Agatha Christie
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Agatha Christie


Agatha Christie
Lady Mallowan

Christie in 1925
Agatha Christie in 1925
BornAgatha Mary Clarissa Miller
(1890-09-15)15 September 1890
Torquay, Devon, England
Died12 January 1976(1976-01-12) (aged 85)
Winterbrook House, Winterbrook, Oxfordshire, England[1]
Resting placeChurch of St Mary, Cholsey, Oxfordshire, England
Pen nameMary Westmacott
OccupationNovelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, memoirist
GenreMurder mystery, thriller, crime fiction, detective, romance
Literary movementGolden Age of Detective Fiction
Notable worksCreation of characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Death on the Nile, The Murder at the Vicarage, Partners In Crime, The A.B.C. Murders, And Then There Were None, The Mousetrap
Spouses
Children1
RelativesJames Watts (nephew)

Signature
Website
agathachristie.com

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, Lady Mallowan, DBE (née Miller; 15 September 1890 - 12 January 1976) was an English writer. She is known for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, particularly those revolving around her fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Christie also wrote the world's longest-running play, a murder mystery, The Mousetrap,[2] and, under the pen name Mary Westmacott, six romances. In 1971 she was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her contribution to literature.[3][4]

Christie was born into a wealthy upper-middle-class family in Torquay, Devon. Before marrying and starting a family in London, she had served in a Devon hospital during the First World War, tending to troops coming back from the trenches. She was initially an unsuccessful writer with six consecutive rejections,[5] but this changed when The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring Hercule Poirot, was published in 1920.[6] During the Second World War, she worked as a pharmacy assistant at University College Hospital, London, acquiring a good knowledge of poisons which feature in many of her novels.

Guinness World Records lists Christie as the best-selling novelist of all time. Her novels have sold roughly 2 billion copies, and her estate claims that her works come third in the rankings of the world's most-widely published books,[7] behind only Shakespeare's works and the Bible. According to Index Translationum, she remains the most-translated individual author, having been translated into at least 103 languages.[8]And Then There Were None is Christie's best-selling novel, with 100 million sales to date, making it the world's best-selling mystery ever, and one of the best-selling books of all time.[9] Christie's stage play The Mousetrap holds the world record for longest initial run. It opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End on 25 November 1952, and as of April 2019 is still running after more than 27,000 performances.[10][11]

In 1955, Christie was the first recipient of the Mystery Writers of America's highest honour, the Grand Master Award. Later the same year, Witness for the Prosecution received an Edgar Award by the MWA for Best Play.[12] In 2013, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was voted the best crime novel ever by 600 fellow writers of the Crime Writers' Association.[13] On 15 September 2015, coinciding with her 125th birthday, And Then There Were None was named the "World's Favourite Christie" in a vote sponsored by the author's estate.[14] Most of her books and short stories have been adapted for television, radio, video games and comics, and more than thirty feature films have been based on her work.

Life and career

Childhood and adolescence: 1890-1910

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on 15 September 1890 into a wealthy upper-middle-class family in Torquay, Devon. She was the youngest of three children born to Frederick Alvah ("Fred") Miller, "a gentleman of substance", and his wife Clarissa Margaret ("Clara") Miller née Boehmer.[15]:1-4[16][17][18][19]:16[20][21]

Christie's mother Clara was born in Dublin[a] in 1854[22][23] to Lieutenant (later Captain) Frederick Boehmer (91st Regiment of Foot)[24] and his second wife Mary Ann Boehmer née West. Boehmer died aged 49 of bronchitis (although biographers often claim he was killed in a riding accident) in Jersey in April 1863, leaving his widow to raise Clara and her three brothers alone on a meagre income.[25][26] Two weeks after Boehmer's death, Mary's sister Margaret West married widowed dry goods merchant Nathaniel Frary Miller, a U.S. citizen.[27] To assist Mary financially, the newlyweds agreed to foster nine year old Clara. The family settled in Timperley, Cheshire.[28] Margaret and Nathaniel had no children together, but Nathaniel had a seventeen-year-old son, Fred Miller, from his previous marriage. Fred was born in New York City and travelled extensively after leaving his Swiss boarding school. He and Clara eventually formed a romantic attachment and were married in St Peter's Church, Notting Hill, in April 1878.[15]:2-5[16]

Fred and Clara's first child, Margaret Frary ("Madge"), was born in Torquay in 1879,[29] where the couple were renting lodgings. Their second child, Louis Montant ("Monty"), was born in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1880[30] while they were making an extended visit to the United States. When Fred's father died in 1869,[31] he left Clara £2000; they used this money to purchase the leasehold of a villa in Torquay named Ashfield in which to raise their family. It was here that their third and final child, Agatha, was born in 1890.[15]:6-7[18]

Christie as a girl, date unknown

Christie described her childhood as "very happy".[32]:3 She was surrounded by a series of strong and independent women from an early age.[15]:14 She lived primarily in Devon, but made occasional visits to the homes of her step-grandmother/great-aunt Margaret Miller in Ealing and maternal grandmother Mary Boehmer in Bayswater. One year of her childhood was spent abroad with her family, in the French Pyrenees, Paris, Dinard, and Guernsey.[15]:15, 24-25

