AGATHA CHRISTIE – THE GRAND DAME OF THE BRITISH MYSTERY: Happy Birthday!!
‘I do find one’s friends are curious about the way one works. What is your method? they want to know. The disappointing truth is that I haven’t much method. I type my own drafts on an ancient faithful machine I’ve owned for years and I find a Dictaphone useful for short stories or for recasting an act of a play. I think the real work is done in thinking out the development of your story, and worrying about it, until it comes right. That may take quite a while. Once everything was in place, all that remained was to try to find time to write the thing. Three months seems to me quite a reasonable time to complete a book…On the other hand, plays I think are better written quickly.’
AGATHA’S BIRTH AND CHILDHOOD
Agatha Clarissa Miller was born on 15 September 1890. She was the daughter of Frederick Alvah Miller and Clarissa Boehmer. Agatha was the third child with her sister Madge and brother Monty ten and eleven years older. When they were away at school, she learned to create her own company in order to entertain herself. As she recounted in her autobiography, her imagination took off in the gardens of her home at Ashfield in Torquay, Devon, England. The gardens were a place of wonderment, the woods filled with secret corners and hideaways where make-believe took her over. She acted out her daydreams and dramas laying the foundation for her writing career as the Queen of Crime and becoming the storyteller she was.
Not being completely content with merely playing, she says that she taught herself to read at the age of five but her mother says she was eight years old. Her mother sent her to boarding school at the age of seven where Agatha’s favorite occupation became ‘reading a play’ and her favorite poets were Shakespeare and Tennyson. Tennyson makes perfect sense; it would have been around 1897/8 when she was in boarding school with Tennyson passing when she was two years old. Tennyson’s influence must have been a strong one given the era she was born in and one of her famous Miss Marple Mysteries, ‘The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962).
Agatha did not go to school except briefly at age thirteen, at Miss Guyer’s Girls’ School in Torquay for two days a week to study algebra and grammar. Later, in her mid-teens, she attended a short series of schools when she lived in Paris with her mother. She said her famous line about being ‘gloriously idle.’ She spoke French during her time in Paris as well as learning to draw. She studied singing and became a keen piano player. She had a piano in her home in Torquay where she lived later in life, having wonderful evenings singing with friends standing around the piano during parties.
AGATHA BEGINS TO WRITE
For Agatha Christie publication began in 1920 with the U.S. publication of her first Poirot mystery novel, ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles.’ In 1921, it was published in the U.K. What I wanted to know was when and how her writing career began? It seems her sister Madge was married in 1902 and living in a grand mansion in Cheshire, England. When her sister Agatha would stay for visits, she grew bored and ‘would strut about, muttering to myself and gesticulating’ while dreaming up some drama or romance. She continues, ‘It never occurred to me to write anything down.’ When she did, it was upon her mother’s suggestion. Her mother gave her a notebook with the first few pages taken up by laundry lists but with plenty of blank pages left. Thus, began her writing method, one she would use throughout her writing life.
The turning point for Agatha came when she worked at the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay Town Hall, during the First World War. She volunteered as a nurse and found great satisfaction in the work. Later, she joined her friend Eileen Morris in the newly opened dispensary, where together they mastered chemistry even having a mishap when their coffee machine blew up while they used it for an arsenic test! It was in April 1917 when she received her qualifying certificate putting her on the register of assistants at the Society of Apothecaries, after having been examined in her ‘skill in compounding and dispensing Medicines.’ Her experience at the hospital had given her the murder weapon, she had already worked out the plot and all she needed now was the protagonist. She remembered the Belgian refugee who had recently come to Torquay and Hercule Poirot was born with his ‘little grey cells’ and obsessive behavior. Agatha would later say she regretted creating him and in a fit of frustration she created Ariadne Oliver, the successful detective novelist who appeared in several of Agatha’s novels, alongside Poirot, who himself became frustrated with her ‘maddening’ Finnish detective hero. It would seem that she needed a creative outlet for her frustrations and a fulcrum for her beloved Poirot.
Agatha Christie completed The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916 at Moorland Hotel on Dartmoor. She would walk in the afternoons acting out the parts and conversations (much akin to Virginia Woolf’s style) then sleep for twelve hours and write furiously all morning. This hotel stay left Agatha with such a love of Dartmoor that she used it in The Sittaford Mystery with its setting on the edge of the moor.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was turned down by several publishers before she sent it to The Bodley Head but she heard nothing back. Having married Archie Christie in 1914, they lived at Ashfield setting up house there for the first time feeling such enthusiasm with a great flair for decorating. Her daughter, Rosalind, was born in 1919 and Agatha was understandably preoccupied with all things domestic. So, it came as a great surprise when she received a letter from John Lane of The Bodley Head agreeing to publish The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920. They also offered her £25. Being without an agent, and a bit ignorant of the ways of publishing, she signed a contract for five books which began the ferocious productive routine she kept up throughout her life. Towards the end of her life, reflecting back she says, ‘The nice part about writing in those days was that I directly related it to money. This stimulated my output enormously I would plan a story and in due course I wrote it.’
