Who Was Agatha Christie?Agatha Christie was one of the most successful crime novelists and playwrights of the 20th century. Her lifelong shyness led her to the literary world where she conjured up detective fiction with endearing characters, including the world-famous detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Not only did Christie write 82 detective novels, but she also wrote an autobiography, a series of six romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, and 19 plays, including The Mousetrap, the world’s longest running theatrical play in London. Over 30 of her murder mystery novels have been made into motion pictures, including Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Death on the Nile (1978).
Dates: September 15, 1890 – January 12, 1976
Also Known As: Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller; Dame Agatha Christie; Mary Westmacott (pseudonym); Queen of Crime
Growing UpOn September 15, 1890, Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born the daughter of Frederick Miller and Clara Miller (née Boehmer) in the seaside resort town of Torquay, England. Frederick, an easy going, independently wealthy American stockbroker, and Clara, an Englishwoman, raised their three children -- Margaret, Monty, and Agatha -- in an Italian-style stucco mansion complete with servants.
Agatha was educated in her happy, peaceful home via a mixture of tutors and “Nursie,” her nanny. Agatha was an avid reader, especially Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. She and her friends enjoyed acting out gloomy stories where everyone died, which Agatha wrote herself. She played croquet and took piano lessons; however, her extreme shyness kept her from publicly performing.
In 1901, when Agatha was 11, her father died of a heart attack. Frederick had made some bad investments, leaving his family financially unprepared for his untimely death. Although Clara was able to keep their home since the mortgage was paid, she was forced to make several household cuts, including the staff. Rather than home tutors, Agatha went to Miss Guyer’s School in Torquay; Monty joined the army; and Margaret married.
For high school, Agatha went to a finishing school in Paris where her mother hoped her daughter would become an opera singer. Although good at singing, Agatha’s stage fright once again prevented her from publicly performing. After her graduation, she and her mother traveled to Egypt, which would inspire her writing.
Becoming Agatha Christie, Crime WriterIn 1914, the sweet, shy, 24-year-old Agatha met 25-year-old Archibald Christie, an aviator, who was in complete contrast to her personality. The couple married December 24, 1914, and Agatha Miller became Agatha Christie. A member of the royal Flying Corps during World War I, daring Archibald returned to his unit the day after Christmas, while Agatha Christie became a volunteer nurse for the ill and injured of the war, many of who were Belgians. In 1915, she became a hospital-dispensing pharmacist, which gave her an education in poisons.
In 1916, Agatha Christie wrote a death-by-poison murder mystery in her spare time, mostly due to her sister Margaret challenging her to do so. Christie titled the novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles and introduced a Belgian inspector she invented named Hercule Poirot (a character who would appear in 33 of her novels).
Christie and her husband were reunited after the war and lived in London where Archibald received a job with the Air Ministry in 1918. Their daughter Rosalind was born on August 5, 1919. Six publishers turned down Christie’s novel before John Lane in the US published it in 1920 and subsequently published by Bodley Head in the UK in 1921.
Christie’s second book,The Secret Adversary, was published in 1922. That same year, Christie and Archibald set sail on a voyage to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada as part of the British trade mission. Rosalind stayed behind with her Aunt Margaret for ten months.
Agatha Christie’s Personal MysteryBy 1924, Agatha Christie had published six novels. After Christie’s mother died of bronchitis in 1926, Archibald, who was having an affair, asked Christie for a divorce. Christie left her home on December 3, 1926; her car was found abandoned and Christie was missing. Archibald was immediately suspected. After a police hunt for 11 days, Christie turned up at the Harrogate Hotel, using a name patterned after Archibald’s mistress, and saying she had amnesia. Some suspected that she actually had a nervous breakdown, others suspected that she wanted to upset her husband, and the police suspected that she wanted to sell more books. Archibald and Christie divorced April 1, 1928.
Needing to get away, Agatha Christie boarded the Orient Express in 1930 from France to the Middle East. On tour at a dig site in Ur she met an archeologist named Max Mallowan, a big fan of hers. Fourteen years his senior, Christie enjoyed his company, finding out that they both worked in the business of uncovering “clues.” After they married on September 11, 1930, Christie often accompanied him, living and writing from Mallowan’s archeological sites, further inspiring her novels’ settings. The couple remained happily married for 45 years, until Agatha Christie’s death.
Agatha Christie, the PlaywrightIn October 1941, Agatha Christie wrote a play titled Black Coffee. After writing several more plays, Christie wrote The Mousetrap in July 1951 for Queen Mary’s 80th birthday; the play became the longest continuously running play in the West End of London, since 1952. Christie received the Edgar Grand Master Award in 1955.
In 1957, when Christie became ill living at the archeological digs, Mallowan decided to retire from Nimrud in northern Iraq. The couple returned to England where they busied themselves with writing projects. In 1968, Mallowan was knighted for his contributions to archaeology. In 1971, Christie was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire, the equivalent of knighthood, for her services to literature.