Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Agatha Christie, The queen of Crime

Outsold only by the Bible and the Koran, she is quite literally a publishing phenomenon. Her books have been translated into sixty-four languages worldwide and to date she has sold an estimated 200,000,000 books.

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on the 15th September 1890. She was the third child of Frederick Alvah Miller, an American and Clara Margaret his English wife. She grew up in Torquay and was educated at home by her mother. At the age of fifty-five her father died, she was just eleven years old and found herself living with just her mother. Her brother Monty was in india with the army and her sister Madge was married with a family of her own. At fifteen she was sent to finishing school in France where she developed a talent for singing and playing the piano. For a while she harboured a wish to be a concert pianist. At seventeen she returned home from finishing school and went to Cairo with her mother for the winter. This trip to Egypt opened her eyes and gave her an appetite for travel, especially the Middle East, where many of her novels were based.

In 1914 Agatha met her first husband, Captain Archibald Christie. Three months before they met he had applied  to join the Royal Flying Corps. Once he had been accepted he asked Agatha to marry him. Her mother encouraged her though to wait but in the summer war broke out.
Agatha went to work in a hospital in Torquay, firstly as a nurse and later moving on to the newly opened dispensary. She was quick to learn and completed the examination of Apothecaries in London. Here she learned about the the different kinds of poisons, which she would use as the murder weapon in many of her books.

Working in the hospital had a disturbing effect on her, she feared for her beloved Archie fighting over in France and when he returned on leave for Christmas. The two were married by special licence on Christmas Eve 1914 in Bristol. On Boxing day Archie returned to France. The war years were a great strain on her, she worked tirelessly as a nurse in a surgical ward tending the wounded sent back from the front.

In the Autumn of 1918 Archie returned from France and was posted to the Air Ministry in London. He had returned a hero and was awarded the C.M.G and D.S.O, along with a promotion to Colonel. After the war the couple stayed in London and rented a small flat. Archie secured a job in the city and in late 1919 the couples only child was born Rosalind. The war had not been kind to Archie's health, he had developed sinus trouble and a nervous stomach, but the couple calmly built their life together and Agatha developed a career of her own. In 1916 she wrote her first Detective story, 'THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES'. Though it wasn't until 1920 that it came to the attention of publisher John Lane, when it did, it sold extremely well and Agatha signed a contract to write five more books. 'THE SECRET ADVERSARY' was published in 1922 followed by 'MURDER ON THE LINKS' in 1923.

In 1924 Archie accepted an offer of a job from one of his former schoolmasters Major Belcher. The job was as financial adviser on a ten month trip to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa to drum up support for the British Empire Expedition. Agatha would accompany her husband on the trip with all her travelling and hotel expenses covered.

By the end of the trip, Agatha had completed five books and acquired a literary agent. The couple decided to move from London and bought a property near the golf course in Sunningdale. Archie took up the game with gusto. Working long hours during the week and playing golf all weekend. At the end of 1924, the couple moved again. This time to a larger grander house which they named 'STYLES'. Agatha didn't care too much for golf but she did take out a subscription to nearby Wentworth golf club. In 1926, her mother died and Archie became more preoccupied with golf and his golfing friends. One of these friends was Nancy Neele, the attraction was mutual. At the beginning of August he confessed to Agatha that he was in love with Nancy. Agatha was inconsolable. Archie moved out of the house and Agatha slipped into a deep depression. In the middle of the night she got into her car and drove away from 'Styles'. The next ten days are like a plot from one of her books, a complete mystery. She was found at a hotel in Harrogate suffering from amnesia. When she recovered some time later she agreed to the divorce. The marriage ended in 1928.

In 1929 Agatha took a trip to Baghdad, where she met the famous Archaeologist Leonard Woolley and his wife Katherine. They introduced her to an archaeologist friend of theirs, Max Mallowan. The courtship was quick and the couple were married on September 11th 1930 in Edinburgh. By the same year and despite her earlier problems, Agatha had written thirteen books. John Lane, who Agatha had not had a very good relationship with, had published the first six books. She felt they had taken advantage of her ignorance in business matters. So from 1926 onwards Agatha's British publisher was now William Collins. 'THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD' being the first published title.

After Agatha and Max's marriage, she accompanied him annually on his trips to the Middle East, notably Iraq and Syria, where Agatha gathered material and wrote the books, 'MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA' 1936, 'DEATH ON THE NILE' 1937, 'APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH' 1938 and 'THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD' 1951.

Mary Westmacott was a pseudonym used by and kept secret for some fifteen years by Agatha Christie. She wrote six books. All described as romantic novels. The name Mary was her second name and Westmacott was some distant relative. The books never got the same recognition as her crime books and were only modestly successful. She wrote the first as early 1930, 'GIANTS BREAD' published by Collins. 'UNFINISHED PORTRAIT' 1934, Collins. 'ABSENT IN THE SPRING' 1944, Collins. 'THE ROSE AND THE YEW TREE' 1948, Heinemann. 'A DAUGHTER'S A DAUGHTER' 1952, Heinemann and 'THE BURDEN' 1956, Heinemann.

In 1946, Agatha wrote the Autobiographical 'COME TELL ME HOW YOU LIVE' published by Collins and under her married name Agatha Christie Mallowan. The book was a record of her travels with Max to the Middle East. Extremely rare to find today, especially in its distinctive dust jacket.

Agatha Christie created probably the two most recognised Detectives of all time. Hercule Poirot first appeared in Christie's very first novel, 'THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES'. The little Belgian Detective always immaculately dressed and with the catchphrase 'The little grey cells', appeared in thirty-three full-length novels and fifty-five short stories. Before Christie killed him off in her novel, 'CURTAIN, POIROT'S LAST CASE' 1975, Collins. She also created Miss Jane Marple and was said to have based the character on her own grandmother. Miss Marple first appeared in the book, 'MURDER AT THE VICARAGE' 1930, Collins. The character lived in the fictional village of St. Mary Mead. Christie described her as "Dear, old and fluffy with a sweet and gentle appearance and her passions in life were knitting and gossip." Miss Marple appeared in twelve books and over twenty short stories.

Agatha Christie's work of course has not only been about writing books. She has written numerous plays for television, theatre and the cinema. She holds the world record for the longest running theatre play, 'THE MOUSETRAP' which premiered on the 25th November 1952 at the Ambassadors theatre, London and is still running today. Twenty-five of her books have been made into feature length movies. Her television work is too numerous to mention. The series Poirot being a notable highlight.

Max Mallowan was Knighted in 1968 for his Archaeological work. Agatha Christie was made an honorary Dame of the United Kingdom in 1971. Agatha Christie died peacefully in 1976 aged eighty-six. The couple shared forty-six years together. She died a year after killing off arguably her greatest creation, Hercule Poirot.

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