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Agatha Christie | Biography

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Childhood

Agatha Christie—a best-selling English novelist—was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on September 15, 1890, in Torquay, England. She was the youngest of three children born to Frederick Miller, an American businessman, and Clarissa Miller, an English homemaker. Christie's brother and sister were much older, and both were away at boarding school for most of Christie's childhood. Thus, her life was largely one of an only child. Christie's father died when she was just 11, and Christie's mother decided to tutor her at home until she was 15 rather than send her to boarding school like her siblings. After that Christie went to a school in Paris and studied piano and singing.

Christie was always an avid reader. She consumed fairy tales and popular fiction, including romances and Sherlock Holmes detective stories by British writer Arthur Conan Doyle. Her mother also encouraged her to write stories and poems. The Poetry Review in Britain published several of her poems when she was in her teens. She also wrote an unpublished novel, Snow Upon the Desert, during these years. The story takes place in Cairo, which Christie had visited with her mother.

Early Career

On December 24, 1914, Christie married Archibald Christie, a captain in the air division of the British Army, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Shortly after their marriage he left for France where he was stationed during World War I (1914–18), and she pursued a nursing career. She worked as a nurse in a hospital in Torquay that treated casualties from the Western Front, and then she switched to the pharmacy, or dispensary. She wrote the poem "In a Dispensary," which details the poisons and essential oils available in a pharmacy and their beneficial and toxic effects. She featured this poem in her poetry collection The Road of Dreams, which she published at her own expense in 1925. Christie's knowledge of poisons would come in handy again in her mystery-writing career.

Christie also started writing another novel during this period. She created detective Hercule Poirot, who relies on his "gray cells," or logic and reasoning, to solve a seemingly impossible murder. She wrote simply and with a minimum of description but developed a complex plot full of "red herrings," or false clues, to create a challenging puzzle for both Poirot and her readers. In the novel two longtime friends stay at a posh country house along with one friend's stepmother and new husband. Hercule Poirot, another friend, joins the group after one of the guests is found dead of poisoning. Christie submitted the manuscript titled The Mysterious Affair at Styles to five or six publishers.

At the end of the war Christie's husband returned to England, and the couple moved to London. Their daughter, Rosalind, was born in 1919. Meanwhile Christie sent her manuscript to another publisher, the Bodley Head, which agreed to publish it. Christie was thrilled. Eager to have a book in print, she agreed to a multi-book contract that paid rather poorly.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920, more than five years after Christie wrote it. By the time it appeared, she had earned a reputation as a short-story writer. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was a hit with the public and helped her gain recognition as a novelist. In 1922 the Bodley Head published her second novel, The Secret Adversary, which featured two freshly minted detectives, Tommy and Tuppence. The two start a company called Young Adventurers Ltd., stating they are "willing to do anything, go anywhere," and soon find themselves with a sinister client. This was followed by another Poirot novel, The Murder on the Links, in 1923. In this one a millionaire is found stabbed in the back on a French golf course, and Poirot must figure out—among many other things—why the man is wearing his son's overcoat. The 1925 novel The Secret of Chimneys involves a murder, as well.

The year 1926 was full of lows and highs. Christie's mother died of bronchitis early in the year. June saw the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which again features Hercule Poirot. In it a woman is blackmailed about killing her first husband. She then dies, leaving a suicide note; when the man who loved her tries to learn the blackmailer's identity, he too dies. The novel's surprise ending made it immensely popular. Its first printing earned her a reputation as a skillful novelist of detective fiction.

Then in early December of 1926, Christie's own life became a chapter from a mystery. That evening she and her husband argued, and Archibald left their house to spend the weekend with his mistress. Later that night Christie left the house as well, and she disappeared. When her car was later found abandoned, authorities feared for her safety. The media provided widespread coverage of her disappearance and offered a reward for information leading to her whereabouts. Finally, after Christie had been missing for 11 days, an anonymous caller provided a tip about a woman staying in a hotel in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. The woman was Christie. She had registered under the name of her husband's mistress. Christie claimed amnesia and said she had no idea how she arrived at the hotel. Many people doubted her amnesia story and believed her disappearance was a publicity stunt to increase her book sales.

Christie never spoke publicly about the incident, and thereafter she developed a strong desire for privacy. For years she refused to give interviews or let publishers put her image on her book covers. This only piqued readers' curiosity; journalists with telephoto lenses surreptitiously photographed Christie to feed people's insatiable interest in even the most mundane details of her life.

Christie's next books included The Big Four (1927), a Poirot novel based on 12 short stories she previously published; The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), in which Poirot finds himself bound for the French Riviera; and The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), which revisits characters from The Secret of Chimneys. Meanwhile Christie divorced her philandering husband in 1928. During a vacation to Ur in ancient Mesopotamia, she met archaeologist Max Mallowan, and they married later that year. In the 1930 novel Murder at the Vicarage, Christie introduced her second famous detective, Miss Jane Marple, who previously appeared in some of Christie's short stories. Miss Marple must find the killer of a much-hated colonel, a murder to which more than one person confesses. She published two more successful titles: Three Act Tragedy (1934), a murder with seemingly no evidence and no motive, and Five Little Pigs (1943), about a parent convicted of murder.

Later Career

Christie often accompanied her husband on archaeological expeditions to the Middle East. She used her travels as writing inspiration and set several novels in the Middle East, such as Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and Death on the Nile (1937). She loved train travel and often traveled to the Middle East on the luxuriant Orient Express, which provides the setting for another Christie bestseller, Murder on the Orient Express.

During World War II Christie worked in a pharmacy at University College Hospital in London. She did not abandon her writing and continued to produce one or more books per year throughout the war. Probably her most popular novel is And Then There Were None (1939), later republished as Ten Little Indians (1940). In this detective mystery, 10 strangers receive invitations to stay at a secluded mansion on an island where they are killed one by one. This masterfully plotted mystery cemented her position as queen of detective fiction.

By the time Christie died, on January 12, 1976, she had written over 60 mystery novels, over 100 short stories, and more than 17 plays. She also wrote six romance novels, using the pen name Mary Westmacott, two volumes of poetry, a children's book, and two autobiographies. Her works have been translated into more than 100 languages and published in many countries.

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