Mark Campbell was fascinated by Agatha Christie since he was little—what grabbed him were the lurid paperback covers in his local bookstore. When he came to read them, starting with Murder on the Orient Express (1934), he was surprised and slightly disappointed to find a notable lack of bloody skulls. What he found instead were gripping mysteries populated by fascinating, well-rounded characters and some distinctly oddball murders (and solutions). When he came to write The Pocket Essential Agatha Christie many years later, it was a pleasure to reacquaint himself with the Queen of Crime.
Updated and revised to coincide with the 125th anniversary of her birth, Campbell’s book contains everything you ever wanted to know about the revered crime writer. Here are just a few nuggets of trivia to whet your appetite…
1. Agatha Christie was abducted by aliens?
Far-fetched? Perhaps. Suffice to say that on December 3, 1926, Christie’s husband Archie confronted Christie with the revelation that he’d been having an affair with a joint acquaintance. He then scarpered off to spend the weekend with her. Christie, already upset by the recent death of her mother, was traumatized still further. That evening she disappeared, leaving her car abandoned near the spookily named Silent Pool in Surrey. Police from four counties were drafted in to look for her and the Daily News offered £100 (£5,500 or around $7,700 in today’s money) for information. Eleven days later, the Evening Standard revealed she was staying at the Hydro Hotel in Harrogate under the alias ‘Mrs Theresa Neele’. (Bizarrely, Nancy Neele was the name of Archie’s mistress.) Doctors diagnosed amnesia, and she never publically spoke about the ‘missing 11 days’. Critics claimed it was a publicity stunt, but current thinking is she experienced the psychiatric disorder known as ‘dissociative fugue’ brought on by sudden huge stress.
2. She’s slightly less popular than God.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Agatha Christie’s popularity is only bettered by the Bible and the Bard. She is indisputably the best-selling novelist of all time. A 1959 UNESCO report claimed her books had been translated into 103 language, and to date she’s sold over two billion copies—more than the entire population of China and America combined.
3. She invented the Kindle. . .
Wouldn’t that be great? Sadly, we can only say that she is one of the best reasons to own a Kindle. Her entire output consists of 72 novels and innumerable short story collections, as well as poetry, memoirs, children’s stories and plays. In 2009, HarperCollins published all her Miss Marple stories in one volume: it had 4,032 pages, weighed over 8kg and cost an eye-watering £1,000 (around $1,500 U.S. dollars). The thickest book in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records (them again), thankfully it also came with a carrying handle.
4. She wrote a stage play that’s been running for longer than all of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows put together.
That might be an exaggeration—just—but The Mousetrap is nothing short of a phenomenon. It opened in London almost 63 years ago—on October 6, 1952, eight months before Elizabeth II’s coronation. It opened at the Ambassadors Theatre, then switched to the St Martin’s Theatre next door in 1974, and it is still there today. The day this article is published online, it will have racked up 26,190 performances. Cannily described on the theatre’s website as a “great piece of theatrical history”, rather than as a great piece of theatre, its longevity seems unstoppable. It was based on her short story Three Blind Mice (itself a version of her 1947 radio play) with Christie re-naming it after the ‘play within a play’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But there the similarities must end. In 1954, she had three shows running in the West End at the same time: The Mousetrap, Witness For the Prosecution and Spider’s Web.
5. She kept the death of Hercule Poirot secret for over 30 years.
Christie wrote Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case in the early 1940s (the exact date is uncertain) and stored it in a bank vault, heavily insured against its destruction by Nazi bombs. Intending it to be published after her death, she was persuaded to release it in 1975 when it became clear she was too aged to write a new book for Christmas. In it, the wheelchair-bound Poirot behaves in a decidedly un-Poirot-like fashion. To say more would spoil the surprise(s). Charmingly, the New York Times published his obituary on its front page, the only time a fictional character has been afforded this accolade.
6. She was also a successful romantic novelist.
Silencing those critics who complained that she only wrote ‘glorified crosswords’, Christie penned six surprisingly absorbing romantic novels under the pseudonym ‘Mary Westmacott’. One of them, Unfinished Portrait (1934), was a deeply personal story about a female novelist who attempts suicide after her marriage falls apart. It has been seen by many as a thinly-disguised retelling of her own real-life break-up and subsequent ‘disappearance’. She also wrote children’s stories, poetry and memoirs of her archaeological experiences in Iraq.
7. Poirot is Belgian’s most famous export
8. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) is the single greatest whodunit ever written.
Without wanting to give the game away, this is the kind of novel that movie director M. Night Shyamalan can only dream about. A cunningly plotted murder mystery with a cast of likely suspects, Hercule Poirot exercises his “little grey cells” to their limit. And the solution? Well, you can only get away with this sort of trick once in a lifetime, and God bless her, Christie does. With bells on.
Mark Campbell has written for The Independent, Midweek, Crime Time and The Dark Side, and is one of the main contributors to the two-volume British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia. He has written Pocket Essentials on Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and Carry on Films. He lives in Kent and was the last theatre critic for The Kentish Times when they published reviews. He directs and appears in plays when he's not busy reading his collection of Whizzer and Chips comics.