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Thursday, 5 August 2021

The Golden Age - Agatha Christie (1890-1976)

by Carol Westron

Agatha Christie was born in 1890, the youngest of three children.  Her maiden name was Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller.  Her prosperous, middle class family owned a house in Torquay and her childhood was shared between living in Devonshire and visiting her grandmother's house in West London and spending time in southern France, where her family chose to spend their winters.  Her mother insisted she was educated at home and it was there she learned to read and write and do basic arithmetic, as well as learning to play the piano and mandolin.  During this time she read voraciously, starting with the works of Mrs Molesworth and E.E. Nesbit and moving on to Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.  Her childhood was happy but isolated from other children.  Although Christie's family was nominally Christian, they held many spiritualist beliefs. Christie, along with her elder siblings, believed that their mother had psychic powers and possessed second-sight.  This belief in the supernatural and the ability of mediums to contact the dead appears frequently throughout Christie's writing, especially in her short stories.  The short stories that were combined to form the book, The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930) feature a mystical, ephemeral being who is based on the legend of Harlequin.

In 1901 Christie's father died, leaving the family in less prosperous financial circumstances than before.  Christie's older sister was married and her brother had joined the army, so Christie and her mother were very dependant upon each other.  In 1902 Christie was sent to school in Torquay, but found it hard to adjust to formal education. From 1905 to 1910 she was educated in France at three establishments, the last of which served as a finishing school.

After leaving school in 1910, Christie and her mother spent some time in Cairo.  Egypt was very popular with fashionable holidaymakers at this time and it was hoped that the warm climate might benefit her mother's health and the lively social gatherings would aid Christie's search for a suitable husband.  Although Christie visited the more famous ancient monuments, most of her time seemed to be devoted to social events, chaperoned by her mother.

Returning to Britain, she continued her social activities, took part in amateur dramatics and wrote her first short stories, all of which had themes based in spiritualism.  Although submitted for publication, none of them were accepted at this time, but many were revised and published later in her career.  At this time, Christie wrote her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, which was set in Cairo.  This too did not find a publisher

In 1912 Christie met Archie Christie, a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps and they became engaged.  On Christmas Eve, 1914, they were married, soon after the start of the First World War.  Archie Christie returned to fight in France and Agatha Christie joined the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment).  At first she worked in an unpaid position, assisting doctors, but by the start of 1917 she was working as a dispenser in a hospital

At the end of the War, Archie Christie gained a job in the City and the couple settled down in a flat in London.  Christie wrote her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920.)  Here she introduced Hercule Poirot, a Belgian police detective who had come to Britain as a refugee after the Germans invaded his country. 

Of all the Golden Age detectives, Poirot must be the most eccentric: a small, fastidious man, with an egg-shaped head and luxuriant moustache and a obsession with neatness and symmetry.  In The Mysterious Affair at Styles Christie also provided Poirot with his 'Watson,' Arthur Hastings, the narrating character of this and many other Poirot adventures.  Hastings, at this point a lieutenant (later a Captain) in the British army is straightforward and often naïve, the perfect foil for Poirot's egotism and subtlety.  The book also introduces the Scotland Yard detective, Japp, the down-to-earth policemen.  The role of both Hastings and Japp is to be always several steps behind Poirot.  However Christie went on to write several Poirot novels in which Hastings did not appear.

Christie drew much of The Mysterious Affair at Styles from her own experience.  It was set in her own part of the country, and she had met many foreign refugees and wounded officers during the War.  Also her work as a hospital dispenser was invaluable.  Christie was particularly pleased by a review in the Pharmaceutical Journal that praised her accurate use of poison in the book

The Secret Adversary (1922) introduced a very different pair of protagonists, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, the 'Young Adventurers', recently demobbed from the services after the War and hunting for jobs.  Tommy and Tuppence do not appear as often as Poirot and Miss Marple but they do turn up in five books throughout Christie's writing career and are probably at their best in their middle-age, foiling Nazi spies in N or M (1941.

In 1923 Christie wrote another Poirot novel, Murder on the Links and then two stand-
alone mystery/adventure novels,
The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) and The Secret of Chimneys (1924.)  The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) was the third Poirot novel.  This book did not feature Hastings and had a local doctor as the narrating character.  It also had a remarkable twist ending.

1926 was a bad year for Christie.  Her mother died and, later in the year, her husband told her he was leaving her for another woman.  The couple quarrelled and on 3rd December, while he was with his mistress, Christie disappeared from home.  Although she left a letter for her secretary, saying that she was going to Yorkshire, there was massive public interest.  She was not found for ten days, by which time there was speculation that her husband had killed her.  On 14th December she was recognised as a guest at a hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, where she had registered under a false name.  Christie never explained her disappearance.  Two doctors diagnosed that she was suffering from psychogenic fugue.  (Now known as dissociative fugue, this condition involves loss of memory, wandering away and stepping into another identity; it can be caused by extreme stress.)  It seems possible that the death of her mother, to whom she had always been very close, combined with her husband's infidelity, had caused a brief breakdown.  As soon as Christie was discovered unharmed, public opinion turned against her, many people thinking it was a publicity stunt or an attempt to 'frame' her husband for her murder.  It is unlikely that the truth behind Christie's disappearance will ever be known.  If this was not an episode of fugue, it seems probable that Christie was desperate to escape into anonymity and did not care if this embarrassed her unfaithful husband.  It seems improbable that a person whose career depended upon her being seen to be alive and producing more books would be willing to disappear permanently so that her husband could be blamed for her murder; or that she would make such a clumsy and unconvincing attempt at incrimination.  Of course many of us may be drawn to the explanation of her disappearance offered by the Dr Who episode, 'The Unicorn and the Wasp,' (May 2008) in which Christie's disappearance and amnesia were caused by a brief psychic link with an alien.

