It is no mystery that when you hear the name Agatha Christie your imagination conjures up quirky English characters, in the most glorious of English settings, and of course a murder or two. But the story behind the bestselling author of all time is also a fascinating one and is full of clues as to how she devised such devious and devilish crimes.
She was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on 15 September 1890, in a magnificent Victorian manor house, named Ashfield, in Torquay, Devon on the glorious south-west coast of England.
This seemingly quintessential English author had an American father, a stockbroker named Frederick Alvah Miller, who fell in love with England (and indeed, the English woman he married) and decided to call it home. Agatha’s mother, Clara Boehmer, was an avid reader, and according to her daughter, quite the storyteller.
The youngest of three children, Agatha’s childhood was a solitary one, as her older siblings were sent away to school. She was educated at home by her mother and became a voracious reader from an early age, immersing herself in the classic children’s books of the day.
When Agatha was eleven, her beloved father died of a heart attack which left the family in a turbulent financial situation. Despite this they managed to maintain their beloved home of Ashfield while the relationship between Agatha and her mother strengthened, becoming best friends and confidantes.
(Ashfield house was demolished in 1960’s which brought Agatha to tears. A monument marks the spot where her childhood home once stood.)
At the age of sixteen Agatha attended finishing school in Paris, where she studied singing and piano. This was her only formal education and while she was a natural musician, her extreme shyness and awkwardness in public prevented her from pursuing a musical career.
After her return to England, Agatha began writing poetry and music, some of which was published. She wrote her first short story “The House of Beauty” while recovering from an illness and a few more short stories would follow. Eventually she penned her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, under the pseudonym Monosyllaba, but it was rejected by publishers.
During this time Agatha attended many social events, invariably chaperoned by her mother and had four short- lived love affairs, including one broken engagement. She would eventually meet Lieutenant Archibald Christie of the Royal Field Artillery, whom she would marry on Christmas Eve 1914, following a two year engagement.
In support of the war effort, Agatha had been working as a volunteer aid dispatcher nurse in the Red Cross Torbay hospital, in Torquay. After two years of nursing casualties and being exposed to men suffering from almost imaginable injuries, she moved to the dispensary and learnt all about medicines and herbal remedies- and indeed, more significantly- poisons.
Agatha’s experiences with poisons sparked her imagination and she began writing her first mystery novel. Halfway through she experienced writer’s block so Archie (as he was referred to by family and friends) suggested she spend two weeks at a hotel in remote Dartmoor. She took his advice and the result was The Mysterious Affair at Styles in which world was introduced to one of the greatest fictional detectives of all time- Hercule Poirot.
After numerous rejections and delays as well as a change to the story’s ending, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was finally published in 1920. Her publisher, The Bodley Head publishing house, asked Agatha to write five more novels as a requirement of her contract. These books resulted in further success and lead to a lucrative writing career.
During this productive time Agatha entered a happy period in her life. Archie’s work in the air military meant that the family had to move from Devon to London and it was here, on August 5, 1919, that her only child Rosalind was born (named after the Shakespeare heroine.) Later in 1924, the family moved to Berkshire and purchased a new home which they named Styles, after that first novel.
This blissful period ended in 1927 when Agatha’s mother died. Soon after, Agatha’s marriage fell apart when Archie fell in love with another woman. Naturally she was devastated and her reaction to these events lead to one of the most curious incidents in her life and one that made headlines worldwide.
On the evening of 3rd December 1926, Agatha and Archie had a quarrel which ended with Archie leaving Styles to spend the weekend with his mistress. Later that night Agatha went upstairs, gave her daughter a kiss and then left the house, leaving behind a letter saying she was going to Yorkshire.
Her car was later discovered in Newlands Corner, near Surrey, yet there was no sign of her or any indication as to where she might be. The police launched a major search and her disappearance caused a public outcry. The news made all the papers and a reward was offered for information on her whereabouts.
Eventually she was found staying at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate. She had checked herself in under the pseudonym of Mrs. Teresa Neele- the name of the woman her husband had left her for. When asked, Agatha claimed that she must have suffered amnesia following a nervous breakdown. She was to never speak publicly about the incident again.
In 1930 on a visit to Baghdad, she met and fell in love with Max Mallowan, a man fourteen years younger. They married later the same year, and she became Agatha Christe Mallowan. Although she still published under the name Agatha Christie, her friends and acquaintances called her Mrs. Mallowan.
Max was an archaeologist of some note, and traveled the world in his pursuit of finds. Agatha often accompanied him and those travels inspired many a story she would later incorporate into her books. The two had a happy marriage that lasted forty-six years until her death.
The 1930’s were the happiest years of her life and when she wrote the most, and arguably best books of her career. She went on to pen fourteen Hercule Poirot novels, two Jane Marple novels, two Superintendent Banks novels, a book of stories featuring Harley Quin, a collection featuring Mr. Parker Pyne, four non-series mystery novels, two original plays and six psychological romance novels under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott. Very productive indeed!
In 1938, she purchased a home called Greenway in Brixham in Devon (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/greenway/), on the river Dart. Here she spent many vacations relaxing with friends and relatives until war broke out in 1939 and she returned to her duties at London’s University College Hospital’s dispensary.
This meant that she was only able to write in the evening, yet she still managed twelve additional books before the war ended. Two of those books were “Curtain,” and “Sleeping Murder,” which were intended to be the last in the series of her two greatest detectives; Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. (These books were kept secure until the 1970’s, when they were finally published, with “Sleeping Murder,” being published after her death.)
In 1956, she made the Queen’s yearly honours list and was awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1968, her husband was knighted for his archaeological works, and then in 1971 Agatha received the Order of Dame Commander of the British Empire- making her Dame Agatha Christie.
In her later years she suffered poor health and only wrote one book a year. On the 12th of January 1976, Dame Agatha died peacefully of natural causes at the age of 86. She was buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard in Cholsey, Oxon. (I remember watching it on the news, just aged eleven at the time. I felt so inspired that the following day I visited my local library and checked out one of her books.)
Dame Agatha Christie left behind an impressive legacy of over eighty books, including novels, short story collections, poetry and an autobiography. These books have sold in access of two billion copies (every title is still in print) and indeed The Guinness Book of World Records lists her as the best-selling novelist of all time.
Dozens of movies and several television series have been made based on her work. I am particular fond of fond of the 1978 film “Death on the Nile,” featuring the fabulous Peter Ustinov as Poirot. If you have never read one of her Agatha Christie’s books, I urge you to change that, as you will never look at the world quite the same way again, and it will certainly stimulate the little grey cells.
Paul Gifford is an English born full time writer who has called California home for many years. He writes under the name P.S. Gifford. He has had several dozen stories published in print and on-line magazine, been included in anthologies and has several collections of his works available at all good on-line book sellers.