AUTHOR OF THE WEEK
JANUARY, III WEEK, 2011
|Dame Agatha Christie, DBE|
|Born||Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller
15 September 1890(1890-09-15)
Torquay, Devon, England
|Died||12 January 1976(1976-01-12) (aged 85)
Wallingford, Oxfordshire, England
|Pen name||Mary Westmacott|
|Genres||Murder mystery, Thriller, Crime fiction, Detective, Romances|
|Literary movement||Golden Age of Detective Fiction|
|Spouse(s)||Archibald Christie (1914–1928)
Max Mallowan (1930–1976)
Dame Agatha Christie, DBE, (15 September 1890 – 12 January 1976), was a British crime writer of novels, short stories and plays. She also wrote romances under the name Mary Westmacott, but she is best remembered for her 80 detective novels—especially those featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple—and her successful West End theatre plays.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Christie is the best-selling writer of books of all time and, with William Shakespeare, the best-selling author of any kind. Only the Bible has sold more than her roughly four billion copies of novels. According to UNESCO, Christie is the most translated individual author, with only the collective corporate works of Walt Disney Productions surpassing her. Her books have been translated into at least 103 languages.
Christie’s stage play The Mousetrap holds the record for the longest initial run: it opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in London on 25 November 1952 and as of 2011 is still running after more than 23,000 performances. In 1955, Christie was the first recipient of the Mystery Writers of America‘s highest honour, the Grand Master Award, and in the same year Witness for the Prosecution was given an Edgar Award by the MWA for Best Play. Most of her books and short stories have been filmed, some many times over (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile and 4.50 From Paddington for instance), and many have been adapted for television, radio, video games and comics.
In 1968, Booker Books, a subsidiary of the agri-industrial conglomerate Booker-McConnell, bought a 51 percent stake in Agatha Christie Limited, the private company that Christie had set up for tax purposes. Booker later increased its stake to 64 percent. In 1998, Booker sold its shares to Chorion, a company whose portfolio also includes the literary estates of Enid Blyton and Dennis Wheatley.
In 2004, a 5,000-word story entitled The Incident of the Dog’s Ball was found in the attic of the author’s daughter. This story was the original version of the novel Dumb Witness. It was published in Britain in September 2009 in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years Of Mysteries, alongside another newly discovered Poirot story called The Capture of Cerberus (a story with the same title, but a different plot, to that published in The Labours Of Hercules). On November 10, 2009, Reuters announced that The Incident of the Dog’s Ball will be published by The Strand Magazine.
Life and career
Early life and first marriage
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born in Torquay, Devon, England, U.K.. Her mother, Clarissa Margaret Boehmer, was the daughter of a British Army captain but had been sent as a child to live with her own mother’s sister, who was the second wife of a wealthy American. Eventually Margaret married her stepfather’s son from his first marriage, Frederick Alvah Miller, an American stockbroker. Thus, the two women Agatha called “Grannie” were sisters. Despite her father’s nationality as a “New Yorker” and her aunt’s relation to the Pierpont Morgans, Agatha never claimed United States citizenship or connection.
Agatha was the youngest of three. The Millers had two other children: Margaret Frary Miller (1879–1950), called Madge, who was eleven years Agatha’s senior, and Louis Montant Miller (1880–1929), called Monty, ten years older than Agatha. Later, in her autobiography, Agatha would refer to her brother as “an amiable scapegrace of a brother”.
During the First World War, she worked at a hospital as a nurse; she liked the profession, calling it “one of the most rewarding professions that anyone can follow”. She later worked at a hospital pharmacy, a job that influenced her work, as many of the murders in her books are carried out with poison.
Despite a turbulent courtship, on Christmas Eve 1914 Agatha married Archibald Christie, an aviator in the Royal Flying Corps. The couple had one daughter, Rosalind Hicks. They divorced in 1928, two years after Christie discovered her husband was having an affair.
Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, came out in 1920. During this marriage, Agatha published six novels, a collection of short stories, and a number of short stories in magazines.
In late 1926, Agatha’s husband, Archie, revealed that he was in love with another woman, Nancy Neele, and wanted a divorce. On December 8, 1926, the couple quarreled, and Archie Christie left their house Styles in Sunningdale, Berkshire, to spend the weekend with his mistress at Godalming, Surrey. That same evening Agatha disappeared from her home, leaving behind a letter for her secretary saying that she was going to Yorkshire. Her disappearance caused an outcry from the public, many of whom were admirers of her novels. Despite a massive manhunt, she was not found for eleven days.