Christie was raised in a household with various esoteric beliefs and, like her siblings, believed that her mother Clara was a psychic with the ability of second sight.[15]:13 Christie's sister Madge had been sent to Roedean School in Sussex for her education, but their mother insisted that Christie receive a home education. As a result, her parents were responsible for teaching her to read and write and to master basic arithmetic, a subject she particularly enjoyed. They also taught her music, and she learned to play both the piano and the mandolin.[15]:20-21 According to one biographer, Clara believed that Christie should not learn to read until she was eight. However, thanks to her own curiosity, Christie taught herself to read much earlier.[33]:18 One of the earliest known photographs of Christie depicts her as a little girl with her first dog, named George Washington by her patriotic father but which she called Tony.[32]:20-21, 42

Christie was a voracious reader from an early age. Among her earliest memories were those of reading the children's books written by Mrs Molesworth, including The Adventures of Herr Baby (1881), Christmas Tree Land (1897), and The Magic Nuts (1898). She also read the work of Edith Nesbit, including The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), The Phoenix and the Carpet (1903), and The Railway Children (1906). When a little older, she moved on to reading the surreal verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.[15]:18-19 In April 1901, at age 10, she wrote her first poem, "The cowslip".[34]

Although she devoted much time to her pets, Christie spent much of her childhood apart from other children. She eventually made friends with a group of other girls in Torquay, noting that "one of the highlights of my existence" was her appearance with them in a youth production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard, in which she played the hero, Colonel Fairfax.[15]:23-27 This was her last operatic role for, as she later wrote, "an experience that you really enjoyed should never be repeated."[32]:114

By 1901, Christie's father's health had deteriorated, due to what he believed were heart problems.[33]:33 Fred died in November 1901 from pneumonia and chronic kidney disease.[35] The family's financial situation had by this time declined significantly. Christie and her mother Clara continued to live in their Torquay home. Christie's sister Madge married the year after their father's death and moved to Cheadle, (historic county of) Cheshire. Christie's brother Monty was overseas, serving in a British regiment. Christie later claimed that her father's death, occurring when she was 11 years old, marked the end of her childhood.[15]:32-34

In 1902, Christie began attending Miss Guyer's Girls' School in Torquay but found it difficult to adjust to the disciplined atmosphere. In 1905, she was sent to Paris where she was educated in three pensions - Mademoiselle Cabernet's, Les Marroniers, and then Miss Dryden's - the last of which served primarily as a finishing school.[15]:22-23, 37

Early literary attempts and the First World War: 1910-1919

After completing her education, Christie returned to England and found her mother ailing. They decided to spend time together in the warmer climate of Cairo, then a regular tourist destination for wealthy Britons. They stayed for three months at the Gezirah Palace Hotel. Christie attended many social functions and particularly enjoyed watching polo. She visited ancient Egyptian monuments such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, but did not exhibit the great interest in archaeology and Egyptology that became prominent in her later years.[15]:40-41 Returning to Britain, she continued her social activities, writing and performing in amateur theatricals. She also helped put on a play called The Blue Beard of Unhappiness with female friends. Her writing extended to both poetry and music. Some early works saw publication, but she decided against focusing on writing or music as future professions.[15]:45-47

Christie wrote her first short story, The House of Beauty (an early version of her later-published story The House of Dreams,[36]) while recovering in bed from an undisclosed illness. This was about 6,000 words on the topic of "madness and dreams", a subject of fascination for her. One of her biographers has commented that, despite "infelicities of style", the story was nevertheless "compelling".[15]:48-49 Other stories followed, most of them illustrating her interest in spiritualism and the paranormal. These included "The Call of Wings" and "The Little Lonely God". Magazines rejected all her early submissions, made under pseudonyms (including Mac Miller, Nathaniel Miller, and Sydney West), although some submissions were revised and published later, often with new titles.[15]:49-50

Christie then set her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, in Cairo and drew from her recent experiences in that city, writing under the pseudonym Monosyllaba. She was disappointed when the various publishers she contacted all declined.[15]:50-51 Clara suggested that her daughter ask for advice from a family friend and neighbour, the writer Eden Philpotts, who obliged her enquiry, encouraged her writing, and sent her an introduction to his own literary agent, Hughes Massie, who rejected Snow Upon the Desert and suggested a second novel.[15]:51-52 Meanwhile, her social activities expanded. She entered into short-lived relationships with four separate men and an engagement with another.[33]:64-67 She then met Archibald Christie at a dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford at Ugbrooke, about 12 miles (19 kilometres) from Torquay. Archie was born in India, the son of a barrister in the Indian Civil Service. He was an army officer who was seconded to the Royal Flying Corps in April 1913. The couple quickly fell in love. Upon learning that he would be stationed in Farnborough, Archie proposed marriage, and Christie accepted.[15]:54-63

With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Archie was sent to France to fight the German forces. They married on the afternoon of Christmas Eve 1914 at Emmanuel Church, Clifton, Bristol, which was close to the home of his mother and stepfather, while Archie was on home leave.[37][38] Rising through the ranks, he was eventually stationed back to Britain in September 1918 as a colonel in the Air Ministry. Christie involved herself in the war effort as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment. From October 1914 to May 1915, then from June 1916 to September 1918, she worked a total of 3400 hours in the Town Hall Red Cross Hospital, Torquay, first as a nurse (unpaid) then as a dispenser (at £16 a year from 1917) after qualifying as an apothecaries' assistant.[39][15]:69 Her war service ended when Archie was reassigned to London, and they rented a flat in St. John's Wood.[15]:73-74

