Agatha Christieby Mark Campbell
An informed introduction to the Christie phenomenon, updated to include new material on the final Poirot adaptation series and Sophie Hannah's The Monogram Murders
Since her debut in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair At Styles, Agatha Christie has become the chief proponent of the English village murder mystery. Although she created/i>/b>/i>/i>
An informed introduction to the Christie phenomenon, updated to include new material on the final Poirot adaptation series and Sophie Hannah's The Monogram Murders
Since her debut in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair At Styles, Agatha Christie has become the chief proponent of the English village murder mystery. Although she created two enormously popular characters—the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and the inquisitive elderly spinster and amateur sleuth Miss Jane Marple of St Mary Mead—it is not generally acknowledged that she wrote in many different genres: comic mysteries (Why Didn't They Ask Evans?), atmospheric whodunits (Murder On The Orient Express), espionage thrillers (N or M?), romances (under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott), plays (The Mousetrap), and poetry. She was never afraid to break the rules either, and provoked a storm of controversy with the unorthodox resolution of The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, now acclaimed as one of the classics of British crime fiction. Christie wrote complex whodunits in a clear, readable style, which is why her books are as popular now as they were 80 years ago. Exemplary film and TV adaptations (Peter Ustinov and David Suchet as Poirot, Margaret Rutherford, and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple), have also encouraged new readers to search out her work. The film, TV, and stage adaptations are listed in this guide, and appendices point readers to books and websites where they can find out more.
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Read an Excerpt
By Mark Campbell
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2015 Mark Campbell
All rights reserved.
It was the covers that did it for me. I would peruse the crime shelves of our local Bournemouth bookshops — a scrawny ten-year-old with unruly blonde hair and National Health glasses — and drink deeply of those violent, nightmarish images: telephones dripping with blood, skulls grinning out of golf balls, eyeballs poking from blood-spattered tennis racquets ... it's a wonder I wasn't scarred for life. (Actually, that's a moot point.) And each time I'd slide a book from the shelf, the name 'Agatha Christie' in big, bold letters would stare back at me (like that dratted eyeball). Yes, she — and Dick Francis, ugh, his covers were terrifying too — would guarantee a brief spine-chilling thrill in the bustling first floor of WH Smith, when I was probably supposed to be looking for Enid Blyton.
Then a few years later I read one. It was Murder on the Orient Express. Well, all I can say is I've never seen such a flagrant flaunting of the Trade Descriptions Act. Where was the dripping blood? The gouged eyeballs? The grinning skull on a mound of worm-infested earth? They were nowhere to be seen. All I got was a posh train, a load of upper-class people speaking in old-fashioned language, and a very confusing story about one person after another being accused of killing someone (in a very bloodless way, I was disappointed to find). The covers may have promised blood and guts (those '70s cover artists — what were they on?), but the contents couldn't be more different — they were as gentle and dated as a pat on the shoulder from your great-aunt.
So I didn't read many more after that. (After a brief love affair with the Pan Books of Horror Stories, I turned to James Herbert and the odd Stephen King. Gouged eyeballs aplenty there.) But of course the thing I'd missed — the thing that those covers claimed in spades — was that these light, genteel murder mysteries were far more gripping precisely because they were so bloodless. Death stalked in broad daylight down some country lane, a person everyone hated would end up murdered in a conspicuous location, all the villagers would be suspected ... it wasn't the blood that was scary, it was the paranoia. And you can't paint paranoia on a book cover.
As a child, the idea of paranoia was too abstract to get my head round — it's an adult fear really and, thankfully, most of the time it has no basis in reality (except, of course, for us writers). But it happens all the time with Agatha Christie. Pick up one of her books and you will have absolutely no idea whodunit — it could be anyone. And I mean anyone. And there's nothing cosy about that, is there? We need reassurance, we need to tell the goodies from the baddies. It's a strange and rather terrifying notion when we can't, and Christie delights in denying us this privilege. She will choose who's guilty, she will deceive with her bluff and double-bluff, she will show you just who's in charge. And you, the reader, stumble blindly in her shadow.
Paranoia goes hand-in-hand with claustrophobia, and thus Christie's best stories are ones that make a feature of small settings and small casts. Her globetrotting thrillers automatically disappoint by moving around so much — we need to feel isolated, trapped; be it in a hotel on a desolate island or the book-lined study of a smart country house snowed up for the winter. Christie is an absolute genius at using similar ingredients over and over, and yet each time providing new thrills, new twists, new rushes of anticipation and horror. Even the worst of her books has its own unique frisson of excitement. She just can't help it — even in her eighties, she still came up with the goods.
Her critics say she wrote glorified crossword puzzles — meticulously plotted narratives that turned her characters into zombiefied ciphers who had to be in place 'A' by point 'B' in order to overhear person 'C'. Well, yes, there is an element of that. But within these contrivances, there is a huge amount of 'give'. Her characters exhibit real personalities, their motivations are for the most part believable, and the interplay between them is always a joy. For Christie's observance of the nuances of conversation is second to none. She captures the curious half-sentences and ungrammatical constructions that we call 'talking' and slaps them straight down onto the page. It's like we're hearing real conversation, and of course that's where she wrong-foots us — within these throwaway lines are clues that she has planted, not the characters. Remember, she is the puppet-master, even when her creations seem to have a life of their own.
