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.