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15 Influences on Agatha Christie’s Work

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Dame Agatha Christie is not only the most widely read novelist in the world—her 66 novels and 14 short story collections have sold more than 2 billion copies—but she's credited with creating the modern murder mystery. In honor of her 125th birthday today, below are 15 of the countless influences the late Queen of Crime culled for her popular narratives.

1. HER IMAGINARY FRIENDS

Christie wasn't sent to boarding school like her two older siblings were, so she filled her days by inventing imaginary friends to keep her company. From "The Kittens" (with names like Clover and Blackie) to "The Girls"—other schoolchildren she pretended were her classmates (including a shy girl named Annie Gray and a frenemy named Isabella Sullivan)—Christie's wide assortment of imagined characters from childhood helped her shape the ones in her novels.

2. HER STEP-GRANDMOTHER

Christie's step-grandmother Margaret West Miller, whom she called "Auntie-Grannie," was the model for Miss Jane Marple, one of her most well-liked characters. The genteel spinster sleuth appeared in 12 of Christie's novels, and the author described her as "the sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my step-grandmother's Ealing cronies—old ladies whom I have met in so many villages where I have gone to stay as a girl." She also attributed Miss Marple's ability to root out the guilty to her Grannie's general suspicion of others: "There was no unkindness in Miss Marple, she just did not trust people."

3. MONEY

When Christie was a young child, some family trusts fell through and her father, Frederick Miller, managed to lose or squander much of his fortune. Though still comparatively well off, her youth was marked by constant worry about the family’s financial situation, especially when her father died when she was 11. “Agatha had a fear of poverty, deriving from her memory of the sudden downward swoop of the Miller fortunes,” Laura Thompson wrote in her 2007 biography Agatha Christie: An English Mystery. “Money is central to Agatha’s writings. As both Poirot and Miss Marple [Christie’s two most famous characters] are aware, it constitutes the prime motive for crime.”

4. AND 5. THE NOVELIST GASTON LEROUX AND HER OLDER SISTER, MADGE

Christie and her sister Madge had a discussion about various detective novels they liked—“We were connoisseurs of the detective story,” she wrote in her autobiography—and the conversation turned to Leroux’s 1908 closed-door whodunit The Mystery of the Yellow Room, which is widely considered one of the best in the genre and which both of the sisters loved. When Christie mused that she’d like to try to write a detective novel herself, her sister told her she probably couldn’t create such a complicated narrative. “I should like to try,” Christie said, to which Madge replied, “Well, I bet you couldn’t.” “From that moment I was fired by the determination that I would write a detective story,” the author recalled.

6. SHERLOCK HOLMES

Though Christie came about writing her beloved detective Hercule Poirot based on the Belgian refugees she spent time with during the war, she always had Britain’s most famous sleuth in the back of her mind. “There was Sherlock Holmes, the one and only,” she wrote in her autobiography of the time she was trying to decide on what kind of detective she should create. “I should never be able to emulate him,” she said, though she did contend that her inspector needed “a grand name—one of those names that Sherlock Holmes and his family had. Who was it his brother had been? Mycroft Holmes.” Later, once she was a couple of novels in, she realized she’d absorbed more of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writings than she’d intended. She was “writing in the Sherlock Holmes tradition—eccentric detective [Poirot], stooge assistant [Captain Hastings], with a Lestrade-type Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Japp—and now I added a ‘human foxhound,’ Inspector Giraud, of the French police.”

7. HER DEBUTANTE SEASON IN CAIRO

Due in part to Christie's mother's failing health and their financial situation, it was decided that Christie would have her coming-out season in the relatively cheap Cairo rather than London. "Cairo, from the point of view of a girl, was a dream of delight," Christie wrote in her autobiography. She loved her time there, and though the three months she spent at age 17 did not result in a husband, it did inspire her first attempt at a novel: Snow Upon the Desert, which went unpublished, was set in Cairo.

