The uncontested ‘Queen of Crime’, Dame Agatha Christie is hailed as the best-selling novelist of all time, with her works ranked third behind the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare. Her most famous and beloved characters are the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple; many of her stories about these characters have been adapted for television.
Born in Torquay, Devon, on the 15th of September 1890, Agatha was the third child and second daughter of American stockbroker Frederick Miller and Englishwoman Clara Boehmer. She grew up surrounded by strong women and was educated at home by her upper-middle-class parents, a voracious reader who described her childhood as “very happy”. She was, however, somewhat isolated from other children, and regarded her father’s early death from a heart condition in 1901 as marking, at the age of eleven, the end of her childhood.
Her mother appears to have had some difficulty in marrying Agatha off, but in 1913 she met Archibald Christie, an Indian-born army officer, and they married on Christmas Eve 1914, while he was home on leave from the First World War.
Christie herself was far from idle while she awaited her husband’s return (he was eventually stationed back to Britain in September 1918 as a colonel in the Air Ministry), performing some 3,400 hours of voluntary work with the Voluntary Aid Detachment attending to wounded soldiers at a hospital in Torquay, and qualifying as an ‘apothecaries’ assistant’ in 1917. The Belgian refugees that she met during this time would later provide inspiration for Hercule Poriot.
Christie’s early literary endeavours were not well-received, being rejected by a number of publishers, but in 1920 The Bodley Head agreed to publish her first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, on the condition that she change the ending. Although Christie would later regard her contract with The Bodley Head as exploitative, she was at last on her way.
Christie’s only child, Rosalind Margaret, was born in 1919, and over the next few years Christie would publish several more novels. Then, in 1926, Archibald Christie asked Agatha for a divorce in order to allow him to marry his lover. Christie appears to have suffered some form of crisis, and disappeared for ten days before finally being located at a hotel in Harrogate. The couple divorced in 1928, with Christie retaining both custody of their daughter and the use of her now-well-known married name. She continued to use it even after she remarried in 1930, to archaeologist Max Mallowan (later Sir Mallowan), a marriage which would last until her death.
Christie would continue to write for the rest of her life, eventually producing 66 detective novels, 14 short stories, the world’s longest-running play (The Mousetrap), and six romances, which were published under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. During the Second World War she worked in the pharmacy at University College Hospital, London, acquiring a knowledge of poisons which she would later put to good use in her novels. In the 1956 New Years Honours she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in honour of her literary works, and in 1971, three years after her husband received his knighthood for services to archaeology, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), making them one of the few couples both to have been honoured in their own right.
Dame Agatha Christie died of natural causes on 12th January 1976, and is buried in the churchyard of St. Marys, Cholsey.
Starting-points with Agatha Christie: Christie’s most famous works are ‘And Then There Were None’ and ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. Her play ‘The Mousetrap’ continues to be staged today. Most libraries will have at least a few Christie mysteries on her shelves, and many of her stories have been adapted into television shows and/or graphic novels.
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