First novels and Poirot: 1919-1926

Christie had long been a fan of detective novels, having enjoyed Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White and The Moonstone, as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's early Sherlock Holmes stories. She wrote her own detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring Hercule Poirot, a former Belgian police officer noted for his twirly large "magnificent moustaches" and egg-shaped head. Poirot had taken refuge in Britain after Germany invaded Belgium. Christie's inspiration for the character stemmed from real Belgian refugees who were living in Torquay and the Belgian soldiers whom she helped to treat as a volunteer nurse in Torquay during the First World War.[15]:75-79 She began working on The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916, writing much of it on Dartmoor.[34] Her original manuscript was rejected by such publishing companies as Hodder and Stoughton and Methuen. After keeping the submission for several months, John Lane at The Bodley Head offered to accept it, provided that Christie change the ending. She did so, and signed a contract which she later felt was exploitative.[15]:79, 81-82 It was finally published in 1920.[34]

Christie, meanwhile, settled into married life, giving birth to her only child, Rosalind Margaret Clarissa, in August 1919 at Ashfield.[15]:79[33]:340,349,422Archie left the Air Force at the end of the war and started working in the City financial sector at a relatively low salary, though they still employed a maid.[15]:80-81 Her second novel, The Secret Adversary (1922), featured a new detective couple Tommy and Tuppence, again published by The Bodley Head. It earned her £50. A third novel again featured Poirot, Murder on the Links (1923), as did short stories commissioned by Bruce Ingram, editor of The Sketch magazine.[15]:83

In 1922, the Christies joined an around-the-world promotional tour for the British Empire Exhibition, led by Major Ernest Belcher. Leaving their daughter with Agatha's mother and sister, in ten months they travelled to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada.[15]:86-103[40] They learned to surf prone in South Africa; then, in Waikiki, they were among the first Britons to surf standing up.[41][42]

Following their return to England, Archie resumed work in the City, while Christie continued to work hard at her writing. After a series of apartments in London, they moved to the country, eventually purchasing a house in Sunningdale, Berkshire, which they renamed Styles after the mansion in Christie's first detective novel.[33]:154-155[15]:124-125

Christie's mother died in April 1926. They had been exceptionally close, and the loss sent Christie into a deep depression.[33]:168-172

Disappearance: 1926

Daily Herald, 15 December 1926, announcing Christie had been found

In August 1926, Archie asked Christie for a divorce. He had fallen in love with Nancy Neele, who had been a friend of Major Belcher. On 3 December 1926, the pair quarrelled after Archie announced his plan to spend the weekend with friends, unaccompanied by his wife. Late that evening, Christie disappeared from her home. Her car, a Morris Cowley, was found at Newlands Corner, perched above a chalk quarry, with an expired driving licence and clothes.[15]:135[43][44]

The disappearance caused a public outcry. The home secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, pressured police, and a newspaper offered a £100 reward. Over a thousand police officers, 15,000 volunteers, and several aeroplanes scoured the rural landscape. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave a spirit medium one of Christie's gloves to find her.[b] Christie's disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times. Despite the extensive manhunt, she was not found for 10 days.[46][45][47] On 14 December 1926, she was found at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel[48] in Harrogate, Yorkshire, registered as Mrs Tressa[c] Neele (the surname of her husband's lover) from "Capetown S.A." (i.e. Cape Town, South Africa). The next day, Christie left for her sister's residence, Abney Hall, Cheadle, where she was sequestered "in guarded hall, gates locked, telephone cut off, and callers turned away." [49]:1,4,9[50]:1[15]:146[33]:196

Christie's autobiography makes no reference to the disappearance.[32] Two doctors diagnosed her as suffering from "an unquestionable genuine loss of memory",[50]:1[51]:12 yet opinion remains divided over the reason for her disappearance. Some, including authorised biographer Janet Morgan, believe that she disappeared during a fugue state.[15]:154-159[45][52] In contrast, Jared Cade's research led him to conclude that Christie deliberately planned the event to embarrass her husband, but did not anticipate the public melodrama that resulted.[53]:121 Laura Thompson provides the alternative view that Christie disappeared during a nervous breakdown, conscious of her actions but not in emotional control of herself.[33]:220-221 Public reaction at the time was largely negative, supposing a publicity stunt or an attempt to frame her husband for murder.[54][d]

Second marriage and later life: 1927-1976

Christie's room at the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, where she wrote Murder on the Orient Express

In January 1927, Christie, looking "very pale", sailed with her daughter and secretary to Las Palmas, Canary Islands, to "complete her convalescence",[55] returning three months later.[56][e] Christie petitioned for divorce and was granted a decree nisi against her husband in April 1928 which was made absolute in October 1928. Archie married Nancy Neele a week later.[57] Christie retained custody of their daughter Rosalind and the Christie surname for her writing. During their marriage, she published six novels, a collection of short stories, and a number of short stories in magazines.[58]

Some years later, reflecting on the whole period, Christie said, "So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it."[32]:340

In autumn 1928, Christie left England and took the (Simplon) Orient Express to Istanbul; she subsequently went on to Baghdad. In Iraq, she became friends with archaeologist Leonard Wooley and his wife, who invited her to return to their dig in February 1930. On that second trip, she met a young archaeologist 13 years her junior,[59]Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan. In a 1977 interview, Mallowan recounted his first meeting with Christie, when he took her and a group of tourists on a tour of his expedition site in Iraq.[60] Christie and Mallowan married in September 1930.[61][33]:284-285[15]:178-179 Their marriage was happy and lasted until Christie's death in 1976.[33]

Christie with Max Mallowan in Tell Halaf, 1930s

Christie frequently used settings that were familiar to her for her stories. She often accompanied Mallowan on his archaeological expeditions, and her travels with him contributed background to several of her novels set in the Middle East.[60] Other novels (such as And Then There Were None) were set in and around Torquay, where she was raised. Christie's 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express was written in the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, Turkey, the southern terminus of the railway. The hotel maintains Christie's room as a memorial to the author.[62]

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, Cheshire, owned by her brother-in-law, James Watts, basing at least two stories there: a short story "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding" 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 its servants and grandeur being woven into her plots. The descriptions of the fictional Chimneys, Stoneygates, and other houses in her stories are mostly Abney Hall in various forms."[63]

Cresswell Place

During the Second World War, Christie worked in the pharmacy at University College Hospital, 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.[64][65] Christie lived in Chelsea, first in Cresswell Place and later in Sheffield Terrace. Both properties are now marked by blue plaques. In 1934, she and Max Mallowan purchased Winterbrook House in Winterbrook, a hamlet adjoining the small market town of Wallingford, then within the bounds of Cholsey and in Berkshire.[66]

Blue plaque, 58 Sheffield Terrace, Holland Park, London

This was their main residence for the rest of their lives and the place where Christie did much of her writing.[33]:365 This house, too, bears a blue plaque. Christie led a quiet life despite being known in the town of Wallingford,[1] where she was for many years President of the local amateur dramatic society.[67]

Christie at Schiphol, 17 September 1964

Around 1941-42, the British intelligence agency MI5 investigated Christie after a character called Major Bletchley appeared in her 1941 thriller N or M?, which was about a hunt for a pair of deadly fifth columnists in wartime England.[68]MI5 was afraid that Christie had a spy in Britain's top-secret codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. The agency's fears were allayed when Christie told her friend, the codebreaker Dilly Knox, "I was stuck there on my way by train from Oxford to London and took revenge by giving the name to one of my least lovable characters."[68] In honour of her many literary works, she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1956 New Year Honours.[69] The next year, she became the President of the Detection Club.[70] In the 1971 New Year Honours, she was promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE),[71] three years after her husband had been knighted for his archaeological work in 1968.[72] They were one of the few married couples where both partners were honoured in their own right. From 1968, owing to her husband's knighthood, Christie could also be styled Lady Mallowan.

From 1971 to 1974, Christie's health began to fail, although she continued to write. Recently, using experimental tools of textual analysis, Canadian researchers have suggested that Christie may have begun to suffer from Alzheimer's disease or other dementia.[73][74][75][76]

Personal qualities

In 1946, Christie said of herself: "My chief dislikes are crowds, loud noises, gramophones and cinemas. I dislike the taste of alcohol and do not like smoking. I DO like sun, sea, flowers, travelling, strange foods, sports, concerts, theatres, pianos, and doing embroidery."[77]

The Agatha Christie Trust For Children commenced in 1969[78] and shortly after Christie's death a charitable memorial fund was set up to "help two causes that she favoured: old people and young children."[79]

Christie's obituary in The Times notes that "she never cared much for the cinema, or for wireless and television". Further,

Dame Agatha's private pleasures were gardening - she won local prizes for horticulture - and buying furniture for her various houses. She was a shy person: she disliked public appearances: but she was friendly and sharp-witted to meet. By inclination as well as breeding she belonged to the English upper middle-class. She wrote about, and for, people like herself. That was an essential part of her charm.[19]

Death

Christie's gravestone at St. Mary's church, Cholsey, Oxfordshire
Winterbrook House

Christie's death and burial

Christie died peacefully on 12 January 1976 at age 85 from natural causes at her home Winterbrook House which was located in Winterbrook, Wallingford, Oxfordshire.[80][1] At the time of her death Winterbrook was still a part of the parish of Cholsey. She is buried in the nearby churchyard of St Mary's, Cholsey, having chosen the plot for their final resting place with her husband Sir Max some ten years before she died. The simple funeral service was attended by about 20 newspaper and TV reporters, some having travelled from as far away as South America. Thirty wreaths adorned Christie's grave, including one from the cast of her long-running play The Mousetrap and one sent 'on behalf of the multitude of grateful readers' by the Ulverscroft Large Print Book Publishers.[81]

She was survived by her second husband, Sir Max Mallowan; by her only child, Rosalind Hicks (formerly Prichard, née Christie);[33]:340,349,422 and by her only grandchild, Mathew T. Prichard. Mallowan, who remarried in 1977, died in 1978 at age 74. He was interred next to Christie.[82]

