The Queen of Crime

Listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the bestselling novelist of all time, Agatha Christie has enthralled readers for decades with her skilfully sculpted stories and cunning characters.

Christie's dedication to crafting the perfect plot saw her dubbed the Queen of Crime and earned her a place in literary history. So just how did a girl from Torquay with little formal education go on to sell over two billion books?

15 September 1890

A Daughter’s a Daughter: Childhood

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Listen: Agatha talks about her childhood. (Image courtesy of The Christie Archive Trust)

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on 15 September 1890 in Torquay, Devon.

Born to Clara and Frederick Miller, she was the youngest of three; she had a sister, Margaret (Madge), and a brother, Louis (Monty). She had a happy upbringing at Ashfield, the family home in Torquay, but curiously, other than some basic arithmetic lessons from her parents, she received no formal education. Left to her own devices, she taught herself to read by the age of five. Her father, an American by birth, died after a series of heart attacks in 1901 when Agatha was 11.

Family values

One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is to have a happy childhood. I had a very happy childhood.

Agatha Christie

1905

The Moving Finger: Paris and pianos

Getty Images

Agatha Christie playing piano

Christie was a talent on the keys of both typewriter and piano.

Agatha did eventually receive some formal education in Paris when aged 16.

In 1905 she started boarding at a succession of pensions in Paris, where she lived for the next five years. Having previously been encouraged to play musical instruments by her parents, Agatha took lessons in piano and singing. Such was her skill on the keys she could have gone on to become a professional pianist, but her shyness in front of others meant she was unable to pursue the dream.

The early years

I used to play the piano a good deal and hoped when very young to be a professional, but was far too nervous.

Agatha Christie

12 October 1912

Partners in Crime: First marriage

The Christie Archive Trust

AC Archie Christie

Wings of love: Agatha married airman Archie Christie.

Agatha’s first husband was aviator Archie Christie.

The couple met at a ball staged by Lady Clifford at her home, Ugbrooke House in Devon. Agatha and Archie quickly fell in love and married two years after their first meeting, tying the knot on Christmas Eve in Emmanuel Church in Clifton, Bristol. Archie, seconded to the Royal Flying Corps, had to return to service in France on 27 December, so it wasn’t really until 1918 that Agatha’s married life truly began. The couple had a daughter, Rosalind, in 1919.

Who was Archie Christie

1914-1916

Appointment with Death: Life as a nurse

The Christie Archive Trust

Agatha Christie Nurse

Christie volunteered as a nurse during World War One.

Shortly before her marriage to Archie, Agatha had begun work with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in a Red Cross hospital in Torquay.

Between October 1914 and December 1916 she clocked up over 3,000 hours of unpaid work. At the start of the following year she qualified as a dispenser and worked the role until the end of her service in September 1918. During this time she gained knowledge about poisons that she would later use in her stories.

How WW1 shaped Christie and Poirot

October 1920

Poirot Investigates: The Belgian takes his bow

Getty Images

Poirot David Suchet

David Suchet played Poirot on TV for the best part of 25 years.

Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in October 1920 and introduced the world to Hercule Poirot.

The result of a bet with her sister Madge, the book’s publication had been a long time coming, having been rejected by six different publishers over a five-year period. Finally accepted by John Lane at The Bodley Head, the novel launched to great success and starred Poirot as its diligent detective. The Belgian sleuth went on to feature in 33 novels, 50 short stories and one play, and was played by David Suchet in 70 television adaptations.

Case Notes: Hercule Poirot

A guess is either right or wrong. If it is right you call it an intuition. If it is wrong you usually do not speak of it again.

Hercule Poirot, The ABC Murders

1920s

Destination Unknown: Surfing the globe

The Christie Archive Trust

Agatha Christie Surfer

Making waves: Christie was one of the first British surfers.

In the early 1920s Christie became one of the first Britons to surf standing up.

Leaving Rosalind at home with Clara, the Christies embarked on a world tour in 1922 to promote the upcoming British Empire Exhibition. First they headed to South Africa where they learned to surf prone (bodyboarding). Later in their tour the couple found themselves in Waikiki, Hawaii, where Agatha learned to surf standing up. Some believe that she was the first British women to surf this way.