8. WORLD WAR I

Christie worked at a Red Cross hospital in her hometown of Torquay as a nurse during the first part of the war and eventually ended up in the hospital dispensary. In order to be licensed to hand out the drugs to physicians, she studied for the Apothecaries Hall exam and spent time learning from a chemist and pharmacist. She had nightmares about making a mistake and improperly mixing poisons into ointments, but it was while she was working in the dispensary that she that she finally decided to write a detective novel. “Since I was surrounded by poisons, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected,” she later wrote. In her collective works, Christie concocted 83 poisonings.

9. MR. P, A PHARMACIST

White studying for her apothecary exam, the pharmacist whom Christie was apprenticing under was Mr. P, “the best-known pharmacist in town.” She describes him in her autobiography as a strange man who was prone to patronizing her by calling her “little girl” and patting her on the shoulders or cheek. But one day he pulled curare out of his pocket and asked if she knew what it was. “Interesting stuff,” Mr. P told her. “Taken by the mouth, it does you no harm at all. Enter the bloodstream, it paralyzes and kills you. It’s what they use for arrow poison.” Asked why he kept it in his pocket, he replied that it made him feel powerful. “He struck me,” Christie wrote, “in spite of his cherubic appearance, as possible rather a dangerous man.” She thought of him throughout the years, and credits him for helping conceive her poisoning plotline for 1961’s The Pale Horse.

10. ARCHIE CHRISTIE, HER FIRST HUSBAND

When Archie Christie asked for a divorce after nearly 14 years of marriage, Christie was devastated. “With those words, that part of my life—my happy, successful confident life—ended,” she wrote. A few dark years followed, and a new genre. Christie wrote six romance novels under the nom de plume Mary Westmacott, and her ex “was her primary inspiration,” according to biographer Laura Thompson. And her friend, the historian A.L. Rowse, wrote that the wound left by her divorce was “so deep … it left its traces all through her work.”

11. AND 12. HER EAT PRAY LOVE-ESQUE ADVENTURE AND THE LINDBERGH KIDNAPPING

After her divorce, Christie booked a last-minute trip for herself to Baghdad. “All my life I had wanted to go on the Orient Express,” she wrote in her autobiography, noting that "trains have always been one of my favorite things." So she set out to have an adventure on her own. "I had been round the world with Archie ... Now I was going by myself. I should find out now what kind of person I was—whether I had become entirely dependent on other people as I had feared. I would have no one to consider but myself. I would see how I liked that."

Turns out she liked it quite a bit, and she happened to meet a certain archaeologist at Ur whom she would later marry. She took the journey on the Simplon line many more times in later years, including a trip during which her train was stuck for 24 hours due to heavy rains and flooding. Between that experience, and the circulating stories about a different Orient Express train that got stuck in the snow for six days, she crafted 1934's Murder on the Orient Express, one of her most popular and widely adapted mysteries. The child's kidnapping that sets the stage for the book's central murder was also pulled from the papers—she based her fictional Daisy Armstrong's disappearance on the real-life crime of the century, the 1932 kidnapping of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh's toddler.

13. MAX MALLOWAN, HER SECOND HUSBAND

In 1930, Christie remarried. Max Mallowan was a prominent British archaeologist who specialized in ancient Middle Eastern history. His work took him on digs in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and Christie often accompanied him and actually helped with his work—even cleaning off ancient ivory carvings dating to 900 BCE with her face cream. Her travels with Mallowan resulted in many novels with Middle Eastern settings, like Death on the Nile and Murder in Mesopotamia, as well as an archaeologist culprit and other characters resembling their friends on a dig at Ur.

14. ACTRESS GENE TIERNEY AND A RUBELLA OUTBREAK

In her 1962 novel The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Christie writes about a famous American actress who, in her first trimester of pregnancy, contracts German measles (rubella) from a fan. The baby is born severely premature and handicapped, requires a full blood transfusion at birth, and has to be institutionalized for life. Years later, at a party, a starstruck woman approaches the actress and tells her that they’d met once before, when she had broken out of her measles quarantine because she just had to meet her favorite actress. Christie took this plot-point almost verbatim from the headlines—in 1943, the glamorous Hollywood star Gene Tierney had experienced this horrific tragedy exactly.

