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True Crime Inspirations
By Mike Holgate
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Mike Holgate
All rights reserved.
'The Queen of Crime'
Take away the wolf from Red Riding Hood and would any child enjoy it? However, like most things in life, you want to be frightened a little – but not too much.
Agatha Christie (An Autobiography, 1977)
'The Queen of Crime', Agatha Christie, was born in 1890 in Torquay, the Devon seaside resort renowned as the 'Queen of the English Riviera'. The youngest of Frederick and Clarissa Miller's three children, it was at the family mansion, Ashfield, where she developed a love of detective fiction by listening to Sherlock Holmes stories read to her by her older sister. These experiences, linked to the nursery rhymes recited by her nanny, would later inspire her to produce a stream of classic titles including A Pocket Full of Rye, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, and Hickory, Dickory, Dock. Although the celebrated author always retained the fondest memories of her privileged upbringing, where she was cosseted by household servants and educated by private tutors, her early life was coloured by a series of terrifying incidents, tragedy and sorrow that perhaps stimulated a morbid interest in death. This might have been viewed as an unhealthy fixation in a well-bred young woman; instead, it cultivated a penchant for relating murder mysteries that brought her critical acclaim and everlasting fame.
A decade younger than her siblings Madge and Monty, Agatha had an isolated childhood and invented imaginary playmates. Her closest friends as an infant were the family's pet dogs, and while taking one for a walk she witnessed the horror of it being run down and killed by a horse-driven carriage. When aged eleven, further tragedy struck when she suffered the loss of her father. A man of independent means, American-born Frederick Miller had embraced the life of an English gentleman, idly passing his days visiting the yacht club or watching cricket and taking a philanthropic interest in local affairs. He donated money to the building of All Saints Church in his daughter's name so that she became a founder member. The fictional sleuth Miss Jane Marple, who made her debut in Murder at the Vicarage (1930), would have been proud of the parishioners of All Saints when they solved the mystery of lead gradually disappearing from the vestry roof in 2008. Volunteers sat up all night in the church and their prayers were answered and vigilance repaid when they summoned the police at dawn to apprehend the thief who was caught in the act.
In her autobiography, Agatha recalled that she enjoyed being frightened as a child and experienced feelings of 'indescribable terror' when playing a game with her sister Madge. They invented 'the Elder Sister', whom the girls pretended was mad and lived in a cave in the cliff face of the beach at Corbyn Head. Agatha enjoyed swimming but during her teens once got into difficulties and almost drowned at the Ladies' Bathing Cove. Far from experiencing sounds of music and seeing her life flash by, she began to black out as she sank beneath the waves, fully expecting to die, before she was plucked to safety by a local boatman who hauled her roughly aboard his craft and applied a crude form of artificial respiration – flushing the water from her lungs with a 'bit of punching'.
The fledgling writer's imagination was running riot from the age of four, when she experienced terrifying nightmares of a military figure she described as a French soldier in a grey-blue uniform, wearing a three-cornered hat over powdered hair and bearing a musket. His appearance would cause her to awaken the household by screaming 'The gunman, the gunman!' However, Agatha revealed that it was just before the age of five when she really 'first met fear'. This occurred when she went primrose picking near her home accompanied by her nanny. After walking up Shiphay Lane and passing the infamous White House of convicted baby-farmer Charlotte Winsor, who was sentenced to life-imprisonment for killing an infant in 1864, they entered a field and were warned off for trespassing by an angry man who threatened to 'boil them alive'. The panic-stricken child felt sick as she visualised herself being placed in a steaming cauldron – a memory that lingered well into old age: 'From that day to this I have never known so real a terror'.
Death became a commonplace event during the First World War when the newly married Agatha Christie qualified as a dispensary nurse at the Torquay War Hospital. Her knowledge of poisons and the presence of wounded Belgian soldiers inspired her to create retired policeman Hercule Poirot for her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, completed in 1916. Agatha had accepted a proposal of marriage from airman Archie Christie after attending a Wagner concert performed by the Torquay Municipal Orchestra at the Pavilion in 1913. The couple were wed on Christmas Eve 1914 and spent their honeymoon in Torquay at the Grand Hotel which, many years later, threw up an unsolved mystery that may have nonplussed the 'little grey cells' of her famous fictional detective. In September 1997, a guest was found dead in his hotel room. Having eaten a meal of roast lamb washed down with a bottle of wine and a cyanide-laced bottle of coke, he left an apologetic note in which he thanked the chef for a 'magnificent' last supper. Known as 'Mr Patel', the man had distinctive scars on his shoulders that led investigators to believe he had links with the Tamil Tigers, a well-known terrorist group. However, despite exhaustive enquiries neither his true identity nor the reason for taking his own life was ever established.
