Hello Book Nerds!
Agatha Christie: Mistress of Mystery, Duchess of Death, Queen of….Surfing? That’s right. Discover the events that turned Christie not only into one of the world’s most popular mystery writers, but also one who knew how to hang ten on the waves of Hawaii.
Behind the Scenes
Soon after I started the podcast, I looked over a calendar full of author birthdays and I just knew I had to do an episode for Agatha Christie. She’s not my favorite author, but I do know if I need to grab something for a quick and fun escape, her books will never fail.
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Links mentioned in this episode…
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The (Rough) Transcript
Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.
So this episode is set to come out on the 17th of September, which oddly enough is National Cheeseburger Day. And that has nothing to do with books, so let’s go back a couple days to the 15th of September, which does have to do with books because it was the 130th birthday of Agatha Christie.
Even if you don’t read mysteries, you’ve probably heard of Agatha Christie. She wrote 66 full length detective novels, plus enough short stories to fill 14 collections. She’s known as the Duchess of Death, the Mistress of Mystery, and the Queen of Crime, but as you’ll soon find out, she maybe should have been given the title Queen of Hanging Ten.
But before we start, I’m just going to put in a quick request for you to either leave a review for the Book Owl Podcast on whatever app you’re listening in right now, or to head to Podchaser and leave a review, or to just share the show with a fellow book nerd. Any little bit can really make a difference. After all, if The Book Owl doesn’t get enough attention she starts plucking out her feathers. And no one wants a bald Book Owl, do they?
Also, as I’m recording this we’ve got wildfires raging not far from my home and the air is super smoky. So smoky the air quality has been listed as off the charts hazardous, so if my voice sounds a bit dry or cracky, that’s why.
Alright, onto Agatha. She was born to a fairly wealthy family in the English countryside in 1890. And while it sounds like she had a mostly happy childhood, ti was also a strange one. Her mom didn’t think Agatha should be allowed to read until she was at least eight years old. Agatha also two siblings who were about a decade older than her, but they’d been sent off to boarding school. And with her siblings away, plus being so much older than her, she was left home alone with only her parents and pets for company.
Like any lonely kid, Agatha spent the time making up imaginary friends and the precocious little Aggie thwarted her mom and taught herself to read by the time she was five. When Agatha was 11 her dad died after a bunch of financial setbacks basically did his health in. Agatha’s mom took the death hard and really clung to her youngest daughter and the two formed a really strong bond that would come to throw Agatha for a loop later in her life.
When she’s 12, Agatha finally gets to go to school. But after the freedom of her homeschooling, she finds the classroom structure too rigid and doesn’t do well. During this time she’s been making a few friends and they’ve been creating and performing little plays, so it’s thought maybe Agatha would do well in the theater. So despite the growing money worries, she’s sent to Paris at age 15 to train in voice work and piano. Well, turns out, no surprise since she’s grown up mostly alone, Agatha does not do well performing in front of people she doesn’t know and it’s not long before she abandons a career in the theater and heads back to England.
So Agatha is 18 when she writes her first short story. And it really sounds like an odd story full of the spiritualism which was popular at the time and dream sequences and explorations of madness. She also writes several other stories and sends them off for publication. They were all rejected. Don’t worry, Aggie, we’ve all been there.
During this time Agatha’s mom doesn’t have the strongest constitution and it’s advised she spend a winter in a dry climate. She and Agatha head off to Egypt, and its this trip that inspires her first novel which she titles Snow Upon the Desert.
Yeah, like the short stories, the novel one was also rejected. She tried and tried, and even enlisted a family friend who was also a writer and who introduced her to his agent…who also rejected the novel. But he saw some potential and advised Agatha to write another book and see how it went.
Okay, meanwhile, Agatha is starting to break out of her shell a bit. She’s going to parties, she’s going dancing, she’s roller skating, and she’s meeting boys…many of whom propose marriage. But it’s Archibald Christie, who she meets at a dance near her home in 1912, who sweeps her off her feet. They’re engaged within three months but neither has the money to marry and set up a household so the engagement just kind of fixes for a while.
Then World War I breaks out. Archie’s an aviator with the Royal Flying Corps and he gets called up in August 1914. On his leave in December, the two decide there’s no time like the present and get married. And Agatha really doesn’t see much of her husband for the duration of the war. She instead spends her time volunteering at the Red Cross. It’s also during this period that we start building on what will truly being influencing Agatha’s future writing. Because while at the Red Cross Agatha earns a qualification as an apothecary’s assistant and begins working in the dispensary…and learning about poisons.