On December 19, 1926, Agatha was identified as a guest at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan Hotel) in Harrogate, Yorkshire, where she was registered as ‘Mrs Teresa Neele’ from Cape Town. Agatha gave no account of her disappearance. Although two doctors had diagnosed her as suffering from psychogenic fugue, opinion remains divided as to the reasons for her disappearance. One suggestion is that she had suffered a nervous breakdown brought about by a natural propensity for depression, exacerbated by her mother’s death earlier that year and the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. Public reaction at the time was largely negative, with many believing it a publicity stunt while others speculated she was trying to make the police believe her husband had killed her.
Author Jared Cade interviewed numerous witnesses and relatives for his sympathetic biography, Agatha Christie and the Missing Eleven Days, and provided a substantial amount of evidence to suggest that Christie planned the entire disappearance to embarrass her husband, never thinking it would escalate into the melodrama it became.
Second marriage and later life
Agatha Christie’s room at the Hotel Pera Palace, where she wrote Murder on the Orient Express.
In 1930, Christie married archaeologist Max Mallowan (Sir Max from 1968) after joining him in an archaeological dig. Their marriage was especially happy in the early years and remained so until Christie’s death in 1976. In 1977, Mallowan married his longtime associate, Barbara Parker.
Christie frequently used familiar settings for her stories. Christie’s travels with Mallowan contributed background to several of her novels set in the Middle East. Other novels (such as And Then There Were None) were set in and around Torquay, where she was born. Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express was written in the Hotel Pera Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, the southern terminus of the railway. The hotel maintains Christie’s room as a memorial to the author. The Greenway Estate in Devon, acquired by the couple as a summer residence in 1938, is now in the care of the National Trust.
Christie often stayed at Abney Hall in Cheshire, which was owned by her brother-in-law, James Watts. She based at least two of her stories on the hall: the short story The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, which is in the story collection of the same name, and the novel After the Funeral. “Abney became Agatha’s greatest inspiration for country-house life, with all the servants and grandeur which have been woven into her plots. The descriptions of the fictional Chimneys, Stoneygates, and other houses in her stories are mostly Abney in various forms.”
During the Second World War, Christie worked in the pharmacy at University College Hospital of University College, London, where she acquired a knowledge of poisons that she put to good use in her post-war crime novels. For example, the use of thallium as a poison was suggested to her by UCH Chief Pharmacist Harold Davis (later appointed Chief Pharmacist at the UK Ministry of Health), and in The Pale Horse, published in 1961, she employed it to dispatch a series of victims, the first clue to the murder method coming from the victims’ loss of hair. So accurate was her description of thallium poisoning that on at least one occasion it helped solve a case that was baffling doctors.
To honour her many literary works, she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1956 New Year Honours. The next year, she became the President of the Detection Club. In the 1971 New Year Honours she was promoted Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, three years after her husband had been knighted for his archeological work in 1968. They were one of the few married couples where both partners were honoured in their own right. From 1968, due to her husband’s knighthood, Christie could also be styled as Lady Agatha Mallowan, or simply Lady Mallowan.
Agatha Christie’s gravestone in Cholsey.
From 1971 to 1974, Christie’s health began to fail, although she continued to write. In 1975, sensing her increasing weakness, Christie signed over the rights of her most successful play, The Mousetrap, to her grandson. Recently, using experimental textual tools of analysis, Canadian researchers have suggested that Christie may have begun to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.
Agatha Christie died on January 12, 1976 at age 85 from natural causes at her Winterbrook House in the north of Cholsey parish, adjoining Wallingford in Oxfordshire (formerly part of Berkshire). She is buried in the nearby churchyard of St Mary’s, Cholsey.
Christie’s only child, Rosalind Margaret Hicks, died, also aged 85, on October 28, 2004 from natural causes in Torbay, Devon. Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, was heir to the copyright to some of his grandmother’s literary work (including The Mousetrap) and is still associated with Agatha Christie Limited.
Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple
Agatha Christie’s first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920 and introduced the long-running character detective Hercule Poirot, who appeared in 33 of Christie’s novels and 54 short stories.
During the Second World War, Christie wrote two novels, Curtain and Sleeping Murder, intended as the last cases of these two great detectives, Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, respectively. Both books were sealed in a bank vault for over thirty years and were released for publication by Christie only at the end of her life, when she realised that she could not write any more novels. These publications came on the heels of the success of the film version of Murder on the Orient Express in 1974.
Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Christie was to become increasingly tired of her detective Poirot. In fact, by the end of the 1930s, Christie confided to her diary that she was finding Poirot “insufferable,” and by the 1960s she felt that he was “an ego-centric creep.” However, unlike Conan Doyle, Christie resisted the temptation to kill her detective off while he was still popular. She saw herself as an entertainer whose job was to produce what the public liked, and the public liked Poirot.
In contrast, Christie was fond of Miss Marple. However, it is interesting to note that the Belgian detective’s titles outnumber the Marple titles more than two to one. This is largely because Christie wrote numerous Poirot novels early in her career, while The Murder at the Vicarage remained the sole Marple novel until the 1940s.
Christie never wrote a novel or short story featuring both Poirot and Miss Marple. In a recording, recently rediscovered and released in 2008, Christie revealed the reason for this: “Hercule Poirot, a complete egoist, would not like being taught his business or having suggestions made to him by an elderly spinster lady”.
Poirot is the only fictional character to have been given an obituary in The New York Times, following the publication of Curtain in 1975.
Following the great success of Curtain, Dame Agatha gave permission for the release of Sleeping Murder sometime in 1976 but died in January 1976 before the book could be released. This may explain some of the inconsistencies compared to the rest of the Marple series — for example, Colonel Arthur Bantry, husband of Miss Marple’s friend Dolly, is still alive and well in Sleeping Murder despite the fact he is noted as having died in books published earlier. It may be that Christie simply did not have time to revise the manuscript before she died. Miss Marple fared better than Poirot, since after solving the mystery in Sleeping Murder she returns home to her regular life in St. Mary Mead.
On an edition of Desert Island Discs in 2007, Brian Aldiss claimed that Agatha Christie told him that she wrote her books up to the last chapter and then decided who the most unlikely suspect was. She would then go back and make the necessary changes to “frame” that person. The evidence of Christie’s working methods, as described by successive biographers, contradicts this claim.
Formula and plot devices
Almost all of Agatha Christie’s books are whodunits, focusing on the British middle and upper classes. Usually, the detective either stumbles across the murder or is called upon by an old acquaintance, who is somehow involved. Gradually, the detective interrogates each suspect, examines the scene of the crime and makes a note of each clue, so readers can analyze it and be allowed a fair chance of solving the mystery themselves. Then, about halfway through, or sometimes even during the final act, one of the suspects usually dies, often because they have inadvertently deduced the killer’s identity and need silencing. In a few of her novels, including Death Comes as the End and And Then There Were None, there are multiple victims. Finally, the detective organises a meeting of all the suspects and slowly denounces the guilty party, exposing several unrelated secrets along the way, sometimes over the course of thirty or so pages. The murders are often extremely ingenious, involving some convoluted piece of deception. Christie’s stories are also known for their taut atmosphere and strong psychological suspense, developed from the deliberately slow pace of her prose.
Twice, the murderer surprisingly turns out to be the unreliable narrator of the story.
In five stories, Christie allows the murderer to escape justice (and in the case of the last three, implicitly almost approves of their crimes); these are The Witness for the Prosecution, The Man in the Brown Suit, Murder on the Orient Express, Curtain and The Unexpected Guest. (When Christie adapted Witness into a stage play, she lengthened the ending so that the murderer was also killed.) There are also numerous instances where the killer is not brought to justice in the legal sense but instead dies (death usually being presented as a more ‘sympathetic’ outcome), for example Peril at End House, Death on the Nile, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Crooked House, Appointment with Death, The Hollow, and Secret Adversary. In some cases this is with the collusion of the detective involved. Five Little Pigs, and arguably Ordeal by Innocence, end with the question of whether formal justice will be done unresolved.
Agatha Christie was revered as a master of suspense, plotting, and characterisation by most of her contemporaries[says who?]. Fellow crime writer Anthony Berkeley Cox was an admitted fan of her work, once saying that nobody can write an Agatha Christie novel but the authoress herself.
However, she does have her detractors, most notably the American novelist Raymond Chandler, who criticised her in his essay, “The Simple Art of Murder“, and the American literary critic Edmund Wilson, who was dismissive of Christie and the detective fiction genre generally in his New Yorker essay, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”.
