It’s a Mystery
September 15, 2020
Any list of the greatest novelists of the last one hundred years would be incomplete without this person on it. She wrote 66 novels and 14 collections of short stories and also the world’s longest running play, Mousetrap.
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on September 15, 1890. We know her as Agatha Christie. The Guinness World Records names her as the fiction author whose books have sold more than any other in history at over 2 billion copies. It’s the sort of success that aspiring novelists can only dream of.
Like most writers, it was a number of years after she began penning her stories before she was published. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“At eighteen, Christie wrote her first short story, ‘The House of Beauty’, while recovering in bed from an illness. It consisted of about 6,000 words on ‘madness and dreams’, a subject of fascination for her. Her biographer, Janet Morgan, has commented that, despite ‘infelicities of style’, the story was ‘compelling’. (The story became an early version of her story ‘The House of Dreams’.) Other stories followed, most of them illustrating her interest in spiritualism and the paranormal. These included ‘The Call of Wings’ and ‘The Little Lonely God’. Magazines rejected all her early submissions, made under pseudonyms (including Mac Miller, Nathaniel Miller, and Sydney West); some submissions were later revised and published under her real name, often with new titles.
Around the same time, Christie began work on her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert. Writing under the pseudonym Monosyllaba, she set the book in Cairo and drew upon her recent experiences there. She was disappointed when the six publishers she contacted declined the work. Clara suggested that her daughter ask for advice from the successful novelist Eden Phillpotts, a family friend and neighbour, who responded to her enquiry, encouraged her writing, and sent her an introduction to his own literary agent, Hughes Massie, who also rejected Snow Upon the Desert but suggested a second novel.
Christie had long been a fan of detective novels, having enjoyed Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and The Moonstone, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s early Sherlock Holmes stories. She wrote her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1916. It featured Hercue Poirot a former Belgian police officer with ‘magnificent moustaches’ and a head ‘exactly the shape of an egg’, who had taken refuge in Britain after Germany invaded Belgium. Christie’s inspiration for the character came from Belgian refugees living in Torquay, and the Belgian soldiers she helped to treat as a volunteer nurse during the First World War. Her original manuscript was rejected by Hodder & Stoughton and Methuen. After keeping the submission for several months, John Lane at The Bodley Head offered to accept it, provided that Christie change how the solution was revealed. She did so, and signed a contract committing her next five books to The Bodley Head, which she later felt was exploitative.It was published in 1920.”
Her personal life was not without strife. When her father died in 1902 – Christie was 11 years old – the family’s financial situation changed. As Christie later said that it marked the end of her childhood.
Despite this, she did manage to participate in British social life and had a number of short lived relationships prior to meeting Archie Christie when she was 22 years old. The two were married on Christmas Eve 1914.
The birth of her only child, a daughter, occurred in 1919. With the death of her mother in 1926 she fell into a deep depression. Two years later she and Archie divorced when he admitted to an extramarital affair.
She did eventually remarry in 1930 to archaeologist Max Mallowan – a marriage which lasted until her death in 1976.
The backdrop to her personal life, however, was always writing. She often incorporated her own experiences and places she’d visited into her novels.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this was her work in hospital dispensaries during both World Wars. While there she became familiar with a variety of poisons which found their way into her works. Christie had a real gift in finding creative ways to kill off her characters.
While I cannot recall exactly when I became aware of Christie’s books, I imagine it was probably as a young teenager. Undoubtedly I read a number of her novels but it was the 1974 movie Murder On the Orient Express which truly brought her works to the attention of countless Americans. I have enjoyed all the movies based on her books.
I also believe I saw Mousetrap in London in 1980. Unfortunately, my memory is fuzzy and I’m not sure if I imagined the whole thing. But it does seem as if I did attend the play. It was in mid-July and early August of 1980 when my parents had taken my sister and me on a three week trip to Norway, England, and Scotland.
Although we spent the first day in London, the next morning we flew to Bergen, Norway, and began a multi-day bus tour of that country, ending up in Olso. From there, it was fly back to England for car touring as my dad rented a vehicle and we drove up through the countryside to Scotland. After Edinburgh, we returned to London. It was there, on August 2nd, that I write a postcard to my fiancé as follows:
True to what I wrote, it was the final missive I sent. Did I or did I not attend Mousetrap? What was the cause of my malady? Was it truly food poisoning as I believed or had someone doctored my food? Was the ‘poison’ the source of my fuzzy memory? Agatha Christie would, no doubt, approve of such a storyline.
Alas, dear reader, forty years after the fact, it is a mystery which might never be solved. Sounds like the makings of a novel.
September 12, 2022 – Update: The mystery has been solved! Buried in a previously undiscovered box, I found the program from when we attended in 1980. Although it was the 25th year plus three, I still purchased it… for one pound!