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Happy Birthday to The Mistress of Mystery

AKA The Duchess of Death, The Queen of Crime

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • September 15, 2020

Her Foundation

One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is, I think, to have a happy childhood.

Agatha Christie (née Miller) was the youngest of three children, born in Torquay, a seaside town in Devon, England. Born ten years after her nearest sibling, she spent a great deal of time playing alone with her pets and imaginary companions. Nonetheless, she described her childhood as "very happy."

Although her older siblings had gone away to school, the author's mother, Clara, insisted that she be educated at home. Although Clara did not believe in teaching children how to read until the age of eight, Christie had learned on her own by four and quickly became a voracious reader. Her favorite authors included Mrs. Molesworth and Edith Nesbit, and later, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. At age ten, she penned her first poem entitled The Cowslip.

When she was eleven, her father, who suffered from chronic heart problems, passed away. Christie later said that this loss marked the end of her childhood. The author was famously private, but this autobiography, published posthumously, gives more detail about her early years, as well as her illustrious career moving forward.

Her Artistic Development

Instinct is a marvelous thing. It can neither be explained or ignored.

Christie's early education included considerable music training and she developed an interest in pursuing a career as an opera singer and concert pianist. In her teens, she went to Paris to study voice and piano, but, ultimately, she decided she lacked the talent and temperament to be a professional musician.

After completing her education, Christie returned to England. Her mother's health was suffering and it was recommended that she spend the winter in a warmer climate so the two spent three months in Egypt, a popular destination for wealthy Brits at the time. While there, they visited ancient ruins such as the Great Pyramid of Giza. Perhaps these experiences planted the seeds for the author's great interest in archaeology and Egyptology, evident in several later books, such as Death Comes as the End, set in ancient Egypt.

It was in the next few years, that Christie began to seriously pursue a writing career, submitting short stories to magazines under a variety of pseudonyms, including Mac Miller, Nathaniel Miller, and Sydney West. All of these early submissions were rejected, though some have since been revised and published and can be enjoyed in some of her short story collections, like The Hound of Death.

Her Breakthrough

The best time to plan a book is while you're doing the dishes.

In her early twenties, the author met Archie Christie, a young army officer, and the two fell in love and quickly got engaged. They were married in 1914 amidst the beginning of the First World War.

While Archie served overseas, Christie joined the war effort, first as a nurse and later as an apothecary working for dispensaries. It was in this role that she began to learn about poison, knowledge that came in handy for the budding mystery novelist. Her breakout novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (published almost exactly 100 years ago), features the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot solving a murder involving strychnine poisoning. In fact, more than forty of her ingenious plotlines employed the use of poison.

After the war, Christie welcomed the birth of her only child, a daughter named Rosalind. She continued writing, producing some of her best work over the next several years, including The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which was deemed the best crime novel ever written by the Crime Writers' Association in 2013.

In 1926, Archie fell in love with a younger woman and asked Christie for a divorce. The fallout from this incident resulted in a baffling scenario resembling one of the author's famous plotlines. The couple quarreled and Christie drove off in a state of distress. Her subsequent disappearance led to a high-profile search and she was found ten days later at a health spa, where she appeared to be suffering from a state of amnesia. While Christie steadfastly refused to discuss the episode, this novel by Carol Owens offers a take on what might have happened.

Her "Second Blooming"

An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.

In 1930, on a trip to Iraq, Christie met archaeologist Max Mallowan. The couple married later that same year. Their marriage lasted until the author's death in 1976. She accompanied her husband on many of his archaeological digs, inspiring several of her stories set in the Middle East, such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the The Nile—coming to screens in a new film next month.

Of this chapter in her life, Christie said, "I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming...suddenly you find—at the age of fifty, say—that a whole new life has opened before you." Indeed, the author turned fifty shortly after she published her favorite novel, And Then There Were None, one of the bestselling books of all time.

Her Enduring Legacy

The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.

The significance of Agatha Christie's work cannot be overstated. In addition to her addictive detective novels (more than sixty), she also wrote fourteen short-story collections, six romance novels (using the pseudonym Mary Westmacott), two autobiographies, and several popular plays. Her The Mousetrap is famously the longest running play of all time; performances have been ongoing in London since 1952, ceasing earlier this year only because of the pandemic shutdown.

Her work has inspired countless acolytes and devotees. In 2013, author Sophie Hannah received permission from the Christie family to publish The Monogram Murders, a new Poirot novel and has gone on to write several more.

Of Christie's genius Hannah says, "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."

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