I’ve had infatuations with novelists over the years, some fiery and fleeting (Ayn Rand), others ongoing and everlasting (Dickens), but Agatha Christie was my first great love.
She is the reason why I gravitate toward the mystery section of any bookstore. Why I’m planning to move, when I’m eighty, to a cottage on the English countryside. Why I have an exceptional understanding of poisons and remain close to the top of many of my friends’ Who to Call to Help Bury the Body list.
Certainly she has her detractors. There are those who find her characters flat, her plots as out-of-date as a gramophone, her final twists as impossible to see coming as a penguin FedExed to your home at Thanksgiving.
And yet, to curl up with an Agatha Christie novel is to settle in with an old friend. She doesn’t quite fit in with modern times. (She’s wearing a high-necked, taffeta, leg of mutton sleeve blouse and when nervous blurts, “Egads.”) But she’s warm and captivating.
There are the obvious reasons why Agatha is so monumental: the she’s-going-there ending of And Then There Were, the settings of remote mansions, elegant hotels, luxury ships, and archeological digs that have become the staples of mystery; her ability to bring characters into sharp focus with a few brushstrokes; her innate understanding that seemingly happy, beautiful people can also be darkened grottoes dripping with rage, loss, jealousy, and revenge.
In honor of Agatha, I’ve written a list of a few less obvious reasons to hail the Queen of Crime. There is more to this writer than a body in a library suddenly without electricity.
1. She was a die-hard surfer and the first British woman ever to surf standing up in Cape Town.
2. She wrote in tweed. Speaking as someone with a writing uniform of black leggings and white t-shirt, this reads as both romantic and gutsy.
3. She was a shy child with few friends her own age and no formal education, yet this gave way to a rich inner life. As a mother I’m always thinking about what it takes to cultivate my daughter’s imagination and this is a reminder that children do not need constant scheduled activities to grow into well-adjusted, creative and happy individuals. It’s about books, and a curiosity about the world, and having the quiet space in which to dream.
4. She forged a path not just for the mystery genre, but for women writers around the world. Entering a profession where the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, Karen Blixen, Louisa May Alcott—to name just a few–were afraid to put their name on their work for fear a female novelist would alienate readers, she refused to use a pen name and promptly rose to the top of her profession. She remains to this day the highest grossing novelist of all time, surpassed in sales only by Shakespeare and the Bible. I can think of no other industry given the timeframe in which she worked–1919 to 1976–that a woman so thoroughly stiffs the competition. Lean in she did. 2 billion books sold in 445 languages, with four million copies sold per year to this day. Sixty-six detective novels, fourteen short story collections, the world’s longest running play, and one autobiography. “The secret to getting ahead is getting started,” she said.
5. An article was written about her entitled, Hounds Search for Novelist. Try as we might, no novelist will ever again have such a distinction. (Missing Novelist is remotely possible. But unfortunately there would be no hounds.)
6. For 11 days her life was straight out of her own novels. In December 1926, Christie’s car was found abandoned on the side of a country road. Scotland Yard put their finest on the case. 15,000 volunteers scoured the countryside, searching for clues. Everyone chimed in with a theory, from Dorothy Sayers to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who aided the investigation by giving one of Christie’s gloves to a clairvoyant. When Christie was found 11 days later at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Yorkshire, it was revealed that she had checked in using the surname, Neele—the name of her husband’s mistress. Today, it’s commonly believed she entered a fugue state and had no recollection of who she was. She never spoke publicly about the incident, excluding it from her autobiography. Public reaction was fiercely negative, with outcry that it was a publicity stunt to sell books, or an attempt to frame her cheating husband for her murder.
7. She divorced her first husband and remarried a man fourteen years her junior, inspiring untamable women of future generations– from J. Lo to Demi Moore to Madonna and Cher.
8. She was an adventuress. Never diminishing her writing output, she still found time to travel the world, journeying—often with her archeologist husband–to Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, St. Lucia, the Canary Islands, and Canada.
9. Agatha Christie film adaptations are the best things to watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express. The 1978 adaption of Death on the Nile with Mia Farrow and a young Maggie Smith. And, of course, thirteen seasons of the BBC’s Poirot starring David Suchet.
10. Last but not least, Christie said, “Very few of us are what we seem,” giving rise to the conclusion that she herself had hidden rooms we will never enter. All we are left with are the Master locks that were her work and life. And for that we can be so grateful.