Getty
Getty

15 Influences on Agatha Christie’s Work

Getty
Getty

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."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Animals
How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
iStock
iStock

Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
arrow
Lists
12 Facts About James Joyce
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

June 16, 1904 is the day that James Joyce, the Irish author of Modernist masterpieces like Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and who was described as “a curious mixture of sinister genius and uncertain talent,” set his seminal work, Ulysses. It also thought to be the day that he had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.

He was as mythical as the myths he used as the foundations for his own work. So in honor of that June day in 1904—known to fans worldwide as “Bloomsday,” after one of the book’s protagonists, Leopold Bloom—here are 12 facts about James Joyce.

1. HE WAS ONLY 9 WHEN HIS FIRST PIECE OF WRITING WAS PUBLISHED.

In 1891, shortly after he had to leave Clongowes Wood College when his father lost his job, 9-year-old Joyce wrote a poem called “Et Tu Healy?” It was published by his father John and distributed to friends; the elder Joyce thought so highly of it, he allegedly sent copies to the Pope.

No known complete copies of the poem exist, but the precocious student’s verse allegedly denounced a politician named Tim Healy for abandoning 19th century Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell after a sex scandal. Fragments of the ending of the poem, later remembered by James’s brother Stanislaus, showed Parnell looking down on Irish politicians:

His quaint-perched aerie on the crags of Time
Where the rude din of this century
Can trouble him no more

While the poem was seemingly quaint, young Joyce equating Healy as Brutus and Parnell as Caesar marked the first time he’d use old archetypes in a modern context, much in the same way Ulysses is a unique retelling of The Odyssey.

As an adult, Joyce would publish his first book, a collection of poems called Chamber Music, in 1907. It was followed by Dubliners, a collection of short stories, in 1914, and the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (in which Clongowes Wood College is prominently featured) in 1916.

2. HE CAUSED A CONTROVERSY AT HIS COLLEGE’S PAPER.

While attending University College Dublin, Joyce attempted to publish a negative review—titled “The Day of the Rabblement”—of a new local playhouse called the Irish Literary Theatre in the school’s paper, St. Stephen’s. Joyce’s condemnation of the theater’s “parochialism” was allegedly so scathing that the paper’s editors, after seeking consultation from one of the school’s priests, refused to print it.

Incensed about possible censorship, Joyce appealed to the school’s president, who sided with the editors—which prompted Joyce to put up his own money to publish 85 copies to be distributed across campus.

The pamphlet, published alongside a friend’s essay to beef up the page-count, came with the preface: “These two essays were commissioned by the editor of St. Stephen’s for that paper, but were subsequently refused insertion by the censor.” It wouldn’t be the last time Joyce would fight censorship.

3. NORA BARNACLE GHOSTED HIM FOR THEIR PLANNED FIRST DATE.

By the time Nora Barnacle and Joyce finally married in 1931, they had lived together for 27 years, traveled the continent and had two children. The couple first met in Dublin in 1904 when Joyce struck up a conversation with her near the hotel where Nora worked as a chambermaid. She initially mistook him for a Swedish sailor because of his blue eyes and the yachting cap he wore that day, and he charmed her so much that they set a date for June 14—but she didn’t show.

He then wrote her a letter, saying, “I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me—if you have not forgotten me!” This led to their first date, which supposedly took place on June 16, 1904.

She would continue to be his muse throughout their life together in both his published work (the character Molly Bloom in Ulysses is based on her) and their fruitful personal correspondence. Their notably dirty love letters to each other—featuring him saying their love-making reminded him of “a hog riding a sow” and signing off one by saying “Goodnight, my little farting Nora, my dirty littlef**kbird!"—have highlighted the NSFW nature of their relationship. In fact, one of Joyce’s signed erotic letters to Nora fetched a record £240,800 ($446,422) at a London auction in 2004.

4. HE HAD REALLY BAD EYES.

While Joyce’s persistent money problems caused him to lead a life of what could be categorized as creative discomfort, he had to deal with a near lifetime of medical discomfort as well. Joyce suffered from anterior uveitis, which led to a series of around 12 eye surgeries over his lifetime. (Due to the relatively unsophisticated state of ophthalmology at the time, and his decision not to listen to contemporary medical advice, scholars speculate that his iritis, glaucoma, and cataracts could have been caused by sarcoidosis, syphilis, tuberculosis, or any number of congenital problems.) His vision issues caused Joyce to wear an eye patch for years and forced him to do his writing on large white sheets of paper using only red crayon. The persistent eye struggles even inspired him to name his daughter Lucia, after St. Lucia, patron saint of the blind.

5. HE TAUGHT ENGLISH AT A BERLITZ LANGUAGE SCHOOL.

In 1904, Joyce—eager to get out of Ireland—responded to an ad for a teaching position in Europe. Evelyn Gilford, a job agent based in the British town of Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, notified Joyce that a job was reserved for him and, for two guineas, he would be told exactly where the position was. Joyce sent the money, and by the end of 1904, he and his future wife, Nora, had left Dublin for the job at a Berlitz language school in Zurich, Switzerland—but when they got there, the pair learned there was no open position. But they did hear a position was open at a Berlitz school in Trieste, Italy. The pair packed up and moved on to Italy only to find out they’d been swindled again.

Joyce eventually found a Berlitz teaching job in Pola in Austria-Hungary (now Pula, Croatia). English was one of 17 languages Joyce could speak; others included Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, and Italian (which eventually became his preferred language, and one that he exclusively spoke at home with his family). He also loved playwright Henrik Ibsen so much that he learned Norwegian so that he could read Ibsen's works in their original form—and send the writer a fan letter in his native tongue.

6. HE INVESTED IN A MOVIE THEATER.

There are about 400 movie theaters in Ireland today, but they trace their history back to 1909, when Joyce helped open the Volta Cinematograph, which is considered “the first full-time, continuous, dedicated cinema” in Ireland.

More a money-making scheme than a product of a love of cinema, Joyce first got the idea when he was having trouble getting Dubliners published and noticed the abundance of cinemas while living in Trieste. When his sister, Eva, told him Ireland didn’t have any movie theaters, Joyce joined up with four Italian investors (he’d get 10 percent of the profits) to open up the Volta on Dublin’s Mary Street.

The venture fizzled as quickly as Joyce’s involvement. After not attracting audiences due to mostly showing only Italian and European movies unpopular with everyday Dubliners, Joyce cut his losses and pulled out of the venture after only seven months.

The cinema itself didn’t close until 1919, during the time Joyce was hard at work on Ulysses. (It reopened with a different name in 1921 and didn’t fully close until 1948.)

7. HE TURNED TO A COMPLETELY INEXPERIENCED PUBLISHER TO RELEASE HIS MOST WELL-KNOWN BOOK.

The publishing history of Ulysses is itself its own odyssey. Joyce began writing the work in 1914, and by 1918 he had begun serializing the novel in the American magazine Little Review with the help of poet Ezra Pound.

But by 1921, Little Review was in financial trouble. The published version of Episode 13 of Ulysses, “Nausicaa,” resulted in a costly obscenity lawsuit against its publishers, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and the book was banned in the United States. Joyce appealed to different publishers for help—including Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press—but none agreed to take on a project with such legal implications (and in Virginia Woolf’s case, length), no matter how supposedly groundbreaking it was.

Joyce, then based in Paris, made friends with Sylvia Beach, whose bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, was a gathering hub for the post-war expatriate creative community. In her autobiography, Beach wrote:

All hope of publication in the English-speaking countries, at least for a long time to come, was gone. And here in my little bookshop sat James Joyce, sighing deeply.

It occurred to me that something might be done, and I asked : “Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honour of bringing out your Ulysses?”

He accepted my offer immediately and joyfully. I thought it rash of him to entrust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher. But he seemed delighted, and so was I. ... Undeterred by lack of capital, experience, and all the other requisites of a publisher, I went right ahead with Ulysses.

Beach planned a first edition of 1000 copies (with 100 signed by the author), while the book would continue to be banned in a number of countries throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually it was allowed to be published in the United States in 1933 after the case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses deemed the book not obscene and allowed it in the United States.

