She is the queen of mysteries, the best-selling novelist of all times and one of the most prolific writers with 66 detective novels and 14 short story anthologies to her name. She wrote the longest running play, The Mousetrap which has played in London since 1952 and our mystery guest wrote also under the pen name Mary Westmacott. Did you pick up on the clues? Who is she?
I’m an ardent fan
Yes, She’s Agatha Christie, the world famous, most celebrated detective-story writer. I have been one of her fans since a teenager. My daughter as a young teen followed along. Together, we collected the full 75 of her novels from markets and bookstores. We subscribed to the Poirot DVD collection and magazines. We’ve watched all the film versions of her books. They are still popular, so new versions keep being made, competing with each other to include famous stars. I am a self-confessed Agatha tragic (as well as a Titanic tragic.)
What I love about Agatha, apart from her delicious mysteries, is the woman herself. Having read everything about her and her autobiography countless times, I can tell you that she was a very humble, natural, unpretentious person, unaffected by her world-wide fame.
A Humble Writer
When asked what her writing space was like, what did she need to write, Agatha laughed. ‘Why, I just need a little table somewhere, some paper, my old, battered typewriter and off I go.’ Apparently, her stories with their twists and turns, sprinkle of clues and trail of red herrings are already there in her head, bursting to come out and be put on paper. She’s a natural. No writer’s block, no hesitancy, two or three books a year, no worries.
When one of her books was first made into film and she went to the premiere, she asked why there was such a crowd. ‘It’s for you, Ma’am.’
‘No, it couldn’t be,’ she protested. Agatha snuck away into the crowd and queued up with the patrons. When asked about her absent ticket, she told the usher she was the writer, could she go in free? Disbelieving her, he barred her entry and called the manager. They were amazed to discover that this plain little lady was the great queen of mystery herself.
Indeed, as Agatha aged, she resembled anyone’s granny. By then she was married to Sir Max Mallowan, the archaeologist, and travelled the world to his digs in Mesopotamia, now part of modern Iraq. She was an adventurous, no-frills woman, not one for glamour or the bright lights, nor interested in her fame. She wrote because she loved writing, and loved puzzles. How good is that.
Agatha and the Modern Reader
Some modern readers admittedly may find her stories xenophobic but that is how the world was in the 1920’s up until 1976, the year of her death. She was a woman of her time, reflecting its attitudes and values, like we all are. The post-war English were wary about the influx of post-war refugees flocking into their country.
Yet despite her now cringe-worthy comments about foreigners, she made one of them her most loved character, Hercule Poirot, the little dapper Belgian refugee detective. In fact, Agatha was a champion for the marginalized. Both Poirot and Miss Marple existed at the margins of society. Neither could be suspected of outdoing the police in solving a crime.
But they both do, time and again. Unsuspected, quietly working their little grey cells, they outsmart the outraged police constables, even Scotland Yard. It’s a victory for the small man, the foreigner and the little old lady. In Agatha’s world there would have been many spinsters and maiden aunts. The Great War and World War II took the flower of British manhood leaving many girls unable to marry. Jane Marple hints at a long-lost love lost in the war as does Poirot. He too, had a past.
Agatha Miller was born in Torquay in 1890 to older, well-off parents. Like Beatrix Potter, she was home schooled in her nursery and had lots of pets running about in a rambling house and garden. Agatha had imaginary friends called the kittens that she talked to and wrote stories about. It was her sister Madge that challenged her to write a novel, as she was dabbling in writing herself. But this older sister lost interest in books and found men and left home to marry. Agatha as an only child for years, occupied herself. She had a vivid imagination, again like Beatrix Potter.
Eventually Agatha who was a very pretty, blonde child grew into an attractive, slim young woman. She went to local dances and caught the eye of Archie Christie a dashing young fellow. They became engaged in the shadow of World War One, hesitated a few times, but eventually married on Christmas Eve 1914. He served his country in The Great War and luckily survived.
Dark Days for Agatha
During the dark years of the war, Agatha volunteered as a nurse and worked in the hospital dispensary. It was here that she learnt about poisons and had the idea for her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles where the victim succumbs to poison. It was the beginning of a seemingly never-ending flow of writing for young Agatha.
Her first attempt at writing had been some years before the success of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She wrote a novel called Snow Upon the Desert that was rejected by six publishers. It seems to be unavailable still as a book, though exists as a manuscript in the archives of her estate.
Agatha kept writing despite the rejection and becoming a mother to a daughter, Rosalind, her only child. Agatha and husband, Archie were happy enough until her mother died. Agatha went into deep mourning and took herself off to her childhood home for weeks, while she sorted through the old house and grieved for her mother, probably her lost childhood as well.
