The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie: A Biographical Companion to the Works of Agatha Christie

The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie: A Biographical Companion to the Works of Agatha Christie

by Charles Osborne

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Agatha Christie wrote over 100 plays, short story collections, and novels, which have been translated into 103 languages, and she has been outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. No one has succeeded in copying her, though many have tried, and she remains the best selling modern writer throughout the world.

For all her success and renown, however, Agatha Christie was a very private person. Over the years, many have attempted to capture her personality, her motivations, and the reasons for her enduring popularity, with little notable success. Now Charles Osborne, a lifelong student of Agatha Christie, has undertaken an examination of Christie and her accomplishments through her own work.

The result is a comprehensive, illustrated guide to the world of Agatha Christie, featuring authoritative information on each book's provenance and on it's contemporary critical reception set against the background of the major events in the author's life. Illustrated with rarely seen photos and updated to include details of the publications, films and TV adaptations of her writings, this book provides fascinating reading for any Christie aficionado.

Author Biography: Charles Osborne is an internationally known expert on opera and theater who has written several books on the topics as well as novels, literary studies, and poetry. He is the author of three bestselling novelizations of Agatha Christie plays-Black Coffee (SMP, 1998), The Unexpected Guest (Minotaur, 1999), and Spider's Web (Minotaur, 2000). Osborne was born in Australia and lives in London.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780708985830
Publisher: Ulverscroft Large Print Books, Ltd.
Publication date: 06/28/1991
Series: Charnwood Library
Edition description: Large Print
Pages: 348
Product dimensions: 6.17(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.54(d)

About the Author

Charles Osborne is an internationally known expert on opera and theater who has written several books on the topics as well as novels, literary studies, and poetry. He is the author of three bestselling novelizations of Agatha Christie plays-Black Coffee (SMP, 1998), The Unexpected Guest (Minotaur, 1999), and Spider's Web (Minotaur, 2000). Osborne was born in Australia and lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Appearance and Disappearance

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

POIROT (1920)

It was while she was married to Archie Christie that Agatha Christie, neé Miller, wrote and published her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. That marriage lasted for less than fourteen years, ending in divorce at about the time of publication of her ninth book, The Mystery of the Blue Train, but her career as a writer of crime fiction continued for a further half-century and a further eighty-five titles (excluding the plays). Having become known to a vast reading public as Agatha Christie, the author continued to use that name for professional purposes throughout the rest of her life, although privately she became Mrs Max Mallowan soon after her divorce from Christie.

    Agatha Miller was born in the elegant, sedate seaside resort of Torquay, Devonshire, on the south coast of England, on 15 September 1890, at Ashfield, the home of her parents, Frederick and Clarissa Miller. Frederick Alvah Miller was a well-to-do young American who lived as much in England, where he had relatives, as in America, on an income derived from the family business. After he married Clarissa Margaret Beochmer (his stepmother's niece) he and his wife planned to live in America. However, they first spent some time in Torquay, at the height of the winter season, and Mr Miller, who loved the sea, became enchanted with the town, its attractive bay and the dramatic south Devon coast. The Millers' first child, Marjorie (Madge) was born in Torquay, shortly after which the family left for America, where they expected to make their permanent home. It was while they were staying with Frederick Miller's grandparents in New England that their second child, Louis (Monty), was born.

    The Millers returned to England for a visit, but Mr Miller was almost immediately recalled to New York by business concerns, and therefore suggested to his wife that she should take the children and rent a furnished house in Torquay until his return. What Clara Miller did, instead, was to buy a house in Torquay from a Quaker family called Brown. Extremely placid by temperament, Mr Miller, though surprised, did not remonstrate. The house could, after all, be sold again in a year's time. The Millers and their two children moved into the house, Ashfield, and Mr Miller found life in Torquay so agreeable that in due course he decided that they may as well settle there. Ashfield, a large and comfortable villa with green lawns, a garden of about two acres, and great beech trees, made a splendid home for Mrs Miller and the children even though it was not in the most fashionable part of Torquay but in Barton Road, in the older, upper-middleclass district of Tor Mohun.

    When a third child was born to the Millers, a good eight years after the second, she was christened Agatha May Clarissa. The second and third were family names, but 'Agatha' appears to have been suggested by a friend of Mrs Miller on the way to the christening. A chubby redhead, Agatha turned out to be a quiet, imaginative child who played a great deal on her own or with her elderly nannie, 'Nursy', since her brother and sister were away at school for much of the time and were, in any case, so much older than she. Agatha did not go to school but taught herself to read, and learned something of elementary mathematics from her father. Her formal education did not begin until, at the age of sixteen, she was sent to a finishing school in Paris. Her father had died when she was eleven, and the family income had dwindled. Mrs Miller considered selling Ashfield but was prevailed upon by her two elder children merely to reduce the number of servants and make certain other economies.