A milestone was reached in 1926 with the publication of a groundbreaking novel that many critics judge to be the crime writer's greatest work, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. However, the year was marred by two catastrophic events. Clarissa Miller passed away and while Agatha wound up her mother's affairs at Ashfield, her husband remained at the marital home in Berkshire and began a love affair with his golf partner, Nancy Neele. In December Archie asked his wife for a divorce and, with her mind in turmoil, she drove off the road with the intention of ending it all but emerged suffering from concussion. She then abandoned her car and disappeared without trace. Before the amnesiac was located eleven days later at a hotel in Yorkshire, the derelict Ashfield was searched by the police in the forlorn hope that the missing author had returned to the sanctuary of her former home.
In an incident that would be replicated in a Christie play, The Unexpected Guest (1958), where the wife of a murdered man recalls her husband's irrational habit of shooting at people from a window of their home, the local constabulary had been summoned to Ashfield a few years earlier to caution Agatha's brother, Monty, who had ceased his illegal activities in the ivory trade and returned from Africa, having fallen seriously ill with a recurring infected wound received in war service. Considered to be the black sheep of the family, Monty cheerfully confessed to Agatha that he had led a 'wicked life' and fallen foul of the law all over the world, 'But my word, kid, ... I've had a thundering good time'. Although expected to live only six months, Monty's health gradually improved and he eased the boredom of his recuperation by firing his revolver at terrified visitors. Tradesmen and neighbours complained to the police but the gunman was unrepentant: 'Some silly old spinster going down the drive with her behind wobbling. Couldn't resist it – I sent a shot or two right and left of her. My how she ran!' Eventually Agatha and Madge provided their brother with a Dartmoor cottage where he was cared for by an elderly widow and mother of thirteen children, Mrs Taylor, whose own deteriorating health with bronchitis later necessitated further funding so that housekeeper and patient could make an ill-fated move to the warmer climes of the south of France.
Monty failed to reach his fiftieth birthday, succumbing to a cerebral haemorrhage while imbibing at a Marseilles café in 1929. The unfortunate Mrs Taylor died in hospital only a few days after accompanying him to France, having been taken ill with pneumonia during a railway journey on the Calais-Paris-Nice train which featured in the novel The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928). Agatha considered it her worst book, for she had written it in the depths of depression immediately following the collapse of her marriage.
When celebrating her eightieth birthday with the publication of her eightieth book in 1970, Agatha Christie revealed how her characters were often derived from real people and real places, while her rich imagination was stimulated from studying newspaper reports of true life crimes. Almost daily, distressing incidents of killing, vandalism, robbery and assault provided inspiration for plots. 'Could this be England?' she asked, 'And yet one knows how much goodness there is in this world of ours?'CHAPTER 2
JACK THE RIPPER
Cat Among the Pigeons
Confronted with the ABC murders, Poirot and his colleagues find it natural on several occasions to compare them with the Ripper's exploits.
(The Agatha Christie Collection No. 5, The ABC Murders)
In The ABC Murders (1936), Agatha Christie concocted a perplexing and apparently motiveless series of murders carried out in various parts of the country by an alphabetically-obsessed killer travelling by train and taunting Hercule Poirot with letters informing him where is he going to strike next – Andover, Bexhillon-Sea and the railway station at Churston in Torbay. Alongside each corpse is placed a copy of the ABC Railway Guide opened at the page of the town or village where the killing has taken place. A strange, dishevelled character whose name is suspiciously formed from the first three letters of the alphabet, Alexander Bonaparte Cust, staggers into a police station believing he is guilty of the murders, but Poirot is not convinced. Before solving the mystery, the Belgian detective draws a parallel with the world's most infamous serial murderer in a conversation with his old friend and trusted aide Captain Arthur Hastings: 'Remember the long continued successes of Jack the Ripper'.
For The ABC Murders, Agatha Christie certainly drew inspiration from the celebrated true-life 'Whitechapel Murders'. They took place in the heart of London's East End, where homicide was commonplace, yet the sheer ferocity and savagery inflicted on the victims immediately attracted lurid headlines in the press as five prostitutes were killed and mutilated over a three-month period in the autumn of 1888. The first of these so-called 'canonical' victims was struck down on 31 August, when the body of Mary 'Polly' Nichols was found. Unable to afford a bed in a lodging house, she had been wandering the streets trying to raise money by prostitution when her throat was viciously cut right through to the spinal column, before her skirts were raised and her abdomen ripped open, exposing her intestines. A week later, Annie Chapman met a similar fate when her intestines were removed and laid neatly on the ground, while her womb was removed and taken away by her killer. On the last day of September, an infamous 'double event' occurred when two women were slain in a single night. Elizabeth Stride was last seen talking to a man 'respectable' in appearance less than thirty minutes before her body was discovered. This time there was no mutilation and blood was still seeping from the dead woman's throat, indicating that the Ripper had narrowly escaped detection. Forty minutes later, the psychopath struck again and killed Katherine Eddowes. With maniacal zeal, her throat, face and abdomen were slashed and a kidney and womb removed. The worst atrocity was saved for the final victim, Mary Jane Kelly, who was attacked in her lodging house on 9 November 1888. When a rent collector called on the streetwalker, he peeped through the window and spotted her naked, bloodied corpse lying on the bed. Her face had been brutalised almost beyond recognition, flesh removed from her abdomen and thighs was found on a bedside table, while the breasts had been sliced off and her heart extracted and removed from the scene of the crime. The shocked gentleman who made the terrible discovery remarked, 'It looked more like the work of a devil than a man'.
