Next November a new film from Agatha Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express will be released, and I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am!
No, I’ve never read the book (though I plan to do so before the film comes out), but I’ve watched many screen versions. It has always been one of my favourite Agatha Christie, maybe because of my fascination with trains, which not even a fifteen-year long daily commuting has extinguished.
So I decided I want to know a bit more about this train and this story. This is the first article in a short series dedicated to Agatha Christie and the Orient Express. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Agatha Christie’s early years
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on 15th September 1890 in Torquay, Devon, South West England, into a comfortably well off middle-class family. Her father was an American, while her mother, Clara, was British. Both were very educated people (her mother was an accomplished storyteller) who personally took care of the education of their children.
Agatha showed to be a very precocious girl very early. Her mother didn’t want her to learn to read until eight years old, but Agatha’s was so fascinated with books and stories that she independently learned to read at the age of five.
Over the year, her family started to have financial problems that weighed heavily on Agatha’s father, who finally died of a heart attack when she was eleven. That put the family into even more financial difficulties. At a point, Clara even thought to sell the family estate when her health too was undermined.
Her health problem made her decide to move to Cairo in 1910 temporarily, and that was quite an exciting time for Agatha. She started to lead a very sociable life, with parties and dances where she met many youths of her age and social status. She received quite a few marriage proposals.
And Agatha was indeed desperate to marry, to escape the difficult family life. In 1912 she met Archie Christie, a qualified aviator, and they started a courtship that was a true whirlwind, probably more a youthful romantic infatuation born out of the hard times and the lack of money on both parts than true love.
They married in 1914, at the onset of the Great War, and they saw very little of each other all through the years of the conflict.
The poisonous Great War
While her husband served in the air force, Agatha volunteered as a nurse, as many young girls did at that time. She was eventually assigned to the pharmacy of the hospital in her town, Torquay.
It was a job of great responsibility. Agatha had to train and pass a number of exams – she studied both theoretical and practical aspects of chemistry and too tuition from a pharmacist – before she could take on the job of dispenser or apothecary’s assistance.
At that time, many substances that were later considered actual poisons and too dangerous to be sold were still in normal medical use and could be bought at the counter. Substances like arsenic and strychnine were still considered new drugs. Others, like cyanide and ricin, though never considered as medicine, could be bought at the counter and used as pesticides well into the 1940s.
Through her job as apothecary’s assistant, Agatha became very knowledgeable of these poisonous substances, for which she would write prescriptions herself.
So, when her sister challenged her to write a mystery story, it was quite natural for Agatha to turn to these substances that she saw and handled every day as a means of murder. That’s exactly what she did with her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles
She actually wrote that novel while working in the apothecary, since the hours were long and the job slow and boring.
Her interest and knowledge with poisons would remain a characteristic of her storytelling. Given her deep knowledge of the subject (which she continuously nourished and updated) and that she knew nothing about ballistic, she resourced to murder by poison at least thirty times in her novels. Her competency became legendary. She used every substance with great ability and accuracy both of use and symptoms. Along with her career, she only invented two drugs, which anyway were not used as weapons.
Eleven Days of darkness in Agatha Christie’s life
It was only after the war that Agatha’s married life truly started. She and Archie settled down in London, where they had their only child, Rosalind, in 1919.
Agatha had good success with her first book. She actually had a contract for two more novels with the same publisher, but her life was proving to be too miserable to allow her to write creatively. At that time, she would mostly go after the house and her daughter. After her mother died, Agatha’s life became even more dull and lonely. Her marriage deteriorated, especially after Archie started an affair with a family friend, Nancy Neale.
Nobody knows for sure, and Agatha certainly never explained it, but it is speculated that it was this depression, brought about by the sorrow for her mother’s death, her husband cheating on her and her incapability to write, that caused the mysterious events of the winter of 1926.
On the evening of December 3rd at Styles, the Christies’s Berkshire home, at 9:45 pm, Agatha kissed her sleeping daughter, and drove away in the night, leaving no word of where she was going.
Her Morris Cawley was later found down a slope at Newlands Corner near Guildford. There was no sign of her.
