Agatha Christie, The World's Best-Selling Novelist

64 years and still going strong – The Mousetrap at St Martin's Theatre in London's West End
64 years and still going strong – The Mousetrap at St Martin's Theatre in London's West End

by Ray Setterfield

September 15, 1890 — Mystery writer Agatha Christie was born on this day. She went on to become the best-selling novelist of all time, according to Guinness World Records, her novels having sold about 2 billion copies. In addition, her stage play The Mousetrap holds the world record for the longest run. It opened in the West End of London in November 1952, and as of August 2018 was still running after more than 27,000 performances.

She was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller at Torquay, the south of England seaside resort later noted for the location of John Cleese's comedy series, Fawlty Towers. Agatha was educated at home by her mother, who encouraged her daughter to write. As a child she enjoyed fantasy play and creating characters.

But later in life she confessed: "I, myself, was always recognised as the “slow one” in the family. It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it. Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. My letters were without originality. I was an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.

“People often ask me what made me take up writing . . . I found myself making up stories and acting the different parts. There's nothing like boredom to make you write. So by the time I was 16 or 17, I'd written quite a number of short stories and one long, dreary novel. By the time I was 21, I finished the first book of mine ever to be published.”

In 1914 she married Colonel Archibald (Archie) Christie, a Royal Flying Corps pilot, and put her writing ambitions aside as she took up nursing during the First World War.

Afterwards, success did not come easy. Publishers rejected six of her early works, but that changed in 1920 when she wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introducing one of her most famous and enduring characters, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

Years later in her autobiography she wrote: "There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you're writing, and aren't writing particularly well . . . All I needed was a steady table and a typewriter; a marble-topped bedroom washstand table made a good place; the dining-room table between meals was also suitable."

Her journey to worldwide fame as "the queen of crime" and "the queen of mystery" had begun.

But she herself was the centre of a real-life mystery in 1926. Her husband revealed that he was in a relationship with another woman and asked for a divorce. The couple quarrelled and Archie left the house to spend the weekend with his mistress.

That same evening Agatha Christie disappeared, her car later being found perched above a quarry.

Her disappearance caused a sensation. Over 1,000 police officers, 15,000 volunteers and several planes scoured the area where her car was found. The story was front-page news not only in Britain but in newspapers around the world, including the New York Times.

Ten days later she was found resting quietly at a hotel in the north of England where she had registered as Mrs Teresa Neele – the surname of her husband's lover.

Theories abounded about the drama. Some said it was just a publicity stunt; others that it was an attempt to frame her husband for murder. Agatha Christie had nothing to say about it – either then or in her subsequent autobiography years later.

What IS known is that she was depressed by her mother's death some months earlier and by her husband's infidelity. Two doctors diagnosed her as suffering from amnesia.

With the episode behind her Agatha went back to writing. Then in 1928 she and Archie were divorced. In 1930, she met a young archaeologist 13 years her junior, Max Mallowan, whom she married in September of that year and spent the rest of her life with him.

Joking about their relationship, she said at one point: "An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her!"

Writing well into her later years, she penned 66 detective novels as well as short fiction. She also wrote romance novels like Unfinished Portrait (1934) and A Daughter's a Daughter (1952) under the name Mary Westmacott.

Agatha was made a dame in 1971 and three years later made her last public appearance for the opening night of the play version of Murder on the Orient Express. She died in January, 1976, aged 85.

That would have infuriateded her. She said in her autobiography: "I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing. You don't realise what fine fighting material there is in age; you show me any one who's lived to over seventy and you show me a fighter – some one who's got the will to live."

Published: August 29, 2018

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