15 Influences on Agatha Christie’s Work


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.


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.


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."


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.”


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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."

Why a Major Error in 'A Wrinkle in Time' Was Never Corrected

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962, and thanks to the recent release of a big-budget Disney adaptation, the book is just as popular as ever. The book has earned its status as a modern classic, but according to the Daily Beast, there's something hiding in the text of every copy that is rarely seen in titles that have enjoyed such a long print run. The book features an error that's been reprinted millions of times, and unless you read Greek, you would likely never notice it.

The mistake falls on page 59 of the new Square Fish edition that was published to tie in with the new film. On that page you'll find a quote from Mrs Who, one of the three mystical beings that guide the protagonist Meg and her companions across the universe. Because verbalizing in her own words takes a lot of energy, Mrs Who communicates strictly by quoting great writers and thinkers from history. In this case, she's quoting the playwright Euripides in his original ancient Greek. She follows it with the English translation, "Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything," but Greek speakers will notice that the two quotes don't match up. The original line in Greek includes words that don't make sense together or don't exist at all.

How was such a glaring error able to go unnoticed in a major work for so long? The answer is that it didn't: L'Engle was made aware of it by a friend of Greek heritage in the 1990s. According to L'Engle's granddaughter, the writer could trace the typo back to the Dictionary of Foreign Phrases and Classical Quotations, the book she pulled all of Mrs Who's quotes from. While transcribing the Euripides quote by hand she must have omitted a letter by accident. The quote was further removed from the original when the typesetter chose the Greek characters from her manuscript.

Even after hearing about the mistake, L'Engle didn't make fixing it her top priority. Instead she invested her energy into tackling other copyediting issues for the 1993 reprint, like removing all the periods from Mrs Who's, Mrs Which's, and Mrs Whatsit's names. When L'Engle died in 2007, the mangled quote was still standard in new copies of A Wrinkle in Time.

To date, only one English-language edition of the book contains the corrected quotation: the 1994 audiobook narrated by L'Engle herself. But the publishers of A Wrinkle in Time at Macmillan are apparently aware of the error, so the next printing may finally be the one that gets it right.

[h/t Daily Beast]

iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski
When German Scientists Tried to Rename Bats and Shrews, Hitler Threatened to Send Them to War
iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski
iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski

In The Art of Naming (The MIT Press), Michael Ohl, a biologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin, delves into the art, science, language, and history of taxonomy. There are some 1.8 million known species—and scientists estimate that 100 million more await discovery. Every one will need a name. How does the process work? 

Ohl takes us into the field with the explorers and scientists at the forefront of naming the natural world, including Father Armand David, a French priest who was the first to describe the panda to the Western world; American paleontologists Edward Dinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who bitterly battled in the Bone Wars; and Polish biologist Benedykt Dybowski, whose unique naming system for crustaceans called gammarids (a.k.a. "scuds") resulted in tongue-twisters such as Cancelloidokytodermogammarus (Loveninsuskytodermogammarus) loveni.

In the excerpt below, Ohl tells the story of one of the little-known footnotes to World War II: When Adolf Hitler threatened the German biologists who wanted to rename bats and shrews. And, read on for the best bat nickname of all time: "bacon mouse."

—Jen Pinkowski


On March 3, 1942, a brief item with a rather peculiar headline appeared tucked away in the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper. "Fledermaus No Longer!" the bold letters proclaimed. The following short text was printed underneath:

"At its 15th General Assembly, the German Society for Mammalogy passed a resolution to change the zoologically misleading names 'Spitzmaus' [shrew] and 'Fledermaus' [bat] to 'Spitzer' and 'Fleder.' Fleder is an old form for Flatterer [one that flutters]. The Spitzmaus, as it happens, has borne a variety of names: Spitzer [one that is pointed], Spitzlein, Spitzwicht, Spitzling. Over the course of the conference, several important lectures were held in the auditorium of the Zoologisches Museum […]."

To this day, despite the problems announced by Germany's leading specialists on mammals on the pages of one of the capital's daily papers, fledermaus and spitzmaus remain the common German names for bats and shrews. Neither dictionaries nor specialized nature guides contain entries for fleder or spitzer (provided one disregards the primary definition of spitzer, which is a "small implement used for the sharpening of pencils").

Indeed, a swift response to the item in question arrived from an unexpected source. Martin Bormann, Adolf Hitler's private secretary, sent a message on March 4, 1942, to Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery. The missive contained remarkably unambiguous instructions from Hitler:

"In yesterday's newspapers, the Führer read an item regarding the changes of name ratified by the German Society for Mammalogy on the occasion of its 15th General Assembly. The Führer subsequently instructed me to communicate to the responsible parties, in no uncertain terms, that these changes of name are to be reversed immediately. Should members of the Society for Mammalogy have nothing more essential to the war effort or smarter to do, perhaps an extended stint in the construction battalion on the Russian front could be arranged. Should such asinine renamings occur once more, the Führer will unquestionably take appropriate measures; under no circumstance should terms that have become established over the course of many years be altered in this fashion."

