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Agatha Christie
1890 - 1976
 

 


Agatha Christie was the best selling mystery author of all time and the only writer to have created two major detectives, Poirot and Marple. She also wrote the longest-running play in the modern theater, "The Mousetrap".

The daughter of an American father and a British mother, Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born at Torquay in the United Kingdom on September 15, 1890. Her family was comfortable, although not wealthy, and she was educated at home, with later study in Paris. In 1914 she was married to Col. Archibald Christie; the marriage produced one daughter.

In 1920 Christie launched a career which made her the most popular mystery writer of all time. Her total output reached 93 books and 17 plays; she was translated into 103 languages (even more than Shakespeare); and her sales have passed the 400 million mark and are still going strong.

It was in her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), that Christie introduced one of her two best-known detectives, Hercule Poirot, and his amanuensis, Captain Hastings. Her debt to the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is manifest in the books in which this pair appears. Like Holmes, Poirot is a convinced and convincing spokesman for the human rational faculty (he places his faith in "the little grey cells"), uses his long-suffering companion as a sort of echo-chamber, and even has a mysterious and exotically-named brother who works for the government. Captain Hastings, like Dr. John Watson a retired military man, has much in common with his prototype: he is trusting, bumbling, and superingenuous, and by no means an intellectual. Yet occasionally he wins applause from the master by making an observation which by its egregious stupidity illuminates some corner previously dark in the inner recesses of the great mind. There is even a copy of Conan Doyle's ineffectual Inspector Lestrade in the person of Inspector Japp.

While writing in imitation of Conan Doyle, Christie experimented with a whole gallery of other sleuths.

Tuppence and Tommy Beresford, whose specialty was ferreting out espionage, made their debut in The Secret Adversary (1922); their insouciant, almost frivolous approach to detection provided a sharp contrast to that of Poirot.

The enigmatic, laconic Colonel Race appeared first in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), but, since his principal sphere of activity was the colonies, he was used only sporadically thereafter.

Superintendent Battle, stolid, dependable, and hardworking, came onto the scene in The Secret of Chimneys (1925) and later solved The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), but probably because of a lack of charisma was relegated to a subordinate role after that.

Others who debuted during this experimental period were the weird pair of the other-worldly Harley Quin and his fussbudgety, oldmaidish "contact," Mr. Satterthwaite, and the ingenious Parker Pyne, who specialized not in solving murders, but in manipulating the lives of others so as to bring them happiness and/or adventure. Pyne was often fortunate enough to have the assistance of Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, the mystery novelist who bore an uncanny resemblance to her creator.

The year 1926 was a watershed year for Christie. It saw the publication of her first hugely successful novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the narrator is the murderer, a plot twist that provoked great controversy about the ethics of the mystery writer. It was also a year of personal tragedy: her mother died, and then she discovered that her husband was in love with another woman. She suffered a nervous breakdown and on December 6 disappeared from her home; subsequently her car was found abandoned in a chalk-pit. Ten days later, acting on a tip, police found her in a Harrogate hotel, where she had been staying the entire time, although registered under the name of the woman with whom her husband was having his affair. She claimed to have had amnesia, and the case was not pursued further. The divorce came two years later.

In 1930 she married Sir Max Mallowan, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and one of Britain's foremost archaeologists. She often accompanied him on his digs in Iraq and Syria and placed some of her novels in those countries. In Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946) she wrote a humorous account of some of her expeditions with her husband.

Also in 1930, writing under the penname of Mary Westmacott, she published Giant's Bread, the first of six romances, none of which showed distinction. In that same year in Murder at the Vicarage, undoubtedly the best-written Christie novel, she first presented Jane Marple, who became one of her favorite sleuths and showed up frequently thereafter. Miss Marple was one of those paradoxes in whom readers delight: behind the Victorian, tea-and-crumpets, crocheted-antimacassar facade was a mind coldly aware of the frailty of all human beings and the depravity of some.

In the mid-1930s Christie began to produce novels that bore her unique stamp. In them she arranged a situation which was implausible, if not actually impossible, and into this unrealistic framework placed characters who acted realistically for the most realistic of motives. In Murder in the Calais Coach (1934) the murder is done with the connivance of a dozen people; in And Then There Were None (1939) nine murderers are invited to an island to be dispatched by an ex-judge with an implacable sense of justice; in Easy to Kill (1939) four murders are committed in a miniscule town without any suspicions being aroused; in A Murder Is Announced (1950) the killer advertises in advance. Also interesting in these books is Christie's philosophy that it is quite acceptable to kill a killer, particularly one whose crime is a heinous one.

