Agatha Christie became immortal as the Queen of Crime. She strongly influenced crime literature: like no other, she consolidated the classic murder mystery structure - in which a murder is committed, where there are various suspects, and a detective who gradually uncovers all of their secrets.
She was born as Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on September 15, 1890, in Torquay, Devon into a wealthy upper-middle-class family. She started writing early. By age 10, she wrote her first poems and short stories, some of which were being published in regional papers. Because she had troubles to adjust to the disciplined atmosphere in Torquay’s girl’s school, she was sent to Paris in 1905 to get an education there. In France, she attempts for a career as professional pianist and singer, but without success.
Returning to England in 1910, Agatha found that her mother suffered from lung illness, and mother and daughter travelled to Egypt that same year. Agatha got inspired for her first novel during that trip: Snow upon the desert is set in Cairo. She showed the work to their family friend and neighbour, writer Eden Philpotts, who encouraged her writing, and sent her an introduction to his own literary agent.
In 1912, she met Archibald ‚Archie‘ Christie at a dance party held not far from Torquay. The two quickly fell in love and Agatha even cancelled her engagement with a certain Reggie Lucy to accept Archie’s proposal instead.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Archie was sent to France to fight the German troops. The couple married on Christmas Eve 1914, while Archie was on home leave. During the war, Agatha nursed wounded soldiers at a hospital in Torquay and qualified as an apothecaries' assistant in 1917. It was during the Second World War that she worked as a pharmacy assistant at University College Hospital, London, and acquired a good knowledge of poisons - which featured in many of her post-war novels such as The Pale Horse (Thallium), 4.50 From Paddington (Monkshood) and A Pocketful of Rye (Taxine).
British Empire Exhibition Trade Mission
On a day in 1921, Archie’s old schoolmaster Major Belcher invited Archie and Agatha to join his mission to prepare for and promote the British Empire Exhibition which was to be held from April 1924 to October 1925. Belcher needed a financial adviser, asked Archie to take the job and invited Agatha to join the mission. Realizing this was a once-in-a-lifetime oppurtunity, the couple accepted, left their newborn Rosalind with Agatha’s mother and left on January 20, 1922 for a trip around the world. The trade mission lasted ten months, with first class accommodations in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Hawaii.
Divorce and disappearance
The marriage of the Christie’s wasn’t a happy one, and in late 1926, Archie asked Agatha for a divorce. He was in love with Nancy Neele, who had been a friend of Major Belcher. As recommended by her publisher, she did keep his last name. On 3 December 1926, the Christies had an argument, and Archie left their house to spend the weekend with his mistress. That same evening, Christie left their home as well to go to Yorkshire – at least she had written that in a note to her secretary. Her car was later found perched above a chalk quarry, with an expired driving licence and clothes – and no Agatha anywhere near.
Her disappearance made headlines. Over a thousand police officers, 15.000 volunteers, and several airplanes searched the area. Colleague-writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even consulted a spirit medium to find the missing woman. It was not until ten days later, on 14 December 1926, that Agatha was found at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel, Yorkshire, registered as Mrs Teresa Neele (the surname of her husband’s lover!). Doctors diagnosed her as suffering from amnesia, yet is has always remained unclear why she disappeared. She was known to be in a depressed state from literary overwork, her mother's death earlier that year, and her husband's infidelity. Public supposed a publicity stunt or an attempt to frame her husband for murder – we’ll never know.
In 1928, Christie left England for Istanbul and subsequently for Baghdad on the Orient Express. Late in this trip, in 1930, she met young archaeologist Max Mallowan on the excavation site at Ur (Iraq), whom she married in September 1930. The two travelled a lot, which had a strong influence on her books.
Miss Marple & Hercule Poirot
Miss Jane Marple and detective Hercule Poirot are Christie’s best known characters by far. Miss Marple appeared in 12 novels and 20 stories, and was introduced in the short-story collection The Thirteen Problems in 1927. Her character was based on Christie’s grandmother: both Ms Marple and Agatha’s grandmother "always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and were, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right."
Detective Hercule Poirot solves the crimes in 33 novels and 54 short stories and was highly loved by her readers – even if Christie herself eventually got more than tired of him. She wrote in her diary that Poirot was ‘insufferable’, and by the 1960s she felt that he was ‘an egocentric creep’. Despite her aversion against him, he kept on appearing in her novels.
She is very successful and gets much acknowledgement during her life – she was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire, got a wax statue at Madame Tussaud’s in London and won several awards. By the 1970s, her health began to fail and in 1974, she last appeared in public. She died of natural causes in 1976.
Trivia and numbers
I’m going to admit it openly: I admire Mark Twain. His cynical humor, his talent of describing something completely plain in a hilarious way make him one of my favorite classic authors.
‘Mark Twain’ is only a pen name and actually is a nautical expression relating to a specific water depth. The author was born as Samuel Longhorne Clemens, and he came to life in the little village of Florida, Missouri, in 1835. According to his own words, he increased Florida’s number of inhabitant by one percent with his birth. Five years after his birth, the Clemens family moved to the nearby town of Hannibal. The fictional St. Petersburg, where Twains most famous character Tom Sawyer experiences his numerous adventures, is largely based on Hannibal, and in the same manner, Tom’s adventures are mostly based on experiences in Twains youth.
Twain’s first short story, which would be followed by many more, was published in a weekly newspaper in 1864. In 1873, he wrote his first book, called “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today”. Three years later, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, was published, which was, in a way, the precursor of his masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, which was published 1884. In ‘Tom Sawyer’, Huck Finn plays an important supporting role; but in his own novel, he is the protagonist and embodies the young American boy. In the novel, Twain describes the American way of life, and is not afraid of adding a critical note here and there. In the book, and in several of his other works, he criticizes the differences between social classes as well as greediness and imperialism.
Twain was an opponent of slavery, although keeping slaves was common in almost every household in his time. Even his own family employed a slave, and it was only because of financial problems that they had to give up on him. In ‘Huckleberry Finn’, Twain’s attitude towards holding slaves is not expressed very clearly, and some even say the novel is racist. Twain indeed portrays Jim, the slave who flees together with Huckleberry, with very prototypical characteristics, which can be interpreted as both humorous and racist. On the other hand, it is remarkable that a slave was one of the main characters in a book which was written in that time. Apart from his typical African-English and his superstitions, Jim is portrayed as a rather intelligent man, and above all he is very kind – which was contradictory to the general opinion of the blacks in that time. Huckleberry Finn is a child of his age, and that’s why he feels torn between morality and his own feelings. He has learned that slaves are in the possession of the family they work for and they may not run away – to help a slave escaping would be no less than theft – but on the other hand, he has sincere feelings of friendship for Jim, and therefore, he wants to help him anyway. With this subject, Twain appeals to the conscience of his readership and makes them think about the rights of slaves.
A second point of critic lies in the use of the word ‘nigger’. Some people want to eliminate this word from literature, but to my opinion one should always reflect a work of art keeping the time in which it came into being in mind. In was not until 1900 that the word ‘nigger’ got its pejorative meaning, before that time – and thus when Twain wrote his books – it was the common name for a black man.
Excerpt of his works:
- The Innocents Abroad (1869), travel
- Roughing It (1872), travel
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
- The Prince and the Pauper (1881)
- A Tramp Abroad (1880), travel
- Life on the Mississippi (1883), travel
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)
- The Mysterious Stranger (1916, posthumous)
The death of a beautiful woman was the most poetic thing he could imagine. He indeed wrote a couple of narratives on this subject. The horror stories for which he is most known today represent only a relatively small part of his work. Most of his works are satiric grotesques, in which he ridicules people (and he didn't hold back to mock his colleagues or competitors) or society in general.
Edgar Allan Poe is not exactly the friendliest author in the history of literature. He had a high opinion of himself and his work, and could hardly cope with critics. He himself, however, was merciless against other authors and their publications, and very early in his career he had grown to an infamous literary critic who was known for not mincing matters.
