When it comes to the Queen of Crime, my mother is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. Thanks to her, I’ve become increasingly familiar with the more personal side of Agatha Christie’s life as it relates to her family relationships—especially with her mother. It certainly puts a different perspective on why many of her books have dominant female characters and tend to emphasize the importance of home and family.
“You sound just like Agatha Christie!” My eighty-five year old mother declared.
“Hardly,” I grumbled as I stared in panic at a blank computer screen.
“Do you know your plot?”
“Of course I do,” I said. “It’s in my head.”
“That’s what I meant, darling.” Mum said. “Agatha gave a radio interview with the BBC in 1955 and was asked about her writing method. She said the real work is done in thinking out the development of the story and worrying about it until it comes right. Then, you just have to find the time to write it.”
“And to think she wrote 66 mystery novels, 153 short stories and six romance novels.”
“Even if I wrote five books a year until I died,” I said. “I’ll never be so prolific.”
“Of course you will!” Mum said firmly. “But only you can do it. No one can do it for you. Just roll up your sleeves and get on with it! That’s what Agatha’s mother would have said.”
Agatha this and Agatha that! Yet I know my mother was only trying to be helpful.
“They were unusually close, you know—just like you and me.”
Mum can reel off little known anecdotes from Agatha’s childhood but her favorite topic is theorizing on what really happened in 1926 when Agatha disappeared without trace for eleven days.
This is hardly surprising, given that Mum has been working as a docent at Greenway, Agatha Christie’s summer home in Devon, ever since it opened in 2005—although Mum’s volunteer work for the National Trust started well over 40 years ago.
I’ve often wondered what Agatha would make of Malice Domestic. Now in its twenty-seventh year, this fan-based conference held in Bethesda, MD, salutes the traditional mystery genre. It is there that the highly coveted “Agatha Awards” are given for writers who write books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie.
Agatha was born in 1890 into a life of privilege with servants and a nanny. Her mother, Clarissa Boehmer, had married a wealthy New Yorker. They lived in a large house in the fashionable town of Torquay, Devon or on the English Riveria as it was referred to in Victorian times and is still called today.
Agatha’s father did not need to work, but like many gentlemen of his class, spent much of his time at his club playing cards. Although Agatha had a brother and a sister (ten and eleven years older respectively), they were away at school. In 1901, when Agatha was just 11, her father died of pneumonia. Clarissa was forced to rent out their house in Torquay and moved with Agatha to the continent where living costs were cheaper, so exposing Agatha to a variety of different cultures. The pair became unusually close.
What emerges from this profile of Agatha’s early years is her respect for women, especially older women. Miss Jane Marple, the most well-known of all her female characters and one who solves difficult crimes because of her shrewd intelligence, is said to be inspired by her grandmother, Mary Ann West. Miss Marple represented the most vivid symbol of Agatha’s view of the world. She takes a lively interest in the world around her but believes that everyone was capable of anything—including murder.
By contrast—apart from the Belgian detective, Hecule Poirot—her male characters tend to be vague. Agatha’s female characters range from the twittering spinster to the domineering, strong-willed manipulator. She’s particularly sensitive to mother-daughter relationships and in all her work there is never a single instance of a murder involving the killing of a mother by a daughter or vice-versa—yet sons murder mothers and fathers, and fathers murder sons.
Security, and the importance of having a home, is also reflected in Agatha’s work. Many of the crimes committed in her novels are in the home. In fact, Agatha’s adult life and fictional life focused on the acquisition and restoration of houses. At one point, she owned eight!
Greenway always had a special place in her heart. In Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, Agatha tells of the many times she saw the gracious Georgian house peeping out through the trees from the deck of a boat making the cruise up the River Dart. To own it had been a childhood dream.
And so we come full circle. When I first started writing the Honeychurch Hall Mysteries featuring a mother-daughter amateur sleuth it never occurred to me that I was really writing about the relationship between my mother and myself.
Set in Devon, the books chronicle a widow who has recklessly bought a dilapidated old carriage house on a crumbling country estate. Needless to say murder and mayhem ensue.
The irony is that shortly after my mother read the first book in the series she thought it was about my own daughter and me! True, Mum does not write steamy romance novels in secret, but the moment my father passed away, she impulsively purchased a highly impractical wing of a country house and she definitely has a gin and tonic at 6 PM every night!
Hmm … given my mother’s intense curiosity and penchant for gossip, maybe Miss Marple has a rival.
Family paintings from El blog de Agatha Christie.
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Hannah Dennison began her writing career as a trainee reporter for a small West Country newspaper in Devon, England. Hannah is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, the Willamette Writers, British Crime Writers' Association and Toastmasters International. In addition to writing the Honeychurch Hall mystery series, she is also the author of the Vicky Hill mysteries.