Real life: The amazing Agatha Christie
The life of the world-famous crime novelist was shrouded in mystery,
Agatha Christie is rightly known as the Queen of Crime.
With 66 detective novels and 14 collections of short stories, as well as poems, plays and memoirs to her name, she is the best-selling novelist in the world. Beaten only by the Bible and Shakespeare, her publications have sold around two billion copies, and have been translated into at least 103 different languages. But how did this unassuming woman achieve such phenomenal success?
A rich and varied life
Agatha was born in Torquay in 1890, and grew up in a wealthy, happy household. Mostly educated at home, she was a shy child who loved to invent stories. She also read widely, choosing detective novels such as the Sherlock Holmes stories and Wilkie Collins’ mysteries as her favourites. One day, her older sister Madge challenged her to write a detective story of her own. So, in 1916, in the middle of World War I, Agatha began the novel that would become
her first book, The Mysterious
Affair at Styles, eventually published in 1920.
During the war, Agatha was a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse in a Red Cross hospital in Torquay. On Christmas Eve 1914, she married a young military
officer, Archibald (Archie)
Christie. During her time at
the hospital, Agatha qualified as an apothecary’s assistant, which gave her a useful knowledge of medicines and poisons, both of which play an important part in The Mysterious Affair at Styles
– so much so that The Pharmaceutical Journal gave her book a review.
The plot, which introduces the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, followed a now familiar pattern: a murder in a country house, multiple suspects (all with something to hide) and a brilliant detective who eventually solves the crime.
A mysterious disappearance
In 1919, Agatha and Archie had a daughter, Rosalind. During the early 1920s, Rosalind remained in England while the couple toured the world to promote the British Empire Exhibition of 1924–1925. But, when Archie fell in love with a
golfing friend, Nancy Neale, things fell apart, and he eventually asked Agatha for a divorce. On 3 Dec 1926, the pair quarrelled in their Sunningdale home and, that night, Archie left his wife to
join Nancy. Agatha also left the house the same evening.
The following day, Agatha’s car was found abandoned above a chalk quarry, and she was reported to have ‘disappeared’. A huge police hunt was launched and, 10 days later, on 14 December, Agatha was found in a hotel in Harrogate. But when
Archie came to collect Agatha, she apparently didn’t recognise him.
What really went on during those days remains a mystery to this day, but whether it was an attempt to get her own back on Archie or whether her mind was genuinely affected, no-one will ever know. However,
she was officially diagnosed with amnesia, possibly caused by concussion.
Following her divorce in 1928, Agatha decided to
fulfil a long-held ambition to travel on the Orient
Express. She went to Istanbul and Baghdad, and subsequently on to the archaeological site of Ur, where she was introduced to a young archaeologist called Max Mallowan. Although he was 13 years her junior, Agatha got on famously with Max, and, in September 1930, they married. It was a marriage that remained strong to the end of her life.
In the mid-30s, the couple bought their main home in Oxfordshire, but Agatha also loved to travel with Max on his archaeological trips to the
Middle East. These journeys
strongly influenced books
such as Murder on the Orient Express, Murder in Mesopotamia and Death on the Nile.
Agatha wrote throughout World War II, and, in 1943, she adapted one of her novels, And Then There Were
None, for the stage. Nine years later, in 1952, another of her plays, The Mousetrap, opened in London’s West
End. Now famously known as the world longest-running play, the iconic murder mystery has been performed without a break for 66 years!
The 1950s produced more notable novels, including They Came to Baghdad, 4.50 From Paddington and Ordeal by Innocence. In these post-war years, Agatha was appointed Commander of the Order of the British
Empire in the 1956 New Year’s Honours, and made a Dame in 1971.
The last time Agatha appeared in public was on the opening night of the
1974 film Murder on the
Orient Express. Apparently, Agatha commented that Poirot’s moustache wasn’t luxuriant enough!
Just over a year later, on 12 January 1976, Agatha Christie died, aged 85, at her home in Wallingford. That evening, out of respect, the West End theatres dimmed their lights for an hour.
running for 66 years and counting…
As a young girl
With first husband Archie
Agatha at the height of her fame
✿ With second husband Max