    The Millers were still able to live comfortably. With Madge married and living in New York, and Monty serving with the army in India, Mrs Miller decided shortly after Agatha's return from finishing school in Paris that she would let Ashfield furnished for three months and take her teenage daughter off to Egypt. Her own health had not been good, but three months with Agatha in and around Cairo, sight-seeing, going to dances and parties and on excursions to the sites of antiquity, seemed to improve her condition and certainly helped Agatha to overcome her childhood and adolescent gaucherie. The attractive young lady even received several proposals of marriage from officers serving in the British Army in Egypt, but took none of them seriously. She was still very young, and she was also now her mother's only comfort and companion. When they returned to Torquay, Agatha continued to live at home with her mother, though she also led an active social life with friends of her own age.

    Agatha had already begun to write. During her childhood, when she was lying in bed recovering from influenza, her mother had suggested that, instead of telling stories which she enjoyed doing, she should write one of them down. Soon Agatha had produced a number of stories, and began to write poems as well. It was as a poet that she made her first appearance in print, at the age of eleven, with a poem about the new electric trams which she had seen when visiting her grandmother at Ealing, a suburb of London. The poem, which was printed in the local Ealing newspaper, began: 'When first the electric trams did run/ In all their scarlet glory,/'Twas well, but ere the day was done,/ It was another story.'

    Her poems improved, and by the time she was in her late teens Agatha had won a few prizes with them, usually of a guinea or so offered by the Poetry Society, and had had several poems published in The Poetry Review. She had also written a number of stories which, as she said later, usually revealed the influence of whomever she had been reading the previous week, as often as not D. H. Lawrence. Under various pseudonyms, among them Mack Miller and Nathanael Miller (her grandfather's name), she would send her stories off to magazines and they would invariably come back to her accompanied by a printed rejection slip. She even attempted a novel, which she called Snow Upon the Desert, and at the suggestion of her mother sent it off to Eden Phillpotts, the author of popular novels of Devon rural life in the tradition of Thomas Hardy. (In the twenties and thirties, Phillpotts was to write murder mysteries, both under his own name and as Harrington Hext.)

    Phillpotts, who was a neighbour of the Millers and a friend of the family, gave generously of his time and advice. Though he was critical of Snow Upon the Desert, and advised its author to cut out the moralizing of which he considered she was much too fond, he thought Agatha had a 'great feeling for dialogue', and introduced her to his literary agent, Hughes Massie. Agatha went to London and was interviewed by Mr Massie, a large, swarthy man who, she said, terrified her. Massie read her novel, and advised her to put it aside and begin another. Instead, she returned to writing her poems and stories.

    Agatha was now in her early twenties and fending off young men who wished to marry her. After what she referred to as two near escapes, she became engaged in 1912 to Reggie Lucy, a Major in the Gunners, but while Lucy was serving with his regiment in Hongkong, she fell in love with a handsome young Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery, whom she had met at a house party in Chudleigh, not far from Torquay. He was Lieutenant Archibald Christie, the son of a Judge in the Indian Civil Service. They danced together several times at their first meeting, and a few days later Christie arrived on his motorcycle at Ashfield and was allowed by Mrs Miller to stay to supper. Within days, he and Agatha had become engaged, and Agatha eventually plucked up the courage to write to Reggie Lucy in Hongkong ending their engagement.

    It was eighteen months later that Agatha Miller married Archie Christie, now a Captain in the Royal Flying Corps. The wedding took place on Christmas Eve, 1914. During the period of their engagement, the Miller family income had been further depleted by the liquidation of a firm in New York, and Britain had declared war on Germany. Captain Christie went off to war two days after the wedding, while his bride went to work at the Torbay Hospital in Torquay, nursing the first casualties who were being brought back from the Front. After two years of nursing, and a number of reunions with Archie when he came home on leave, Agatha transferred to the hospital's dispensary, where she acquired the accurate knowledge of poisons which was later to prove so useful to her.

    Years earlier, Agatha and her sister Madge had one day been discussing a murder mystery they were reading, and Agatha had mentioned, idly, that she would like to try her hand at a detective story. Madge was of the opinion that Agatha would find this too difficult a task, an opinion which Agatha remembered in 1916, while working in the hospital dispensary at Torquay. She decided to devote her occasional slack periods at the dispensary to the composition of a detective novel, in the hope of proving her sister wrong.

    Her first problem, as Agatha Christie revealed many years later in her autobiography, was to decide what kind of detective story she would write. Since she was surrounded by poisons, it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method she selected. She settled on one particular fact or donné which seemed to her to have possibilities, toyed with the idea for a time, and finally decided upon it. Next she turned to the dramatis personae. Who should be poisoned? Who would be the poisoner? When? Where? How? Why? It would, she decided, have to be 'very much of an intime murder', because of the method chosen. It would have to be all in the family, so to speak.

