When people think about famous authors, we tend to confuse them with their creations. If you picture Arthur Conan Doyle, you probably think of someone tall, skinny and similar to Sherlock Holmes, though the real man was well-built. The Jane Austen in our heads, and in films like Becoming Jane, bears more than a passing resemblance to Lizzy Bennett, and saying the name Agatha Christie probably conjures rather cosy images of her great lady detective Miss Marple, white hair in an iron bun and cardigan firmly buttoned.
In this case – for all Miss Marple’s strengths – the comparison is not fair or flattering. Christie was a world traveller and adventurer who would put Poirot to shame, and with a new adaptation of Murder On The Orient Express approaching release (on November 3), maybe it’s time to remember who she really was.
Agatha Christie was born in 1890 to a rather Bohemian mother who believed she was psychic, and as a little girl initially dreamed of becoming a pianist before being told that she wasn’t good enough. She married her first husband, Archie, just before World War I, and spent the War working first as a nurse and then as an apothecaries’ assistant (she built on that service during World War II, working in a pharmacy where she incidentally became an acknowledged expert on poisons). In 1922, she and Archie left her two-year-old daughter to travel around the world for ten months as part of a trade delegation, and on the road she became the first English woman ever to learn to surf.
“It is one of the most perfect physical pleasures that I have known,” she wrote. “That rushing through the water at what seems to you a speed of about 200 miles an hour; all the way in from the far distant raft, until you arrive, gently slowing down, on the beach....”
When Archie announced, in 1926, that he was having an affair and planned to leave her, a devastated Christie disappeared for 11 days. She was eventually found in a Yorkshire hotel, checked in under the name of her husband’s mistress. She never talked about that time in her life, leaving it out of her autobiography and refusing ever to explain herself.
Christie was a world traveller and adventurer who would put Poirot to shame
But Christie found lasting happiness with second husband Max Mallowan, a younger man and distinguished archaeologist in his own right. She faithfully accompanied him on his digs long after her own writing career took off. Together they uncovered the lost city of Nimrud in modern-day Iraq in the 1950s, with Christie photographing and documenting Mallowan’s finds. Just as she used her poisons experience in her plots, she employed these locations in mysteries like Death On The Nile and Murder in Mesopotamia.
Admittedly, Christie did have a forbidding Miss Marple-ish side. She rarely gave interviews, never toured with her books and could be rather intimidating. But her standoffishness stemmed from shyness and insecurity about her own writing. Christie never believed in her own talents as an author, at most describing herself as an entertainer – and of course (male) contemporaries and critics agreed and often dismissed her, with Raymond Chandler sniffing that “halfwits” could unravel her plotting and literary critic Edmund Wilson writing an essay for The New Yorker called ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd,’ riffing on one of her biggest hits.
Yet Christie had the last laugh. She is a bigger bestseller than anyone besides Shakespeare and the Bible: roughly two billion of her books have been sold. And eventually she gained recognition, with the Mystery Writers of America naming her a Grand Master and The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd named in 2013 as the best crime novel ever by 600 crime novelists.
There’s good reason her books have endured: her plots are beautifully constructed, sometimes easy enough for a child to guess but equally capable of blindsiding the most cynical reader. Murder On The Orient Express has one of the most deservedly famous whodunnit solutions ever – I won’t spoil it if you’re one of the few unfamiliar – while Witness For The Prosecution has three twists where most crime thrillers would be proud of one. Her great detectives Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, with their fussiness and cleverness, are deservedly enduring, though it’s worth noting that Christie herself sometimes found Poirot “egotistical” and flirted with killing him off. She decided against it only because she thought her readers enjoyed him too much. As an entertainer, she was determined to give the public what they want.
So it’s time for the public to give Christie more credit in return, and happily there are signs that that is happening. Two biopics are in development – one with Alicia Vikander lined up to play Christie as a frustrated young wife and mother; the other hoping that Emma Stone will deal with those missing 11 days – suggesting that that reassessment is coming.
Christie was more than a little old lady in sensible shoes; she was a criminal genius and a woman of real daring.