Agatha Christie Biography

Agatha Christie is the mother of all mystery writers. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the success of novelists such as Mary Higgins Clark without the work of Agatha Christie behind them. Christie’s prolific (and prolifically successful) output has secured her a unique position among mystery writers and in popular fiction as a whole. Though she was often chided by critics for skimping on character in favor of plot, Christie created two of the most memorable sleuths in mystery fiction with the characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Together, these two detectives solved the majority of Christie’s twisty plots. Due to her extensive travels with her second husband, Christie’s stories took place all over the globe, from England to the Middle East.

Facts and Trivia

  • Along with the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie’s novels rank among the best-selling of all time, with printed copies numbering in the billions.
  • Christie’s success wasn’t limited to writing novels. The initial production of her play The Mousetrap has been running for 55 years and counting. That’s more than 20,000 performances.
  • One of the reasons poison figures so prominently as a means of murder in her books is because Christie worked with pharmaceuticals during World War I.
  • One of Christie’s greatest mysteries occurred in her real life rather than her written work. She disappeared for ten days in late 1926. While she would later attribute her disappearance to depression brought on by family trauma, others wrote it off as a publicity stunt.
  • Many of Christie’s plays and novels were turned into successful films, including the Academy Award-nominated Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974 and 2017).

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1906

Article abstract: Because of her ingenuity in devising plots, her skill in creating characters (particularly detectives such as Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot), and her genial humor, Christie won international fame and a considerable fortune as the best-selling detective story writer in history.

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Early Life

Agatha Miller was born September 15, 1890, in the seaside English town of Torquay. Although her father, Frederick Alvah Miller, was a New York businessman, he had settled in Torquay with his English wife, née Clarissa Margaret Beochmer, the daughter of a military officer who had died young. Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was the third child in the family.

At their country home, Ashfield, the Millers lived the pleasant life of the prewar English gentry, depending on their servants for the care of the large house and of the young children. Perhaps because she was shy, Agatha was educated at home until she turned sixteen, when she spent two years at a finishing school in Paris. Even as a child, she dabbled in writing. Later, she had some poems published. The important business of life, however, was to find a husband.

There was no shortage of candidates. With her fine features, fair complexion, gray eyes, striking reddish-gold hair, and, above all, her lively personality, Miller was popular. Yet she did not lose her heart until she met handsome, dashing Lieutenant Archibald Christie, of the Royal Field Artillery. In 1914, they were married. Then he went to war, and Agatha went into nursing.

By 1916, Christie had accumulated some weeks of leave, and on a bet from her sister, she retreated to a hotel on Dartmoor. There she wrote her first detective story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). Set in a seaside town like Torquay, the novel introduced the kind of characters which were to be typical of Christie: ladies and gentlemen of the British upper classes and their servants. This first novel was also significant because it introduced the Belgian detective who was to appear in many of her later works: the vain, precise, and delightful Hercule Poirot. Although at the time no one realized it, certainly not Christie herself, a career which was to make her famous throughout the world had begun.

Christie had already demonstrated the qualities which would ensure her success. The vivacity which had attracted Lieutenant Christie could sparkle in her works. The firsthand knowledge of life in a country house would serve her well in stories which so often have such a setting, where murder is more fascinating because it seems impossible. Above all, the discipline which she had evidenced in her nursing years would be necessary for the long career in which she wrote at least one book every year for fifty-six years.

Life’s Work

Even before the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920, Christie was at work on another book, The Secret Adversary (1922), which introduced her seemingly scatterbrained detective couple, Tuppence and Tommy Beresford.

Although her first novel sold only two thousand copies, by 1926 Christie’s earnings were substantial. She had a country home, a daughter, Rosalind, a satisfying career, and a handsome husband. The year which saw the publication of her seventh book, however, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), was one of personal disaster. Not only did her beloved mother die, but also Christie discovered that her husband was involved with an acquaintance of hers named Nancy Neele. On December 3, 1926, began the great mystery of Christie’s own life. She disappeared, and despite the publicity that her name now attracted and the efforts of police throughout England, she was not found until December 14, when she was spotted at a Harrowgate hotel, where she was registered as “Mrs. Neele.” Whether she planned her disappearance or had some kind of mental breakdown, perhaps amnesia, has never been determined. At any rate, she was divorced in 1928. Meanwhile, she continued to write, completing The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), which used as its setting the boat-train on which she and her husband had traveled during the unhappy final period of their marriage.

In 1930, Christie’s fortunes took a turn for the better. In September, she married the archaeologist Max Mallowan, whose enthusiasm for his profession she had come to share, and with whom she lived happily until her death. In that year she also published Murder at the Vicarage, the book in which her spinster detective Miss Jane Marple first appeared, a character who would reappear in sixteen books. The decade of the 1930’s was also her most productive period, with the publication of twenty-four books, four in 1934 alone. During this decade, too, her books found a market in the United States. Yet although her reputation was established and her sales were dependable, it was during World War II that she became a publishing phenomenon, with first-year figures reaching thirty thousand and rising to sixty thousand by the publication of her final book.