    And, of course, there would have to be a detective to unravel the mystery and unmask the evil-doer. An avid reader of the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha pondered upon the personality and methods of Holmes and his relationship with Dr Watson, his friend and the chronicler of his cases. Her detective, she decided, would have to be as different in personality from Sherlock Holmes as possible. However, the device of the friend and helper, the Dr Watson-figure whose obtuseness sets off the brilliant deductive powers of the great detective, was too useful to discard. Her detective would, therefore, have such a figure in attendance, and he could be the narrator of the story.

    The budding crime writer now had an idea for the actual crime, and a detective and his aide. But who were the other characters to be? Who was to be murdered? Husbands frequently murdered their wives, of course, but perhaps it would be better to opt for a more unusual kind of murder and for a very unusual motive. But then the whole point of a really good murder mystery was that the criminal should be someone obvious, whose obviousness was not apparent until pointed out in the last chapter by the brilliant detective. At this point in her reasoning, Agatha Christie confessed later, she became confused and went away to make up a couple of extra bottles of hypochlorous lotion, so that she would have more free time the following day to give further consideration to her crime project.

    Over the next few days, her plot began to develop in some detail, though in a somewhat unorthodox manner. Having first decided what she wanted her murderer to look like, Agatha next began to search around among her acquaintances for someone who fitted the description, in order to study his physical characteristics. She soon realized, however, that it was pointless to attempt to base a fictional character upon a real person's characteristics. Later, with experience, she would find ways of doing this to some extent, but for the present she was in need of a starting-off point. She found it when, sitting in a tram, she saw exactly what she wanted: 'a man with a black beard, sitting next to an elderly lady who was chattering like a magpie.' As she did not know these people, her imagination was unfettered; she could invent characters for them, and place them in situations of her own invention.

    She continued to give consideration to the question of the detective. It was important that he should not be simply an imitation Sherlock Holmes. What other models were there? Arsène Lupin? The young journalist Rouletabille in The Mystery of the Yellow Room? Perhaps the detective could be a scientist. Or a schoolboy? A schoolboy would be too difficult, and Agatha was not acquainted with any scientists. Then she remembered the colony of Belgian war refugees who were living in the parish of Tor, in Torquay. Might not one of them be a Belgian police officer? A retired Belgian police officer, not too young:

I allowed him slowly to grow into his part. He should have been an inspector, so that he would have a certain knowledge of crime. He would be meticulous, very tidy, I thought to myself, as I cleared away a good many untidy odds and ends in my own bedroom. A tidy little man. I could see him as a tidy little man, always arranging things, liking things in pairs, liking things square instead of round. And he should be very brainy — he should have little grey cells of the mind — that was a good phrase: I must remember that — yes, he would have little grey cells. He would have rather a grand name — one of those names that Sherlock Holmes and his family had. Who was it his brother had been? Mycroft Holmes.

    Since he was to be a little man, it seemed an amusing idea to name the retired detective Hercules, the hero of Greek myth. Where did 'Poirot' come from? Did Agatha Christie think of her little detective as also being pear (poire)-shaped? Later, she was unable to remember. But she liked the sound of 'Hercule Poirot', and enthusiastically set to work on the other characters and on the plot, inventing situations, revelations and false clues during her leisure time at the dispensary and at home. Eventually, she began to write her novel, using a battered old typewriter that had belonged to her sister. Her method was to produce a first draft of each chapter in longhand and then revise the chapter as she typed it.

    About halfway through, Agatha began to find herself in difficulties with her complicated plot, at which point her mother suggested that, if she was ever going to bring her novel to a successful conclusion, she should take the typescript away with her on her holiday from the hospital, and work at it with nothing else to distract her. And so, in the summer of 1916, Mrs Archibald Christie took herself off to beautiful, grey, remote Dartmoor, quite near Torquay in distance, but a world away in atmosphere with its rugged moorland, giant granite tors on craggy hills, ancient stone circles, and prehistoric remains.

    Much of the 365 square miles of Dartmoor is bleak country, with treacherous bogs. But a few hundred yards from the summit of Hay Tor, the Moorland Hotel is situated, partially hidden by trees, with views over the moor and across south Devon to the sea, and it was there that Agatha Christie lived for two weeks while she finished writing the murder mystery which she had decided to call The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The hotel is still there, though it has been closed since fire destroyed some of its rooms in March 1970. Years later, Agatha Christie described her two weeks' stay at the Moorland Hotel in 1916:

It was a large, dreary hotel with plenty of rooms. There were few people staying there. I don't think I spoke to any of them — it would have taken my mind away from what I was doing. I used to write laboriously all morning till my hand ached. Then I would have lunch, reading a book. Afterwards I would go out for a good walk on the moor, perhaps for a couple of hours. I think I learned to love the moor in those days. I loved the tors and the heather and all the wild part of it away from the roads. Everybody who went there — and of course there were not many in wartime — would be clustering around Hay Tor itself, but I left Hay Tor severely alone and struck out on my own across country. As I walked, I muttered to myself, enacting the chapter that I was next going to write; speaking as John to Mary, and as Mary to John; as Evelyn to her employer, and so on. I became quite excited by this. I would come home, have dinner, fall into bed and sleep for about twelve hours. Then I would get up and write passionately again all morning.

