Agatha Christie, Author and Mystery

Agatha Christie became an author of mysteries in 1920, with the publication of her first novel, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” Just six years later, Christie herself became a mystery, when she disappeared for eleven days in December, shortly after her husband Archie announced his plans to divorce her. Christie’s disappearance captured much of England’s attention in late 1926 and early 1927, and it has remained a compelling subject for many writers and readers ever since.

Perhaps somewhat curiously, my own curiosity about this enduring mystery did not begin with a non-fiction recounting of what happened in December 1926, or because I read a biography of Christie’s life. Rather, I was drawn in by a new novel, published in December 2020.

I started reading The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict as soon as it arrived at the library in 2021, simply because it was written by Marie Benedict. Previously, I had enjoyed reading other works of historical fiction by this author. I especially admire Benedict’s talent for finding fascinating women from the past to be the subjects of her new fictional narratives (including Mileva EinsteinRosalind Franklin and Clementine Churchill). I also appreciate how she focuses on creating complex characters while representing real people. Accordingly, it’s not too surprising that reading Benedict’s novel about Christie brought me pleasure. What was unexpected, however, was the extent to which I suddenly found myself thoroughly intrigued by Agatha Christie herself.

With my curiosity piqued by Christie appearing as a character in a novel, I launched into learning what I could about Christie as an actual person. As it turns out, there is an abundance of material about Agatha Christie, yet biographers and historians continue to describe her as something of a mystery, an author of mysteries who remained mysterious as a person, not just in 1926, but throughout her life. If for any reason your curiosity about Christie has been awakened, you might well enjoy any or all of the following works. (I should note here that each work I perused about Christie only led me to pursue another one.)

The more I discovered, the more I wanted to know: about Christie’s life, image and fame; about this author’s talent for depicting crimes accurately but not gruesomely; and about how a fictional character like Christie’s Hercule Poirot can take on a life beyond the page. The works below speak to these subjects, and with each other. They also spoke to me, being the most useful and enjoyable materials that I found of the many available on Agatha Christie. The last title here offers a return to the initial 1926 mystery, and to fiction. In the end, it was my favorite of all.

Self and Celebrity:

A biography offering a detailed look at Christie’s life

It was clear to me that Thompson’s work was an important source for Marie Benedict’s views on Christie.

 A newer biography scrutinizing the marked contrast between Christie’s public image and her private identity. Worsley makes the case that Christie presented herself as “a retiring Edwardian lady” when in fact she liked fast cars, surfed in Hawaii and was a successful working woman.

I especially enjoyed the photographs in this biography, including the images of Christie with her surfboard in the 1920s.

Two films investigating Christie and her world

After watching these films, I understood how Christie increasingly became an emblem of a time and place, as well as a genre. Even now, her name signifies detective fiction (or mysteries) for many readers, and her celebrity remains well-known.

Crime and Creativity:

These two science-based books examine how Christie’s knowledge of toxicology, crime, and evidence showed up in her writing. Harkup is a chemist who uses her expertise to analyze the poisons featured in fourteen of Christie’s novels. Valentine is a pathology technician and historian who studies varied technical components of the murders penned by Christie, observing the “tremendous amount of forensic accuracy” in Christie’s work.

Part of what allows me to enjoy reading Christie’s novels is her typical avoidance of grisly specifics when describing murder and other crimes. From Valentine’s book, I learned that even as Christie discloses crimes without emphasizing gore, she presents them in ways that are both detailed and accurate.

Character and Artistry:

A decade-by-decade history of this enduring character, on the page and in performance

A documentary with Stanley Tucci and David Suchet examining how the actor Suchet brought the character Poirot to life for over 25 years on a British television program

Even though I hadn’t previously watched the TV program starring Suchet, this documentary’s inquiry into character creation ended up being both fascinating and moving to me.

Author and Mystery:

An autobiography which Christie started writing in 1950 and finished fifteen years later, when she was 75 years old. It was seen into print in 1977, after her death in 1976

Even in this wide-ranging account of her life, Christie had little to say about what exactly happened when she was missing in 1926. Still, her description of Archie’s divorce announcement is quite revealing and provides some sense of her experience.

A novel detailing the events of December 1926, alternating between Agatha’s perspective and Archie’s, both voiced in the first-person

I thought Benedict saved the best for last, giving the final word to her fictional Agatha, in two concluding sentences that clarify the character’s motivations and sense of self.

Another novel focused on the events of December 1926, but one that completely reimagines what happened, creating a new level of mystery

With this title, I have saved the best for last. I thoroughly enjoyed this work of fiction, appreciating how de Gramont added additional layers to the story and ended up creating a more comprehensible version of Christie. Even if you do not check out any of the other materials about Christie, this work can stand on its own for reading pleasure.

Are you now curious about Agatha Christie, author and mystery?