At that time, Agatha Christie was already a very successful author and her disappearance, especially in such mysterious circumstances, raised a buzz all over the country. Some even thought she had drawn in the nearby natural spring of Silent Pool or that her unfaithful husband might have murdered her. Some thought to a publicity stunt to drum up the publication of her new book.
For eleven days, a great hunt was enacted to search for her, where even a few well-known mystery authors, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers were involved. Her face appeared on all newspaper nationwide.
That was actually what finally allowed to find her. A waiter at the spa hotel in Harrogate recognised her. She had been living at the hotel for all that time under the assumed name of Teresa Neele.
Many wondered at the time (and are still wondering today) how it was that she didn’t give any news of her, given the great interest her disappearance stirred, and how it was that she didn’t even recognise herself in the paper pictures. A new book by doctor Andrew Norman suggests that Agatha had fallen into psychogenetic amnesia after a period of depression, possibly induced by the shock of the car accident and that she was probably suicidal.
Even if she never ever talked about it, she did indeed follow a course of psychiatric treatment, and in 1928 she divorced from Archie.
Then she first fled to the Canaries with Rosalind, and the same year, she travelled to Baghdad and the archaeological site of Ur. Here she met a young archaeologist-in-training, Max Mallowan, younger than her. A deep friendship started which then turned into love. The two married in 1930.
It started then an exciting time for Agatha, divided between Max’s excavations in the springs and autumns, and life in London the rest of the year, when Agatha would write her novels. The 1930s was a wonderful time for her creativity. She wrote most of her most popular novels during this decade.
The Detection Club and the Golden Age of Cosy Mystery
The Detection Club was founded in 1930 by Anthony Berkeley Cox, a gifted but troubled mystery writer.
That was the official date of birth of the Club, but Berkeley had started holding dinners with fellow mystery writers two years earlier, where they would discuss their stories, narration techniques and would talk of contemporary events that would be good for a mystery. Agatha Christie had been one of the members since the beginning. These dinners were a unique opportunity to get together with like-minded colleagues and escape their traumatic lives.
Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers were all part of a new generation of young British mystery novelists who emerged from WWI. The war had traumatised the entire nation. Many young men had died – little villages had been robbed of an entire generation of young men – or being seriously damaged by the conflict, both physically and mentally. Christie’s brother was among them, so was Oswald Atherton Fleming, Dorothy L. Sayers’s husband. Berkeley was gassed during the conflict and his health never fully recovered.
While after WWII writers reacted to the horrors of war by embracing a gritty form of storytelling, the post-WWI years were a time of ‘play fair’, when pastimes like crosswords and contract bridge became hugely popular. A detective novel was considered to ‘played fair’ when the plot would set out all the clues although concealing them with great canny so that the reader stood the same chance to discover the culprit as the sleuth. These books are often dismissed as ‘cosy’, but there’s a reason why they were so popular at this time: they offered a welcome escape from memories of suffering and slaughter in the trenches. Readers didn’t like to dwell on the graphic act of violence because they had had more than their share in real life during the war. Agatha Christie is considered the queen of this genre, where the puzzle is often the more important part of the plot. British Golden Age of mystery is made up especially by this kind of novels.
Agatha was one of the founding members of the Club, and she would be president from 1957 to her death in 1976.
The Detection Club was a social network for its members, with membership strictly limited to the most gifted writers. Sayers soon masterminded the club’s collaborative projects, since many of the members co-wrote innovative “round robin” mystery novels and radio plays, many of which were then aired by the BBC.
The Detection Club members were fascinated with “true clime”. Many of their novels were inspired by real-life criminal acts.
In this climate, Agatha Christie wrote one of her more unconventional novels in 1934: Murder on the Orient Express.
The Guardian – Christie’s Most Famous Mystery Solved at Last
The Guaridan – Toxic Shock: Agatha Christie’s Poisons
History Extra – The Golden Age of murder: Agatha Christie and the Detection Club
The Home of Agatha Christie – About Agatha Christie
Encyclopedia of World Biography – Agatha Christie Biography
The New Yorker – Agatha Christie and the Golden Age of Poison