City Connect celebrates the anniversary of the birth of bestselling author and playwright Agatha Christie who was born on this day in 1890. Christie created two well-known characters in her detective novels: Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Poirot is the only fictional character to have been given an obituary in The New York Times. Read her biography below for more information on her life and work.
Dame Agatha Christie, DBE, (15 September 1890 – 12 January 1976), was a British crime writer of novels, short stories, and plays. She also wrote romances under the name Mary Westmacott, but she is best remembered for her 80 detective novels – especially those featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple – and her successful West End theatre plays.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Christie is the best-selling writer of books of all time and, with William Shakespeare, the best-selling author of any type. She has sold roughly four billion copies of her novels. According to Index Translationum, Christie is the most translated individual author, with only the collective corporate works of Walt Disney Productions surpassing her. Her books have been translated into at least 103 languages.
Christie’s stage play The Mousetrap holds the record for the longest initial run: it opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in London on 25 November 1952 and as of 2011 is still running after more than 24,000 performances. In 1955, Christie was the first recipient of the Mystery Writers of America’s highest honour, the Grand Master Award, and in the same year Witness for the Prosecution was given an Edgar Award by the MWA for Best Play. Most of her books and short stories have been filmed, some many times over (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile and 4.50 From Paddington for instance), and many have been adapted for television, radio, video games and comics.
In 1968, Booker Books, a subsidiary of the agri-industrial conglomerate Booker-McConnell, bought a 51 percent stake in Agatha Christie Limited, the private company that Christie had set up for tax purposes. Booker later increased its stake to 64 percent. In 1998, Booker sold its shares to Chorion, a company whose portfolio also includes the literary estates of Enid Blyton and Dennis Wheatley.
Almost all of Agatha Christie’s books are whodunits, focusing on the British middle and upper classes. Usually, the detective either stumbles across the murder or is called upon by an old acquaintance, who is somehow involved. Gradually, the detective interrogates each suspect, examines the scene of the crime and makes a note of each clue, so readers can analyze it and be allowed a fair chance of solving the mystery themselves. Then, about halfway through, or sometimes even during the final act, one of the suspects usually dies, often because they have inadvertently deduced the killer’s identity and need silencing. In a few of her novels, including Death Comes as the End and And Then There Were None, there are multiple victims. Finally, the detective organises a meeting of all the suspects and slowly denounces the guilty party, exposing several unrelated secrets along the way, sometimes over the course of thirty or so pages. The murders are often extremely ingenious, involving some convoluted piece of deception. Christie’s stories are also known for their taut atmosphere and strong psychological suspense, developed from the deliberately slow pace of her prose.
In late 1926, Agatha’s husband, Archie, revealed that he was in love with another woman, Nancy Neele, and wanted a divorce. On 8 December 1926 the couple quarreled, and Archie Christie left their house Styles in Sunningdale, Berkshire, to spend the weekend with his mistress at Godalming, Surrey. That same evening Agatha disappeared from her home, leaving behind a letter for her secretary saying that she was going to Yorkshire. Her disappearance caused an outcry from the public, many of whom were admirers of her novels. Despite a massive manhunt, she was not found for 11 days.
On 19 December 1926 Agatha was identified as a guest at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan Hotel) in Harrogate, Yorkshire, where she was registered as ‘Mrs Teresa Neele’ from Cape Town. Agatha gave no account of her disappearance. Although two doctors had diagnosed her as suffering from psychogenic fugue, opinion remains divided as to the reasons for her disappearance. One suggestion is that she had suffered a nervous breakdown brought about by a natural propensity for depression, exacerbated by her mother’s death earlier that year and the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. Public reaction at the time was largely negative, with many believing it a publicity stunt while others speculated she was trying to make the police believe her husband had killed her.
Author Jared Cade interviewed numerous witnesses and relatives for his sympathetic biography, Agatha Christie and the Missing Eleven Days, and provided a substantial amount of evidence to suggest that Christie planned the entire disappearance to embarrass her husband, never thinking it would escalate into the melodrama it became.
The Christies divorced in 1928. In 1930, Christie married archaeologist Max Mallowan (Sir Max from 1968) after joining him in an archaeological dig. Their marriage was especially happy in the early years and remained so until Christie’s death in 1976.
To honour her many literary works, she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1956 New Year Honours. The next year, she became the President of the Detection Club. In the 1971 New Year Honours she was promoted Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, three years after her husband had been knighted for his archeological work in 1968. They were one of the few married couples where both partners were honoured in their own right. From 1968, due to her husband’s knighthood, Christie could also be styled as Lady Mallowan.
From 1971 to 1974, Christie’s health began to fail, although she continued to write. In 1975, sensing her increasing weakness, Christie signed over the rights of her most successful play, The Mousetrap, to her grandson. Recently, using experimental textual tools of analysis, Canadian researchers have suggested that Christie may have begun to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.
Agatha Christie died on 12 January 1976 at age 85 from natural causes at her Winterbrook House in the north of Cholsey parish, adjoining Wallingford in Oxfordshire (formerly part of Berkshire). She is buried in the nearby churchyard of St Mary’s, Cholsey.
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