In 1928, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had been turned into a play, Alibi, which had a successful run in London, despite the writer’s displeasure with what amounted to the annihilation of her character Hercule Poirot. Other adaptations followed, attaining success both in London and in the United States, and Christie became determined to write her own stage plays. Although a historical drama set in the Middle East, “Akhnaton,” was never produced, Christie was successful in dramatizing mysteries, such as the play called Ten Little Indians (1944) in the United States. While works such as Witness for the Prosecution (1953-1954) attained critical acclaim and financial success, the play which set a theatrical record was The Mousetrap, which has been running in London since 1952, ranking as a tourist attraction along with the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace.

As the years passed, both Christie and her husband continued their work, traveled, enjoyed country life, and collected honors. In 1956, Christie was named Commander of the British Empire; in 1968, Max Mallowan was knighted; in 1971, Christie was named Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire, enabling her to choose between the titles of Dame Agatha, in her own right, and Lady Mallowan as the wife of Max Mallowan. In that year, at eighty-one, she published her eighty-first book. When she was eighty-four, she attended the London premiere of the star-studded film Murder on the Orient Express (1974), a critical and popular success. There were still books to be written. In 1975, frail but determined, she took Hercule Poirot back to Styles for Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case and his death. With her last mystery, she turned once more to the indomitable Miss Marple in Sleeping Murder (1976). Unlike Poirot, Miss Marple was left alive to confound the British constabulary.

On January 12, 1976, Dame Agatha Christie died at her home in Wallingford, England, with her husband beside her. She left a personal fortune the extent of which has never been disclosed and a reputation which remains undiminished.

Summary

Agatha Christie’s popular success is certainly rooted in her subject matter and in the times in which she wrote. After World War I, it was becoming apparent that the leisurely life of the British gentry was doomed. In the years of postwar disillusionment, people wished to move imaginatively into a society which seemed indestructible and which survived even the violent act which her genre necessitated. During the depression years, the demand for escape continued—escape through pretended participation in country house society and escape through the analytical process which was necessary if one would outguess the writer. It is significant that the sharp rise in Christie’s sales came with World War II, when her readers’ need for escape to a stable and serene society became even more urgent. Whether it takes place on a Nile cruise ship, on a train, or in a country house, an Agatha Christie murder is primarily cerebral. Once it is solved, everything goes back to normal. During World War II, such guarantees could be found only in books such as those Christie wrote, set in a society which would never again exist.

Yet the fact that her kind of writing suited the times in which she wrote does not account for Christie’s immense popularity in a genre which attracted many other writers. Her readers respond to her superlative artistry. Without cheating in any way, Christie preserves suspense to the very end of the book, when it becomes clear that the clues which enable a Poirot or a Miss Marple to solve the crime have been evident throughout the novel. Christie’s control of her plots is merely one aspect of that self-discipline which is characteristic of her and her works. Christie enthusiasts have sought to find flaws in her facts, only to discover that whether she deals with timetables or with poisons, she has checked every detail in her stories. Finally, her characterization is so vivid that readers have regularly quarreled with dramatized depictions of characters whom they felt they knew from her books.

Christie’s importance to her genre goes beyond the dozens of books which continue to be reprinted and reread. Because she maintained such high standards of discipline and verisimilitude, she has influenced both writers and readers: writers, because they have a measure of excellence toward which to strive, and readers, because they will continue to demand work approaching that of the “Queen of Crime.”

Bibliography

Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1977. Although published the year after her death, this book, which was written over a fifteen-year period, concludes in 1965, when the author was seventy-five years old. While her mysterious disappearance in the 1920’s is not explained, probably because of Christie’s instincts for privacy, there are interesting details about happier events and comments about the creation of her works which are invaluable.

Christie, Agatha. Come, Tell Me How You Live. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1946. Published under the name of Agatha Christie Mallowan, a lighthearted book of reminiscences about archaeological experiences with Max Mallowan, her husband, in the Middle East. Reflects the happiness of Christie’s second marriage, as well as her own sense of humor.

Keating, H. R. F., ed. Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977. A collection of essays by several writers on topics varying from sales figures and Christie’s audience in the United States to her plays and films. Also includes interesting “portraits” of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.

Mallowan, Max. Mallowan’s Memoirs. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1977. Finished just before his wife’s death, this autobiography of Mallowan is helpful both for the details concerning Christie and for the revelation of Mallowan’s own personality. Because both he and his profession were of central importance to Christie, an important source.

Robyns, Gwen. The Mystery of Agatha Christie. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Publishing Co., 1978. A carefully researched biography of Christie. Study of sources is admirable; organization is confusing, however, and the style is so choppy as to impede understanding.

Symons, Julian. Mortal Consequences: A History from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1972. An illuminating study which places the Christie books in a larger perspective, pointing out the later deviations from the conventions of the classic mystery.

Toye, Randall. The Agatha Christie Who’s Who. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. A fascinating reference. Traces the many appearances of characters such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. Identifies minor characters. Particularly useful for the Christie enthusiast.

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