It was during this time, 1926, that Archie had an affair with his secretary and decided he didn’t love his wife anymore. He told a startled Agatha that their marriage was over. She was still mourning her mother and now had to mourn her marriage as well.
It was a dark time for the writer. She disappeared for ten days, and no one could find her. Her car was found abandoned in a quarry. Unwittingly, she created a real-life mystery with herself in the star role. Strangely, she was located at a small hotel in Harrogate registered under the name of Archie’s mistress. This is one episode of her life that Agatha passes over in her autobiography. She must have wanted to mentally erase the traumatic incident.
Agatha Sets Off for Adventure
Afterwards, divorce started, she left her daughter in care and took off further afield. She went to Paris and boarded the train to Istanbul, then onto Mesopotamia. The train was The Orient Express. At the end of her second journey to these parts she met, by chance through friends, her next husband, the archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan. Though he was 13 years younger, they hit it off. Agatha was most interested in his work (and men love that.) He was unaware of her writing, and knowing her, she probably dismissed it as a little hobby of hers, despite the fact that she was earning well from her books by then.
In fact, even her first novel sold well. Not many debut authors can claim that success! During the 1920s and her stress over a failed marriage, she turned to thrillers, James Bond style stories with dark villains and political intriguing plots. These novels, The Big Four and The Secret Adversary, 1922 are not as well received as her classic detective stories. The 1920s was the time of the Flappers but Agatha continued to do her own thing.
Agatha had not quite realized her strengths and was no doubt experimenting with other genres. Her few later attempts at thrillers in the 1950’s again were not hailed as brilliant, The Pale Horse, 1961 and N or M, 1941. Her six novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott offer a different style. They are partly autobiographical and sweet love stories. She wrote a number of plays as well and ten short story collections.
Agatha and the Cosy Mystery
Finally, thankfully, she settled into the cozy mystery genre set in the ubiquitous English village with the inevitable vicar and cast of landed gentry and their servants. She later interspersed these with murder stories set in Mesopotamia, Murder in Mesopotamia,1936, in Egypt, Death on the Nile,1937, in Europe, Murder on the Orient Express, 1934 and The Mystery of the Blue Train,1928, and South Africa, The Man in the Brown Suit, 1924.
Agatha’s one regret was creating Hercule Poirot as past middle-aged. She didn’t anticipate that he would have to last many decades, along with the already aged Miss Marple. It constrained her to a time. She couldn’t use these characters in novels set too much later in the century. Eventually Poirot dies off in Curtain,1975, shortly before her own death.
Agatha borrowed from Arthur Conan Doyle to create a sidekick for Poirot in the form of Captain Hastings, just as Sherlock had in Watson. These sidekicks are not as smart and ask questions as the reader would mentally. It is a successful way of revealing how the detective is thinking as he chats with his curious sidekick. Captain Hastings and Poirot present a comic duo and add to the novels.
At any airport or train station you used to be able to spot someone reading one, no matter their nationality. Maybe not so much now, as everyone has their nose in a phone, in what is called ‘Phubbing’..
Using detective skills, I could spot an Agatha at twenty paces, as I know all the titles! Even translated, they are mostly recognizable. Her most popular novel, at over a million sales, is And There Were None, 1939, also called Ten Little Niggers in USA, (possibly not anymore though.)
Agatha in Film
Many of her novels have made excellent films, Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun and Murder on the Orient Express being probably most popular and revisited with modern re-makes. Agatha Christie novels have been translated into every language under the sun. Over thirty films are based on her works.
Recently, some writers have attempted to copy her work and write in her style, re-establishing the cozy mystery genre. This is encouraging! But they will never trump Agatha, the queen of mysteries.
Recognition for the Queen of Mysteries
Agatha was awarded many accolades for her services to literature and entertainment. She became a fellow of The Royal Society of Literature in 1950 and appointed a CBE in 1956. She was later promoted to Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1971, making her Dame Agatha Christie, three years after Max Mallowan was knighted. Therefore, she could also call herself Lady Mallowan, though I doubt she did.
In later years of their mostly happy marriage Max took a mistress who was also an archaeologist and friend. They married soon after Agatha’s death just as Archie married his secretary a week after he and Agatha divorced. Men behaving badly again.
Agatha, as a woman hated crowds and was a shy, modest woman, despite her talents. She loved animals and gardens. Her last home, Greenaway in Dartmouth now resides with The National Trust. She is remembered as an amazing woman who leaves a legacy of literature and film.
P.S I could not resist putting Agatha (first name only) in my latest World War One novel as a friend to my character, Dorothy who works in a hospital dispensary. Stay tuned, if interested readers. The novel, Time, heal my Heart is soon to be released.
Photo Source: Unsplash
Joni Scott is an Australian author with two published novels: Whispers through Time and The Last Hotel. Joni also co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.
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