.

Christie wrote on average two novels a year. Later she introduced her second and equally popular character, Miss Marple, an elderly spinster who acted as an amateur detective. Miss Marple featured in 12 of Christie's novels and 20 short stories. Agatha Christie is the only crime novelist to create two separate characters that reached comparable worldwide fame.

Agatha Christie is the most translated fiction author in the world; only the Bible and William Shakespeare have outsold her. To this day she is the only writer to have three plays running simultaneously in London’s West End. Greenway Estate, her former home, is now owned by the National Trust and can be explored by visitors. In 1971, she was awarded a Dame of the British Empire award.

Her writings have withstood the test of time and continue to enthrall readers worldwide.

 

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Agatha Christie: The 20th Century Queen of Crime

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