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The World’s Best Selling Author Posted by on Apr 28, 2017 in Culture, English Language

She was Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, Lady Mallowan, DBE. She was a world traveler, an accomplished archeologist, a pharmacist, a philanthropist, and remains the most successful novelist of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. You know her as Agatha Christie.

If you are going to talk about writers of the English language, you must include Dame Agatha. She wrote 66 detective novels, several romance novels, a handful of nonfiction works, and over 150 short stories and plays. Her works have been translated into a record 130 languages, and she has sold over 2 billion copies of her works. Two of her characters, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, are easily among the most famous fictional figures of all time. Poirot’s obituary appeared in The New York Times, a singular honor.

Early Life

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born in 1890, the daughter of an English mother and American father. She was originally homeschooled by her father, but taught herself to read at the age of five. By the time she was eleven, and her father passed away, she had already written poetry and become a voracious reader. As the youngest child, she became her mother’s constant companion, helping her cope with widowhood and financial burdens. In 1910, they traveled to Cairo on what would be the first of many trips to that city in her lifetime. She took a passing interest in archeology on this first trip, but her real interest was in dances and parties. Agatha Miller was considered to be quite the catch for the right guy.

In 1914, with World War I underway, she married a dashing aviator, Archie Christie. While he flew sorties in France, Agatha served as an aid at a Red Cross hospital. Eventually, she became a “dispenser” of pharmaceuticals. Although women were not typically professional chemists at this time, she passed her tests from the Society of Apothecaries. Her vast education in poisons, which became a common element in many of her works, began here.

To relieve her boredom, she turned to writing by beginning a manuscript in which the main character was a Belgian refugee and former policeman. She’d met many Belgians at the Red Cross hospital, and thought that their worldliness and displacement during the war would make for an interesting background story. Why not make him a detective? And give him a funny mustache for a little light touch. Poirot was born.

The Mysterious Disappearance

Agatha and Archie moved to London after the war and, in 1919, she finally sold her first book, featuring Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She also signed a contract for five more novels. Archie and Agatha Christie became the darling, stylish couple of the age. They toured the world, representing the British Empire as goodwill ambassadors. While in Cape Town, she became the first woman to surf standing up!

Sadly, upon their return, Agatha’s mother died. Stricken with grief and overwhelmed with publishing deadlines, her marriage suffered. Archie fell in love with another woman. On December 3, 1926, following an argument in which Archie told Agatha everything about his affair and then stormed out, Agatha left their house at 9:45 that night. Days later, her car was found abandoned. Inside, police found her clothes and expired driver’s license. Agatha Christie was nowhere to be found.

Her disappearance became an international sensation. Thousands of people, including 1000 police, searched the rural hillsides. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, consulted a spiritual medium in an effort to find her. Newspapers offered rewards. Despite all efforts, she remained missing for ten days. Then, on December 14, she was found staying in a hotel registered under the name of Mrs. Teresa Neele (the surname of her husband’s lover) of Cape Town. To this day, no definitive explanation has been given for her disappearance, and her actions and motives remain a total mystery.

A Better Life

She divorced Archie, keeping his name for her publishing career, and moved on with her life. She had always wanted to travel the famed Orient Express train and treated herself following the divorce with a trip to Baghdad and the archeological dig at Ur. Her interest in this field took hold. The following year, at the same site, she met Max Mallowan, who would become her second husband. Their travels to various archeological dig sites became the background for many of her finest, and most successful novels. She also became a champion for women everywhere, with her adventurous spirit and many accomplishments.

During World War II, Max became an important figure as a linguist (and probable spy) in Cairo, while Agatha once again took up her skills as a pharmacologist at University Hospital in London. She also did something quite unique. She wrote the final books featuring Poirot and Miss Marple and secreted them in a bank vault. They were not to be published for 30 years, but she wanted to put the end to her beloved characters herself and feared that she might perish during the blitz.

At war’s end, Agatha became more interested in writing for the stage, although she certainly continued writing her novels, but at a much slower pace. In 1952, The Mousetrap opened at The Theatre Royal in Nottingham, prior to its West End opening. Christie gave the rights to her grandson, and stipulated that “…only one production of the play in addition to the West End production can be performed annually, and no film adaptation can be produced until the West End production has been closed for at least six months.” There has never been a film adaptation of the play because the West End production has never closed!

In 1968, Max was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his archeological discoveries and work, and three years later Agatha was named Dame Commander of the British Empire. They are one of the few couples to ever share honors from the Queen for their own individual accomplishments.

Dame Agatha died on January 12, 1986, just months before the publication of Sleeping Murder, the final Miss Marple mystery which she wrote in the early days of World War II. Although she had grown to dislike that “pompous Belgian ass” Poirot, she never lost affection for Jane Marple, whom many saw as an extension of her revered mother.

What’s your favorite Agatha Christie story?


Photo from The Christie Archive

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About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.