15. TRAIN STATIONS

Christie very often wrote about locations she knew well, but once, the annoyance of a delayed train was enough to spark an idea. After her wartime novel N or M? was published in 1941, the British intelligence agency MI5 began to investigate Christie’s source material. She had named one of the characters Major Bletchley, and MI5 worried that the book’s content about German spies might be based on secondhand, classified information—one of Christie’s good friends was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park and had helped break the German Enigma cipher. Concerned, MI5 convinced her friend to find out why she’d chosen that name. "Bletchley?” she answered him. “My dear, I was stuck there on my way by train from Oxford to London and took revenge by giving the name to one of my least lovable characters."

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12 Smart Book Ideas for Everyone in Your Life
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Books make the perfect gift: they're durable, transportable, and they promise some (hopefully) quality alone time. But what do you get the aunt who loves mystery novels if you're not familiar with the genre? Or the nephew who devours travelogues and goes backpacking around the world? Look no further—we've got them covered, plus 10 other very specific categories.

1. FOR THE VINTAGE COOKBOOK LOVER: LEAVE ME ALONE WITH THE RECIPES: THE LIFE, ART, AND COOKBOOK OF CIPE PINELES, EDITED BY SARAH RICH,‎ WENDY MACNAUGHTON, DEBBIE MILLMAN, AND MARIA POPOVA; $27

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Author Sarah Rich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with the work of Cipe Pineles, the first female art director at Condé Nast, after discovering her recipes at a San Francisco antiquarian book fair. Filled with vibrantly colored illustrations, Leave Me Alone With the Recipes shows the joyful spirit and homespun flair that made Pineles’s work so influential. Alongside the recipes, the book includes contributions from luminaries in the worlds of food and illustration, including artist Maira Kalman and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings renown.

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2. FOR ANYONE HAVING SURGERY THIS YEAR: THE BUTCHERING ART: JOSEPH LISTER’S QUEST TO TRANSFORM THE GRISLY WORLD OF VICTORIAN MEDICINE BY LINDSEY FITZHARRIS; $27

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Back in the bad old days of medicine, a consistently blood-soaked apron was a sign of pride. Surgeons rarely washed them—or their hands, or their operating tools. Joseph Lister, the somewhat reluctant hero of Lindsey Fitzharris's new book The Butchering Art, was the genius who convinced the medical world that germs were not only real but a major cause of mortality in their hospitals. With an eye for vivid details and the colorful characters of 19th century medicine, Fitzharris has crafted a book that will make you thank Lister for his foresight—and make you glad you weren't alive back then.

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3. FOR THE GENEALOGY OBSESSIVE: IT’S ALL RELATIVE: ADVENTURES UP AND DOWN THE WORLD’S FAMILY TREE BY A.J. JACOBS; $27

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What constitutes a "family"? In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs (famed for lifestyle experiments like trying to live an entire year in accordance with the Bible) delves into the world of genetics and genealogy to try and orchestrate the world's largest family reunion. With his trademark humor and insight, he ends up exploring the interconnectedness of all of humankind.

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4. FOR THE SOCIALLY AWARE YOUNG ADULT: THE HATE U GIVE BY ANGIE THOMAS; $18

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Already caught between the conflicting worlds of the poor neighborhood where she lives and her fancy prep school, 16-year-old Starr Carter finds herself in the middle of a tragedy when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by a police officer. As his death becomes a national flashpoint, it becomes clear that she may be the only person alive who can explain what really happened that night. Angie Thomas's writing has earned praise for being gut-wrenching, searing, and deftly crafted; Publishers Weekly called the book "heartbreakingly topical."

