Murder, she wrote
On the eve of Agatha Christie's 125th birthday,we look for clues about what impelled the world's most successful crime writer and talk to the author's only grandson
'I suppose I was one of the first to know, but it was more than my job was worth to get involved." Rosie Asher, chambermaid at the Swan Hydro in Harrogate, had found Mrs Neele, as she called herself, somewhat strange from the outset, according to Agatha Christie's biographer Laura Thompson. She had carried little luggage, but it was the zippered handbag amongst her possessions - Rosie had never seen a zip before but recognised it from the newspaper reports of the writer's disappearance - that confirmed her suspicions.
It is somewhat appropriate that the undisputed queen of crime's own life hinged around an unsolved mystery. Agatha Christie, who was born 125 years ago this week, went missing in 1926 for 11 days, a disappearance which has never been fully explained. At the time of her disappearance, the writer's first marriage, to Archie Christie, was imploding - he had fallen in love with a younger woman, Nancy Neele, and wanted a divorce. The author left the family home, where she and her daughter were living, late one night in December. Her car was later found abandoned, still containing her coat, suitcase, and an old driver's licence.
The search for Mrs Christie escalated into a nationwide obsession, splashed across the papers each day. For the first time, aeroplanes were used in a missing-person search, and thousands of volunteers trawled the countryside.
Eventually, Agatha turned up, spotted in a spa in Harrogate, having checked in under the name of Mrs Teresa Neele of Cape Town.
Theories expounded included a publicity stunt to boost sales, an act of revenge towards Archie, who did come under suspicion of murder, or a nervous breakdown - the last is the most likely explanation.
The official line given out by the family was a temporary loss of memory. This theory would seem to be undermined by several facts; Agatha had written to her brother-in-law before she left, telling him she was going to a spa in the Yorkshire area, and had arranged to have jewellery being repaired sent to her. The episode was to prove a turning point in Agatha's life - a shy woman, she was now, to her horror, a celebrity. Biographer Laura Thompson has suggested that she may have hoped Archie would come chasing after her. In fact, the furore definitively ended the marriage.
Archie and Agatha met in 1912. She was a dazzling creature; confident, slim, with long blonde hair. The product of an idyllically happy upbringing; "One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is to have a happy childhood. I had a very happy childhood", she commented. Clara, her mother, had a particularly intense relationship with Agatha, whose writing she always encouraged. Her father Frederick Miller was well-heeled and affable, and spent his days at his club.
Growing up in her adored childhood home of Ashfield in Torquay, Agatha was a solitary child, much younger than her brother and sister, and largely home-schooled. It is perhaps not surprising that the woman who would go on to be the most successful author ever after Shakespeare (and leaving aside the Bible) had taught herself to read by the age of five -her mother on a whim had decided she wouldn't teach her to read until she turned eight. Agatha was 11 when her father died. While the family were left in impecunious circumstances - Frederick had been a spendthrift - they managed to retain possession of Ashfield. She went to school two days a week, attended dance classes, began to make friends. Life was a pleasant rotation of badminton, tea parties, croquet, roller-skating on the pier.
At the time of meeting Archie, Agatha was actually engaged to another man. But the darkly handsome Christie was impossible to resist. "He was long, lean, intense; and he had that mysterious quality of romance before which women are helpless,' says Laura Thompson in Agatha Christie: an English Mystery. He was a pilot in World War One, penniless and of a slightly lower class than the Millers, but the two fell instantly in love.
Archie next turned up uninvited on his motorbike at the family home. She was surprised, but delighted to see him. Several dates followed. One night Archie announced impetuously "you've got to marry me."
For a woman who was to be so successful in her career, Agatha never harboured what we would describe today as feminist leanings. She grew up surrounded by strong women - her mother and sister, two grandmothers, and while she never doubted the strength of women, she saw it as best expressed in a domestic setting, and believed the fight to exert equality outside the home, in the professional world, actually served to lose women (of a certain class, naturally) a comfortable, privileged, powerful life within the home. She was, after all, born in the Victorian era. But her books are full of independent, professional women, and the notion that she was in some way against working women is simply untrue. Her own incredible work ethic - writing at least a novel a year for the greater part of her life - proves this.