There's no question that the "responsible parties" understood and responded to the injunction, which could hardly have been misinterpreted. On July 1, 1942, at least, a notice was printed in the Zoologischer Anzeiger—at that time, the "organ of the German Zoological Society"—that comprised a scant five lines. The notice has no byline and can most likely be attributed to the journal's publishers:

"Regarding the discussion [in earlier issues of the Zoologischer Anzeiger] about potential changes to the names 'Fledermaus' and 'Spitzmaus,' the Editors wish to make public that terms that have become established over the course of many years are not to be altered, following an announcement by the Reich Minister of Science, Education, and National Culture, as per the Führer's directive."

It's conceivable that Lammers forwarded Hitler's instructions (which had reached him by way of Bormann) to Bernhard Rust, the Reich Minister of Science, Education, and National Culture. Rust will then likely have ordered one of the "parties responsible" for the unpopular initiative to publish the retraction in the appropriate platform. The Zoologischer Anzeiger fit the bill, considering the fact that by 1941 it had already featured two articles debating whether the name spitzmaus should be changed.

What is the problem, though, that veteran scientists have with spitzmaus and fledermaus, those innocuous terms for the shrew and the bat? And how could it come to pass that Adolf Hitler—preoccupied as he was in 1942— should personally join in the campaign for the correct classification of these small mammals?


The common thread in these two unremarkable and familiar terms is of course the second word component, maus, or "mouse."

Fledermaus and spitzmaus … are (linguistically) first and foremost mice. By referencing certain characteristics in these compound words (fleder comes from flattern, "to flap"; spitz, or "point," refers to the shrew's pointy nose or rather head shape), it becomes possible to provide a clear name—or almost clear, at least, because there are many bat and shrew species, but more on that later.

Both names, of course, imply affiliation with mice, and that's the sticking point. In zoological terms, mice are a group of rodents known at the higher level of classification as Muroidea, "muroids" or the "mouse-like." The group includes quite the mix of animal groups, with occasionally curious names like zokor, blind mole-rat, spiny tree mouse, and Chinese pygmy dormouse, not to mention our pet hamsters and those domestic but unwelcome mice and rats. Common to all muroids are sundry and complex structural features in the skull, coupled of course with the oversized, continually growing incisors typical of rodents. Beyond that, although endless evolutionary gimmickry can revolve around this mouse theme (long or short legs, different fur colors and tail lengths, and much more), and even without biological expertise, most muroids tend to be identifiable as mice, if only vaguely.

Zoologically speaking, a mere mouse-like appearance is insufficient to denote a muroid. Instead, the specific anatomical features of the skull must be in evidence.

Field, house, and deer mice are familiar to many North Americans, although they typically live hidden away, and we don't often encounter them. These animals with the "mouse" base in their name are truly mice in the zoological sense.

The same cannot exactly be said for the bat and shrew—the fledermaus and spitzmaus—despite their names. Neither of them is even a rodent or, consequently, a muroid. Then what are they?

In the classification of mammals, a whole series of groupings is traditionally distinguished, usually assigned the rank of order within the class of mammals. Depending on scientific opinion, there are 25 to 30 of these orders of mammals. Rodents comprise one of these orders, to which muroids and several other groups of mammals belong.

Bats, meanwhile, are typical representatives of the order of flying mammals. Their scientific name is Chiroptera, from the Greek words chiros (hand) and pteros (wings). Chiroptera, then, means "hand-flier," which is a fitting name for bats and their closest relatives, flying foxes.

The systematic placement of the shrew, or spitzmaus, is determined in much the same way. They, too, fail to possess the mouse characteristics in question, although they do share traits with moles and hedgehogs, as well as with the solenodon (meaning "slotted tooth"), which is a venomous critter native exclusively to the Caribbean islands. They are now situated under the wondrous designation Eulipotyphla, but only since 1999. How they are related—along with ties to an array of other mammal families, such as tenrecs, desmans, and golden moles—has not been conclusively explained.

Experts have known for a long time—since Linnaeus's Systema Naturae at the latest—that neither bats nor shrews are related to mice, to which common parlance pays no heed. The fledermaus and spitzmaus comfortably maintain their spots in the lexicon.


One of the first mammal biologists to campaign for the standardization of German mammal names was Hermann Pohle. Born in Berlin in 1892, Pohle remained faithful to the city until his death and spent a large part of his life working at the natural history museum there. His career as a mammal biologist started early, when as a university student he worked as an unpaid hireling in the museum's famed mammal collection. Through diligence, endurance, and scientific acumen, he worked his way up to head curator of mammals. He thus held one of the most influential positions, of both national and international significance, in the field of systematic mammal research.

In 1926, Pohle—along with Ludwig Heck, the former director of the Berlin Zoo, and a number of other colleagues—founded the German Society for Mammalogy, of which he was the first head. Pohle thus had his finger on the pulse of mammal research, as it were, and he followed the history of the society over the next five decades "with keen interest," as one biographer noted.