Christie's estate and subsequent ownership of works

Although Christie was rather unhappy about becoming "an employed wage slave",[33]:428 to avoid future adverse tax implications she set up a private company, Agatha Christie Limited, in 1955 to hold the rights to her works, and in about 1959 transferred her 278-acre home, Greenway Estate, to her daughter Rosalind.[83][84] In 1968, when Christie was almost 80 years old, she sold a 51% stake in Agatha Christie Limited (and therefore the works it owned) to Booker Books (better known as Booker Author's Division), a subsidiary of the British food and transport conglomerate Booker-McConnell (now Booker Group), the founder of the Booker Prize for literature, which by 1977 had increased its stake to 64%.[15]:355[85] Agatha Christie Limited remains the owner of the worldwide rights for over 80 of Christie's novels and short stories, 19 plays, and nearly 40 TV films.[86]

In the late 1950s, Christie had reputedly been earning around ?100,000 per year but, as a result of her tax planning, her will left only ?106,683 net which went mostly to her husband and daughter along with some smaller bequests.[87][1] Her remaining 36% share of Agatha Christie Limited was inherited by her daughter, Rosalind Hicks, who passionately preserved her mother's works, image, and legacy until her own death 28 years later.[83] The family's share of the company allowed them to appoint 50% of the board and the chairman, and thereby to retain a veto over new treatments, updated versions, and republications of her works.[83][88]

In 1993, Hicks founded the Agatha Christie Society and became its first president.[83] In 2004 her obituary in The Telegraph commented that Hicks had been "determined to remain true to her mother's vision and to protect the integrity of her creations" and disapproved of "merchandising" activities.[83] Upon Hicks's death on 28 October 2004, both the Society and the Greenway Estate passed to Christie's grandson, Mathew Prichard. After his parents' deaths, Prichard donated Greenway and its contents to the National Trust.[83][89] The Society is now chaired and managed by Christie's great-grandson James Prichard.[90]

Christie's family and family trusts, including James Prichard, continue to own the remaining 36% stake in Agatha Christie Limited,[86] and remain associated with the company. James Prichard became the company's chairman in October 2015.[91][92] The development of Christie's work continues apace.[93] Mathew Prichard in his own right holds the copyright to some of his grandmother's later literary works (including The Mousetrap).[33]:427

In 1998, Booker sold a number of its non-food assets to focus on its core business.[88] As part of that, its shares in Agatha Christie Limited (at the time earning £2.1m annual revenue[88]) were sold for £10m to Chorion,[88] a major international media company whose portfolio of well-known authors' works also included the literary estates of Enid Blyton and Dennis Wheatley. In February 2012, some years after a management buyout, Chorion found itself in financial difficulties, and began to sell off its literary assets on the market.[86] The process included the sale of Chorion's 64% stake in Agatha Christie Limited to Acorn Media U.K.[94] In 2014, RLJ Entertainment Inc. acquired Acorn Media U.K., renamed it Acorn Media Enterprises, and incorporated it as the RLJE UK development arm.[95] RLJ Entertainment Inc. was founded by American entrepreneur Robert L. Johnson.

In late February 2014, media reports stated that the BBC had acquired exclusive TV rights to Christie's works in the UK (previously associated with ITV) and made plans with Acorn's co-operation to air new productions for the 125th anniversary of Christie's birth in 2015.[96] As part of that deal, the BBC broadcast Partners In Crime[97] and And Then There Were None,[98] both in 2015. Subsequent productions have included The Witness for the Prosecution[99] but plans to televise Ordeal by Innocence at Christmas 2017 were delayed due to controversy surrounding one of the cast members.[100] The three-part adaptation aired in April 2018.[101] A three-part adaptation of The A.B.C. Murders starring John Malkovich and Rupert Grint began filming in June 2018 for later broadcast.[102]

Writings

Works of fiction

Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple

Memorial to Christie in central London

Christie's first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920 and introduced the detective Hercule Poirot, who became a long-running character in Christie's works, appearing in 33 novels and 54 short stories.[103]

Miss Jane Marple was introduced in the short-story collection The Thirteen Problems in 1927. Although Christie states that, "Miss Marple was not in any way a picture of my grandmother; she was far more fussy and spinsterish than my grandmother ever was", her autobiography does establish a firm connection between the fictional character and Christie's maternal great-aunt Margaret Miller ("Auntie-Grannie")[f] and her "Ealing cronies".[32]:422-423[104] Both Marple and Miller "always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and were, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right."[32]:422 Marple appeared in 12 novels and 20 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 Miss Marple. 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.[32]:497[105]

Christie became increasingly tired of Poirot, much as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had grown weary of his character Sherlock Holmes. By the end of the 1930s, Christie wrote in her diary that she was finding Poirot "insufferable", and by the 1960s she felt that he was "an egocentric creep".[106]

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.[107] She did marry off Poirot's companion Captain Hastings in an attempt to trim her cast commitments.[32]:268

In contrast, Christie was fond of Miss Marple. However, 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 discovered 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. Hercule Poirot - a professional sleuth - would not be at home at all in Miss Marple's world.".[104] However, Three Act Tragedy does feature both Hercule Poirot and the elderly bachelor Mr. Satterthwaite (confederate of Harley Quin).[108]

Poirot is the only fictional character to date to be given an obituary in The New York Times, following the publication of Curtain. It appeared on the front page of the paper on 6 August 1975.[109]

Following the great success of Curtain, Christie 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 although 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.[110]

In 2013, the Christie family gave their "full backing" to the release of a new Poirot story, The Monogram Murders, which was written by British author Sophie Hannah.[111] Hannah later released a second Poirot mystery, Closed Casket, in 2016[112] and The Mystery of the Three Quarters in 2018.

