It’s a name that I’ve known for years; who hasn’t heard of Agatha Christie? And yet until a week ago I had never thought much about her. To me she was the old lady who wrote the cheesy detective novels based in the Downton Abbey era; about as far away from ‘I am Pilgrim’ (the latest novel I had read) as you could possibly get. All this changed when I read a brief article about her on the BBC website. The thing that took my breath away was her book sales: more than 2 billion. The only writer to ever sell more has been William Shakespeare. I’ve heard that James Patterson is the world’s best selling author and there is no small matter of J K Rowling as well. Christie knocks them into a cocked hat.
My interest piqued I had to know more about this formidable lady. I attacked this task with all my usual traits of obsession; fortunately Google provided most of what I desired, YouTube was a great back up and where they lacked Amazon came to the rescue. I had never read a Christie book either so first to address that. Amazon threw up many surprises, not least that her books are still full priced; no reduction due to them being in print for so long. She first published in 1920 with the ‘Mysterious Affair at Styles’, the book that introduced Hercule Poirot to the world and, until her death in 1976, she went on to write more than 80 books and 12 plays including the world’s longest running play, ‘The Mousetrap’. She was a phenomenon.
I spend a lot of time hearing about authors who say they don’t have the time to write or that they have writer’s block. Agatha seems to have attacked the task of writing with great gusto and an awesome work ethic. She was writing a book and a half a year (on average) for almost 60 years! She would have wondered what this ‘writer’s block’ thing was. Her output was only part of the tale though. Her disappearance in 1926 made national news. Gone for 11 days and being found 220 miles from where her car had been found some thought it a publicity stunt, the true reason more mundane.
Having watched and read so much about her I went on her trail this past weekend. She lived just outside the town of Wallingford in South Oxfordshire; a town as quaint and English as you could ever imagine a town to be. The perfect locale for this most English of authors. The museum has a small exhibition all about her, with facsimile letters (her handwriting was difficult to read) and artifacts, it was no less an informative tribute. As I walked the streets I thought about her treading the same pathways, going about her business, the most private of people. She lived in the town for 42 years, although she also had a magnificent country house called Greenway in Devon where she would stay in the summer.
I walked out of the town and down to her home: Winterbrook House, now in private ownership. A pleasant home, hidden behind a hedge to keep people like me out and quite rightly too. I thought about her daily routine and the times she walked out of that gate and then I traced my steps back to my car. It was time to find her grave in the nearby village of Cholsey. It is the largest grave in the cemetery and behind the church, away from everyone else. It seemed fitting that this literary giant, but private woman, should rest in space of her own whilst her legacy continues to this day. Reading her work and watching the films and TV shows made from her work seems the logical next step to understanding someone I have been quite wrong to neglect.