By Howard Waters
The most popular novelist in history with over two billion of her books sold, Agatha Christie (Agatha Miller) was born in County Devon, England in 1890, and was still writing until the time of her death in 1976. She was educated largely at home and was encouraged by her mother to write, even from a young age. She studied singing and piano in Paris at the age of sixteen.
Her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introduced the chocolate-loving Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. He, together with his logic and rational methods and his “little grey cells,” was to be a staple character for Christie in over forty books, the last of which, Curtain, appeared in 1975.
Christie produced another famous character in the person of the elderly spinster Miss Marple, who relied on her feminine sensitivity to solve crimes. Marple was featured in seventeen novels from Murder at the Vicarage (1930) to Sleeping Murder (1977). Both characters have been readily adapted for movies and television. Marple likely provided the inspiration for the Jessica Fletcher character in the Murder She Wrote television series.
In fifty-six years Christie wrote sixty-six detective novels, including Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. She was most noted for the innovative ways in which she revealed the guilty parties in her stories. It might have been the narrator, a group of people, a serial killer, but never, ever the butler.
Christie wrote several plays, including The Mousetrap, which has run continuously for fifty-two years in London, longer than Queen Elizabeth II has been on the throne. During that time, there have been at least 336 actors and actresses appearing in the play. Just imagine, 101 miles of shirts have been ironed, and 395 tons of ice cream have been sold, according to The Mousetrap website (“The Legend Continues,” http://www.the-mousetrap.co.uk/, 3 February 2007). The play first entered the record books in April, 1958, when it became the longest running show of any kind in the history of British theatre. For the past thirty years, the St. Martin’s Theatre has been the home of The Mousetrap.
The film Agatha was based on a real life adventure in 1926 when Christie disappeared, probably due to the break up of her marriage and the death of her beloved mother. During that time she lived in a Harrowgate hotel under the name of Mrs. Neele.
It was during WWII that she worked in the dispensary of University College Hospital in London. After the war she wrote more prolifically than ever, gaining success both on the stage and in the movies. Witness for the Prosecution was named the best foreign play of the 1954–55 season by the New York Drama Critics Circle.
In 1971, she received the rare honor of having been made a Dame of the British Empire.
Many of Christie’s quips and quotes have become memorable in their own right:
“I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming . . . suddenly you find—at the age of fifty, say—that a whole new life has opened before you.”
“Curious things, habits. People, themselves, never knew they had them.”
“I’ve always believed in writing without a collaborator, because where two people are writing the same book, each believes he gets all the worries and only half the royalties.”
“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”
“If one sticks too rigidly to one’s principles, one would hardly see anybody.”
“One is left with the horrible feeling now that war settles nothing; that to win a war is as disastrous as to lose one.”
Mathew Prichard, the host of the Agatha Christie website and her grandson, had this to say: “It is important to find ways of showing new audiences the continuing relevance of my grandmother’s timeless stories of moral corruption, murder, and deceit and the ease with which she can speak to modern society.”
From all indications, readers and playgoers will continue to be fascinated by all those very elements of which he spoke.