Murder on the Orient Express | Study Guide

Agatha Christie

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Agatha Christie | Biography

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Childhood

Agatha Christie 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 stockbroker, 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. She largely had the life 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 16 rather than send her to boarding school like her siblings. After 16, 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. Several poems Christie wrote in her teens and early 20s were published in the British magazine The Poetry Review, but no publisher accepted her short stories. She also wrote an unpublished novel, Snow upon the Desert, during these years; the story was set in Cairo, which Christie had visited with her mother.

Early Career

On December 24, 1914, Christie married Archibald Christie, a captain in the Royal Flying Corps. Shortly after their marriage he left for France, where he was stationed during World War I, and she pursued a nursing career. She worked for two years as a nurse in a hospital in Torquay that treated casualties from the western front, and then she switched to the pharmacy, or dispensary. While working there she wrote the poem "In a Dispensary," which details the poisons and essential oils available in a pharmacy and their beneficial and toxic effects. It was featured in her poetry collection The Road of Dreams, which she published at her own expense in 1925. Christie's knowledge of poisons came 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" (aka brain), 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 six publishers; they all rejected it.

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 poorly paid multi-book contract.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920, more than six 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. The Bodley Head's book catalog cited the "ingenuity" and "infallible accuracy" of the plot. 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 treasure hunt as well as a murder.

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 sold out quickly and earned her a reputation as a skillful novelist of detective fiction.

Then on December 3, 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 the same night, Christie left the house as well, and she disappeared. When her car was later found in a field near a pool, 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, 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 to 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—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—did not sell as well as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Meanwhile Christie divorced her philandering husband in 1928. Two years later, during a vacation to Baghdad, she met archaeologist Max Mallowan, and they married later that year. In the 1930 novel The Murder at the Vicarage, Christie introduced her second famous detective, Miss Jane Marple. Marple had previously appeared in some of Christie's short stories. She is tasked with finding the killer of a much-hated colonel, a murder to which more than one person confesses. Nonetheless Christie's books continued to lag in sales until 1935, when she published two successful titles: Three Act Tragedy, about a murder with seemingly no evidence and no motive; and Death in the Clouds, about a death during an airplane flight.

Later Career

Christie often accompanied Mallowan 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 luxurious Orient Express, which provides the setting for Murder on the Orient Express.

During World War II Christie worked in a pharmacy at University College Hospital in London. But she did not abandon her writing; she continued to produce at least one or more books per year throughout the war. One of her most popular novels is And Then There Were None (U.S. publication 1940), later republished as Ten Little Indians (1964). In this detective story 10 strangers are invited to a secluded mansion on an island, where they are killed one by one. This masterfully plotted mystery cemented her position as queen of the golden age of detective fiction.

By the time Christie died on January 12, 1976, she had written 66 mystery novels, 150 short stories, and more than 20 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 more than 70 countries. Her play The Mousetrap (1952)a murder mystery with a twist based on one of her short stories—had a lengthy initial run.

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