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5. FOR FANS OF PRESIDENTIAL HISTORY THAT READS LIKE A NOVEL: THE WARS OF THE ROOSEVELTS: THE RUTHLESS RISE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST POLITICAL FAMILY BY WILLIAM J. MANN; $35

You might think you know the Roosevelts, but historian William J. Mann looks beyond the well-worn stories to expose the bitter rivalries that drove its most famous members' quest for power. Along the way, he examines the Roosevelts who were kept away from the limelight, and the secrets they hold—all told in dramatic style.

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6. FOR THE INTREPID TRAVELER: ATLAS OBSCURA: AN EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD'S HIDDEN WONDERS, BY JOSHIA FOER, DYLAN THURAS, AND ELLA MORTON; $35

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An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

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7. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES WEIRD HISTORY: THE PUBLIC DOMAIN REVIEW SELECTED ESSAYS; $20

The Public Domain Review is one of the premier online destination for fans of curious history. If you know someone who enjoys stories about weird medieval medicine treaties, ancient automata, deranged 18th century scientists, and other odd subjects well off the beaten historical path, look no further than this book of essays (the site's fourth).

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8. FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE A GOOD MYSTERY: THE BIG BOOK OF ROGUES AND VILLAINS, EDITED BY OTTO PENZLER; $25

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At the heart of every good mystery is a (usually dastardly) perpetrator, whether it's a Count Dracula or a Jimmy Valentine. With this anthology, Edgar Award winner Otto Penzler has combed through 150 years of literary history to find 72 stories featuring the most famous and entertaining antiheroes authors have ever been able to dream up.

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9. FOR PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THE BORSCHT BELT IS: JEWISH COMEDY: A SERIOUS HISTORY BY JEREMY DAUBER; $28.95

Jews and humor go together like challah and Manischewitz (after all, as my bubbie says, if you don't laugh, you'll cry). In this "serious history," Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber considers the origins of Jewish humor in Biblical times through its life on Twitter today; how it's reflected—and even influenced—Jewish history; the production of major archetypes like the Jewish mother; and the prominence of Jewish comedians like Sarah Silverman and Larry David. You don't have to be Jewish to love it, but it may help you understand the in-jokes.

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10. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES DARK SHORT STORIES: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO; $16

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A story told in the form of Law & Order episode summaries. A strange plague that makes girls go invisible, as narrated by a mall worker. A recollection of romantic encounters with the last of humanity’s survivors. In this collection, Carmen Maria Machado fuses urban legends, dystopian tropes, and heavy helpings of sexuality to create a new kind of magical realism strangely appropriate to our era. The images will haunt you long after you put the book down, if you let them.

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11. FOR THE PERSON WHO LOVES BIG-DEAL LITERARY NOVELS AND ALSO ABRAHAM LINCOLN: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, BY GEORGE SAUNDERS; $18

A meditation on sorrow and the Civil War populated by a rag-tag group of ghosts, Lincoln in the Bardo starts with the real-life death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, Abraham's son. In the book, Willie has entered the Bardo—a Tibetan Buddhist term for a transitional limbo—where there's a fierce struggle underway for his soul.

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Book of the Month Club

Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

Find It: Book of the Month

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott
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Born on this day in 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. In honor of her birthday, here are 10 facts about Alcott.

1. SHE HAD MANY FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller. Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. HER FIRST NOM DE PLUME WAS FLORA FAIRFIELD.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. SHE SECRETLY WROTE PULP FICTION.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. Alcott wrote about cross-dressers, spies, revenge, and hashish. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. SHE WROTE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A CIVIL WAR NURSE.


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In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. SHE SUFFERED FROM MERCURY POISONING.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. SHE WROTE LITTLE WOMEN TO HELP HER FATHER.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. SHE WAS AN EARLY SUFFRAGETTE.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in a 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. SHE PRETENDED TO BE HER OWN SERVANT TO TRICK HER FANS.


Orchard House, the Alcott family home. Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand (Flickr) // CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. ALCOTT NEVER HAD CHILDREN, BUT SHE CARED FOR HER NIECE.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. FANS CAN VISIT ALCOTT'S FAMILY HOME IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women. Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.

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