The Woman Behind Hercule Poirot
A little over a year ago, I decided that before I died, I wanted to read as many literary classics as I could. I began with Charles Dickens and devoured his books, then on to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and thoroughly enjoyed his writing as well, then Harriet Beecher Stowe and Herman Melville. After them, I stumbled upon an unlikely author that quickly rose to be my all-time favorite: Agatha Christie.
The only book of hers that I had ever heard of was Murder on the Orient Express. I started with that one and proceeded to read all 78 of her crime novels. The fact she wrote that many books and then some is impressive, but the fact that she was a woman author living in the early 1900's is astounding. Eventually I read into her background and found out that her life was just as interesting as her books were.
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on September 15, 1890 in Ashfield, Torquay, Devon to an American father, Frederick Alvah Miller and English mother, Clara Boehmer. She had two siblings; an older sister Margaret Frary Miller and older brother Louis "Monty" Montant. Like her other siblings, she believed that her mother had psychic powers with the ability of second sight. Despite the families eccentricities, Christie said that her childhood was happy. She spent her time playing with imaginary friends and her pets, a great deal of reading and writing some poetry. Christie's father died unexpectedly of a heart attack when she was 11, placing the family in economic trouble. Christie said this marked the end of her childhood. A year later she was sent to Miss Guyer's Girls School in Torquay, but was unhappy in the strict environment. She was then sent to France and attended three different boarding schools, ending with Miss Dryden's as a finishing school.
When she returned to England in 1910, she found her mother ill, so on doctor's orders they traveled together to Cairo for the warmer climate for three months. When she returned she spent time dabbling in theatre, socializing and writing short stories. In 1912, she met Royal Flying Corp Aviator Archie Christie. They were too broke to marry until 1914, after she had volunteered at a Red Cross Hospital and Archie served in France. The war kept them apart until 1918, when she said she felt her married life really began. She gave birth to Rosalind Margaret at Ashfield, her one and only child. The couple went on vacation to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. They were some of the first Britains to surf standing up.
And then came an interesting turn of events. Archie asked Agatha for a divorce in 1926 because he was in love with a woman named Nancy Neele. They quarreled on December 3, 1926 and Archie left to find his mistress. Later that night, Agatha disappeared and was missing for 11 days. Thousands of volunteers and policemen searched for days. Her car was found perched above a chalk quarry. On December 14, she was found at the Swan Hypopathic Hotel in Yorkshire, registered as Teresa Neele from Cape Town. Christie never gave any reason for her behavior, and opinions are still up in the air as to why she hid and registered in the surname of her husband's lover.
The Christie's divorced in 1928 and Agatha retained custody over Rosalind, and kept the Christie surname. In 1930, she married the man she would live the rest of her life with. Archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan and Christie met at an achaeological dig and would be happily married for 46 years until Christie's death in 1976.
Christie was first published after writing some short stories having to with the supernatural, including House of Dreams, The Call of Wings and The Little Lonely God written after her stay in Cairo and before she married Archie. But her first novel to published was written after she was married and before her daughter was born. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was rejected by a few publishing companies before being accepted by John Lane at The Bodley Head, with the provision that she change the ending. And thus her literary career began, as well as her famous egg-shape headed detective, Hercule Poirot. Poirot was featured in 45 of her stories, along with her other notable characters, the male and female detective duo Tommy and Tuppence, and the unassuming but keenly minded Miss Marple.
Much of Christie's work was based on places she had been. Death on the Nile was from her time spent in Cairo, And Then There Were None was based on her childhood home in Torquay, A Cat Among Pigeons from her time at boarding school, and Murder On The Orient Express was written in Istanbul, Turkey at the Pera Palace Hotel, which is part of the railway. The hotel preserved the actual room Christie wrote the novel in, as a tribute to her. Her time spent as an apothecaries assistant gave her extensive knowledge of poisons, a common murder method used in her books.
Her final book, Postern of Fate was published in 1973.
Christie was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1956, which changed to "Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire" in 1971. Her husband Malloway was knighted for his archaeological work and they were one of the few couples to be honored, each for their own accomplishments. Christie was also awarded the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award, the highest honor an american author can receive. Blue plaques have been placed at many of the places Christie lived, denoting her name and the date she lived there. She has been dubbed, "The Queen of Crime" and has only been outsold by the Bible. Over 2 million of her books have been sold in 100 different languages. Much of her work has been turned into movies and plays.