Formula and plot devices

Christie's reputation as "The Queen of Crime" was built upon the large number of classic motifs that she introduced, or for which she provided the most famous example. Christie built these tropes into what is now considered classic mystery structure: a murder is committed, there are multiple suspects who are all concealing secrets, and the detective gradually uncovers these secrets over the course of the story, discovering the most shocking twists towards the end. Culprits in Christie's mysteries have included children, policemen, narrators, already deceased individuals, and sometimes comprise no known suspects (And Then There Were None) or all of the suspects (Murder on the Orient Express).

At the end, in a Christie hallmark, the detective usually gathers the surviving suspects into one room, explains the course of their deductive reasoning, and reveals the guilty party, although there are exceptions in which it is left to the guilty party to explain all (such as And Then There Were None and Endless Night).[113][114]

Christie allows some culprits to escape earthly justice for a variety of reasons, such as the passage of time (retrospective cases), in which the most important characters have already died, or by active prescription. Such cases include The Witness for the Prosecution, Murder on the Orient Express, The Man in the Brown Suit, Elephants Can Remember, and The Unexpected Guest. There are instances in which a killer is not brought to justice in the legal sense but does die as a direct result of their plot, sometimes by their own hand at the direction or with the collusion of the detective (usually Hercule Poirot). This occurs in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Death on the Nile, Dumb Witness, Crooked House, The Hollow, The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, Cat Among the Pigeons, Peril at End House, Nemesis, Appointment with Death, The Secret Adversary, and Curtain. In the last of these (Curtain), no fewer than three culprits die during the course of the story.

In The A.B.C. Murders, the murderer has killed four innocent people and attempted to frame an unstable man for the crimes. Hercule Poirot, however, prevents this easy way out, ensuring a trial and hanging. In And Then There Were None, the killer's own death is intrinsic to the plot; the red herring is when and how the killer actually died. However, stage, film, and television productions of some of these mysteries were traditionally sanitized with the culprits not evading some form of justice, for a variety of reasons - e.g., censors, plot clarity, and Christie's own changing tastes. (When Christie adapted Witness for the Prosecution into a stage play, she lengthened the ending so that the murderer was also killed; this format was followed in screen versions, including the Billy Wilder film from 1957.) In Death Comes as the End, set in ancient Egypt, the culprit is killed by one of the few surviving characters before he can claim another victim.

In some stories, the question remains unresolved of whether formal justice will ever be delivered, such as Five Little Pigs and Endless Night. According to P. D. James, Christie often, but not always, made the unlikeliest character the guilty party. Savvy readers could sometimes identify the culprit by simply identifying the least likely suspect.[115]

On an edition of Desert Island Discs in 2007, Brian Aldiss claimed that Christie had told him that she wrote her books up to the last chapter, then decided who the most unlikely suspect was, after which she would go back and make the necessary changes to "frame" that person.[116] However, John Curran describes different working methods for every book in Christie's bibliography, contradicting the claim by Aldiss.[117]

Titles

Christie's mature novels, from 1940 onwards, often have titles drawn from literature.

Four are from Shakespeare:

Three are from the Bible:

  • Evil Under the Sun from Ecclesiastes 5:13 (and restated in 6:1): "There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt".
  • The Burden from Jesus' words: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me ... For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew: 11: 29-30).
  • The Pale Horse from the Revelation of St John (6:8): "I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death  ...".

Another six are from other works of literature:

In such cases, the original context of the title is usually printed as an epigraph.[119] Similarly, the title of Christie's autobiographical travel book Come, Tell Me How You Live is a quote from verse three of the White Knight's poem, "Haddocks' Eyes" from chapter eight of Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll,[120] and is a play on the word "tell", an archaeological mound.[121]

The title of The Mousetrap is purportedly an allusion to Shakespeare's play Hamlet, in which "The Mousetrap" is Hamlet's answer to Claudius's inquiry about the name of the play whose prologue and first scene he and his court have just watched (III, ii).[33]:511-512

Seven stories are built around words from well known children's nursery rhymes: And Then There Were None (from "Ten Little Indians"), One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (from "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe"), Five Little Pigs (from "This Little Piggy"), Crooked House (from "There Was a Crooked Man"), A Pocket Full of Rye (from "Sing a Song of Sixpence"), Hickory Dickory Dock (from "Hickory Dickory Dock"), and Three Blind Mice (from "Three Blind Mice"). Similarly, the novel Mrs McGinty's Dead is named after a children's game that is explained in the course of the novel.

Character stereotypes

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, non-Europeans, and sometimes Americans. For example, she described "Hebraic men with hook-noses wearing rather flamboyant jewellery" in the first editions of the collection The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930), in the short story "The Soul of the Croupier"; in later editions, the passage was edited to describe "sallow men" wearing same.

