MARCH 26, 2021—For the end of my Women in History series, I look to a woman who is considered the best-selling fiction writer of all time, Agatha Christie. Guinness World Records lists Christie as having sold more than 2 billion books worldwide. My first introduction to Agatha Christie was not one of her books, but rather a movie that I happened to stumble upon while channel surfing. It was the 1965 version of Ten Little Indians. When I realized the movie was based on Christie’s book, And Then There Were None, I borrowed it from the library and was soon caught up in the midst of an exciting ride.
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born in Torquay, Devon in Southwest England, in September 1890. Her childhood education was erratic. At the age of 5 she taught herself to read. Her father homeschooled Christie until he fell too ill, then she spent time at a day school where she struggled with the discipline and strict schedules. A talented pianist, at the age of 15 her mother sent her to school in Paris to study piano and opera singing. However, two years later Christie determined she lacked the talent to become a concert pianist or opera singer; she ended her education and returned home. In 1912 she met Archibald Christie, and they were married in 1913. After WWI broke out, Christie trained and qualified to work as an assistant at a dispensary. Her new education in pharmacology and poisons helped develop her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, where the world was introduced to Hercule Poirot. Christie bore only one child, Rosalind. Eventually her marriage to Archibald fell apart and they divorced in 1928. In 1930, Christie met archeologist, Max Mallowen, whom she married later that year. They remained married until her death in 1976. Throughout her lifetime, Christie wrote 75 novels—66 of them detective novels—and 14 short story collections.
Christie enjoyed travel and her train trip on the Orient Express in 1928 led to my favorite novel of hers, Murder on the Orient Express, another tricky case unraveled by detective Hercule Poirot. One of the things I enjoy about reading Christie is her heavy reliance on dialog to develop the plot and set up the murderer. There are times in Christie’s novel when the reader might find the pacing a bit slow, however if you skim over these points, you are likely to miss an important clue that will help lead you to the perpetrator. I admit that my own novels have very little resemblance to Christie’s style. While her story lines are quite methodical and deliberate puzzles to solve, my own mysteries are rather fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants style with a good bit of action, adventure, and dumb luck for my heroine, who is not a trained detective. However, I do try to use dialog to a similar advantage that Christie used hers, by explaining plot points and dropping clues.
One thing is for sure, Christie’s influence on the detective mystery genre cannot be overstated. She is credited with establishing the modern “murder mystery” rules. Christie enticed readers by trapping all of her suspects in one location—e.g., on a train, ship, or mansion—rather than running helter-skelter around town interrogating suspects. By bringing her colorful characters to a central location, and giving them all reasons for being the murderer, her detective slowly solves the puzzle and narrows the list until the murder is revealed. Even though the reader is not taken to a variety of locations, Christie’s dialog, scenes, and character development keep us captivated and willing to spend the entire book in that single location. Her mysteries were smart, clever, and suspenseful, and they still remain popular today.