Others have criticized Christie on political grounds, particularly with respect to her conversations about and portrayals of Jews. Christopher Hitchens, in his autobiography, describes a dinner with Christie and her husband, Professor Sir Max Mallowan, which became increasingly uncomfortable as the night wore on, and where “The anti-Jewish flavour of the talk was not to be ignored or overlooked, or put down to heavy humour or generational prejudice. It was vividly unpleasant…” Twenty-five years after her death, critic Johann Hari notes “In its ugliest moments, Christie’s conservatism crossed over into a contempt for Jews, who are so often associated with rationalist political philosophies and a ‘cosmopolitanism’ that is antithetical to the Burkean paradigm of the English village. There is a streak of anti-Semitism running through the pre-1950s novels which cannot be denied even by her admirers.”
Christie occasionally inserted stereotyped descriptions of characters into her work, particularly before the end of the Second World War (when such attitudes were more commonly expressed publicly), and particularly in regard to Italians, Jews, and non-Europeans. For example, in the first editions of the collection The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930), in the short story “The Soul of the Croupier,” she described “Hebraic men with hook-noses wearing rather flamboyant jewellery”; in later editions the passage was edited to describe “sallow men” wearing same. To contrast with the more stereotyped descriptions, Christie often characterised the “foreigners” in such a way as to make the reader understand and sympathise with them; this is particularly true of her Jewish characters, who are seldom actually criminals. (See, for example, the character of Oliver Manders in Three Act Tragedy.) 
Christie has been portrayed on a number of occasions in film and television.
Several biographical programs have been made, such as the 2004 BBC television programme entitled Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures, in which she is portrayed by Olivia Williams, Anna Massey, and Bonnie Wright.
Christie has also been portrayed fictionally. Some of these have explored and offered accounts of Christie’s disappearance in 1926, including the 1979 film Agatha (with Vanessa Redgrave, where she sneaks away to plan revenge against her husband) and the Doctor Who episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp” (with Fenella Woolgar, her disappearance being the result of her suffering a temporary breakdown due to a brief psychic link being formed between her and an alien as well as time travel in the TARDIS). Others, such as 1980 Hungarian film, Kojak Budapesten (not to be confused with the 1986 comedy by the same name) create their own scenarios involving Christie’s criminal skill. In the 1986 TV play, Murder by the Book, Christie herself (Dame Peggy Ashcroft) murdered one of her fictional-turned-real characters, Poirot. The heroine of Liar-Soft‘s 2008 visual novel Shikkoku no Sharnoth ~What a beautiful tomorrow~, Mary Clarissa Christie, is based on the real-life Christie. Christie features as a charcter in Gaylord Larsen’s Dorothy and Agatha and The London Blitz Murders’ by Max Allan Collins.
Christie has also been parodied on screen, such as in the film Murder by Indecision, which featured the character “Agatha Crispy”.
List of works
Collections of short stories
In addition to her novels Christie wrote and published 160 short stories in her career. Almost all of these were written for publication in fiction magazines with over half of them first appearing in the 1920s. They were then published in book form in various collections, some of which were identical in the UK and US (e.g., The Labours of Hercules) and others where publication took place in one market but not the other.
Twelve of the stories which were published in The Sketch magazine in 1924 under the sub-heading of The Man who was No. 4 were further joined into one continuous narrative in the novel The Big Four in 1927. Four further stories, The Submarine Plans (1923), Christmas Adventure (1923), The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest (1932) and The Second Gong (1932), were expanded into longer narratives by Christie (respectively The Incredible Theft, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, The Mystery of the Spanish Chest and Dead Man’s Mirror although the shorter versions of all four have also been published in the UK).
Only one short story remains unpublished in the UK in book form: Three Blind Mice (1948), on which Christie placed a moratorium whilst the stage play based on the story, The Mousetrap, was still running in the West End. Prior to this the story was published in four installments in the weekly magazine Woman’s Own in the issues dated December 31, 1948 to January 21, 1949 with illustrations by K. J. Petts.
In the US, the story Christmas Adventure has not been published in book form.
The main collections in both markets are:
- 1924 Poirot Investigates (short stories: eleven in the UK, fourteen in the US)
- 1929 Partners in Crime (fifteen short stories; featuring Tommy and Tuppence)
- 1930 The Mysterious Mr. Quin (twelve short stories; introducing Mr. Harley Quin)
- 1932 The Thirteen Problems (thirteen short stories; featuring Miss Marple, also known as The Tuesday Club Murders in the US)
- 1933 The Hound of Death (twelve short stories –UK only)
- 1934 The Listerdale Mystery (twelve short stories –UK only)
- 1934 Parker Pyne Investigates (twelve short stories; introducing Parker Pyne and Ariadne Oliver, also known as Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective in the US)
- 1937 Murder in the Mews (four novella-length stories; featuring Hercule Poirot, also known as Dead Man’s Mirror in the US but less the story The Incredible Theft therein.)