The Secret Adversary, Murder on the Links and The Man in the Brown Suit followed, as well as numerous short stories later published as Poirot Investigates. Her breakthrough book came upon publication in 1926 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Its plot twist caused some controversy but sales increased and her reputation soared. Sadly, for Agatha Christie, this was to be a traumatic year: her mother died, she sorted out her family home of Ashfield when her husband demanded a divorce. This all resulted in the ten day disappearance of Agatha Christie. She went to stay with her sister at Abney Hall to recuperate and for some much needed tender loving care.
Being aware of her need to fulfill contract obligations, she and her daughter Rosalind went to the Canary Islands to write The Mystery of the Blue Train based on a short story The Plymouth Express. This is where she used the train setting when she travelled to Devon. She said this was the worst book because she was still healing and forced to write it, so she finished it under obligation.
By this time Agatha Christie had an agent and she re-embarked on her career with gusto, introducing a new detective, MISS MARPLE. Miss Marple would become one of the most popular and beloved characters (sorry Poirot). She wrote The Murder at the Vicarage which was published in 1930. The following decade saw many novels stimulated by her meeting the man who would become her second husband Max Mallowan, an archaeologist just fourteen years her junior. It was in 1938 she bought their home Greenway located at Galmpton on the River Dart in Devon. This would be where she started writing her autobiography in 1950, completed in 1965. As usual Devon became the setting for her novels written during this time. For instance, Burgh Island, off the southwest coast of Devon became Smugglers’ Island in Evil Under the Sun and Soldier Island used in And Then There Were None.
Along with detective stories featuring Poirot and Miss Marple, she also wrote thrillers and poetry using the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. She wrote six ‘romantic’ novels an obvious outlet for her emotional upheavals and her childhood dreams back in the gardens and woods.
AGATHA CHRISTIE: THE LATER YEARS
In 1955, Agatha Christie Ltd. was formed, partly as a response to her finances being in dire straits. For several years she received no money from American sales due to tax investigations going back to 1938. When all was resolved she received a backlog of income from the Inland Revenue in England. The company was set up to employ Agatha and to pay her a salary to write her novels. She would write one book a year and a new pattern emerged.
P.D. James commented on the range of her plots saying, ‘over and over again she came up with something that was astonishingly ingenious.’ However, there was one mysterious aspect to Agatha’s writing that she would never giveaway: her approach to plotting remains a mystery. Her husband Max said once that she told him, ‘in writing a detective story, you begin at the end.’
Inspiration could strike at any moment. For instance, when staying with actor friends, The Sullivans they found her pacing round their swimming pool in deep absorption one day. This resulted in The Hollow. When it was published the dedication read, ‘For Larry and Danae, with apologies for using their swimming pool as the scene of a murder.’
After seeing Joan Hickson play Miss Pierce in Appointment with Death in 1946, Agatha wrote to her saying, ‘I am going back to Devon on Saturday where I shall rest up and have a think. Come and have lunch with me – I will call you to play my Miss Marple one day if I can find time to write another play-too many domestic chores.’ Joan Hickson did play Miss Marple, sadly not during Agatha’s lifetime.
Agatha Christie was scrupulous about facts, particularly where poisons were concerned. Poison was one of her favorite methods of dispatching the victim: she used it in eighty-three stories. In 1967, she wrote a letter to a Dr. Stephen Laing asking first about ethyl chloride to which he replied, ‘Yes, it is an excellent instant anesthetic.’ Then about using thalidomide in birthday cake icing she said, ‘More attractive than porridge, I think! Would the unlucky victim pass out at the tea table? Or would it be a long-term business?’ Dr. Laing, being unfamiliar with the Queen of Crime replied, ‘If it was one of those interminable Scottish teas, then the unlucky victim would certainly pass out before its end. Thalidomide takes about 30-40 minutes to act and a dose of three grains is enough to cause 6 hours of sleep at least.’
They say, ‘Write what you know’…Well, Agatha Christie certainly did so. She resurrected Mr. P the pharmacist she so vividly describes in her autobiography who kept curate in his pocket, Zachariah Osborne, a respectably dapper chemist in the Pale Horse. It was her character Ariadne Oliver in The Pale Horse (1961) who explained, ‘it’s safer, I think, to stick to what you know such as, holidaymakers on cruises and in hotels, or workers in shops and hospitals.’ In 1923, a working trip to South Africa with her husband Max bound for Cape Town appears in The Man in the Brown Suit.
In a letter to her husband written in 1931 she describes a lively but disturbing train journey on the Orient Express when the train was stranded in the Balkans because of a flood. The journey ended two days later but the circumstances and the travelers, ‘an elderly American lady, a Hungarian Minister and his wife, a large Italian and a terrible man from Chicago’ provided source material for Murder on the Orient Express, published two years later.
Some decades later, she received a letter from the novelist Daphne du Maurier from Cannes that said, ‘I have the pleasure of telling you that your paperbacks were in all the bookshops, in French and in English, and much to my mortification none of mine. I was quite put out!’
In 1959 UNESCO calculated that the Bible had been translated into 171 languages, Agatha Christie into 103, Shakespeare 90. Agatha Christie, author of 100 novels, collections of short stories and plays, remains the most translated individual author in the world.
Dame Agatha’s Poisonous Pharmacopoeia, Pharmaceutical Journal, 1978, Peter and John Gwilt
Agatha Christie An Autobiography, HarperCollins, 2001
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