At the time of her marriage to Archie on Christmas Eve 1914, during his leave, she longed for nothing more than wifedom, in its most traditional sense. When war broke out, Agatha signed up to work as a VAD (part of a voluntary aid detachment) in 1916, moving to a job in the Torquay dispensary, which provided useful information for her books. She wrote her first detective novel, the first Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, at this time.
Agatha's and Archie's daughter Rosalind was born in August 1919. Shortly afterwards, a letter from The Bodley Head publishers arrived; they were interested in publishing The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
Archie's career now offered the couple a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; to travel around the world on a tour promoting the Empire Exhibition. Two-year old Rosalind was left in the charge of Agatha's mother and sister, and the Christies set off on a 10-month adventure. The trip took in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, with a month spent on holiday in Hawaii, where Agatha became one of the first British women to surf standing up.
Back in England, the Christies moved to Sunningdale, in Berkshire, the chief attraction of which was its proximity to a golf course, to facilitate Archie's growing obsession.
Agatha's beloved mother Clara died in April 1926. Her daughter was bereft. Archie was not good in situations of sickness or sadness. She went to Ashfield, the family home, to tie up her mother's affairs, and he largely left her to it for the summer. Archie came down to Ashfield for Rosalind's birthday, and announced that he had fallen in love with another woman, Nancy Neele, the secretary of a colleague. It has been speculated that the loss of Agatha's youthful good looks, her weight gain, and increasing career success contributed to the marriage breakdown, and Archie's perfidy.
Would Agatha Christie have become the writer she did if not for the events of 1926? It's undoubtedly true that her writing provided both a now essential source of funds, but also a welcome distraction, a means of escaping the misery of real life. Post divorce, she pursued it in a professional manner.
She wrote 78 detective novels, 19 plays, over 100 short stories, an autobiography and (under the name Mary Westmacott) six romance novels, and her books have sold over 2 billion copies in 44 languages. Her two most famous creations are Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.
It has been said that Agatha developed something of an antipathy toward her most famous creation. This was not the case. Merely, such was his success that other ideas she brought to her publishers were sometimes brushed aside in the enthusiasm for another Poirot. When I spoke to Christie's only grandchild, Mathew Prichard, he recalled that when she wrote the final Poirot novel, Curtain, in the 1940s "immediately a whole army of publishers and agents got into whatever they got into in those days and came to see her. 'You'd better give me that and I'll lock it up'" he laughingly remembers the gist of their panic. The book was eventually published in 1975, months before Agatha's own death, and resulted in a front-page obituary for Poirot in The New York Times.
Agatha took her divorce as a chance to indulge her love of travel, something Archie had not shared. In 1928, she travelled to Baghdad and visited the archaeological dig at Ur. On a return visit she would meet the man who was to become her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan. As renowned Christie scholar John Curran told me, "on the face of it, the marriage should never have worked". There was a 14-year age difference, with Mallowan the junior, she had never had a formal education, he was Oxford-educated, and she was a divorcee, Max a Catholic.
Despite this, the pair married within six months of meeting. Max represented everything Agatha needed post-Archie. He was a safe, reassuring option; it wasn't a passionate love affair, but this only served to make it more likely to endure. He was perfectly suited for the independent lifestyle she had cultivated since her divorce - travel would be inevitable in a life with Max, and her success didn't bother him in the slightest. They remained happily married until her death in 1976.
After the scandal of the disappearance, Christie treasured her privacy. She rarely gave interviews, and relished the relative privacy of the yearly dig at Nimrud, in Iraq, led by Max, and her beautiful estate, Greenway in Devon. She had a writing room on the dig, but she also took part in the archaeological work, cleaning and photographing finds. She was modest about her talents, never precious about her writing process, which has possibly contributed to her work often being underestimated. Sometimes the hardest thing is to make something look simple, which is often the case with Christie's work.
"She hardly ever talked abut herself, she was much more interested in what other people, including me, were doing," Mathew recalls. "What our enthusiasms were, what she could encourage and any way she could help. She was one of the best listeners I've ever met." Despite this modesty, she was always quietly confident, never taking advice or suggestions. "She was fiercely independent about that kind of thing because she thought she knew how to write books so she got on with it on her own," Mathew explains.
She continued writing almost to the end, and died knowing she was adored by her husband, her daughter, her son-in-law and her beloved grandson. Her autobiography ended 10 years before her death at the age of 85. "What can I say at 75?" she wrote. "Thank God for my good life, and for all the love that has been given to me."
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