The breakdown of her marriage left Christie short of money and it was at the suggestion of Archie's brother that she wrote The Big Four (1927) a loosely constructed, melodramatic novel made up of several short stories. However hurt and bitter Christie felt she was too good a businesswoman to abandon the name she had used to publish six novels and numerous short stories.  To the reading public she remained Agatha Christie, even after her divorce in 1928 and her marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930.

Christie's marriage to Mallowan was happy and lasted until her death in 1976.  Under his influence, her interest in archaeology increased and she accompanied him on his digs, which resulted in her spending a great deal of time in the Middle East.  Many of Christie's novels are set in the Middle East and involve ancient sites and archaeology.  Murder in Mesopotamia is actually set on the site of an archaeological expedition and showcases Christie's intimate knowledge of the work involved in such a dig.  

Christie's other great detective, Miss Jane Marple, was first introduced in short stories, later gathered together to form The Thirteen Problems (1927.)  The first Miss Marple novel is The Murder at the Vicarage (1930.)  The narrating character is the vicar, who is understandably shocked to discover the murdered body of his unpopular church warden in his study and even more confused when his neighbour, an inquisitive, elderly spinster, shows such a remarkable gift for deduction and a flair for detecting evil.  Christie claimed to have based the character of Miss Marple upon her grandmother and her grandmother's cronies, who invariably believed the worst and usually were right.  Christie did not write another Miss Marple novel for twelve years, but in 1942 she wrote The Body in the Library, followed in the same year by The Moving Finger.  Also, around this time she wrote Sleeping Murder and Curtain; the former was to be Miss Marple's final case and the latter Poirot's final case.  Christie then had these stories locked away and continued to write using both these characters.  Curtain was published in 1975, just before Christie's death, when she realised her failing health meant she would not be able to produce any more novels.  Sleeping Murder (1976) was published soon after her death.   This resulted in an unfortunate lack of continuity when Colonel Bantry, who was dead in The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side (1962), was miraculously restored to life in Sleeping Murder.

While Christie retained an affection for Miss Marple, she became very impatient with Poirot, whom she found increasingly tiresome, with his egotism and finickiness.  There seems to be a great deal of mischief in her creation of Mrs Ariadne Oliver, a crime writer who appears first in Cards on the Table (1936) and afterwards turns up quite often in Poirot novels, and who seems to echo a lot of Christie's own thoughts about writing and about her irritating foreign detective.

'Don't you ever write the same plot twice running?' asked Battle.

'The Lotus Murder,' murmured Poirot, 'The Clue of the Candle Wax.'

Mrs Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation. 'That's clever of you B that's really very clever of you.  Because, of course, those two are exactly the same plot B but nobody else has seen it.

And later in the same passage, Mrs Oliver explains, 'What really matters is plenty of bodies!  If the thing's getting a little dull some more blood cheers it up.  Somebody is going to tell something B and then they're killed first.  That always goes down well.  It comes in all my books B camouflaged different ways, of course.'  Y  'I only regret one thing B making my detective a Finn.  I really don't know anything about Finns and I'm always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he's said or done.'

It is interesting that also in Cards on the Table, written in 1936, Christie introduces Mrs Oliver as, 'The one who wrote The Body in the Library.'  This is the title of the second Miss Marple novel, published in 1942.  Had Christie already got the idea for The Body in the Library or did the fictional title she'd given to Mrs Oliver spark a new plot in her fertile brain?

Christie's amazing capacity for hard work is illustrated by the fact that during the years of the Second World War (1939-1945) she published twelve novels while living in London during the Blitz and working in the pharmacy at University College Hospital, London.  After the War she put her knowledge of poisons to good use and dispatched many fictional victims by innovative means.  The entire plot of The Pale Horse (1961) was based on her accurate description of the symptoms of poisoning by thallium.

Agatha Christie is commonly known as The Queen of Crime.  She is the most prolific of the Golden Age Writers,  with a large number of detectives: Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, the supernatural Mr Quin and his friend Mr Satterthwaite, and Mr Parker Pyne, a retired civil servant who uses his years of experience in a statistics office to run a new unique business.  She also wrote numerous stand-alone crime novels, most of which are lively adventure stories, but a few are darker, notably Endless Night a remarkable psychological depiction of a sociopath.  Christie also wrote six romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.

In 1956 Christie was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire and in 1971she was promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.  In 1968 her husband had been knighted for his services to archaeology, so she was also Lady Mallowan.  Literary honours were also bestowed on her: in 1955 she was the recipient of the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award and in 1957 she became the President of the Detection Club.  In 1955 her play, Witness for the Prosecution was given an Edgar for Best Play.  Christie's play The Mousetrap has been running for over sixty years.  Christie insisted that the short story upon which it is based should not be published while the play was still running and, in accordance with her wishes, it has not yet been published.

Christie's work has been dramatised for the stage, cinema and television.  Of the many actors who have played Poirot, David Suchet's interpretation is undoubtedly the best.  Christie herself had indicated she would like Joan Hickson to play Miss Marple and the BBC adaptations of the Miss Marple novels starring Joan Hickson are all excellent.  The current makers of television drama obviously feel that Christie produced too few Miss Marple novels because, in the 'Agatha Christie's Marple' series, they have padded out several short stories and inserted Miss Marple into several Christie stand alone novels where the author had never intended her to be. From 1971 Christie's physical and health and mental powers began to fail.  She died in 1976, aged eighty-five.
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Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 5 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below. 

https://promotingcrime.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/carol-westron.html www.carolwestron.com
http://carolwestron.blogspot.co.uk/
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts
click on the title.

 

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