He seemed not to identify himself with the country in which he was born: he scorned democracy, which he criticizes and even ridicules in several of his narratives, and his religious thoughts didn't fit within the general image of God that Americans had. The Gold-Bug is one of the few stories that take place in the USA, but most stories are set in Europe, if a geographical location is named at all. He carried the rumour into the world that he had travelled through Europe, and did not hesititate to call his brother's experiences - who had been in Europe for real - his own. Repeatedly he has enhanced his biography with such lies, probably to make his life seem more interesting as it actually was. He woud be delighted to know that the circumstances of his death remain unclear, and that uncountable myths on the subject are still making the rounds.
But who was he really? Edgar Poe was born in Boston, MA, on January 19, 1809. By the age of three he became an orphan and was raised in a foster family. Although his foster mother showed him motherly affection, Mr. Allan, his foster father, never acknowledged Edgar as his rightful adopted son. Later in his life, Edgar would complain about and suffer from the lack of a familiarly environment. Mr. Allan encouraged and supported Edgar's education generously in his youth, but that changed dramatically when Edgar wanted to study at the university. With way too little pocket money and no income, Edgar could hardly do else but loan money and create debts. His precarious financial situation and his loneliness made him fall into alcoholism - which in turn offended his foster father even more, whom he had to beg for money over and over. Although Allan had become one of the richest men in Virginia after he had inherited an enormous amount of money, he was overly frugal in his contributions to Edgar, probably because he frequently just used the money for gambling and alcohol consumption. In addition, Allan could not accept Edgar's plan to earn his daily bread by writing poems instead of practicing a 'real' profession. Finally, Mr. Allan's patience came to an end. From then on, Edgar would have to make it on his own, without any support from his foster father.
Poe primarily had to suffer from his own character. He found himself superior to everyone around him, but could not deny that he was dependent of financial support of his friends and family, for he never had more than a penny in his pocket. Poe knew his literary invention, the 'imp of the perverse', which repeatedly occurs in his stories (this inner 'imp' seduces protagonists to do things that lead to their destruction), himself all too well. Again and again in his life he would surrender to the temptations of this goblin and end up in an abyss. He was sucked into the all-destroying 'Maelstrom', a dangerous whirlpool that also appears in many of his stories. Several times he has risked his job, more than once he actually lost it, either because of personal feuds with his employer, or because he could not resist the alcohol. One wonders why someone with such little financial security as Poe could be so careless with his job. But he was confident, arrogant, and convinced that his stories and poems would eventually enjoy the fame they deserved. In retrospect, he was right, but unfortunately he has never really witnessed the real impact that his stories have made in the world.
Ironically, the poet that had glorified the death of a beautiful woman lost his own wife at very young age. He had married his cousin Virginia Clemm when she was 13 years old (Poe was 27 at that time). With her big, dark eyes and her fair complexion, she embodied Poe's ideal of beauty. It was, however, her youthly innocence that Poe loved the most. An accusation of pedophilia lies at hand, but there is evidence that Poe and Virginia actually never consummated their marriage, which indeed remained childless. But their happiness was not destined to last: Virginia died of tuberculosis in 1847 at the age of 24.
After her death, Poe published his prose poem 'Eureka' in which he combined philosophy and aesthetics in a kind of big bang theory. He also went on promotional tour for his long-time project 'The Stylus'; his own literary magazine. The future smiled at him: thanks to a couple of lectures he had held, he finally had some money in his pocket and the love of his youth, Elmira Royster, had accepted his marriage proposal. But it should not come all this way. In October 1849, he was only forty years old, he was found lying in a gutter in Baltimore, more dead than alive. He was taken to the hospital, where he fell into a delirium and died a little later. It was clear that he had collapsed under the influence of alcohol. The imp of the perverse had destroyed its creator with a last and final blow.
Excerpt of his works:
- A decided loss (1832; one of his numerous grotesques)
- Ligeia (1838; about the death of a beautiful woman)
- The Fall of the House of Usher (1839; a gothic novella)
- The Raven (1845; his most famous poem)
- The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841; the first story with detective Auguste Dupin)
- The Pit and the Pendulum (1842; probably his most terrifying horror story)
- The Gold-Bug (1843)
- The Black Cat (1843; one of the stories, in which the protagonist is tempted by the 'the imp of the perverse')
- The Tell-Tale Heart (1843; idem)
- Hopp-Frog (1849; a satire, in which he makes fun of his competitor authors)