We all know who Agatha Christie is, but in case you’re unfamiliar with specifics, here are some facts you might find of interest:
- Her lifetime body of work: 66 novels and 15 short story collections.
- She wrote novels for over 50 years, from 1920 to 1975.
- Her stageplay (also in novella form), The Mousetrap, holds the record for longest initial stage run: it opened in London in November of 1952, and is still running today (Wikipedia estimates it at nearly 25K performances).
- Guinness has her down as selling about 4 billion copies of her novels, making her the best-selling author, ever.
- Her novels have been translated into over 100 languages.
- She also holds the record for the best-selling mystery of all time, And Then There Were None (also titled Ten Little Indians).
- She was part of a real-life mystery:
At the end of the year that she published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), she mysteriously disappeared for ten days. This was a period of time when her life was in chaos – her mother had died before Agatha could arrive in time, her husband, Archibald Christie, was not very sympathetic to other people’s infirmities – and he was having an affair with his secretary. The details are sketchy and there are alot of conflicting reports, but it made headlines in newspapers around the world, and hundreds of people showed up to help in the search for her at the site where her car had been found (with its lights on and engine still running). She was found (alive, of course – she had a LOT more novels to write) at a hotel spa in another town, with little memory of who she was or why she left. She was registered under a name which she had made up, but the last name was the same as the woman that her husband was having an affair with. She saw a psychiatrist for a time and was able to reconstruct most of her memory, although the events of those ten days remained somewhat cloudy. People have postulated different ideas, besides the amnesia – publicity stunt, spite against her husband, suicide attempt that she didn’t have the nerve to finally carry out.
- Shortly afterward, she divorced Christie and married an archaeologist, Max Mallowan, 14 years younger than she. (By all accounts, it was a happy marriage). She accompanied him on archaeological digs throughout Africa and the Middle East, and set some of her novels in these locales.
- Awards: Commander of the British Empire (1956), knighted (1968), and Dame of the British Empire (1971). She died in 1976.
Agatha Christie’s beloved protagonists, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, are also familiar to us (although we usually forget that Christie created other sleuths, too). Click on the hypertexts above if you’d like to check out further info for each.
But what about before she began breaking records and got so famous? Well, everyone has to start somewhere, right? Back then, she was just another lady mystery writer, plugging away during the Golden Age of British detective fiction, in the company of writers such as Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. It wasn’t until her sixth novel (and third Poirot book), The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), that Christie’s reputation as a master plotter was established and everyone started sitting up and paying attention. What was so special about that novel? I’ll get to that later.
First, though, let’s go through a quick refresher about what the “Golden Age” of detective fiction was all about.
The Golden Age of Detective Fiction
- Spans the period between the Sherlock Holmes stories and the end of WWII.
- Has form and structure – even “rules.”
- Paradoxically, the “golden age” detective fiction writer had to stay within the form, even as he or she was finding ways to deviate and invent new and interesting twists.
- A large part of detective fiction is the “puzzle” element – the matching of wits between author and reader, as much as between detective and criminal.
- The focus shifts away from the victim. The golden age of detective fiction removed the grimness of it – the horror – which detective fiction before and after have had. (Except for the type of mysteries that we now call “cozies”). Scholars argue that the particular need for escapism during and after the war years is the likely reason. Critics at the time had foretold that detective fiction would decline during wartime, but just the opposite was true – demand increased. In a way, domestic death was an escape from a world in which mass death began to seem almost natural. In Christie’s works, children never die, and sympathetic characters rarely; the world is an ordered one and the criminal never escapes. Very different from the anarchy and injustice of war.
- Along with this is the lack of gore. Christie herself said that she liked poisonings best – “I don’t like messy deaths.” In fact, the majority of her murder victims did die by poisoning. Christie – during both WWI and WWII – served in hospital pharmacy dispensaries, and so acquired information about drugs.
- The most popular setting during the golden age was the English country-house, which takes place in the country seat of English nobility or upper-class member, with a full complement of servants to act as witnesses and complicate suspicions. A number of guests are typically brought together for a weekend party, with additions to the list provided by characters from the village, the doctor, the parson. The pool of suspects must be definitively confined by the circumstances, however. This is often referred to as a “gilded cage.”
- The 1920s were the heyday of this subgenre, with a heavy emphasis on “the rules.” Some scholars think this is partly because mystery writers at the time wanted to give the genre respectability, and distinguish it from the more emotion-driven and haphazardly-formed thrillers, romances and horror stories. Still, it got picked on a lot by critics for its emphasis on plot over character development.
- Edmund Wilson was one of those critics. His column, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd” (The New Yorker, Jan 1945) – which is not specifically about the novel at all – rants about the substandard literary nature of detective fiction:
…my final conclusion is that the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles. This conclusion seems borne out by the violence of the letters I have been receiving. Detective-story readers feel guilty, they are habitually on the defensive, and all their talk about “well-written” mysteries is simply an excuse for their vice, like the reasons that the alcoholic can always produce for a drink.
To read the entire article, click here.
Speaking of alcohol, Agatha Christie was a teetotaler, but did once order an alcoholic beverage. A strict fundamentalist Christian joined her for lunch and proceeded to lecture her about the evils of alcohol. In sheer contrariness, Christie ordered a beer. I don’t know if she liked it or not.
Next time: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, pt. 2: Agatha Christie’s career-making novel. We’ll take a closer look at the mystery, and what made it ground-breaking. SPOILER ALERT: we’ll be discussing the ending and revealing the murderer, so skip it if you don’t want to know!
Do you have a favorite mystery story? I’d love to hear from you!
Until next time,