People mainly read Agatha Christie for one reason — a book written by her is a guarantee of a good story, reasonably well told, with a hard-to-guess ending. There's nothing too deep in her books (although she is, accidentally, a social historian of some note), but what there is is set down with such a casual air of authority that you feel obliged to pay attention. Her lowbrow reputation masks her highbrow techniques — she is one of this country's finest novelists (crime or otherwise) — if you haven't done so already, go out and buy, borrow or steal The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and you'll see I'm right.
Those 1970s covers might have been scary, but the stuff inside is a whole lot scarier.CHAPTER 2
Dame Agatha Christie Biography
"If anybody writes about my life in the future, I'd rather they got the facts right."
Agatha Christie, quoted in The Sunday Times, 27 February 1966.
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born at her parents' home of Ashfield in Barton Road, Tor Mohun, a district of Torquay, on 15 September 1890. She was the last of Frederick and Clarissa Miller's three children: Margaret ('Madge') Frary was born in 1879, and Louis ('Monty') Montant arrived a year later. Educated at home, she taught herself to read and write at an early age – her first published piece was a poem about electric trams printed in an Ealing newspaper when she was 11, the same year that her father died of pneumonia. In 1910, after Christie's return from a Parisian finishing school, she and her mother spent the winter months in Egypt, an experience that would stay with her for the rest of her life.
Back in England she had some of her poetry published in The Poetry Review and won some prizes. But her attempts at stories were less successful: writing under the pen names of 'Mac Miller' and 'Nathaniel Miller' they were rejected. Her mother suggested that local author Eden Philpotts might be permitted to give her some advice. He proved very encouraging, complimenting her on her grasp of structure and dialogue and recommending that she continue writing.
She became engaged in 1912 to Major Reggie Lucy, but while he was serving in Hong Kong she fell in love with Lt Archibald Christie of the Royal Field Artillery. They married 18 months later on Christmas Eve 1914, with Archie now a Captain in the Royal Flying Corps. He went to war two days later, and Christie began working as a nurse in Torbay Hospital, later moving to the dispensary where she acquired her knowledge of poisons. Remembering her sister's claim years before that she couldn't write a detective story, she decided to prove her wrong and began working on one during quiet periods at the dispensary. Poison would be central to the plot of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first published novel (and the Pharmaceutical Journal would later write approvingly of her knowledge).
Archie, now a Colonel, was posted to the London Air Ministry in 1918. They moved into two rooms on the second floor of 5 Northwick Terrace in St John's Wood, London, now demolished. After the birth of her only child Rosalind Margaret Clarissa on 5 August 1919, they needed a larger flat, so moved into first 25 and then 96 Addison Mansions, an apartment block behind Olympia in Earls Court. In 1922 the Christies travelled round the world with Archie's friend, Major Belcher, organiser of the British Empire Exhibition Mission: they visited South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, stopped off for a brief holiday in Honolulu, and finally ended up in Canada. On their return in December, Archie got a job at the city firm of Austral Trust Ltd and they moved into a house called Scotswood in Sunningdale, about thirty miles from central London. In 1924 they moved to a larger house in the same area which they nicknamed Styles, in honour of Christie's first book.
Christie's mother died of bronchitis in 1926, and shortly afterwards Archie revealed that he had fallen in love with another woman – Nancy Neele, a joint acquaintance – and wanted a divorce. On 3 December, after a quarrel, Archie left Styles to spend the weekend with Ms Neele in Godalming, Surrey. That evening Christie left the house, leaving her daughter asleep, and left a letter for her secretary saying that she was going to Yorkshire. She posted another to the Deputy Chief Constable for Surrey, saying she feared for her life. Next day her car was found by a gypsy, abandoned by the side of the road at Newlands Corner, near Guildford in Surrey. But Christie was nowhere to be found. The Daily News offered £100 for information leading to her whereabouts, a pool near the car was dredged, and police from Surrey, Essex, Berkshire and Kent were drafted in to look for her. Archie Christie was the chief suspect, and many false trails were followed up. A week after her disappearance, 15,000 volunteers searched the Merrow Downs where her car had been found, but discovered nothing. Thriller writer Edgar Wallace postulated in the Daily Mail that she had faked her disappearance to spite her husband and that she was probably alive and well in London.
Wallace was partially right. A banjo player at the Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate – now the Old Swan Hotel – had been thinking for a few days that one of the guests could have been the missing novelist. He told the Harrogate police and shortly afterwards the news was leaked to the press. The Daily Mail sent a special train filled with reporters and photographers, and reporter Ritchie Calder accosted her directly. The game was up – Christie admitted who she was, and on Tuesday 14 December the London Evening Standard reported that the hunt was over.
