Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, DBE (born Miller; 15 September 1890 – 12 January 1976) was an English crime writer of novels, short stories, and plays. She also wrote sixromances under the name Mary Westmacott, but she is best remembered for the 66 detective novels and more than 15 short story collections she wrote under her own name, most of which revolve around the investigations of such characters as Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple and Tommy and Tuppence. She also wrote the world's longest-running play, The Mousetrap.
Born to a wealthy upper-middle-class family in Torquay, Devon, Christie served in a hospital during the First World War, before marrying and starting a family in London. Although initially unsuccessful at getting her work published, in 1920, The Bodley Head press published her novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring the character of Poirot. This launched her literary career.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time. Her novels have sold roughly 4 billion copies, and her estate claims that her works rank third, after those of William Shakespeare and the Bible, as the world's most-widely published books. According to Index Translationum, Christie is the most-translated individual author, and her books have been translated into at least 103 languages. And Then There Were None is Christie's best-selling novel with 100 million sales to date, making it the world's best-selling mystery ever, and one of the best-selling books of all time. In 1971, she was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.
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 2012 is still running after more than 25,000 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. Many of her books and short stories have been filmed, and many have been adapted for television, radio, video games and comics.
Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie was born on 15 September 1890 into a wealthy upper middle-class family in Ashfield, Torquay, Devon in South West England. Christie's mother, Clara Boehmer was an Englishwoman who had been born in Belfast, modern day Northern Ireland, in 1854 to Captain Frederick Boehmer and Mary Ann West; the couple's only daughter, she had four brothers, one of whom died young. Captain Boehmer was killed in a riding accident while stationed on Jersey in April 1863, leaving Mary Ann to raise her children alone on a meagre income. Under financial strain, she sent Clara to live with her aunt Margaret Miller née West, who had married a wealthy American Nathaniel Frary Miller in 1863 and lived in Prinsted, West Sussex. Clara stayed with Margaret, and there she would meet her future husband, an American stockbroker named Frederick Alvah Miller, who was the son of Nathaniel. Frederick was a member of the small and wealthy American upper class, and had been sent to Europe to gain an education in Switzerland. Considered personable and friendly by those who knew him, he soon developed a romantic relationship with Clara, and they were married in April 1878. Their first child, Margaret "Madge" Frary Miller (1879–1950) was born in Torquay, where the couple were renting lodgings, while their second, Louis "Monty" Montant (1880–1929) was born in the U.S. state of New York, where Frederick was on a business trip. Clara soon purchased a villa in Torquay, named "Ashfield", in which to raise her family, and it was here that her third and final child, Agatha, was born.
Christie would describe her childhood as "very happy", and was surrounded by a series of strong and independent women from an early age. Her time was spent alternating between her Devonshire home, her step grandmother/aunt's house in Ealing, West London and parts of Southern Europe, where her family would holiday during the winter. Nominally Christian, she was also raised in a household with various esoteric beliefs, and like her siblings believed that their mother Clara was a psychic with the ability of second sight. Her mother insisted that she receive a home education, and so her parents were responsible for teaching her to read and write, and to be able to perform basic arithmetic, a subject that she particularly enjoyed. They also taught her about music, and she learned to play both the piano and the mandolin. A voracious reader from an early age, among her earliest memories were those of reading the children's books written by Mrs Molesworth, including The Adventures of Herr Baby (1881), Christmas Tree Land (1897) and The Magic Nuts (1898). She also read the work of Edith Nesbit, including The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), The Phoenix and the Carpet (1903) and The Railway Children (1906). When a little older she moved on to reading the surreal verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Much of her childhood was spent largely alone and separate from other children, although she spent much time with her pets, whom she adored. Eventually making friends with a group of other girls in Torquay, she noted that "one of the highlights of my existence" was her appearance in a local theatrical production of The Yeomen of the Guard where she starred alongside them.
Her father was often ill, suffering from a series of heart attacks, and in November 1901 he died, aged 55. His death left the family devastated, and in an uncertain economic situation. Clara and Agatha continued to live together in their Torquay home; Madge had moved to the nearby Cheadle Hall with her new husband and Monty had joined the army and been sent to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. Agatha would later claim that her father's death, occurring when she was 11 years old, marked the end of her childhood for her. In 1902, Agatha would be sent to receive a formal education at Miss Guyer's Girls School in Torquay, but found it difficult to adjust to the disciplined atmosphere. In 1905 she was then sent to the city of Paris, France, where she was educated in three pensions – Mademoiselle Cabernet's, Les Marroniers and then Miss Dryden's – the latter of which served primarily as a finishing school.