In addition to her fiction, her archaeological reminiscences, the children's book Star over Bethlehem (1965), a collection of her poetry (1973), and her autobiography (1977), Christie authored 17 plays. Her own favorite was Witness for the Prosecution (1953), based on one of her novellas, but the public disagreed. The Mousetrap opened in London in 1952 and played there for over three decades, a run unparalleled in theater history. Many of her mysteries were made into movies - And Then There Were None three times - with the most successful those in which Margaret Rutherford portrayed Miss Marple.

Named a Dame of the British Empire in 1971, Christie died on January 12, 1976.



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Dame Agatha Christie [pseudonym Mary Westmacott] (1890-1976), prolific English ‘Queen of Crime’ author of world-renown created such famous detectives as Hercule Poirot, the eccentric Belgian who relied on his keen grasp of logic to nab crooks;

“Crime is terribly revealing. Try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions.”—Poirot, in The ABC Murders Ch. 17

and English spinster Miss Jane Marple (partly inspired by her maternal grandmother) who used her feminine intuition to solve crime. Her motto:

“The young people think the old people are fools, but the old people know the young people are fools.”

Some of Christie’s best-known works are The ABC Murders (1936), And Then There Were None [also known as Ten Little Indians] (1945), The Mousetrap (longest ever running stage play in London, first performed in 1952), Hickory Dickory Dock (1955), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Death on the Nile (1978). From her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) “This affair must all be unravelled from within.” He tapped his forehead. “These little grey cells. It is ‘up to them’—as you say over here.” (Poirot, Ch. 10) to her last, Sleeping Murder (1976), Christie enjoyed a career that spanned over fifty years and her works have now sold into the billions. They have been translated to dozens of languages, inspired numerous other authors’ works, and have been adapted to radio, the stage, and film. As well as a writer of crime mysteries, she also read stories for BBC Radio, wrote non-fiction, romances, plays, and poetry.

Born in the family home Ashfield in Torquay, Devon, England on 15 September 1890, Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was the youngest of the three children born to Clarissa ‘Clara’ Margaret née Boehmer (1855-1926) and American Frederick Alvah Miller (1846-1901), who died when Agatha was just ten years old. The shy and sensitive Agatha, who was very close to her mother, had an older sister, Margaret ‘Madge’ (1879-1950) and brother Louis ‘Monty’ Montant (1880-1929). The family attended All Saint’s Church where Agatha was baptised. While she received no formal education, her mother and then governesses taught her at home to read before she entered finishing school in Paris, France in 1906. Having long been encouraged by her mother to write, Agatha continued to write there while also studying music (which became a life-long love), singing, and piano.

On 24 December 1914, at the age of twenty-four, Christie married Royal Flying Corps pilot Archie Christie, with whom she would have a daughter, Rosalind (1919-2004). During WWI Agatha worked as a nurse, tending to the ill and injured, many who were displaced Belgians. Their bewilderment and personal sorrows affected her deeply. She amassed a great deal of knowledge about sicknesses and poisons such as strychnine and ricin that she often featured in her novels. Around this time she also started writing her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, an immediate best-seller. In 1926, profoundly grieving the death of her mother, Christie created some mystery of her own, disappearing for a time; when she was found she claimed that she had had a bout of amnesia.

In 1928, Archie divorced Agatha. She then set off on her first of many trips to the Middle East, travelling on the famed Orient Express from Calais, France to Baghdad, Iraq, then on to the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia. It was on her second trip there she met her future husband, archaeologist Sir Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan, (1904-1978). They were married in Scotland on 11 September 1930. She often accompanied him on digs as a member of the team, photographing and cataloguing finds. In 1960 Max was honoured as Commander of the British Empire (CBE) and in 1968 knighted for his archaeological work. Christie herself won many awards and honours in her life-time including; 1955, received the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master award; 1961, awarded an honorary degree from Exeter University; 1967, became president of The British Detection Club; and in 1971 she received England’s highest honor, the Order of the British Empire, Dame Commander.

In 1974 Christie appeared for the last time in public on opening night for her play Murder on the Orient Express. When she was not travelling the world, her and Max’s home in England was in the town of Wallingford, Oxfordshire, where she died peacefully on 12 January 1976. Max survived her by two years. They now rest together in the Parish Church cemetery of St. Mary’s in Cholsey, Oxfordshire.

“I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming that comes when you finish the life of the emotions and of personal relations; and suddenly you find—at the age of fifty, say—that a whole new life has opened before you, filled with things you can think about, study, or read about.... It is as if a fresh sap of ideas and thoughts was rising in you.”—An Autobiography (1977).
 