Christie had booked into the hotel on 4 December as 'Mrs Theresa Neele' from Cape Town. She had spent the time there like any other guest, taking tea in a local tea shop, going on walks and playing billiards; she had even posted an announcement in The Times asking for friends and relatives to contact 'Neele' at a particular box number. Archie came up to the Hydro on the 14th and identified her and two doctors issued a statement claiming she had suffered a loss of memory. Various theories have sprung up since then – some claim she had planned the whole thing, others that it was a publicity stunt to sell her latest book – but from then on, one thing became clear: she hated publicity, and spent the rest of her life actively shunning it.
A divorce was granted in April 1928 and Archie then married Nancy Neele, who died of cancer in 1958, Archie dying four years later. In 1929 Christie bought a mews house in Chelsea: 22 Creswell Place. She met the archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930 while he was conducting a dig at Arpachiyah in Iraq; they fell in love and married in Scotland in September of that year, shortly after the publication of her first romantic novel, written under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott.
From then on, the couple divided their time between England and the Middle East. Further houses were purchased: 48 Sheffield Terrace in Kensington, London, and Winterbrook House in Wallingford, Oxon. They even built their own house at Chagar Bazar in Syria where Christie began a diary that formed the basis of her memoir Come, Tell Me How You Live. In autumn 1936 the expedition dug up seventy cuneiform tablets which linked Chagar Bazar with the Royal House of Assyria – a significant historical find.
In 1938 the Christies bought another property – a large Georgian house overlooking the river Dart near Galmpton, a few miles upriver from Torquay. This was Greenway House, and they would live here, on and off, for the rest of their lives. During the Second World War, the property became a nursery for London-evacuated children and later accommodation for United States Navy personnel. For a while Christie returned to her job at the Torbay Hospital dispensary before joining Max in London, where he had a job at the Air Ministry. They lived in a succession of flats: Half Moon Street, Park Place, then Sheffield Terrace. When this last place was bombed, they moved to a modern block of flats at 22 Lawn Road, Hampstead. Christie worked as a dispenser at University College Hospital, while Max was seconded to North Africa, where he became an adviser on Arab affairs. Away from Max, she spent much of her free time writing.
In 1943 Christie's daughter Rosalind married Hubert Prichard, a soldier in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and on 21 September she gave birth to Mathew. Tragically Hubert was killed in action a year later, and Rosalind married again in 1949, to barrister and oriental scholar Anthony Hicks. In the same year Christie accompanied Mallowan (by air, what she called a "dull routine") for the most important archaeological dig of his career – to Nimrud, the ancient military capital of Assyria. They would return there every year for almost a decade. In 1954 Christie's secondary career as a playwright reached its acme, with three shows running concurrently in London: The Mousetrap, Witness for the Prosecution and Spider's Web.
In 1950 she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and on 1 January 1956 she became a Commander of the British Empire. Max received the same honour four years later. Crippling taxation forced the author to set up a private company, Agatha Christie Ltd; in 1968 Bookers Books, a subsidiary of agricultural and industrial conglomerate Booker McConnell bought a 51% stake, increasing later to 64%. The remainder was held by Christie's daughter and grandson. In June 1998 Booker sold their shares to international media company Chorion Ltd. In 2012, following a management buyout, they in turn sold their 64% stake to Acorn Media UK, a subsidiary of RLJ Entertainment Inc.
A 1959 UNESCO report claimed that Christie had been translated into 103 languages – with sales of around 400 million copies to date, she came third after the Bible and Shakespeare. Mallowan was knighted in 1968, and three years later, aged 81, Christie was made Dame Commander of the British Empire. On 16 June that year she broke her leg in a fall at her home in Wallingford and this led to a decline in her health; for the rest of her life she walked with a stick and made few public appearances. In March 1972 she was measured for Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum and shortly afterwards her life-size figure appeared in the conservatory, seated below film director Alfred Hitchcock. She still resides there to this day – seated now in the Grand Hall.
A banquet at Claridge's, after the London gala premiere of Murder on the Orient Express in November 1974, was the last public event Christie attended. Interviewed by Lord Snowdon for the Toronto Star of 14 December 1974, she was asked what she wanted to be remembered for. "Well, I would like it to be said that I was a good writer of detective and thriller stories," she replied. Curtain, written during the Second World War, was published in 1975. A few days into the following year, just after luncheon on 12 January, she died at Winterbrook after a short cold. She was buried four days later following a private service in St Mary's Church in the nearby village of Cholsey. The tombstone inscription, a quotation from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, reads:
"Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after war, death after life, does greatly please."CHAPTER 3
Complete Checklist of Agatha Christie's Works
78 books, 157 short stories
Where the titles were published in Britain and America, the American editions appeared either in the same year or the year after (very occasionally the year before): except where the difference is significant, only the UK publication date is given. For books that appeared in only one of these countries, the following symbols apply: = UK, * = US. (These symbols are used throughout the book.) Original titles are quoted in this list, with 'and other stories' (where relevant) usually removed in later printings and, for brevity's sake, elsewhere in this guide. Anthologies (by various authors) and collected works are excluded.
Excerpted from Agatha Christie by Mark Campbell. Copyright © 2015 Mark Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Meet the Author
Mark Campbell is theatre critic for the Kentish Times, has written for the Independent, Midweek and Crime Time, and is one of the main contributors to the two-volume British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia. He has produced Pocket Essentials on Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and Carry On Films.
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