On January 12, 1976, author Agatha Christie died at home in Wallingford, England. Explore some illuminating facts about the master of the whodunit, whose 66 detective novels—along with her plays and short stories—revolutionized the crime genre.
1. She is the best-selling novelist in history.
Popular worldwide, Christie’s books have been translated into dozens of languages and have sold an estimated 2 billion copies (and counting). This puts her third on the all-time bestseller list behind only William Shakespeare and the Bible.
2. She received virtually no formal education.
Christie was born in 1890 in Torquay, a seaside resort town in southwestern England. Unlike her two older siblings, who went to boarding school, she was tutored almost exclusively at home and rarely saw kids her own age. Playtime was spent with pets, imaginary friends and her family’s servants. Yet she apparently wasn’t lonely, describing her childhood as “very happy” in the opening paragraph of her autobiography. Finally, at age 13, Christie began attending a local girls’ school two days a week, and she later studied music in Paris. As a writer, she was self-taught.
3. Her father was a gentleman of leisure.
Living off his inheritance, Christie’s father, Frederick, whiled away the days playing cards at the yacht club and eating extravagant dinners (that is, until he ran into financial difficulties shortly before his death in 1901). “He was a lazy man … [with] a simple and loving heart,” Christie would write, adding that he probably “would not have been particularly good at working anyway.” Her mother, Clara, on the other hand, composed poetry and struggled to find herself spiritually, dabbling with Zoroastrianism, Catholicism and Unitarianism, among other religions.
4. Christie started writing mysteries in response to a challenge from her sister.
At age 11, Christie published her first piece, a poem about electric trams that appeared in an English newspaper. As a teenager, she then had several additional poems printed in The Poetry Review, while also working on short stories that at the time failed to attract publishers’ interest. Detective novels did not appear on her radar until World War I, after her sister bet that she couldn’t write a good one. Her initial attempt, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” in which retired Belgian policeman Hercule Poirot solves the murder of a wealthy widow, was eventually picked up by a publisher on the condition that she alter the ending. From that point forward, detective novels would dominate her career.
5. She invented two of the world’s most famous fictional sleuths.
Sharp-eyed detectives abound in literature, from Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe to Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew. Yet according to her estate, Christie is the only crime writer to have created two equally famous protagonists: Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. The dandyish Poirot, who appears in 33 Christie novels and over 50 short stories, remains the only fictional character ever to receive an obituary in the New York Times, whereas the unassuming Marple, who appears in 12 Christie novels and 20 short stories, serves as the archetype for small-town, little-old-lady snoops. Other, less well-known Christie characters include the adventuresome couple Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, the retired civil servant Parker Pyne and the mysterious Harley Quin.
6. The butler never did it.
Contrary to the mystery fiction cliché, the butler never once murders anyone in a Christie book (though one killer does disguise himself as a butler in order to get close to his victim). Doctors, on the other hand, commit homicide in no less than four Christie books, while politicians, secretaries, actors, housewives, military men, teachers and police officers all commit homicide at least twice. More often than not, the victims are knocked off with poisons, which Christie learned about while working as a pharmacist during World War I.
7. Constant travel helped her to get ideas.
Most of Christie’s books take place in England, but she was able to write convincingly about other locations as well by seeing them firsthand. While growing up, she spent months at a time in France and Egypt, and she later traveled around the world on an expedition promoting the British Empire. She then met her second husband, an archeologist 14 years her junior, at a dig site in Iraq and thereafter often returned to the Middle East, gaining material for such books as “Murder on the Orient Express” and “They Came to Baghdad.” She wrote another book, “A Caribbean Mystery,” after visiting St. Lucia and likewise mined the Canary Islands for ideas after vacationing there. In England, meanwhile, she continually shuttled back-and-forth between London and various houses in the countryside.
8. The Anti-Defamation League protested her portrayal of Jews.
Christie’s works are filled with derogatory references toward blacks, Asians, Italians, Native Americans and Arabs. She even titled one book “Ten Little Niggers” (the name was later changed), and in another book uses that same slur to describe a chocolate dessert. Jews don’t fare well either; Christie generally depicts them as hook-nosed and money-grubbing. At one point, the Anti-Defamation League penned a letter objecting to her apparent anti-Semitism. Though the letter was reportedly never shown to her, it prompted her agent to give permission to her U.S. publishers to delete any distasteful passages about Jews and Catholics. Christie’s defenders dispute the racism charge, claiming that although some of her characters use racial epitaphs, these characters tend to be portrayed negatively overall.
9. She was the subject of a huge manhunt.
Reeling from the recent death of her beloved mother and the revelation that her first husband had been unfaithful, Christie removed her wedding ring, left her daughter in the care of household servants and drove off into the night on December 3, 1926. The next morning, her car was found abandoned several miles away, thus kicking off an intensive search-and-rescue operation that involved thousands of policemen and volunteers. Though divers, bloodhounds and even airplanes were brought in, no trace of the missing crime novelist turned up. The press ran wild with the story, with one publication offering a 100-pound reward for information leading to her whereabouts. Finally, 11 days after leaving home, she was recognized at a spa hotel in northern England, to which she had checked in using the surname of her husband’s mistress. Christie claimed to have virtually no recollection of the entire incident, attributing it to a form of amnesia.
10. She occasionally used a pseudonym.
Christie published her detective fiction, plays and memoirs under her own name. But she also authored six romantic novels—much to the dismay of her publishers, who preferred she stick with crime—under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. (Mary was her second name and Westmacott was the surname of some distant relatives.) For almost two decades, the public had no clue Christie and Westmacott were one and the same; however, a newspaper columnist eventually blew her cover. In her autobiography, Christie called the romantic novel “Absent in the Spring” the “one book that has satisfied me completely” and said she wrote it “in three days flat.”