    When Archie Christie came home on leave, he read his wife's novel and enjoyed it. A friend of his in the Air Force was a director of a publishing house, and Archie suggested that he should provide her with a letter from his friend which she could enclose with the typescript and send off to Methuen's. This plan was duly followed but, although Methuen's sat on the typescript for about six months, perhaps to prove to Archie's friend that they were giving it their most earnest consideration, they eventually concluded that it was not quite suitable for them, and returned it to its author.

    The Mysterious Affair at Styles was submitted to another publisher, again without success, after which Agatha decided to try The Bodley Head, having noticed that they had recently published one or two detective novels. She packed the manuscript off to them, heard nothing, and forgot all about it.

    Towards the end of the war, Archie Christie, now a Colonel, was posted to the Air Ministry in London, so Agatha was able to leave Torquay and live at last with her husband. They took a small flat in St John's Wood, at 5 Northwick Terrace, which was really no more than two rooms on the second floor of a house (now demolished), and Agatha started a course of bookkeeping and shorthand to occupy her days. The war came to an end, and a few months later, in 1919, Mrs Christie gave birth to a daughter, Rosalind, at Ashfield, the family home in Torquay.

    The Christies now needed a larger London flat, and in due course found what they were looking for on the fourth floor of Addison Mansions (Flat 96), a huge double apartment block behind Olympia in Earls Court. Archie was demobilized, and went to work for a firm in the City. It was towards the end of 1919, nearly two years after she had sent the typescript of The Mysterious Affair at Styles to The Bodley Head, that Agatha Christie received a letter from John Lane, the Managing Director of the publishing house, asking her to call and see him. When they met, John Lane explained that several people had read her novel and thought it showed promise. However, the dénouement, which she had written as a court-room scene, did not ring true. If Mrs Christie would rewrite that chapter, in a different setting, and make some other minor changes, The Bodley Head would be willing to publish her book.

    After explaining what a risk he was taking by offering to publish a new and unknown writer, and how little money he was likely to make with her novel, John Lane produced a contract from the drawer of his desk, and an excited young author who had given up hope of ever having anything published, other than the occasional story or poem, immediately signed it. She was to receive a small royalty, but only after the first 2,000 copies had been sold. All subsidiary rights, such as serialization and film rights, would be shared fifty-fifty between author and publisher, and there was a clause binding the author to offer The Bodley Head her next five novels, at an only slightly increased royalty rate. A jubilant Agatha rushed home to inform her husband of her good fortune, and that evening they celebrated at the Hammersmith Palais de Danse.

    When The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920, it sold nearly 2,000 copies. The £25 which Agatha Christie earned from her first book came, not from royalties, for there were none due to her under the terms of a distinctly unfair contract, but from a half share of the serial rights which had been sold for £50 to The Weekly Times. Taking the view that £25 was not a very satisfactory return for all the time and energy she had expended upon the writing of her novel, Agatha did not envisage ever attempting to write another. At least, this is what she was to claim, years later, in her autobiography. She had been dared by her sister to write a detective story, she had done so, and she had got it published. There, as far as she was concerned, the matter ended. She would probably write stories from time to time, but she had no intention of turning herself into a professional writer. To her, writing was fun.

    In this, as in one or two other matters, Agatha Christie's An Autobiography is less than completely reliable. Writing it over a number of years between 1950 and 1965, she did not always remember with accuracy events which had taken place thirty or forty years earlier. In fact, in a letter to Basil Willett of The Bodley Head, written in the autumn of 1920, she inquired about the publication date of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, adding that she was beginning to wonder if it was ever going to appear, as she had already nearly finished a second novel, The Secret Adversary. She also wanted to know what the cover of The Mysterious Affair at Styles would look like. After she had seen the cover design, she agreed that it would do as it was 'quite artistic and mysterious'. She also asked that a dedication, 'To my mother', should appear at the beginning of the book.


Excerpted from THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF AGATHA CHRISTIE by Charles Osborne. Copyright © 1999 by Charles Osborne. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

1Appearance and Disappearance1
2The Vintage Years58
3War and Peace180
4The Mousetrap and After256
5Towards the Last Cases312
Illustration Acknowledgements402

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