The mystery of Agatha Christie: The real-life story of the crime novelist

Burgh Island Hotel, where Christie once stayed, is located on a tidal island in South Devon. Credit: Richard Downer Photography

Agatha Christie penned some of the world’s most famous crime novels, but the real-life mystery of her own disappearance has never been solved

She is the best-selling fiction writer of all time. Her 66 murder mysteries have sold more than 2 billion copies worldwide. Her super-sleuths Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are household names. But the inimitable Agatha Christie, Queen of Crime, might never have penned a detective novel at all were it not for a bit of sibling rivalry: “I bet you couldn’t,” her sister Madge goaded her.   

But of course she could, and she did, and in January 1921 her debut landed on the shelves of British bookshops. One of her trademark tales of murder in an isolated country house, peppered with clues that kept readers guessing until the end, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was a hit with the critics. Among the various positive reviews, however, there was one that particularly pleased its author. Having praised the novel “for dealing with poisons in a knowledgeable way” the Pharmaceutical Journal declared “Agatha Christie knows her job.” 

Agatha Christie’s Georgian holiday home, Greenway, near Brixham in Devon. Credit: National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

For the crime writer was also qualified as a pharmacy dispenser, a role that had inspired her first foray into fiction. Having initially volunteered to nurse at the Red Cross Hospital in her home town at the start of the First World War – shortly before her marriage to Captain Archie Christie – she had later transferred to the hospital pharmacy, where she was introduced to the range of deadly toxins she would later deploy so skilfully in the name of murder: everything from strychnine to cyanide and arsenic. 

There too she came to appreciate the deadly potential in the most everyday of drugs, witnessing on one occasion a pharmacist make a terrible mistake – a simple miscalculation that resulted in a hazardously toxic dose. “He struck me,” she later remarked, “in spite of his cherubic experience, as possibly a rather dangerous man.”

A photograph of Agatha Christie by Walter Bird, mid-1950s. Credit: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

The chemical know-how gleaned in those years of wartime service would seep into her novels again and again, poisons seeing off more than 80 fictional victims – but it was by no means the only way that Christie’s own life experiences inspired her stories. 

Born Agatha Miller in 1890, the gentrified world of the country house that she so warmly recreated for her readers was essentially that of her childhood: her family close, their home a Victorian villa in the south Devon resort of Torquay – the kind with a sweeping driveway, servants, conservatory and croquet lawn. And just like her fictional households, the Millers had their share of problems; Christie and her mother struggled for money after her father’s early death in 1901 and her reckless, unpredictable older brother Monty was a drain on their resources. 

“I think she just observed and absorbed pretty much everything that came her way,” says Laura Thompson, author of Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life. “Then she let it inform her books. So readers get her essence, even if she didn’t intend them to.” 

That’s especially true when it comes to the events of 1926 – famously an annus horribilis for the author. Grieving after the death of her mother, Christie was plunged into the depths of despair when Archie announced that he had fallen in love with another woman.

Christie and her first husband, Colonel Archibald Christie, 1919. Credit: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

On a cold, dark night in December, she left the home they shared with their young daughter, abandoned her car some miles away and travelled to a spa hotel in Harrogate, where she checked in under the name of Archie’s mistress – unwittingly sparking a nationwide search and a media frenzy. Eventually recognised by staff, she was discovered 11 days after her disappearance, apparently suffering from amnesia.

An intensely private person, she never spoke about those missing days – the incident remained as much a mystery as anything she ever tapped out on her typewriter. But her anguish over her marriage break-up left its imprint on her work. “I have always felt that some of the books written afterwards were influenced by those events,” says Laura. “Books like Sad Cypress, Five Little Pigs and The Hollow deal head-on with the danger and despair of love, and beneath the familiar cool style there are glimpses of real emotional depth.”

Christie would also make a departure from her famous ‘whodunnits’ in the wake of her divorce, writing a series of novels about ‘crimes of the heart’ for which she donned the protective cloak of a pseudonym, Mary Westmacott. In Celia, the protagonist of 1934’s Unfinished Portrait, who contemplates suicide after her husband leaves her, “we have more nearly than anywhere else a portrait of Agatha,” Max Mallowan, her second husband, later confessed.

An archaeologist, he and Christie met in 1930 at an excavation in Ur in Iraq and were married the same year. The author was no stranger to international travel – she had enjoyed a ‘season’ in Cairo in 1910 and a round-the-world tour with Archie in 1922, and had first travelled to the Baghdad region in 1928, fulfilling a life-long ambition to travel on the Orient Express.

A collection of Christie’s novels at Greenway, Credit: Andreas von Einsiedel/National Trust Images

After marrying Max, however, she would become a frequent visitor to the Near East. The colourful, exotic places she came to know and love were pressed into service as backdrops to novels like Death on the Nile and Murder in Mesopotamia, with her adventures powering some very famous plots – most notably 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express, inspired by a journey which “began in a thunderstorm, experienced floods, heating breakdowns, border delays and hardships of every kind” before disgorging a weary Christie at her destination two days late.

Yet far-flung locations never inspired her quite as much as the county of her childhood. If anywhere is Christie country, it’s Devon. “So many of the books are set there – Devon is her default setting, as it were, even though she doesn’t always spell it out,” Laura observes. Numerous real-life places were given fictional alter-egos, like Burgh Island, famous as the remote ‘Soldier Island’ in And Then There Were None.

In 1938 she bought a holiday home in the area, and Greenway, too, was immortalised in print: Nasse House in Dead Man’s Folly is an almost exact replica of the property, with its boathouse and wooded grounds. Now in the hands of the National Trust, Greenway is one of the few ways for fans to get a glimpse of the life of the woman behind the world’s best-loved murder mysteries – along with the novels themselves, that is.