On this Day:
In 1926, Detective novelist Agatha Christie mysteriously disappears for 11 days.
Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, Lady Mallowan, DBE (née Miller; 15 September 1890 – 12 January 1976) was an English writer known for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, particularly those revolving around fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She also wrote the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap, which was performed in the West End from 1952 to 2020, as well as six novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. In 1971, she was made a Dame (DBE) for her contributions to literature. Guinness World Records lists Christie as the best-selling fiction writer of all time, her novels having sold more than two billion copies.
Christie was born into a wealthy upper-middle-class family in Torquay, Devon, and was largely home-schooled. She was initially an unsuccessful writer with six consecutive rejections, but this changed in 1920 when The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring detective Hercule Poirot, was published. Her first husband was Archibald Christie; they married in 1914 and had one child before divorcing in 1928. During both World Wars, she served in hospital dispensaries, acquiring a thorough knowledge of the poisons which featured in many of her novels, short stories, and plays. Following her marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930, she spent several months each year on digs in the Middle East and used her first-hand knowledge of his profession in her fiction.
According to Index Translationum, she remains the most-translated individual author. Her novel And Then There Were None is one of the top-selling books of all time, with approximately 100 million copies sold. Christie’s stage play The Mousetrap holds the world record for the longest initial run. It opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End of London on 25 November 1952, and by September 2018 there had been more than 27,500 performances. The play was closed down in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In 1955, Christie was the first recipient of the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award. Later that year, Witness for the Prosecution received an Edgar Award for best play. In 2013, she was voted the best crime writer and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd the best crime novel ever by 600 professional novelists of the Crime Writers’ Association. In September 2015, And Then There Were None was named the “World’s Favourite Christie” in a vote sponsored by the author’s estate. Most of Christie’s books and short stories have been adapted for television, radio, video games, and graphic novels. More than 30 feature films are based on her work.
Christie’s first published book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was released in 1920 and introduced the detective Hercule Poirot, who appeared in 33 of her novels and more than 50 short stories.
Over the years, Christie grew tired of Poirot, much as Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes. By the end of the 1930s, Christie wrote in her diary that she was finding Poirot “insufferable”, and by the 1960s she felt he was “an egocentric creep”. Thompson believes Christie’s occasional antipathy to her creation is overstated, and points out that “in later life she sought to protect him against misrepresentation as powerfully as if he were her own flesh and blood.” Unlike Conan Doyle, she resisted the temptation to kill her detective off while he was still popular. She married off Poirot’s “Watson”, Captain Arthur Hastings, in an attempt to trim her cast commitments.
Miss Jane Marple was introduced in a series of short stories that began publication in December 1927 and were subsequently collected under the title The Thirteen Problems. Marple was a genteel, elderly spinster who solved crimes using analogies to English village life. Christie said, “Miss Marple was not in any way a picture of my grandmother; she was far more fussy and spinsterish than my grandmother ever was,” but her autobiography establishes a firm connection between the fictional character and Christie’s step-grandmother Margaret Miller (“Auntie-Grannie”) and her “Ealing cronies”. Both Marple and Miller “always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and were, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right”. Marple appeared in 12 novels and 20 stories.
In August 1926, Agatha’s first husband Archibald “Archie” Christie asked Agatha for a divorce. He had fallen in love with Nancy Neele. On 3 December 1926, the pair quarrelled after Archie announced his plan to spend the weekend with friends, unaccompanied by his wife. Late that evening, Christie disappeared from their home in Sunningdale. The following morning, her car, a Morris Cowley, was discovered at Newlands Corner, parked above a chalk quarry with an expired driving licence and clothes inside.
The disappearance quickly became a news story, as the press sought to satisfy their readers’ “hunger for sensation, disaster, and scandal”. Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks pressured police, and a newspaper offered a £100 reward (approximately equivalent to £6,000 in 2020). More than a thousand police officers, 15,000 volunteers, and several aeroplanes searched the rural landscape. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave a spirit medium one of Christie’s gloves to find her. Christie’s disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times. Despite the extensive manhunt, she was not found for another 10 days. On 14 December 1926, she was located at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, 184 miles (296 km) north of her home in Sunningdale, registered as Mrs Tressa Neele (the surname of her husband’s lover) from “Capetown [sic] S.A.” (South Africa). The next day, Christie left for her sister’s residence at Abney Hall, Cheadle, where she was sequestered “in guarded hall, gates locked, telephone cut off, and callers turned away”.
Christie’s autobiography makes no reference to the disappearance. Two doctors diagnosed her as suffering from “an unquestionable genuine loss of memory”, yet opinion remains divided over the reason for her disappearance. Some, including her biographer Morgan, believe she disappeared during a fugue state. The author Jared Cade concluded that Christie planned the event to embarrass her husband but did not anticipate the resulting public melodrama. Christie biographer Laura Thompson provides an alternative view that Christie disappeared during a nervous breakdown, conscious of her actions but not in emotional control of herself. Public reaction at the time was largely negative, supposing a publicity stunt or an attempt to frame her husband for murder.
Christie has been called the “Duchess of Death”, the “Mistress of Mystery”, and the “Queen of Crime”. Early in her career, a reporter noted that “her plots are possible, logical, and always new.” According to Hannah, “At the start of each novel, she shows us an apparently impossible situation and we go mad wondering ‘How can this be happening?’ Then, slowly, she reveals how the impossible is not only possible but the only thing that could have happened.”