 

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Very prolific British author of mystery novels and short stories, creator of Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective, and Miss Jane Marple. Christie wrote more than 70 detective novels under the surname of her first husband, Colonel Archibald Christie. She also published a series of romances and a children's book.

'"And now, messieurs et mesdames," said Poirot rapidly, "I will continue with what I was about to say. Understand this, I mean to arrive at the truth. The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seeker after it. I am much aged, my powers may not be what they were." Here he clearly expected a contradiction. "In all probability this is the last case I shall ever investigate. But Hercule Poirot does not end with a failure. Messieurs at mesdames, I tell you, I mean to know. And I shall know - in spite of you all."' (from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 1926)

Agatha Christie was born in Torquay, in the county of Devon, as the daughter of Frederick Alvah Miller, an American with a moderate private income, and Clarissa Miller. Her father died when she was a child. Christie was educated home, where her mother encouraged her to write from very early age. At sixteen she was sent to school in Paris where she studied singing and piano. Christie was an accomplished pianist but her stage fright and shyness prevented her from pursuing a career in music. In her books Christie seldom referred to music, although her detectives, Poirot and Miss Marple, show interest in opera and Poirot sings in THE A.B.C. MURDERS (1936) a World War I song. When Christie's mother took her to Cairo for a winter, she wrote there a novel. Encouraged by Eden Philpotts, neighbor and friend in Torquay, she devoted herself into writing and had short stories published.

In 1914 Christie married Archibald Christie, an officer in the Flying Royal Corps; their daughter, Rosalind, was born in 1919. During World War I she worked in a Red Cross Hospital in Torquayas a hospital dispenser, which gave her a knowledge of poisons. It was to be useful when she started writing mysteries. Christie's first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introduced Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective, who appeared in more than 40 books, the last of which was CURTAIN (1975). The Christies bought a house and named it 'Styles' after the first novel.

Poirot was an amiably comic character with egg-shaped head, eccentric whose friend Captain Hastings represents the "idiot narrator" - familiar from Sherlock Holmes stories. Poirot draws conclusions from observing people's conduct and from objects around him, creating a chain of facts that finally reveal the murderer. '"He tapped his forehead. "These little gray cells. It is 'up to them' - as you say over here."' Behind the apparently separate details is always a pattern, which only Poirot is able to see.

Miss Marple, an elderly spinster, was a typical English character, but when Poirot used logic and rational methods, Marple relied on her feminine sensitivity and empathy to solve crimes. She was born and lived in the village of St. Mary Mead. Both Poirot and Marple did not have any family life, but Poirot also travelled much. Marple was featured in 17 novels, the first being MURDER AT THE VICARAGE (1930) and the last SLEEPING MURDER (1977). She was reportedly based on the author's own grandmother. Miss Marple made her first screen appearance in 1961 in Murder She Said, starring Margaret Rutherford. It was based on the novel 4:50 FROM PADDINGTON (1957). It was followed by Murder at the Galop (1963), Murder Ahoy (1964), and Murder Most Foul (1964), all directed by George Pollock. The BBC TV series starring Joan Hickson ran 1984-87. Gracie Fields played Miss Marple on television in an adaptation of A Murder Is Announced (1956).

Poirot, a former policeman, was forced to flee his country after the German invasion of Belgium in 1914. His assistant Captain Hastings married in the early 1930s and Poirot settled to London's Whitehaven Mansions. Poirot is short - only five feet four inches tall. He has waxed moustache, egg-shaped head and small feet. Poirot first appeared on screen in Alibi (1931). It was based on THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD (1926), which was partly inspired by Anton Chekhov's novel The Shooting Party (1884-1885). "Every murderer is probably somebody's old friend," Christie wrote in it. With these kind of insights in motives and methods of a murder Christie proved that she could have been a competent teacher at police academies. Peter Ustinov played Poirot in Death on the Nile (1978), Evil under the Sun (1982), and Appointment with Death (1988). David Suchet was Poirot in the UK television series (1989-91). In Murder by the Book (1986) Ian Holm's Poirot investigated his own murder. Tony Randall played Poirot in Frank Tashlin's unorthodox adaptation The Alphabet Murders (1965), in which Anita Ekberg galloped on horseback through Kensington Gardens.

In 56 years Christie wrote 66 detective novels, among the best of which are The Murder of Roger Acroyd, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1934), DEATH ON THE NILE (1937), and TEN LITTLE NIGGERS (1939). The film version of Ten Little Niggers (1945, US title: And Then There Were None) by the French director René Clair, starring Walter Huston and Barry Fitzgerald, is one of the most faithful Christie adaptations. In addition to these mysteries, Christie wrote her autobiography (1977), and several plays, including THE MOUSETRAP, which run more than 30 years continuously in London, and had 8 862 performances at the Ambassadors Theatre in London. The play was based on the short story 'Three Blind Mice', and was produced in 1952 in Nottingham and London. The original company at the Ambassadors Theatre included Richard Attenborough as the detective.

Christie's marriage broke up in 1926. Archie Christie, who worked in the City, announced that he had fallen in love with a younger woman, Nancy Neele. In the same year Christie's beloved mother died. After hearing that her husband had left for Miss Neele's house, Christie disappeared for a time. "I would gladly give £500 if I could only hear where my wife is," said Colonel Christie. The story of her real life (love?) adventure in the 1926, when she lived in a Harrowgate hotel under the name Mrs. Neele, was basis for the film Agatha. It was directed in 1978 by Michael Apted. In title role was Vanessa Redgrave. Christie's divorce was finalized in 1928, and two years later she married the archaeologist Max Mallowan. She had met him on her travels in Near East in 1927, and accompanied him on his excavations of sites in Syria and Iraq. Later Christie used these exotic settings in her novels MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA (1936) and Death on the Nile (1937). Her own archeological adventures were recounted in COME TELL ME HOW YOU LIVE (1946). Mallowan was Catholic and fourteen years her junior; he became one of the most prominent archaeologist of his generation. Of her marriage the writer told reporters: "An archaeologist is the best husband any woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her." Mallowan worked in Iraq in the 1950s but returnmed to England, when Christie's health grew weaker. His most famous book was Nimrud and its Remains.

Christie's most prolific period began in the late 1920s. During the 1930s he published four non-series mystery novels, fourteen Poirot novels, two Marple novels, two Superintendent Battle books, a book of stories featuring Harley Quin and another featuring Mr. Parken Pyne, an additional Maru Westmacott book, and two original plays. In 1936 she published the first of six psychological romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. After visiting Luxor in 1937, where Christie saw Howard Carter, she wrote the play AKHNATON, which was not published until 1973. It dramatized the fate of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaton, who tried to replace the old gods with monotheism, and Nefertiti, his wife. Curiously, the Finnish writer Mika Waltari, who gained later international fame with his historical novel The Egyptian (1945), wrote also in the same year a play about the same king, Akhnaton, auringosta syntynyt (1937). Christie's play was prodeced in New York as Akhnaton and Nefertiti in 1979 and next year in London.

During WW II Christie worked in the dispensary of University College Hospital in London. She also produced twelve completed novels. After the war she continued to write prolifically, also gaining success on the stage and in the cinema. Witness for the Prosecution, for example, was chosen the best foreign play of the 1954-55 season by the New York Drama Critics Circle. Play had opened in London in October 1953 and by December 1954, it was on Broadway. With Max Mallowan she traveled in 1947 and 1949 to expeditions to Nimrud, the ancient capital of Assyria, and in the Tigris Valley.

Among the many film adaptations are Murder on the Orient Express (1974), directed by Sidney Lument and with Albert Finney as Poirot, and Death on the Nile (1978), with Peter Ustinov as Poirot. (see list below) Both films were nostalgic costume dramas. Sidney Lumet wrote in Making Movies (1995) that clothes contribute an enormus amount to the style of the picture. "When Betty Bacall makes her first appearance in Murder on the Orient Express, she's wearing a full-length peach-colored bias-cut velvet dress with a matching hat and egret feather. Jacqueline Bisset, for her first appearance, wears a full-length blue silk dress, a matching jacket with a white ermine collar, and a tiny pillbox hat with a feather... The object was to thrust the audience into a world it never knew - to create a feeling of how glamorous things used to be." Even the small parts in Murder on the Orient Express was filled by famous stars. Richard Widmark was the victim, Lauren Bacall the American matron, Vanessa Redgrave the lady with the husband, Ingrid Berman the nurse, and John Gielgud the Jeeves character. Also Sean Connery and Anthony Perkins appeared.

According to Billy Wilder, Christie herself considered his Witness for the Prosecution the best film adaptation of her work. Wilder rewrote with Harry Kurnitz Christie's dialogue but did not change the clever plot with a surprise ending. In the film Charles Laughton was Sir Wilfrid, a barrister, who defends Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), an inventor, accused of murdering a middle-aged widowed woman. Marlene Dietrich was his German wife Christie, an actress, eager to testify against her husband. Wilfrid has just recovered from a severe heart attack. The role of his dominating nurse, Miss Plimsoll, was played by Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester. In one scene she threatens to resign, if Wilfried doesn't go to sleep. "Splendid," he replies. "Give her a month's pay and kick her down the stairs." Dietrich's performance had everything - she sang, kissed passionately Tyrone Power, said "I never use smelling salts because they puff up the eyes," and had a double role as a hard Cockney woman and a coldly articulating German woman. She was very disappointed when she did not even earn an Oscar nomination.