In The Hollow, published as late as 1946, one of the more unsympathetic characters is "a Whitechapel Jewess with dyed hair and a voice like a corncrake ... a small woman with a thick nose, henna red and a disagreeable voice". To contrast with the more stereotyped descriptions, Christie sometimes showed "foreigners" as victims or potential victims at the hands of English malefactors, such as, respectively, Olga Seminoff (Hallowe'en Party) and Katrina Reiger (in the short story "How Does Your Garden Grow?"). Jewish characters are often seen as un-English (such as Oliver Manders in Three Act Tragedy), but they are rarely the culprits.[122]

However, many American characters are positive characters living in the UK, and are frequently misunderstood by their British associates. The Fulbright scholar Sally Finch (Hickory Dickory Death, also published as Hickory Dickory Dock) is intelligent, attractive and innocent, even though Mrs. Nicoletis automatically assumes she will object to sharing house with students of other races. Another (foreign) student falsely labels Sally as being a fanatical anti-Communist simply because she is American (the book was written just after the McCarthy period, in 1955).[123] Anthony Browne (in Sparkling Cyanide, also titled Remembered Death), whom the book depicts as probably American, is suspected of being a spy. However, he is actually in counter-intelligence, and deduces correctly who the murderer is.[124]

In They Do it With Mirrors, Walter Hudd, though outwardly negative, appears so because he is unhappy with life on his in-laws' estate and his wife's flirtations with other men. His wife's aunt, Mildred, assumes he committed the murder, with the phrase "He's probably one of those dreadful American gangsters".[125] She is probably judging him by what a British character would have read in newspapers about American crime. Christie's father was American.[15]:1

Often, she is affectionate or teasing with her prejudices. After four years of war-torn London, Christie hoped to return some day to Syria, which she described as "gentle fertile country and its simple people, who know how to laugh and how to enjoy life; who are idle and gay, and who have dignity, good manners, and a great sense of humour, and to whom death is not terrible."[126]:167

She had trouble with an incompetent Swiss French nursery helper (Marcelle) for toddler Rosalind, and as a result she decided, "Scottish preferred ... good with the young. The French were hopeless disciplinarians ... Germans good and methodical, but it was not German that I really wanted Rosalind to learn. The Irish were gay but made trouble in the house; the English were of all kinds."[32]:327

Non-fiction writings

Christie published relatively few non-fiction works:

  • Come, Tell Me How You Live, about working on an archaeological dig, drawn from her life with second husband Max Mallowan
  • The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery, a collection of correspondence from her 1922 Grand Tour of the British empire, including South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada
  • Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, published posthumously in 1977

Critical reception and legacy

Often referred to as the "Queen of Crime" or "Queen of Mystery", Christie is the world's best-selling mystery writer and is considered a master of suspense, plotting, and characterisation.[127][128][129] Some critics, however, have regarded Christie's plotting as superior to her skill with other literary elements. Novelist Raymond Chandler criticised her in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder", and American literary critic Edmund Wilson was dismissive of Christie and the detective fiction genre generally in his New Yorker essay, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?"[130]

In honour of the 125th anniversary of her birth, 25 contemporary mystery writers and one publisher revealed their views on Christie's works. Many of the authors read Christie's novels first, before other mystery writers, in English or in their native language, influencing their own writing, and nearly all still view her as the "Queen of Crime", and creator of the plot twists used by mystery authors. Nearly all had one or more favourites among Christie's mysteries, and find her books good to read now, nearly 100 years after her first novel was published. Several of the authors would be very pleased to have their own novels in print in 100 years. Just one of the 25 authors held with Edmund Wilson's views.[131] Harper Collins also published a souvenir magazine Shocking Real Murders: Behind Her Classic Mysteries.[132]

The Guinness Book of World Records lists Christie as the best-selling novelist of all time. Her novels have sold roughly 2 billion copies, and her estate claims that her works come third in the rankings of the world's most-widely published books,[7] behind only Shakespeare's works and the Bible. Half of the sales are of English language editions, and the other half in translation.[133] According to Index Translationum, she remains the most-translated individual author - having been translated into at least 103 languages.[8]And Then There Were None is Christie's best-selling novel, with 100 million sales to date, making it the world's best-selling mystery ever, and one of the best-selling books of all time.[9]

In 2012, Christie was among the British cultural icons selected by artist Sir Peter Blake to appear in a new version of his most famous artwork - the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover - to celebrate the British cultural figures of his life that he most admires.[134][135]

Interests and influences

Archaeology

The lure of the past came up to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing, with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.

[32]:364

Christie had a lifelong interest in archaeology. She met her second husband, Sir Max Mallowan, a distinguished archaeologist, on a trip to the excavation site at Ur in 1930. But her fame as an author far surpassed his fame in archaeology.[136] Prior to meeting Mallowan, Christie had not had any extensive brushes with archaeology, but once the two married, they made sure to only go to sites where they could work together. Christie accompanied Mallowan on countless archaeological trips, spending 3-4 months at a time in Syria and Iraq at excavation sites at Ur, Nineveh, Tell Arpachiyah, Chagar Bazar, Tell Brak, and Nimrud. She wrote novels and short stories, but also contributed work to the archaeological sites, more specifically to the archaeological restoration and labelling of ancient exhibits, including tasks such as cleaning and conserving delicate ivory pieces, reconstructing pottery, developing photos from early excavations which later led to taking photographs of the site and its findings, and taking field notes.[137]

Christie would always pay for her own board and lodging and her travel expenses so as to not influence the funding of the archaeological excavations, and she also supported excavations as an anonymous sponsor.[137] During their time in the Middle East, there was also a large amount of time spent travelling to and from Mallowan's sites. Their extensive travelling had a strong influence on her writing, as some type of transportation often plays a part in her murderer's schemes. The large amount of travel was reused in novels such as Murder on the Orient Express, as well as suggesting the idea of archaeology as an adventure itself.[138]

After the Second World War, she chronicled her time in Syria with fondness in Come Tell Me How You Live. Anecdotes, memories, funny episodes are strung in a rough timeline, with more emphasis on eccentric characters and lovely scenery than on factual accuracy.[126] From 8 November 2001 to 24 March 2002, The British Museum had an exhibit named Agatha Christie and Archaeology: Mystery in Mesopotamia, which presented the life of Christie and the influences of archaeology in her life and works.[137]

Use of archaeology in her writing

Many of the settings for Christie's books were directly inspired by the many archaeological field seasons spent in the Middle East on the sites managed by her husband Max. The extent of her time spent at the many locations featured in her books is apparent from the extreme detail in which she describes them. One such site featured in her work is the temple site of Abu Simbel, depicted in Death on the Nile. Also there is the great detail in which she describes life at the dig site in Murder in Mesopotamia. Among the characters in her books, Christie has often given prominence to the archaeologists and experts in Middle Eastern cultures and artefacts. Most notable are the characters of Dr. Eric Leidner in Murder in Mesopotamia and Signor Richetti in Death on the Nile, while many minor characters were archaeologists in They Came to Baghdad.

Some of Christie's best known novels with heavy archaeological influences are:

  • Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) - the most archaeologically influenced of all her novels, as it is set in the Middle East at an archaeological dig site and associated expedition house. The main characters include archaeologist Dr. Eric Leidner, his wife, many specialists and assistants, and the men working on the site. The novel is noted most for its careful description of the dig site and house, which showed that the author had spent much of her time in very similar situations. The characters in this book in particular are also based on archaeologists whom Christie knew from her personal experiences on excavation sites.
  • Death on the Nile (1937) - takes place on a tour boat on the Nile. Many archaeological sites are visited along the way and one of the main characters, Signor Richetti, is an archaeologist.
  • Appointment with Death (1938) - set in Jerusalem and its surrounding area. The death itself occurs at an old cave site in Petra and offers some very descriptive details of sites which Christie herself could have visited in order to write the book.
  • They Came to Baghdad (1951) - inspired by Christie's own trips to Baghdad with Mallowan, and involves an archaeologist as the heroine's love interest.

Portrayals in fiction

Christie has been portrayed on a number of occasions in film and television. Several biographical programmes have been made, such as BBC television's Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures (2004; in which she was portrayed by Olivia Williams, Anna Massey, and Bonnie Wright, at different stages in her life), and in Season 3, Episode 1 of ITV Perspectives: "The Mystery of Agatha Christie" (2013), hosted by David Suchet, who plays Hercule Poirot on television.[139]

Christie has also been portrayed fictionally. Some of these portrayals have explored and offered accounts of Christie's disappearance in 1926, including:

A fictionalised account of Christie's disappearance is also the central theme of a Korean musical, Agatha.[141]

Other portrayals, such as Hungarian film, Kojak Budapesten (1980; not to be confused with the 1986 comedy of the same name) create their own scenarios involving Christie's criminal skill. In the TV play, Murder by the Book (1986), Christie herself (Dame Peggy Ashcroft) murdered one of her fictional-turned-real characters, Poirot. The heroine of Liar-Soft's visual novel Shikkoku no Sharnoth: What a Beautiful Tomorrow (2008), Mary Clarissa Christie, is based on the real-life Christie. Christie features as a character in Gaylord Larsen's Dorothy and Agatha and The London Blitz Murders by Max Allan Collins.[142][143] A young Agatha is depicted in the Spanish historical television series Gran Hotel (2011). Aiding the local detectives, Agatha finds inspiration to write her new novel.

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Most biographers give Christie's mother's place of birth as Belfast but do not provide sources. However, current primary evidence including various census entries (for place of birth), her father's service record (for place of baptism), and Regimental histories (for her father's location) indicate Dublin is most likely correct.
  2. ^ Crime novelist Dorothy L. Sayers visited the "scene of the disappearance", and used the scenario in her book Unnatural Death.[45]
  3. ^ Although the notice placed by Christie in The Times (11 December 1926, p.1) gives the first name as Teresa, her hotel register signature more naturally reads Tressa and newspapers (see cited sources) also reported that Christie used Tressa on other occasions during her disappearance.
  4. ^ Christie herself hinted at a nervous breakdown, saying to a woman with similar symptoms, "I think you had better be very careful; it is probably the beginning of a nervous breakdown."[32]:337
  5. ^ Christie's authorised biographer includes an account of specialist psychiatric treatment following Christie's disappearance, but the information was obtained at second- or third-hand after her death."[15]:148-149,159
  6. ^ Christie's familial relationship to Margaret Miller née West was complex. From the information provided earlier in the article it can be seen that as well as Christie's maternal great-aunt, Miller was Christie's father's step-mother as well as Christie's mother's foster mother and step-mother-in-law - hence the appellation "Auntie-Grannie".

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