Britain’s surfing pioneer

3 December 1926

The Mysterious Affair at Styles: Christie’s disappearance

Getty Images

Agatha Christie disappearance

Christie’s disappearance was national news.

One of the greatest Christie mysteries was that of her own disappearance in December 1926.

Fraught with the loss of her mother earlier that the year, Agatha’s marriage had become strained. On 3 December, having allegedly argued with Archie, she left Styles, the family home in Sunningdale, without saying where she was going; a nationwide search was triggered when her car was found abandoned close to a nearby quarry. When she was found 11 days later in the Harrogate Hydropathic Hotel, Christie had no recollection of who she was. It was an episode that Agatha rarely spoke of again.

The greatest Christie mystery?

December 1927

Thirteen Problems: And Miss Marple is one

BBC

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

Joan Hickson's portrayal of Miss Marple is regarded as the the most faithful screen version of Christie's spinster sleuth.

Not content with having created one world famous detective, Christie produced another, the elderly but astute Miss Marple.

The much loved spinster of St Mary Mead took her bow in The Tuesday Night Club. The short story was first published by The Royal Magazine in December 1927, later becoming part of Christie’s collection The Thirteen Problems. A shrewd observer of human nature, Jane Marple was a highly skilled problem solver, even if she was just an amateur sleuth. She went on to feature in 12 novels and 20 short stories – 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage being her first full length novel.

Case Notes: Miss Marple

Everybody is very much alike, really. But fortunately, perhaps, they don’t realise it.

Miss Marple

11 September 1930

The Road of Dreams: Second marriage

Getty Images

Max Mallowan Agatha Christie

Christie was married to Max Mallowan until her death in 1976.

Having divorced Archie in 1928, Christie married her second husband, Max Mallowan, on 11 September 1930 on the Isle of Skye.

The two had met on an archaeological dig in the Middle East and travelled to the area most years of their married life. The region inspired several of Christie’s novels, including Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and Death on the Nile (1937), featuring a new array of exotic locations far removed from the domestic settings of her earlier work.

Who was Max Mallowan?

1930

Cat Among the Pigeons: Mary Westmacott

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Listen: Christie’s secret indulgence. (Image from Getty Images).

A supreme creator of characters, Christie crafted one for herself in order to let off some literary steam.

Fusing her middle name with a surname gleaned from her family tree, she created Mary Westmacott to give herself the freedom to write something other than crime fiction. Christie wrote six novels under her nom de plume, the first of which – Giant’s Bread – was published in 1930. Another, Absent in the Spring, was written in just three days. In 1946 a reviewer of the novel finally twigged that Westmacott was Christie but, even with her cover blown, she wrote three more titles under the pseudonym.

Agatha and Mary

It is that book that I am most pleased with having written. That is the greatest, proudest joy an author can have.

Christie on Absent in the Spring

1935

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: Talking Books

BBC

An open book

Now you’re talking! Christie’s work found a new audience in 1935.

Christie’s work found a new audience when one of her novels was among the first to be turned into a Talking Book.

In 1935 the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) sent its members Talking Books (audiobooks) and machines so that they too could enjoy works of literature. One of the first titles to be produced was Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and it proved a big hit. To this day, Christie remains one of most requested authors by users of the service.

Listen up: Christie’s Talking Books remain popular

1930s

The Scoop: Life through a lens

The Christie Archive Trust

Agatha Christie Photography

Another string to her bow: an example Christie's photography.

With a passion for all the arts, Christie was especially taken with photography and was a dab hand with the camera.

Having regularly picked up a camera in her younger years, Christie found the first real outlet for her photography on her husband’s archaeological digs. He asked Christie to scientifically photograph the items he’d unearthed, to capture exactly how they looked when he’d dug them out of the ground. Christie’s main interest, however, lay in the artistic side of the medium. In the late 1930s she enrolled at the Reimann School where she learnt a creative, modernistic brand of photography.