Christie's characters are usually well-to-do people. Often the comfortable lifestyle of his characters is undermined by financial problems, which lead to murder. Although her villains use very complicated plans, they are not impossible, but are firmly grounded on the everyday reality: "Miss Lyall's hobby in life, as has been said, was the study of human beings. Unlike most English people, she was capable of speaking to strangers on sight instead of allowing four days to a week to elapse before making the first cautious advance as is the customary British habit." (from 'Trinagle at Rhodes' in Murder in the Mews, 1937) In many stories the reader is fooled to suspect an innocent character, but most innovative Christie was when she revealed the guilty party: it has been the narrator, a group of people, a serial killer who tries to hide an obvious motive for his killing one of the victims, and so forth. Christie's world view was conservative and rational, but there is always a place for accidents: "'...Does it not strike you that the easiest way of removing someone you want to remove from your path is to take advantage of accident? Accidents are happening all the time. And sometimes - Hastings - they can be helped to happen!'" (from Dumb Witness, 1937). Christie gives always a logical explanation for crimes, but society is not blamed. Murder is not a sign of degeneration of middle-class values. After the crime is solved, life continues happily. Although Christie's writing career spanned over six decades, she was conscious of social change without fixating on the period between the two World Wars. "When I reread those first books," she said in 1966, "I'm amazed at the number of servants drifting around. And nobody is really doing any work, they're always having tea on the lawn." However, she did not like editing her own text and was even reluctant to change the spelling unless a word has actually been misspelt.

By 1955 Christie had become a limited company, Agatha Christie Ltd, which was acquired in the late 1960s by Booker Books. It had already acquired Ian Fleming. In 1967 Christie became president of the British Detection Club, and in 1971 she was made a Dame of the British Empire. Christie died on January 12, 1976 in Wallingford, Oxforshire. Mallowan died two years later, but he had married after Christie's death an old family friend. With over one hundred novels and over one hundred translations into foreign languages, Christie was by the time of her death the best-selling English novelist of all time. As Margery Allingham said: Christie has "entertained more people for more hours at time that any other writer of her generation."
 


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Partial list of Works by Agatha Christie:

Hercule Poirot:

The Murder on the Links (1923),
Poirot Investigates (1924),
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926),
The Big Four (1927),
The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928),
Peril at End House (1932),
Three Act Tragedy [also known as Murder in Three Acts] (1934),
Death in the Clouds (1935),
Murder in Mesopotamia (1936),
Murder in the Mews (1937),
Appointment with Death (1938),
Sad Cypress (1940),
Evil Under the Sun (1941),
Five Little Pigs (1942),
The Hollow (1946),
The Labours of Hercules (1947),
Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952),
After the Funeral (1953),
Dead Man’s Folly (1956),
Cat Among the Pigeons (1959),
Hallowe’en Party (dedicated to P. G. Wodehouse, 1969),
Elephants Can Remember (1972), and
Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (1975).

Miss Marple:

The Murder at the Vicarage (1930),
The Thirteen Problems (1932),
The Body in the Library (1942),
The Moving Finger (1943),
A Murder Is Announced (1950),
They Do It with Mirrors (1952),
4.50 from Paddington (1957),
The Mirror Crack’d (1962),
A Caribbean Mystery (1964),
At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), and
Nemesis (1971).

As Mary Westmacott:

Unfinished Portrait (1934),
Absent in the Spring (1944),
The Rose and the Yew Tree (1948),
A Daughter’s a Daughter (1952), and
The Burden (1956).

Other Titles include:

The Man in the Brown Suit (1924),
The Road of Dreams (poetry collection, 1924),
plays The Alibi (1928) and Black Coffee (1930),
The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930),
The Sittaford Mystery (1931),
The Floating Admiral (a collaboration with other authors including Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1931),
Parker Pyne Investigates (1934),
Murder Is Easy (1939),
They Came to Baghdad (1951),
Destination Unknown (1954),
The Pale Horse (1961),
Star Over Bethlehem (poems and children’s stories, 1965),
Passenger to Frankfurt (1970),
Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir (non-fiction, 1976), and
Agatha Christie: An Autobiography (1977).

 

 

 

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