Agatha Christie (1890-1976) was the best selling mystery author of all time and the only writer to have created two major detectives, Poirot and Marple. She also wrote the longest-running play in the modern theater, The Mousetrap.
The daughter of an American father and a British mother, Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born at Torquay in the United Kingdom on September 15, 1890. Her family was comfortable, although not wealthy, and she was educated at home, with later study in Paris. In 1914 she was married to Col. Archibald Christie; the marriage produced one daughter.
In 1920 Christie launched a career which made her the most popular mystery writer of all time. Her total output reached 93 books and 17 plays; she was translated into 103 languages (even more than Shakespeare); and her sales have passed the 400 million mark and are still going strong.
It was in her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), that Christie introduced one of her two best-known detectives, Hercule Poirot, and his amanuensis, Captain Hastings. Her debt to the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is manifest in the books in which this pair appears. Like Holmes, Poirot is a convinced and convincing spokesman for the human rational faculty (he places his faith in "the little grey cells"), uses his long-suffering companion as a sort of echo-chamber, and even has a mysterious and exotically-named brother who works for the government. Captain Hastings, like Dr. John Watson a retired military man, has much in common with his prototype: he is trusting, bumbling, and superingenuous, and by no means an intellectual. Yet occasionally he wins applause from the master by making an observation which by its egregious stupidity illuminates some corner previously dark in the inner recesses of the great mind. There is even a copy of Conan Doyle's ineffectual Inspector Lestrade in the person of Inspector Japp.
While writing in imitation of Conan Doyle, Christie experimented with a whole gallery of other sleuths.
Tuppence and Tommy Beresford, whose specialty was ferreting out espionage, made their debut in The Secret Adversary (1922); their insouciant, almost frivolous approach to detection provided a sharp contrast to that of Poirot.
The enigmatic, laconic Colonel Race appeared first in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), but, since his principal sphere of activity was the colonies, he was used only sporadically thereafter.
Superintendent Battle, stolid, dependable, and hardworking, came onto the scene in The Secret of Chimneys (1925) and later solved The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), but probably because of a lack of charisma was relegated to a subordinate role after that.
Others who debuted during this experimental period were the weird pair of the other-worldly Harley Quin and his fussbudgety, oldmaidish "contact," Mr. Satterthwaite, and the ingenious Parker Pyne, who specialized not in solving murders, but in manipulating the lives of others so as to bring them happiness and/or adventure. Pyne was often fortunate enough to have the assistance of Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, the mystery novelist who bore an uncanny resemblance to her creator.
The year 1926 was a watershed year for Christie. It saw the publication of her first hugely successful novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the narrator is the murderer, a plot twist that provoked great controversy about the ethics of the mystery writer. It was also a year of personal tragedy: her mother died, and then she discovered that her husband was in love with another woman. She suffered a nervous breakdown and on December 6 disappeared from her home; subsequently her car was found abandoned in a chalk-pit. Ten days later, acting on a tip, police found her in a Harrogate hotel, where she had been staying the entire time, although registered under the name of the woman with whom her husband was having his affair. She claimed to have had amnesia, and the case was not pursued further. The divorce came two years later.
In 1930 she married Sir Max Mallowan, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and one of Britain's foremost archaeologists. She often accompanied him on his digs in Iraq and Syria and placed some of her novels in those countries. In Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946) she wrote a humorous account of some of her expeditions with her husband.
Also in 1930, writing under the penname of Mary Westmacott, she published Giant's Bread, the first of six romances, none of which showed distinction. In that same year in Murder at the Vicarage, undoubtedly the best-written Christie novel, she first presented Jane Marple, who became one of her favorite sleuths and showed up frequently thereafter. Miss Marple was one of those paradoxes in whom readers delight: behind the Victorian, tea-and-crumpets, crocheted-antimacassar facade was a mind coldly aware of the frailty of all human beings and the depravity of some.
In the mid-1930s Christie began to produce novels that bore her unique stamp. In them she arranged a situation which was implausible, if not actually impossible, and into this unrealistic framework placed characters who acted realistically for the most realistic of motives. In Murder in the Calais Coach (1934) the murder is done with the connivance of a dozen people; in And Then There Were None (1939) nine murderers are invited to an island to be dispatched by an ex-judge with an implacable sense of justice; in Easy to Kill (1939) four murders are committed in a miniscule town without any suspicions being aroused; in A Murder Is Announced (1950) the killer advertises in advance. Also interesting in these books is Christie's philosophy that it is quite acceptable to kill a killer, particularly one whose crime is a heinous one.
In addition to her fiction, her archaeological reminiscences, the children's book Star over Bethlehem (1965), a collection of her poetry (1973), and her autobiography (1977), Christie authored 17 plays. Her own favorite was Witness for the Prosecution (1953), based on one of her novellas, but the public disagreed. The Mousetrap opened in London in 1952 and played there for over three decades, a run unparalleled in theater history. Many of her mysteries were made into movies—And Then There Were None three times—with the most successful those in which Margaret Rutherford portrayed Miss Marple.
Named a Dame of the British Empire in 1971, Christie died on January 12, 1976.
Further Reading on Agatha Christie
Besides An Autobiography (1977), there is a good biography by Gwen Robyns, The Mystery of Agatha Christie (1978). It contains a bibliography, although not as complete a one as that in Contemporary Authors. Janet Morgan's Agatha Christie: A Biography (1985) traces the writer's career through her first marriage and 1928 divorce. Christie is also a central figure in Sir Max Mallowan's Mallowan's Memoirs (1977). A semi-factual, semi-fictional look at the 1926 disappearance can be found in Kathleen Tynan's Agatha (1978).