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.” 

This is an extract of an article printed in the latest issue of BRITAIN (January/February 2021).
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