Agatha and photography

6 November 1939

And Then There Were None: Christie’s bestseller

BBC

BBC And Then There Were None Cast Agatha Christie

The cast of the BBC’s 2015 adaptation of Christie's bestseller.

Christie’s bestselling title was first published on 6 November 1939.

And Then There Were None has since gone on to become the world’s bestselling mystery novel. As one of only eight single-volume titles to have had sales in excess of 100 million copies, it is in fact one of bestselling books of all time. The book has remained popular and in 2015 it topped a fan poll in 2015 to mark Christie’s 125th birthday.

Background reading

25 November 1952

The Mousetrap: Christie’s record breaking play

Getty Images

The Mousetrap at St Martins Theatre

The Mousetrap celebrated 60 years in 2012.

The Mousetrap first appeared in 1947 as a radio play called Three Blind Mice, written in celebration of Queen Mary’s 80th birthday.

Five years and a few changes later, The Mousetrap premiered at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham before it found a home at the Ambassadors Theatre, London. Starting its West End run on 25 November 1952, it’s since notched up over 25,000 consecutive shows, making it the longest running play in history. In 1954 it was one of three Christie plays running simultaneously in the West End – the only time a female dramatist has achieved the feat. It moved to its current home, St Martin’s Theatre, in 1974.

The real life case that inspired The Mousetrap

It won’t run that long. Eight months perhaps. Yes, I think eight months.

Christie's reply to Mousetrap producer Peter Saunders’ assertion that it would run for 14 months

1954

Verdict: Christie wins award

The Christie Archive Trust

Agatha Christie MWA Award

The Grand Master Award that Christie won in 1954.

In 1954 Christie became the first recipient of the Grand Master Award.

The highest honour of the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), the award recognises lifetime achievement and consistent quality. Other winners of the accolade include Alfred Hitchcock, Daphne du Maurier and Ruth Rendell. Later in the same year Christie’s drama Witness for the Prosecution picked up the MWA’s Edgar Award for best play – she is one of only two women who have won the award.

More on the mysterious MWA

1971

Personal Call: Christie made a dame

The Christie Archive Trust

Agatha Christie meets the Queen

Honoured to be here: the Queen of Crime meeting the Queen.

Christie was made a dame (DBE) in the New Year Honours of 1971.

Having been appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1956, Christie had previously declined a knighthood so as not to diminish her husband’s chances of receiving the honour. Max Mallowan was knighted in 1968, allowing Christie to freely accept the offer when it was made three years later. In taking the titles they became one of the few married couples where both partners held knighthoods in their own right.

Honours list: a quick explainer

Poetry is not the most important thing in life. I’d much rather lie in a hot bath reading Agatha Christie and sucking sweets.

Dylan Thomas

6 August 1975

Curtain: Poirot dies

Getty Images

NYT

Poirot’s death was headline news in the States.

“Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who became internationally famous, has died in England. His age was unknown.”

So read the front page of the New York Times on 6 August 1975. Inside was a full page obituary dedicated to Belgian sleuth – the first time that the death of a fictional character was covered by the newspaper in this way. Curtain, the final novel to feature the moustachioed marvel, was released two months later. The publication of the book, written during the mid-1940s, had been purposefully held back and was originally due to be released posthumously by Christie.

David Suchet on Poirot’s second death

12 January 1976

Death Comes as the End: Christie dies

Getty Images

Agatha Christie Funeral

2016 marked 40 years since Christie’s death.

Agatha Christie died on 12 January 1976, but her spirit lives on in her stories and she remains popular to this day.

She died aged 85 of natural causes at her home in Winterbrook, Oxfordshire, and is buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s in nearby Cholsey. Since her death, Christie’s works continue to be adapted and awards are still coming her way. The most notable adaptation was, perhaps, ITV’s Poirot series, starring David Suchet, which ran for 25 years before its conclusion in 2013. In the same year, the Crime Writers’ Association voted The Murder of Roger Ackroyd the best crime novel ever.

2016 saw the 40th anniversary of Christie’s death

There is nothing more wonderful to have in one’s life than time. I don’t believe people get enough of it nowadays.

Agatha Christie