Agatha Christie : The Queen of Crime
Agatha Christie (1890-1976) was an English writer known for her detective novels and short story collections, particularly those revolving around her fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Her remarkable and lasting impact on the literary scene has earned her the title – The Queen of Crime.
Agatha Christie (née Miller) was born into a wealthy upper-middle-class family in Torquay, Devon. She described her childhood as “very happy” and her time was spent alternating between her home in Devon, her step-grandmother and aunt’s house in Ealing, West London, and parts of Southern Europe, where her family would holiday during the winter.
She was home schooled until the age of eleven. In 1902, following the death of her father, she was sent to Paris to continue her education in several pensions or boarding schools.
A few years after returning to Britain she met and married an army officer called Archibald Christie. With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Archie was sent to France and Agatha served as a volunteer nurse in Torquay tending to troops coming back from the trenches. In 1917 she qualified as an apothecaries’ assistant and worked as a dispenser until the end of her service in September 1918. After the war, Agatha and Archie Christie settled into a flat at 5 Northwick Terrace in St. John’s Wood, northwest London.
She 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 treat. Agatha began writing The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916. 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 which she did. It was finally published in 1920.
Christie’s 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.
The Christies divorced in 1928, although she retained the Christie name for her writing. During their marriage, she published six novels, a collection of short stories, and a number of short stories in magazines.
In 1928, Christie left England for Istanbul and subsequently for Baghdad on the Orient Express. During this trip, she encountered her first archaeological dig and met a young archaeologist, Max Mallowan, whom she married in September 1930. Their marriage was happy and lasted until Christie’s death in 1976.
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. 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.
In 1934, she and Max Mallowan purchased Winterbrook House in Winterbrook, a hamlet adjoining the small market town of Wallingford. This was their main residence for the rest of their lives and the place where Christie did most of her writing. She died at home on 12 January 1976, aged 85 from natural causes.
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, 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. 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. 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 2017 is still running after more than 25,000 performances.
It seems the writing process was not easy, even for such a prolific writer. When asked how she went about her writing, Christie said – “There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off.”
She liked to keep an exercise book to hand for jotting down plot ideas and would carefully organise her notebooks with labels. She still managed to lose track of where she had jotted things down though, as she invariably had half a dozen notebooks on the go at the same time. She often worked on her favourite Remington Victor T portable typewriter on a sturdy table, as she didn’t have a study until late in her career. Part of the secret of her astounding productivity was that she usually worked on at least two books at the same time. She also tried dictating to her secretary, Carlotta Fisher, but felt much happier writing in longhand and then typing it out, as this helped her keeping to the point. In her later years, after she broke her ‘writing wrist’ she also used a Grundig Memorette dictaphone.
In her autobiography, Christie admitted that even after she had written ten books, she didn’t really consider herself a “bona fide author”. When filling out forms that asked for her occupation, it never occurred to her to put down anything other than “married woman.” “The funny thing is that I have little memory of the books I wrote just after my marriage,” she added. “I suppose I was enjoying myself so much in ordinary living that writing was a task which I performed in spells and bursts. I never had a definite place which was my room or where I retired specially to write.”
This caused her endless trouble with journalists, who inevitably wanted to photograph the author at her desk. But there was no such place. “All I needed was a steady table and a typewriter,” she wrote. “A marble-topped bedroom washstand table made a good place to write; the dining-room table between meals was also suitable.”
Many friends have said to me, “I never know when you write your books, because I’ve never seen you writing, or ever seen you go away to write.” I must behave rather as dogs do when they retire with a bone; they depart in a secretive manner and you do not see them again for an odd half hour. They return self-consciously with mud on their noses. I do much the same. I felt slightly embarrassed if I was going to write. Once I could get away, however, shut the door and get people not to interrupt me, then I was able to go full speed ahead, completely lost in what I was doing.
- Daily Rituals by Mason Currey