It was during this time while Archie was away, that Agatha wrote her first novel featuring Hercule Poirot. And the persnickety little Belgian was inspired both by the Belgian refugees near where she was living, but also by the Belgians she treated at the Red Cross. And I kind fo wonder what those Belgians thought of the character if they ended up reading the book.
So it’s been quite a few years since Agatha had written anything. What stirred up the writing bug again? Part of it had to do with her love of detective stories by Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle, but it mainly had to do with her sister betting her that she couldn’t write a convincing detective story.
Agatha won the bet. The Mysterious Affair at Styles not only got published, but was even lauded by the Pharmaceutical Journal for her accuracy with the poisons used in the book. And her pharmacy training really does pay off because over half of Agatha’s novels use poison as the murder weapon.
So Archie returns in 1918 and married life finally begins. They have their only child, Rosalind, in 1919, and Archie’s working in a low-paying financial job, while Agatha is writing. She published her first Tommy & Tuppence novel, then followed that up with another Hercule Poirot book. All within a couple years. The woman was on a roll!
Which meant it was time for her to go on tour. It wasn’t really a book tour, but more of a Look How Amazing The British Are Tour around the world. This was in 1922 and included stops all across the globe, including South Africa where she tried her hand at surfing. By the time she got to Hawaii, Agatha was able to pop up on hear board and, this really is the fun fact of the episode, she became the first British woman to do stand-up surfing. Go Aggie!
But all doesn’t stay so stellar for Agatha. In 1926, she gets two serious setbacks. First her mom dies, and this sends Agatha into a deep depression. Then she learns Archie has fallen in love with another woman. She files for divorce and one night she and Archie get in a big fight. Agatha takes off and just disappears. The next day her car is found near a quarry with her license and her clothes inside, but no Agatha.
By now Agatha Christie is a very big deal, the disappearance makes front page news on the New York Times, and something like 1000 police, 15000 volunteers, and even airplanes sent out to search for her. Even Arthur Conan Doyle got in on the act and took one of her gloves to a psychic to try to get some answers.
Well, ten days later a spa hotel employee recognizes Agatha who’s been staying there the whole time. She’s checked in under the name Teressa Neele. And Neele happened to be the last name of her husband’s mistress. Once discovered, she left and went to hide out at her sister’s and refused to talk about the situation to anyone, so no one to this day really knows why she did this.
People were fuming. They saw Agatha’s meltdown as a publicity stunt or as a way to frame her husband for murder. Agatha even tried to claim she had amnesia, but I think the use of the mistress’s name doesn’t really fit with that excuse.
Well, finally almost 2 years later, the divorce goes through. Archie did not waste any time and married Ms. Neele a week later.
Understandably, Agatha gets frustrated with her life in the UK, so she takes the Orient Express to the Middle East. And what a fortuitous trip. She not only gets the inspiration for a certain book, but she also meets a couple of archaeologists who invite her to come back and dig with them. I guess that happened back then. So she goes back in 1930 and its on this return trip she meets Max Mallowan…an archaeologist 13 years younger than her.
This was exactly what Agatha needed. She went with Max on digs and they traveled a lot, and this inspired more novels, many of which were set in the Middle East where Max was working.
So just to wrap up Agatha’s story, during World War II she went to work in the pharmacy at University College London and it was here that one of the pharmacists suggested using thallium as a poison. In a book, not in real life…I hope. Anyway, this idea became a book called The Pale Horse and as a little twist, in 1977, a doctor who had read the book helped solve a murder by because he recognized the symptoms of thallium poisoning from the story.
Agatha died in 1976 of natural causes. In 1977, Hercule Poirot was the first fictional character to have his obituary in the paper…the New York Times.
Phew, that was a quite an episode. Of course there’s more to Agatha’s life and if you want to get a more in depth look into Agatha Christie’s world and her works, you can go to Agatha Christie dot com where you will find all kinds of goodies.
Okay, that’s it for Agatha.. Time for some writing news…
My historical fantasy novel Domna has been relaunched with a new cover. Of course this update doesn’t work very well for an audio bit of news, but the new cover is really eye-catching. Of course, I’ve got the link in the show notes if you’d like to take a look, and to celebrate the new look, I’ve got a 50% off sale going on the Complete Series – that’s all 6 books, plus some exclusive bonus stuff – through the rest of the month…and that month is September 2020, in case anyone’s listening to this in the future.
As for podcast news, I don’t really have any other than I’ve got a couple of great episodes planned for October, so fun times ahead!
Alright everyone, that is it for The Book Owl Podcast! Thanks so much for listening, if you enjoyed this, tell a friend or leave a review, and I will hoot at you next time!
The book owl podcast is a production fo daisy dog media, copyright 2020, all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod. Audio processing by Auphonic.com