She developed her storytelling techniques during what has been called the “Golden Age” of detective fiction. Author Dilys Winn called Christie “the doyenne of Coziness”, a sub-genre which “featured a small village setting, a hero with faintly aristocratic family connections, a plethora of red herrings and a tendency to commit homicide with sterling silver letter openers and poisons imported from Paraguay”. At the end, in a Christie hallmark, the detective usually gathers the surviving suspects into one room, explains the course of their deductive reasoning, and reveals the guilty party; there are exceptions where it is left to the guilty party to explain all (such as And Then There Were None and Endless Night).
Christie did not limit herself to quaint English villages – the action might take place on a small island (And Then There Were None), an aeroplane (Death in the Clouds), a train (Murder on the Orient Express), a steamship (Death on the Nile), a smart London flat (Cards on the Table), a resort in the West Indies (A Caribbean Mystery), or an archaeological dig (Murder in Mesopotamia) – but the circle of potential suspects is usually closed and intimate: family members, friends, servants, business associates, fellow travellers. Stereotyped characters abound (the femme fatale, the stolid policeman, the devoted servant, the dull colonel), but these may be subverted to stymie the reader; impersonations and secret alliances are always possible. There is always a motive – most often, money: “There are very few killers in Christie who enjoy murder for its own sake.”
Professor of Pharmacology Michael C. Gerald noted that “in over half her novels, one or more victims are poisoned, albeit not always to the full satisfaction of the perpetrator.” Guns, knives, garrottes, tripwires, blunt instruments, and even a hatchet were also used, but “Christie never resorted to elaborate mechanical or scientific means to explain her ingenuity,” according to John Curran, author and literary adviser to the Christie estate. Many of her clues are mundane objects: a calendar, a coffee cup, wax flowers, a beer bottle, a fireplace used during a heat wave.
According to crime writer P. D. James, Christie was prone to making the unlikeliest character the guilty party. Alert readers could sometimes identify the culprit by identifying the least likely suspect. Christie mocked this insight in her foreword to Cards on the Table: “Spot the person least likely to have committed the crime and in nine times out of ten your task is finished. Since I do not want my faithful readers to fling away this book in disgust, I prefer to warn them beforehand that this is not that kind of book.”
On Desert Island Discs in 2007, Brian Aldiss said Christie had told him she wrote her books up to the last chapter, then decided who the most unlikely suspect was, after which she would go back and make the necessary changes to “frame” that person. Based upon a study of her working notebooks, Curran describes how Christie would first create a cast of characters, choose a setting, and then produce a list of scenes in which specific clues would be revealed; the order of scenes would be revised as she developed her plot. Of necessity, the murderer had to be known to the author before the sequence could be finalised and she began to type or dictate the first draft of her novel. Much of the work, particularly dialogue, was done in her head before she put it on paper.
In 2013, the 600 members of the Crime Writers’ Association chose The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as “the best whodunit … ever written”. Author Julian Symons observed, “In an obvious sense, the book fits within the conventions … The setting is a village deep within the English countryside, Roger Ackroyd dies in his study; there is a butler who behaves suspiciously … Every successful detective story in this period involved a deceit practised upon the reader, and here the trick is the highly original one of making the murderer the local doctor, who tells the story and acts as Poirot’s Watson.” Critic Sutherland Scott stated, “If Agatha Christie had made no other contribution to the literature of detective fiction she would still deserve our grateful thanks” for writing this novel.
In September 2015, to mark her 125th birthday, And Then There Were None was named the “World’s Favourite Christie” in a vote sponsored by the author’s estate. The novel is emblematic of both her use of formula and her willingness to discard it. “And Then There Were None carries the ‘closed society’ type of murder mystery to extreme lengths,” according to author Charles Osborne. It begins with the classic set-up of potential victim(s) and killer(s) isolated from the outside world, but then violates conventions. There is no detective involved in the action, no interviews of suspects, no careful search for clues, and no suspects gathered together in the last chapter to be confronted with the solution. As Christie herself said, “Ten people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious.” Critics agreed she had succeeded: “The arrogant Mrs. Christie this time set herself a fearsome test of her own ingenuity … the reviews, not surprisingly, were without exception wildly adulatory.” (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
Did you hear that a long lost Agatha Christie novel featuring Captain Jack Sparrow has been found?
It is called Poirots of the Caribbean…
Second, a Song:
Poirot (also known as Agatha Christie’s Poirot) is a British mystery drama television programme that aired on ITV from 8 January 1989 to 13 November 2013. David Suchet starred as the eponymous detective, Agatha Christie’s fictional Hercule Poirot. Initially produced by LWT, the series was later produced by ITV Studios. The series also aired on VisionTV in Canada and on PBS and A&E in the United States.
The programme ran for 13 series and 70 episodes in total; each episode was adapted from a novel or short story by Christie that featured Poirot, and consequently in each episode Poirot is both the main detective in charge of the investigation of a crime (usually murder) and the protagonist who is at the centre of most of the episode’s action. At the programme’s conclusion, which finished with “Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case” (based on the 1975 novel Curtain, the final Poirot novel), every major literary work by Christie that featured the title character had been adapted.
Here is the opening theme music from the ITV series “Agatha Christie’s Poirot”. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“Where large sums of money are concerned, it is advisable to trust nobody.” – Agatha Christie
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky