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15 Mysterious Facts About Agatha Christie

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With over two billion copies of her books in print, British novelist Agatha Christie (1890-1976) has kept countless readers up into the early morning hours. Occasionally, the mystery surrounding her personal life—including a high-profile disappearance in the 1920s—has rivaled the best of her fiction. On what would have been her 126th birthday, let's take a look at some of the verifiable details of the famed crime writer’s life and times.

1. HER MOTHER DIDN’T WANT HER TO LEARN TO READ.

Before becoming a bestselling novelist, Christie was in real danger of growing up an illiterate. Her mother was said to be against her daughter learning how to read until age eight (Christie taught herself), insisting on home schooling her and refusing to let her pursue any formal education until the age of 15, when her family dispatched her to a Paris finishing school.

2. HER FIRST NOVEL WAS WRITTEN ON A DARE.

After an adolescence spent reading books and writing stories, Christie’s sister, Madge, dared her sibling to attack a novel-length project. Christie accepted the challenge and penned The Mysterious Affair at Styles, a mystery featuring a soldier on sick leave who finds himself embroiled in a poisoning at a friend’s estate. The novel, which featured Hercule Poirot, was rejected by six publishers before being printed in 1920.

3. HERCULE POIROT WAS BASED ON A REAL PERSON.

The dapper Poirot, a mustachioed detective who took a gentleman's approach to crime-solving, might be Christie’s best-known creation. Christie was said to have been inspired when she caught sight of a Belgian man deboarding a bus in the early 1910s. He was reportedly a bit odd-looking, with a curious facial hair style and a quizzical expression. His fictional counterpart's debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles would be the first of more than 40 appearances.

4. SHE ONCE DISAPPEARED FOR 10 DAYS.

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In 1926, Christie—who was already garnering a large and loyal fan base—left her home in London without a trace. It could’ve been the beginning of one of her sordid stories, particularly since her husband, Archie, had recently disclosed he had fallen in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. A police manhunt ensued, although it was unnecessary: Christie had simply driven out of town to a spa, possibly to get her mind off her tumultuous home life. The author made no mention of it in her later autobiography; some speculated it was a publicity stunt, while others believed the family's claim that she had experienced some kind of amnesic event.

5. SHE WASN’T BIG ON VIOLENCE.

While a murder is typically needed to set a murder mystery in motion, Christie’s preferred methodology for slaying her characters was poison: She had worked in a dispensary during war time and had an intimate knowledge of pharmaceuticals. Rarely did her protagonists carry a gun; her two most famous detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, were virtual pacifists.

6. SHE HAD AN ALIAS.

Not all of Christie’s work had a mortality rate. Beginning in 1930 and continuing through 1956, she wrote six romance novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott. The pseudonym was a construct of her middle name, Mary, with Westmacott being the surname of her relatives.

7. SHE LOVED SURFING.

The image of Christie as a matronly author of mystery is the one most easily recognized by readers, but there was a time when Christie could be found catching waves. Along with her husband, Archie, Christie went on a traveling spree in 1922, starting in South Africa and winding up in Honolulu. At each step, the couple got progressively more capable riding surfboards; some historians believe they may have even been the first British surfers to learn how to ride standing up.

8. SHE DIDN’T LIKE TAKING AN AUTHOR’S PHOTO.

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Although not explicitly camera-shy—Christie took frequent photos while traveling—she appeared to dislike having her photo appear on the dust jackets of her novels and once insisted they be issued without a likeness attached. It’s likely Christie preferred not to be recognized in public.

9. SHE TOOK AN OATH OF DETECTIVE WRITING.

Founded in 1928 by writer Anthony Berkeley, the London Detection Club, or Famous Detection Club, was a social assembly of the notable crime writers in England. Members “swore” (tongue mostly in cheek) to never keep vital clues from their readers and to never use entirely fictional poisons as a plot crutch. Christie was a member in good standing, and took on the role of honorary president in 1956 on one condition: She never wanted to give any speeches.

10. SHE TRIED HER BEST TO TAKE UP SMOKING.

While it would shortly gain a reputation for killing its devotees, smoking was once so revered that it seemed unusual not to take a puff. Shortly after the end of the first world war, Christie was quoted as saying she was disappointed she couldn’t seem to adopt the habit even though she had been trying.

11. SHE WROTE A PLAY THAT MAY NEVER STOP RUNNING.

The curtain was first raised on Mousetrap in London’s West End in 1952. More than 60 years later, it’s still being performed regularly and passed the 25,000 show mark in 2012. The play—about a group of people trapped in a snowbound cabin with a murderer among them—was originally a radio story, Three Blind Mice, that was written at the behest of Queen Mary in 1947. 

12. SHE LOVED ARCHAEOLOGY. 

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After divorcing alleged cad Archie, Christie married archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930 and joined him for regular expeditions to Syria and Iraq. In 2015, HarperCollins published Come, Tell Me How You Live, the author’s long-forgotten 1946 memoir of her experiences traveling. Although she assisted her husband on digs, she never stopped working: Their preferred method of transport was frequently the Orient Express, a fact that likely inspired her Murder on the Orient Express

13. AT LEAST ONE “VICTIM” WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE NUISANCE.

When Mallowan married Christie, he was assistant to renowned archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley. This fact upset Woolley’s wife, who refused to let Christie stay in a Mesopotamia digging camp; Mallowan was forced to take a train into Baghdad every night to see her. Christie soon wrote Murder in Mesopotamia: The victim was the wife of an archaeology field director who was bludgeoned with an antique mace. Christie dedicated the book to the Woolleys, who never joined Mallowan on an expedition again.

14. YOU CAN RENT HER OLD HOME.

If you feel like inhabiting the same real estate as Christie is a bucket-list travel opportunity, her former home in Devonshire, England is available for rent. The centuries-old home was Christie’s summer getaway in the 1950s; portions of it are rented out to individuals or groups for $500 a night. Some furniture and a piano that once belonged to the author remain in residence. 

15. HERCULE POIROT GOT A NEW YORK TIMES OBITUARY WHEN HE “DIED.”

Like Arthur Conan Doyle before her, Christie eventually grew tired of her trademark character and set about having Hercule Poirot perish in the 1975 novel Curtain. The reaction to his demise was so fierce that The New York Times published a front-page “obituary” for the character on August 6. Christie died the following year.

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
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As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
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"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
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In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
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For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]

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