Returning to England in 1910, Agatha found her mother Clara ill. They holidayed in the warmer climate of Cairo in Egypt, then a part of the British Empire and a popular tourist destination for wealthy Britons. Staying for three months at the Gezirah Palace Hotel, Agatha – always chaperoned by her mother – attended many social functions in search of a husband. Although visiting such ancient Egyptian monuments as the Great Pyramid of Giza, she did not exhibit the great interest in archaeology and Egyptology prominent in her later years.
Returning to Britain, she continued her social activities in search of a husband. Writing and performing in amateur theatrics, she helped put on a play called The Blue Beard of Unhappiness with female friends. Her writing extended to both poetry and music. Some early works saw publication, but she decided against focusing on either of these as future professions.
While recovering in bed from illness, she penned her first short story "The House of Beauty", about 6000 words on the world of "madness and dreams", a subject of fascination. Later biographer Janet Morgan commented that despite "infelicities of style", the story was nevertheless "compelling". Other shorts followed, most illustrated her interest in spiritualism and the paranormal, including "The Call of Wings" and "The Little Lonely God". Under pseudonyms, various magazines rejected all her early submissions, although revised and published later, some under new titles.
Christie then set her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, in Cairo, and drew from her recent experiences in the city. Under the pseudonym Monosyllaba, she was perturbed when various publishers all declined. Clara suggested that her daughter ask for advice from a family friend and neighbor, the successful writer Eden Philpotts. Philpotts obliged her enquiry, encouraged her writing, and sent her an introduction to his literary agent, Hughes Massie. However, he too rejected Snow Upon the Desert, and suggested a second novel.
Meanwhile, Christie continued searching for a husband, and had entered into short-lived relationships with four separate men, one engagement, before meeting Archibald "Archie" Christie (1889-1962) at a dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford of Chudleigh, about 12 miles from Torquay. Archie had been born in India, the son of a judge in the Indian Civil Service. In England he joined the air service, stationed at Devon in 1912. The couple quickly fell in love. Upon learning he would be stationed in Farnborough, Archie proposed marriage, and she accepted.
1914 saw the outbreak of World War I, and Archie was sent to France to battle the German forces. Agatha also involved herself in the war effort, joining the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and attending to wounded soldiers at the hospital in Torquay. In this position, she was responsible for aiding the doctors and maintaining morale, performing 3,400 hours of unpaid work between October 1914 and December 1916. As a dispenser, she finally earned £16 yearly until the end of her service in September 1918.
She met her fiancé Archie, in London during his leave at the end of 1914, and they married on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. They met throughout the war every time that he was posted home. Rising through the ranks, he was eventually stationed back to Britain in September 1918 as a colonel in the Air Ministry. They settled into a flat at 5 Northwick Terrace in St. John's Wood, Northwest London.
Christie had long been a fan of detective novels, having enjoyed Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White and The Moonstone as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's early Sherlock Holmes stories. She wrote her own detective novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring Hercule Poirot. A former Belgian police officer noted for his twirly large "magnificent moustaches" and egg-shaped head, he was a refugee to Britain after Germany invaded Belgium, inspired by real Belgian refugees in Torquay.
The Styles manuscript was not accepted by such publishing companies as Hodder and Stoughton and Methuen. John Lane at The Bodley Head kept the entry for several months, then accepted if she would change the ending. She duly did so, and signed a contract she later felt was exploitative. Christie meanwhile settled into married life, giving birth to daughter Rosalind at Ashfield in August 1919, where the couple – having few friends in London – spent much of their time. Having left the Air Force at the end of the war, Archie started in the City financial sector at a relatively low salary, though still employed a maid.
Christie's second novel, The Secret Adversary (1922), featured new detective couple Tommy and Tuppence. Again published by The Bodley Head, it earned her £50. A third novel again featured Poirot, Murder on the Links (1923), as did short stories commissioned by Bruce Ingram, editor of Sketch magazine. In order to tour the world promoting the British Empire Exhibition, the couple left their daughter Rosalind with Agatha's mother and sister. The pair traveled to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. They learned to surf prone in South Africa, then in Waikiki were among the first Britons to surf standing up.
In late 1926, Christie's husband Archie asked for a divorce; he was in love with Nancy Neele. On 3 December 1926, the couple quarrelled, and Archie left their house Styles in Sunningdale, Berkshire, to spend the weekend with his mistress at Godalming, Surrey. That same evening, around 9.45 pm, Christie disappeared from her home, leaving behind a letter for her secretary saying that she was going to Yorkshire.
