Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller
15 Sep. 1890 – 12 Jan.1976
British crime writer of novels,
short stories and plays
Her life (1890 – 1976)
Towards the end of the First World War, Agatha became a prolific
writer of mystery stories and, in fact, nowadays she is known
throughout the world as the Queen of Crime. She is the author of
about 80 crime novels and short story collections, 19 plays, and
6 novels written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.
Her books have sold over a billion copies in the English
language with another billion in about 100 foreign languages.
She is the most widely published author of all time in any language,
outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare.
Her mysteries are noted for clever and surprising twists of plot
and for the creation of two unconventional fictional detectives,
Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born in Torquay (on the
Devon coast) in 1890 of an English mother, Clara Boehmer and an American father, Frederick Alvah Miller. (see: my blog Archieve)
Agatha had a very happy childhood. She had a house and a garden that she loved and that always had an important part in her life. She had a very wise and patient nanny too, Nursie, who became the most important figure in her early childhood. They were always together and mainly lived in the enchanting and marvellous world of the nursery (it was a special world which Agatha felt was there only for the two of them. Agatha was very close and affectionate to her nanny).
But Agatha had also the great fortune of two precious parents who greatly loved each other and their family. Their marriage was really successful and they had three children: Madge, Monty and Agatha. (There was quite a difference in age between Agatha and her sister & brother: Monty was exactly 10 years older than her and Madge was probably born 3 or 4 years before Monty. Agatha didn’t spend much time with them as, when she was a child, they were studying in different colleges).
When Agatha was 5 years old her father began to be worried because of some financial difficulties. Coming from a wealthy family, he had always enjoyed a comfortable life and had never thought about business or about how to earn money. He had always considered his income as an inalienable right. His own father had planned a complex system of trust which had to become effective after his death. So Fred had never been apprehensive about money. But then there was something wrong with the trustees, who were four old persons. As a matter of fact, someone among them behaved wrongly. Soon, someone managed to capitalize on it and the family’s financial situation got worse and worse. Fred became very distressed and, as a consequence, his health began to suffer from it, too.
In such a situation they had to save money. The best way to do that, at the time, was to go, for a while, abroad where the cost of living was lower. The regular procedure was to let out one’s whole house along with all the servants at a good price and to find a cheaper accommodation elsewhere. They did so and went to stay in a modest little hotel in the south of
So, when Agatha was 6, they rented Ashfield to a very rich American family and moved to
Pau, in South France, where they stayed for about 6 months. Then, after a week in Paris, they spent the month of September at Dinard, in Bretagne by the sea, and then went to Guernsey where they spent the following winter.
After that they decided to go back to Torquay and there Mr Christie’s health got really much worse.
Agatha’s father died when she was only 11, but nobody could tell exactly what the problem had been with him.
After his death, life changed at Ashfield. Agatha felt different and her childhood had suddenly stopped even if she was still very young. A year later her sister Madge got married and left the family and Monty was away, living on his own. (Monty had always been a great worry for the family. He didn’t succeed in his studies and in the end he became an officer and left to join the British army in South Africa. Then at the time of his father’s death, he was sent to India). As a result, there was no more a family at Ashfield! There were only two people living together: a young girl and a middle-aged woman. The atmosphere was really very different. And after her father’s death, her mother began to suffer of heart attacks so the situation got really worse for young Agatha during that period. In any case, things got better later when Madge had a son and used to go to Ashfield on holidays with the baby, thus taking some ‘fresh air’ with her.
During her early teens Agatha was sent to
to attend special schools for girls. At first her mother followed her and so once again she let out Ashfield for a winter at a very good price. Later Agatha was sent to a special institute for young ladies where she could complete her education studying mainly music: her secret dream was to become an opera singer but unfortunately her studies concerning that matter were quite unsuccessful and put a definitive end to her original idea. Agatha was very happy in Paris and she learnt really a lot concerning both her education and life. Paris
When she went back to
her mother (who unfortunately became soon very ill) encouraged her natural inclination to make up stories and write poetry. And so, young Agatha Miller turned soon to writing. England
Because of her mother’s health they spent a winter in
and once again they rented their house. Torquay was still a famous and fashionable seaside resort and rich families used to spend their winters there. So - still in a bad financial condition - it was very easy and convenient for them to let out their house, Ashfield. In Egypt it was time for Agatha to come out and she often was invited to parties and balls. Egypt
In 1911 she met her future husband, Archibald Christie, a handsome pilot. As both of them where very young and in financial difficulties, they had a troubled relationship: they wanted to marry but they couldn’t afford it. However they succeeded in getting married in 1914 and Archie immediately enlisted in the war effort.
In his absence, Agatha worked in a hospital dispensary, an experience that would provide her with information (about people and drugs, to begin with!) that helped her later to plan her dark and violent crime stories.
In her spare time at work she began writing a mystery story. Her first book was published in 1920 (towards the end of the first World War), ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’, introducing the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the little brilliant and ingenious Belgian man with the egg shaped head and the impressive moustaches. Such a character was destined to become the most popular detective in crime fiction since Sherlock Holmes.
In 1926, after averaging a book a year, Agatha Christie wrote what is still considered her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (This was the first of her books to be published by William Collins and marked the beginning of author-publisher relationship which lasted for fifty years. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was also the first of Agatha Christie’s books to be dramatized – under the name ‘Alibi’ – and to have a successful run in
London’s West End).
In the same year, Agatha Christie was at the centre of a mystery herself. She simply vanished and was thought kidnapped or dead, until she turned up at a resort hotel, registered under the name of Col. Christie’s lover. Agatha pleaded temporary amnesia, brought on by stress, and she would never discuss this bizarre incident. (This fact inspired a fictionalized 1979 film entitled ‘Agatha’ in which Vanessa Redgrave played the writer) And if such an incident did anything positive, it bolstered Agatha Christie’s reputation with the public, as well as bringing to an end her unhappy marriage which ended in divorce in 1928.
In 1930, while travelling in the
Middle East, Agatha met the distinguished English archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan. They were married that year.
And from that time on Agatha Christie, already very fond of archaeology, accompanied her husband on annual trips to
Iraq and Syria, on his digs in the Middle East, serving as his assistant, and such experiences peppered her writing.
She used the expeditions, in fact, as material for Murder in Mesopotamia (1930), Death on the Nile (1937), and Appointment with Death (1938). (Agatha Christie also wrote a few non-fiction works including an autobiography and the delightful ‘Come, Tell Me How You Live’, which celebrates the many expeditions she shared with her archaeologist husband).
England, they lived in a beautiful house in Devon, overlooking the river Dart, and they also had a house in . London
1930 was an important year also because Agatha Christie placed the irrepressible and relentless skilful detective Miss Jane Marple in her novel Murder at the Vicarage.
As to theatre, The Mousetrap - her most famous play of all - is the longest-running play in history. As a matter of fact, it has been running continuously on the
stage since 1952. London
Another important play was Witness for the Prosecution (1953; film 1957), for which she received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for 1954-1955.
Her success was, and continues to be, unprecedented. Movies and TV adaptations renew interest in her books and plays.
Agatha Christie was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the
British Empire in 1971.
In 1954, the Mystery Writers of America established their Grand Master award and, fittingly, made Agatha Christie its first recipient.
Agatha Christie died in 1976. Since then a number of books have been published posthumously: the bestselling novel Sleeping Murder, featuring the deceptively mild Miss Marple, appeared later that year (Agatha had disposed in her will that her last novel featuring Miss Marple had to be published after her death as she wanted her beloved character to survive her), followed by her autobiography and the short story collections Miss Marple’s Final Cases, Problem at Pollensa Bay and While the Light Lasts.In 1998 Black Coffee was the first of her plays to be novelised by another author, Charles Osborne.