8. ERNEST HEMINGWAY WAS HIS DRINKING BUDDY—AND SOMETIMES HIS BODYGUARD.

Ernest Hemingway—who was major champion of Ulysses—met Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, and was later a frequent companion among the bars of Paris with writers like Wyndham Lewis and Valery Larbaud.

Hemingway recalled the Irish writer would start to get into drunken fights and leave Hemingway to deal with the consequences. "Once, in one of those casual conversations you have when you're drinking," Hemingway said, "Joyce said to me he was afraid his writing was too suburban and that maybe he should get around a bit and see the world. He was afraid of some things, lightning and things, but a wonderful man. He was under great discipline—his wife, his work and his bad eyes. His wife was there and she said, yes, his work was too suburban--'Jim could do with a spot of that lion hunting.' We would go out to drink and Joyce would fall into a fight. He couldn't even see the man so he'd say, 'Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!'"

9. HE MET ANOTHER MODERNIST TITAN—AND HAD A TERRIBLE TIME.

Marcel Proust’s gargantuan, seven-volume masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, is perhaps the other most important Modernist work of the early 20th century besides Ulysses. In May 1922, the authors met at a party for composer Igor Stravinsky and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Paris. The Dubliners author arrived late, was drunk, and wasn’t wearing formal clothes because he was too poor to afford them. Proust arrived even later than Joyce, and though there are varying accounts of what was actually said between the two, every known version points to a very anticlimactic meeting of the minds.

According to author William Carlos Williams, Joyce said, “I’ve headaches every day. My eyes are terrible,” to which the ailing Proust replied, “My poor stomach. What am I going to do? It’s killing me. In fact, I must leave at once.”

Publisher Margaret Anderson claimed that Proust admitted, “I regret that I don’t know Mr. Joyce’s work,” while Joyce replied, “I have never read Mr. Proust.”

Art reviewer Arthur Power said both writers simply talked about liking truffles. Joyce later told painter Frank Budgen, “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’”

10. HE CREATED A 100-LETTER WORD TO DESCRIBE HIS FEAR OF THUNDER AND LIGHTNING.

Joyce had a childhood fear of thunder and lightning, which sprang from his Catholic governess’s pious warnings that such meteorological occurrences were actually God manifesting his anger at him. The fear haunted the writer all his life, though Joyce recognized the beginnings of his phobia. When asked by a friend why he was so afraid of rough weather, Joyce responded, “You were not brought up in Catholic Ireland.”

The fear also manifested itself in Joyce’s writing. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the autobiographical protagonist Stephen Dedalus says he fears “dogs, horses, firearms, the sea, thunderstorms, [and] machinery.”

But the most fascinating manifestation of his astraphobia is in his stream of consciousness swan song, Finnegans Wake, where he created the 100-letter word Bababadalgharaghtaka-mminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk to represent a symbolic biblical thunderclap. The mouthful is actually made up of different words for “thunder” in French (tonnerre), Italian (tuono), Greek (bronte), and Japanese (kaminari).

11. HE’S THOUGHT OF AS A LITERARY GENIUS, BUT NOT EVERYONE WAS A FAN.

Fellow Modernist Virginia Woolf didn't much care for Joyce or his work. She compared his writing to "a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples," and said that "one hopes he’ll grow out of it; but as Joyce is 40 this scarcely seems likely."

She wasn't the only one. In a letter, D.H. Lawrence—who wrote such classics as Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Loversaid of Joyce: “My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.”

“Do I get much pleasure from this work? No," author H.G. Wells wrote in his review of Finnegans Wake. “ ... Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”

Even his partner Nora had a difficult time with his work, saying after the publication of Ulysses, “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?”

12. HIS SUPPOSED FINAL WORDS WERE AS ABSTRACT AS HIS WRITING.

Joyce was admitted to a Zurich hospital in January 1941 for a perforated duodenal ulcer, but slipped into a coma after surgery and died on January 13. His last words were befitting his notoriously difficult works—they're said to have been, "Does nobody understand?"

Additional Source: James Joyce

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios