Christie Agatha (Vol. 110)
Agatha Christie 1890–1976
(Full name Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie. Also wrote as Agatha Christie Mallowan and under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott) English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, travel writer, and poet.
The following essay presents an overview of Christie's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 6, 8, 12, 39, and 48.
Called the Grand Dame of mysteries, Agatha Christie is one of the most popular and best known writers in the world. Her books have been published in hundreds of languages, her sales are said to be rivaled only by Shakespeare and the Bible, and she is credited with developing several new components of the mystery genre. In addition to her mysteries, Christie wrote romance novels under the name of Mary Westmacott and penned several plays, one of which, The Mousetrap (1952), was the longest running show in British theater.
Christie was born September 15, 1890, in Torquay, England to Frederick Alvah Miller, a wealthy American, and Clarissa Boehmer Miller. She was educated at home in an idyllic country setting similar to those of her novels. She left home to study piano and voice in Paris and met Colonel Archibald Christie, a member of the Flying Corps; the couple were married in 1914. Christie served as a nurse during World War I, first working for a Voluntary Aid Detachment in a Red Cross Hospital and later transferring to a local dispensary. During lulls in her work she began a detective novel in response to a challenge by her sister. The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) featured Hercule Poirot, inspired by the Belgian refugees near Torquay. Six publishers rejected it before it was accepted for the fee of twenty-five pounds, but the novel sold well. Christie followed her first success with several other moderately well-received works until the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), which met with a sensational response. Christie's first marriage ended in divorce in 1928; the following year, she took the Orient Express to the Middle East, where she met and fell in love with archaeologist Max Mallowan. They married in September, 1930. During World War II, Mallowan served in North Africa and Christie returned to her work in a dispensary. During that time she wrote numerous novels, including some which were not published until the 1970s. She lived a quiet life and continued writing after the war, producing a voluminous body of work. Christie died on January 12, 1976.
Christie wrote nearly one hundred mysteries during her career, as well as numerous short stories, romances, plays, and poems. Her first work, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which introduced her famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, remains one of her most noted novels. In it she established many of the elements which she continued to employ for fifty years: a country setting, a formulaic structure in which all is not what it seems, and a detective who keeps clues to himself, making a startling revelation of guilt and innocence in a final meeting of all the characters. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Christie introduced a new twist to the mystery genre by making the narrator the murderer. She introduced her second famous detective, Miss Marple, in The Thirteen Problems (1932). Miss Marple, an aged spinster aunt from the country village of St. Mary Mead, unravels crimes over her knitting, comparing suspects to her neighbors. The 1920s and 1930s are regarded as Christie's golden period, during which she wrote such classics as The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), Murder on the Orient Express (1934), The A.B.C. Murders (1936), and Death on the Nile (1937). She featured several detectives, some appearing in a single volume and other, such as Tommy and Tuppance Beresford and Harley Quinn, returning for several mysteries.
Critics have disagreed over the quesion of which Christie novel is the best; in the running are The Mysterious Affairs at Styles, The Murder at the Vicarage, Ten Little Indians (1939), Five Little Pigs (1942), and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. However, critics have agreed that Christie owes a debt to earlier crime writers such as Anna Katharine Green and Arthur Conan Doyle, who provided examples upon which Christie based her detectives and her story formulas. Scholars have also agreed that Christie had a tremendous influence on the crime novel genre. Stewart H. Benedict suggested that by allowing good people who kill bad people to escape the law in some of her cases, Christie may have created a tolerance for murder among hard-boiled writers. Gary Day argued that Christie legitimized and sanitized the readers' interests in murder: If Miss Marple, a well-bred and genteel woman, could delve into the misfortunes of others, then it was perfectly acceptable for the reader to observe them too. There is no consensus about the role Christie played in forwarding the cause of women. Such female characters as Tuppance, for instance, often exhibit spirit and independence during the investigation of a case, but conclude their adventures happily pursuing marriage and motherhood, and Miss Marple does not possess the arrogance and brilliance of her counterpart, Hercule Poirot. M. Vipond suggested that Christie's female characters represent a contradiction and reflect the changing views of the early twentieth century. Scholars and readers have also commented on the limitations and successes of the formulaic style of Christie's writing. Commentators critical of Christie's work describe her style as undistinguished, charge that her characters are stereotypical and lack depth, and lament the absence of any sociological analysis of the crimes. Some critics have also noted her less than tolerant views of other races and classes and her repeated use of the "least-likely-person" device, as well as her habit of concealing clues from the reader until the final scene.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles (novel) 1920
The Secret Adversary (novel) 1922
The Murder on the Links (novel) 1923
The Man in the Brown Suit (novel) 1924
Poirot Investigates (short stories) 1924
The Secret of Chimneys (novel) 1925
The Road of Dreams (poetry) 1925
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (novel) 1926
The Big Four (novel) 1927
The Mystery of the Blue Train (novel) 1928
Partners in Crime (short stories) 1929
The Under Dog (short story) 1929
The Seven Dials Mystery (novel) 1929
Black Coffee (drama) 1930
Giant's Bread [as Mary Westmacott] (novel) 1930
The Murder at the Vicarage (novel) 1930
The Mysterious Mr. Quin (short stories) 1930
The Sittaford Mystery [also published as The Murder at Hazelmoor] (novel) 1931
The Thirteen Problems (short stories) 1932; also published as The Tuesday Club Murders, 1933, and Miss Marple's Final Cases, 1972
Peril at End House (novel) 1932
The Hound of Death and Other Stories (short stories) 1933
Lord Edgeware Dies [also published as Thirteen at Dinner] (novel) 1933
Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (novel) 1934; also published as The Boomerang Clue, 1935
Murder on the Orient Express [also published as Murder on the Calais Coach]...
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SOURCE: "Agatha Christie and Murder Most Unsportsmanlike," in Claremont Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1962, pp. 37-42.
[In the following essay, Benedict considers the culpability of Christie's murders, arguing that Christie may have paved the way for justifiable murders in mystery fiction.]
Just as in politics the British offspring of an American mother became the symbol of Empire in a time of need, so too the most typically English mystery novels have come from the pen of an authoress who, although she can boast of almost a hundred million sales, cannot boast of one hundred percent pure U.K. blood. The lady in question is of course Agatha Christie, whose heraldry bears a transatlantic bar sinister, but who in her books has out-Harrowed the Harrovians and out-Blimped the Blimps.
Miss Christie launched her criminal career in 1920, with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and, since this first case, has finished almost seventy others and has dispatched close onto two hundred fictional victims, incidentally becoming the world's best-selling authoress in the process.
Evidently fully convinced that nothing succeeds like success, Miss Christie at the start of her career relied on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about as whole-heartedly as, say, V. I. Lenin did on Karl Marx. Her debt to the Sherlock Holmes stories can be seen in her choice of titles for novels (like The...
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SOURCE: "Agatha Christie's Women," in The International Fiction Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 119-23.
[In the following essay, Vipond attempts to clarify Christie's representation of women, arguing that Christie's female characters are products of the time.]
Agatha Christie's characters are stereotypes and caricatures, but they are not just that. They possess not simply two dimensions but two and a half. The little bit of fun gently poked at the "typical" figure, the slightly surprising or contradictory quality, the merest touch of real humanity—all make Christie's types just a bit more than cardboard puppets dancing to the choreography of the plot. In her characterization as in her puzzles, Christie found the perfect balance, the hallmark of the really skilled popular writer, between convention and invention. She gave her readers exactly what they anticipated, yet added just enough that was intriguingly new to keep them stimulated and absorbed. Her characters are recognizable and familiar individuals through whom escape and adventure can be enjoyable without being frightening.
There are a remarkable number of strong female characters in Christie's books, and only a very few of them are depicted negatively. Efficient, practical, and competent business-women, housekeepers and secretaries; successful and professional artists, actresses and authors; commanding, cultured, and...
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SOURCE: "Death Deferred: The Long Life, Splendid Afterlife, and Mysterious Workings of Agatha Christie," in Art in Crime Writing: Essays on Detective Fiction, St. Martin's Press, 1983, pp. 1-17.
[In the following essay, Grossvogel explores why Christie's works remain popular today.]
It is not uncommon for the demise of an author's popularity to coincide with his actual death, the chance of resurrection awaiting the archaeological whims of future scholars and critics. Not so Agatha Christie: even though she has been gone since 1976, even though the worlds she described are, for the most part, no longer with us, even though the very genre she helped fashion is largely obsolete—in great part because of the disappearance of those worlds—Dame Agatha, her worlds and her particular notion of a genre still seem to be defining for an exceptionally large readership.
Part of this anachronistic phenomenon seems to be due to the truly huge size of that readership developed by Agatha Christie during the course of a career that spanned well over half a century, a hundred titles (titles that number, in addition to her detective stories, plays, romantic novels written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, an autobiography, and so on), translations into more than a hundred languages: the size of that readership is impossible to evaluate accurately, but close to half a billion is the figure generally...
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SOURCE: "All about Agatha," in Horizon, Vol. 27, No. 9, November, 1984, pp. 42-5.
[In the following essay, Fryxell argues that Christie's works have not been successfully adapted for film.]
"Everybody loves a gossip," Agatha Christie once said by way of explaining her phenomenal popularity. That's why she thought her mysteries have outsold everything but the Bible and Shakespeare: people love to snoop into other people's lives. Christie let her readers snoop into lives—and deaths—ranging from those of the tea-cozy denizens of quaint English villages to the upper crust on board the Orient Express. And what better topic for really juicy gossip than murder?
The Public Broadcasting Service knows how popular the subject of murder—especially of the Agatha Christie variety—can be, as evidenced in the popularity of its "Mystery" series. Beginning November 29 (check local listings for exact times), "Mystery" presents five adaptations of Christie's "Tommy and Tuppence" mysteries. James Warwick and Francesca Annis star in the London Weekend Television productions of "Partners in Crime." Tommy Beresford and Prudence "Tuppence" Crowley were two old chums who stumbled into detection and, later in their fictional careers, into matrimony. The New York Times called their escapades "the merriest collection of detective stories it has been our good fortune to encounter." The series begins...
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SOURCE: "The Poems of Agatha Christie," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 21, No. 3, Winter, 1987, pp. 103-10.
[In the following essay, Bargainnier analyzes Christie's collection of poetry, discussing what her poems reveal about her personality.]
In her autobiography Agatha Christie wrote, "The creative urge can come out in any form: in embroidery, in cooking of interesting dishes, in painting, drawing and sculpture, in composing music, as well as in writing books and stories. The only difference is that you can be a great deal more grand about some of these things than others." Christie was never "grand" about her detective fiction, and was even less so about her poetry. Yet in 1973, three years before her death, she permitted a small volume of her "collected" poems to be published. Christie's position as the most popular British writer ever deserves some analysis of her poems and their relationship, though slight, to her fiction.
She only gave a page and a half of over five hundred pages of An Autobiography to her poetry, but that small amount indicates both her modesty and pride. Saying that she wrote poetry early, she conceded that "some of my earlier examples are unbelievably awful." She then unfairly to herself quoted one written at the age of eleven:
I know a little cowslip and a pretty flower too, Who wished she was a bluebell and...
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SOURCE: "Let's Hear It for Agatha Christie: A Feminist Appreciation," in The Sleuth and the Scholar: Origins, Evolution, and Current Trends in Detective Fiction, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 63-8.
[In the following essay, Slung argues that the female characters in Christie's mysteries provide role models for women.]
With all due respect to P. D. James and Ruth Rendell—to name two writers who have resisted inheriting the queenly mantle of Agatha Christie from over-eager blurb writers—there is no doubt in my mind that these women never should have been offered the honor in the first place. Bestsellerdom (in the case of James) or simply being British, acclaimed, and prolific (Rendell) just isn't enough to warrant succession to Christie's literary throne.
I should add here that in a recent Time magazine cover story (the international edition—it was Stephen King that week stateside), James has modified her previously stated distaste for Christie somewhat. "I write much better than she did" was how she'd once dismissed the comparison to Dame Agatha in an interview. Now, however, she has this to say: "She is a literary conjurer; she shuffles her cards with these clever hands and lays the cards face down. Each time you think you know the right one. And each time, you are wrong."
That's certainly diplomatic, carefully conveying admiration but indicating, nonetheless,...
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SOURCE: "Agatha Christie: Modern and Modernist," in The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory, Western Illinois University, 1990, pp. 120-34.
[In the following essay, the reviewers argue that Christie's writing is more complex than critics credit her.]
Agatha Christie's position in the critical discourse surrounding the detective story is an anomalous one. While Christie is the best known and most popular writer of detective fiction in this century, she has rarely been analyzed with the kind of rigor and attention that such a position would ordinarily entail. Christie's relationship to modernism, the dominant discourse of the "high" literature of her day, has been particularly slighted. Christie's position as serious artist, as not only chronologically modern but aesthetically modernist, is obscured by the view of her work that has now become canonical. This normative position on Christie is crystallized in David Grossvogel's Mystery and Its Fictions. Grossvogel accuses Christie of a formulaic certainty, of a nostalgic love for a "bucolic … England"  and a controlled, cerebral puzzle-solving mentality. Writing with many of the presuppositions of the "critics of consciousness," Grossvogel opposes this to the unpredictable, truly existential mystery to be found in Sophocles, Dostoevsky, the Book of Job. Confining himself only to Christie's first...
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SOURCE: "Ordeal by Analysis: Agatha Christie's The Thirteen Problems," in Twentieth-Century Suspense: The Thriller Comes of Age, Macmillan, 1990, pp. 80-95.
[In the following essay, Day discusses the structure of The Thirteen Problems, refuting many commonly held beliefs about the simplicity of the formulaic mystery novel.]
Critics of the detective story have commented that its appeal lies less in characterization than in the solution of a problem. Jacques Barzun writes that 'detection rightly keeps character subordinate' while George Grella comments 'that the central puzzle provides the form's chief appeal'. Generally, characters are types who perform specific functions and only the detective is allowed to be interesting.
This description derives from a certain view of the detective story as formula, and considering it on that basis it is fairly sound. However, it does beg certain questions, the most obvious being whether the majority of readers are really motivated by the intellectual pleasures attendant on successfully discovering who did it. Do they really read so attentively as to register every clue and check every alibi or is it more a case of simply wanting to know? And is this desire for knowledge, roused by the detective story, satisfied by the detective story?
There is less quarrel with the view that there is little characterization in the...
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SOURCE: "Adam, Eve, and Agatha Christie," in The Chesterton Review, Vol. 19, No. 2, May, 1993, pp. 193-99.
[In the following essay, Wren-Lewis analyzes what the success of Christie's The Mousetrap reveals about changes in popular perceptions of sin and evil.]
The longest-running play in human history is now well into its forty-first year on the London stage. Agatha Christie's detective-thriller The Mousetrap, which celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its opening on November 25th last year, has now become almost a British National Monument. When I went to its opening night, to see the young Richard Attenborough playing the detective, we were still only just emerging from the shadows of World War Two. The possibility that forty years on I'd be in Australia wasn't in my mind then, but even more remote was any thought that the play could still be going near the end of the century. And I don't think the idea crossed anyone else's mind either; Agatha Christie herself, interviewed on the then-phenomenal occasion of the play's tenth anniversary, said she had expected a run of no more than three months and was greatly buoyed by the assurance of impressario Peter (now Sir Peter) Saunders that it was good for at least a year!
In fact the extraordinary success of this rather ordinary well-made play is itself something of a mystery, and the detective in me has been stimulated to...
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Corrigan, Maureen. "Melodrama and More." Washington Post Book World XXVII, No. 16 (20 March 1997): 8.
Argues that the stories collected in The Harlequin Tea Set lack merit.
DeMarr, Mary Jean. "The Comic Village." In Comic Crime, edited by Earl F. Bargainnier, 75-91. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987.
Considers Christie's use of the village setting and its contribution to the mystery genre.
Hoffman, Nancy Y. "Mistresses of Malfeasance." In Dimensions of Detective Fiction, edited by Larry N. Landrum, Pat Browne, and Ray B. Browne, 97-101. Popular Press, 1976.
Places Christie in the historical context of women crime writers.
Johnson, Pam. Review of The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories, by Agatha Christie. School Library Journal 43, No. 11 (November 1997): 146.
Argues that while the stories in The Harlequin Tea Set are predictable, they testify to Christie's skill as a writer.
Keating, H. R. F., ed. Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977, 224 p.
Collection of essays...
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