Her car, a Morris Cowley, was later found at Newlands Corner, near Guildford, with an expired driving licence and clothes. Her disappearance caused an outcry from the public. The Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, pressured police; a newspaper offered £100 reward.
Over a thousand police officers, 15,000 volunteers and several aeroplanes scoured the rural landscape. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even gave a spirit medium one of Christie's gloves to find the missing woman. Dorothy L Sayers visited the house in Surrey, later using the scenario in her book Unnatural Death.
Christie's disappearance featured on the front page of The New York Times. Despite the extensive manhunt, she was not found for 10 days. On 14 December 1926, Agatha Christie was found at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan Hotel[a]) in Harrogate, Yorkshire, registered as 'Mrs Teresa Neele' from Cape Town.
Christie never explained her disappearance. Although two doctors diagnosed her as suffering from psychogenic fugue, opinion remains divided. A nervous breakdown from a natural propensity for depression may have been exacerbated by her mother's death earlier that year and her husband's infidelity. Public reaction at the time was largely negative, supposing a publicity stunt or attempt to frame her husband for murder.[b]
Author Jared Cade interviewed numerous witnesses and relatives for his sympathetic biography, Agatha Christie and the Missing Eleven Days, revised 2011. He provided substantial evidence to suggest she planned the event to embarrass her husband, never supposing the resulting escalated melodrama. The 1979 Michael Apted film Agatha starring Vanessa Redgrave, Dustin Hoffman and Timothy Dalton depicts Christie planning suicide, to frame her husband's mistress for her "murder". An American reporter, played by Hoffman, follows her closely and stops the plan.
The Christies divorced in 1928, and Archie married his mistress, the secretary of their world tour. Agatha retained custody of daughter Rosalind, and the Christie name for her writing. During their marriage, she published six novels, a collection of short stories, and a number of short stories in magazines.
Second marriage and later lifeEdit
In 1930, Christie married archaeologist Max Mallowan after joining him in an archaeological dig. Their marriage was always happy, continuing until Christie's death in 1976. Max introduced her to wine, which she never enjoyed, preferring to drink water in restaurants. She tried unsuccessfully to make herself like cigarettes by smoking one after lunch and one after dinner every day for six months.
Christie frequently used settings which were familiar to her for her stories. Christie's travels with Mallowan contributed background to several of her novels set in the Middle East. Other novels (such as And Then There Were None) were set in and around Torquay, where she was born. Christie's 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express was written in the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, Turkey, the southern terminus of the railway. The hotel maintains Christie's room as a memorial to the author. The Greenway Estate in Devon, acquired by the couple as a summer residence in 1938, is now in the care of the National Trust.
Christie often stayed at Abney Hall in Cheshire, owned by her brother-in-law, James Watts, basing at least two stories there: short story "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding", in the story collection of the same name, and the novel After the Funeral. "Abney became Agatha's greatest inspiration for country-house life, with all the servants and grandeur which have been woven into her plots. The descriptions of the fictional Chimneys, Stoneygates, and other houses in her stories are mostly Abney in various forms."
During the Second World War, Christie worked in the pharmacy at University College Hospital, London, where she acquired a knowledge of poisons that she put to good use in her post-war crime novels. For example, the use of thallium as a poison was suggested to her by UCH Chief Pharmacist Harold Davis (later appointed Chief Pharmacist at the UK Ministry of Health), and inThe Pale Horse, published in 1961, she employed it to dispatch a series of victims, the first clue to the murder method coming from the victims' loss of hair. So accurate was her description of thallium poisoning that on at least one occasion it helped solve a case that was baffling doctors.
Christie lived in Chelsea, first in Cresswell Place and later in Sheffield Terrace. Both properties are now marked by blue plaques.
Around 1941–1942, the British intelligence agency MI5 investigated Agatha Christie. A character called Major Bletchley appeared in her 1941 thriller N or M?, a story that features a hunt for two of Hitler's top secret spy agents in Britain. MI5 was afraid that Christie had a spy in Britain's top-secret codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. The agency's fears were allayed when Christie commented to codebreaker Dilly Knox that Bletchley was simply the name of "one of my least lovable characters."
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 archaeological 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.
Agatha Christie's gravestone in Cholsey.
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.
Christie's only child, Rosalind Margaret Hicks, died, also aged 85, on 28 October 2004 from natural causes in Torbay, Devon. Christie's grandson, Mathew Prichard, was heir to the copyright to some of his grandmother's literary work (including The Mousetrap) and is still associated with Agatha Christie Limited.