In addition to his work as a researcher and curator of the mammal collection at Berlin's Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History), Pohle's interests also lay with German mammal names. Not only did he push for standardization of names, Pohle also campaigned to have existing names assessed for scientific plausibility and changed, should they not pass (his) zoological muster.

In 1942, Pohle published a summary article addressing the question, "How many species of mammals live in Germany?" He appended a comprehensive list of all German mammals, each with its correct "technical name," as Pohle called it, as well as its corresponding German name. When it came to the various species of spitzmaus (of which the Germans have eight, incidentally, despite the long-standing impression that there is "the" one and only shrew) and the 16 species of bats that have the base word "fledermaus" in their name, Pohle consistently uses alternative terms. The eight shrew species thus became waldspitzer, zwergspitzer, alpenspitzer, wasserspitzer, mittelspitzer, feldspitzer, gartenspitzer, and hausspitzer. For the bats, the base of their compound name was changed to fleder: teichfleder, langfußfleder, wasserfleder, and so on, all the way to a term of particular elegance, wimperfleder.

Pohle's article, which predates the society's 15th General Assembly and Hitler's emotional veto by more than a year, is a particularly interesting source because he also shares his actual motivations for the suggested changes. His emphatic objective is to see "the term 'Maus' disappear, responsible as it is for laypersons' wont to lump the animals together with actual mice."

In the estimation of these laypersons, mice are something "ugly and destructive that must be fought, or ideally exterminated." Shrews and bats, harmless as they are to humans, are thus subject to the same brutal fate. Pohle hopes for a "shift in perspective" to occur, once the endangered animals are no longer referred to as mice.

What to do, then? Pohle would prefer the term spitz for spitzmaus, but it's already been assigned to a dog breed. Rüssler could also work, only it already applies to some other insectivore. That leaves spitzer, a name that emphasizes the pointy head as a distinguishing characteristic and is still available.

Pohle wants a name for bats without "maus" but happily with a nod to the animals' flying ability. Most names of this kind are already employed for birds, and "flatterer" or "flutterer" could only logically be used for a certain population of bats, namely, those bad at flying. "Flieger" or "flyer," another hot candidate, is also in use by various other animal groups.

But why, Pohle asks the reader, would one even need to say "fledermaus," when "fleder" actually makes perfect sense? Pohle mentions that the original meaning of "fleder" was different, but few people were aware of this fact anymore.

On the off chance that he was correct in this assessment, let it be noted that fledermaus can be traced back to the 10th century, to the Old High German "vledern" or "flattern" (the infinitive form of "flatterer"). The image of the bat as a "fluttering mouse" has existed since this time in many languages, including "flittermouse" in English. A number of other German terms exist for bats. In some regions of Germany, such as Rhineland-Palatinate and Southern Hesse, the Old High German "fledarmus" is said to have been used to describe nocturnal creatures, such as moths. There, bats were apparently called "speckmaus," instead of fledermaus, because while hibernating, they could be seen hanging like pieces of bacon (speck) in the smoke.

Pohle's dedication to promoting the protection of bats and shrews through a bold name change reached its temporary culmination a year later, when—at the 15th General Assembly of the German Society for Mammalogy in Berlin—a resolution was passed on a universal and binding adoption of the spitzer- and fleder-based names Pohle had suggested. The results are known: Hitler was not amused.


We can only guess at what Hitler's actual motive was in issuing such drastic threats to prevent the name alterations proposed by the German Society for Mammalogy. It could have been his outrage that in 1942—hard times because of the war—leading German intellectuals were concerned with something so unimportant and banal as the appropriateness of animal names. Perhaps this anecdote is just a further example of Hitler's hostility toward intellectuals.

It is ultimately unclear, even, to what extent Hitler was the driving force behind this directive or whether this is a case of subordinates "working towards the Führer," as historian Ian Kershaw describes it. Conceivably, after reading the Berliner Morgenpost, Hitler may have remarked negatively regarding the zoologists' plans. His circle—in this case, Bormann—may have immediately interpreted this as "the Führer's will" and sprung to action accordingly. As for Pohle and his colleagues, it can't have mattered much whether the "invitation" to the Eastern Front came directly from Hitler or was communicated in an act of premature obedience.

Whatever the case may be, Pohle's suggested name changes did not fail because of Hitler's intervention, which presumably resonated as little with the German-speaking public as the original notice. Pohle failed because he wanted to take the basic idea of a standardized naming system out of the scientific context and transfer it into the realm of vernacular. Everyday German is not formally and officially regulated, and like every other vernacular, it follows different rules than scientific speech. It is shaped by a multitude of factors and influences that have their own unpredictable dynamic, which leads to some word usages changing while others stabilize.

In kindergarten, we learn that small, furry four-legged animals with a tail are "mice." This act of naming fulfills the exact function expected of it. It "tags" specific linguistic content—a meaning—that is generally understood. The difference between muroids and insectivores, which is important to zoologists, has no application in everyday confrontations with "mouse-like" animals and makes no difference to most people. A mouse is a mouse, whether a striped field mouse or a shrew.


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