Letters sent to a news agency were signed by the self-proclaimed 'Jack the Ripper', and a prominent London citizen received a piece of kidney which the writer claimed he had taken from one of the dead women, while in correspondence purportedly received 'From Hell', he boasted 'tother piece I fried and ate'. Such psychopaths are usually compelled to continue their killing spree until they are apprehended, but following the death of the fifth victim, the murderer's reign of terror mysteriously ceased and the villain was never brought to justice. Since the time of the atrocities numerous suspects, accomplices and conspirators have continually been named in connection with the crime. These include: members of the royal family, Queen Victoria, Edward Prince of Wales, and Prince Albert Victor; prominent politicians Lord Salisbury, William Gladstone and Randolph Churchill; eminent artists and writers Frank Miles, Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll; and physicians Sir William Gull, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr Neill Cream. The latter was a Glasgow-born physician mentioned by Agatha Christie in Cat Among the Pigeons (1959), a tale of international intrigue involving an exclusive school for girls, where a character opines that the villain may be a serial killer like Jack the Ripper or Dr Neill Cream who 'went about killing an unfortunate type of woman'.
After graduating from Canada's McGill University, the notorious Dr Cream embarked upon a life of crime involving arson, blackmail, abortion and murder. While practicing as a physician in Chicago he was sentenced to life imprisonment for taking the life of the husband of his current mistress. Released on parole after ten years, he moved to London where he poisoned six prostitutes with strychnine-laced medication ostensibly administered to treat various ailments. Another would-be victim became suspicious and only pretended to swallow some poisoned pills given to her by Cream. She survived to tell the tale and gave vital evidence for the prosecution in the subsequent trial held in 1892.
Like the killer in The ABC Murders and the Whitechapel Murders, Cream was an indulgent self-publicist who enjoyed drawing attention to his crimes. In fact, he was the architect of his own downfall in Chicago where his victim was buried, arousing no suspicion that he had died from poisoning until Cream wrote to the district attorney suggesting that the body should be exhumed. Likewise, in London, Cream made an offer to name the 'Lambeth Murderer' if Scotland Yard paid him a substantial reward. Sentenced to death, without admitting his guilt, he seemingly confessed to a string of earlier crimes on the scaffold. As the hangman drew the bolt, the condemned man declared with his last breath, 'I am Jack the ...'CHAPTER 3
LADY NANCY ASTOR
Appointment with Death
It was not often that Agatha Christie modelled a character on a recognisable person in real-life. However, you are tempted to identify Lady Westholme, the overbearing Member of Parliament in Appointment with Death who is 'much respected and almost universally disliked' with Lady Astor.
Christie biographer Charles Osborne
In the mystery novel Appointment With Death (1938), American Lady Mary Westholme is a domineering Member of Parliament married to a country squire. Although Agatha Christie claimed to have based the character on two women she had met in the Far East, readers could barely fail to notice the striking similarity with an American-born lady representing a Devon constituency, Lady Nancy Astor (1879-1964).
The beautiful, vivacious southern belle was twenty-seven years old with one disastrous marriage behind her when she met wealthy socialite Waldorf Astor onboard a liner travelling to England. After a whirlwind courtship, the couple were wed in 1906. Her friend, American cowboy comic Will Rogers, later quipped: 'Nancy, you sure out-married yourself'. She had a firm belief in the superiority of the female species and countered: 'I married beneath me – all women do'.
Waldorf had been born in New York on the same day as Nancy. His father, Viscount William Astor, had not endeared himself to his fellow countrymen when he moved his family to England in 1899, publicly stating: 'America is not a fit place for a gentleman to live'. Becoming a British subject ten years later, he took a shortcut to a peerage by becoming a newspaper tycoon.
In 1908, Waldorf entered politics. Refusing the offer of a safe seat, he became the Tory candidate for Plymouth Sutton, attracted by its historical association with the Pilgrim Fathers and America. Two years later, at the second attempt, he won the seat from the Liberals. During the First World War he served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Prime Minister David Lloyd George before his career in the Commons came to end upon the death of his father in 1919. Waldorf inherited the peerage and was obliged to move to the House of Lords.
Excerpted from Agatha Christie's by Mike Holgate. Copyright © 2011 Mike Holgate. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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