- 1939 The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories (nine short stories –US only)
- 1947 The Labours of Hercules (twelve short stories; featuring Hercule Poirot)
- 1948 The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories (eleven short stories –US only)
- 1950 Three Blind Mice and Other Stories (nine short stories –US only)
- 1951 The Under Dog and Other Stories (nine short stories –US only)
- 1960 The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (six short stories –UK only)
- 1961 Double Sin and Other Stories (eight short stories –US only)
- 1971 The Golden Ball and Other Stories (fifteen short stories –US only)
- 1974 Poirot’s Early Cases (eighteen short stories, also known as Hercule Poirot’s Early Cases in the US)
- 1979 Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories (eight short stories –UK only)
- 1989 Hercule Poirot’s Casebook (ten short stories: three from Murder in the Mews, two from The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, and five from Poirot’s Early Cases)
- 1991 Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories (eight short stories –UK only)
- 1997 The Harlequin Tea Set (nine short stories –US only)
- 1997 While the Light Lasts and Other Stories (nine short stories –UK only)
In addition, various collections have been published over the years which re-print short stories which have previously appeared in other collections e.g. Surprise, Surprise! (1965 in the US). On occasion, in among the reprinted material, these collections have sometimes contained the first book printing of an individual story e.g. The Market Basing Mystery in the UK version of Thirteen for Luck! (1966) which later appeared in the same market in Poirot’s Early Cases.
Novels written as Mary Westmacott
- 1930 Giant’s Bread
- 1934 Unfinished Portrait
- 1944 Absent in the Spring
- 1948 The Rose and the Yew Tree
- 1952 A Daughter’s a Daughter
- 1956 The Burden
- 1930 Black Coffee (Novelised by Charles Osborne in 1998 as Black Coffee)
- 1943 And Then There Were None (Based on the 1939 novel Ten Little Niggers)
- 1945 Appointment with Death (Based on the 1938 novel Appointment with Death)
- 1946 Murder on the Nile/Hidden Horizon (Based on the 1937 novel Death on the Nile)
- 1951 The Hollow (Based on the 1946 novel The Hollow)
- 1952 The Mousetrap (Based on the 1948 short story Three Blind Mice)
- 1953 Witness for the Prosecution (Based on the short story The Witness for the Prosecution)
- 1954 Spider’s Web (Novelised by Charles Osborne in 2000 as Spider’s Web)
- 1956 A Daughter’s a Daughter (Written as a play in the late 1930s. Performed professionally once. Unpublished but turned into the 1952 Mary Westmacott novel A Daughter’s a Daughter)
- 1956 Towards Zero (Based on the 1944 novel Towards Zero)
- 1958 Verdict
- 1958 The Unexpected Guest (Novelised by Charles Osborne in 1999 as The Unexpected Guest)
- 1960 Go Back for Murder (Based on the 1942 novel Five Little Pigs)
- 1962 Rule of Three (Comprising Afternoon at the Seaside, The Rats and The Patient)
- 1972 Fiddler’s Three (Originally written as Fiddler’s Five. Unpublished.)
- 1973 Akhnaton (Written in 1937)
- 2003 Chimneys (Written in 1931, but unperformed for 72 years. Based on the 1925 novel The Secret of Chimneys. Unpublished.)
- 1937 The Yellow Iris (Based on the short story of the same name)
- 1947 Three Blind Mice (Christie’s celebrated stage play The Mousetrap was based on this radio play)
- 1948 Butter In a Lordly Dish
- 1954 Personal Call
- 1937 Wasp’s Nest (Based on the short story of the same name)
Other published works
- 1925 The Road of Dreams (Poetry)
- 1965 Star Over Bethlehem and other stories (Christian stories and poems)
- 1973 Poems
- 1930 Behind The Screen. A radio serial written together with Hugh Walpole, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, E. C. Bentley and Ronald Knox of the Detection Club. Published in book form in 1983 in The Scoop and Behind The Screen.
- 1931 The Scoop. A radio serial written together with Dorothy L. Sayers, E. C. Bentley, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts and Clemence Dane of the Detection Club. Published in book form in 1983 in The Scoop and Behind The Screen.
- 1931 The Floating Admiral. A book written together with G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and certain other members of the Detection Club.
- 1956 Towards Zero (A West End theatre dramatization of her 1944 novel co-written with Gerard Verner)