The Curious Case of Agatha Christie

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One hundred and twenty-five years after her birth, the prolific author remains the Queen of Mystery, both in her books and in her life.

It’s twilight in the poisoner’s garden.

The soothing breeze off Tor Bay stirs the yew trees that border the flowerbeds. Ruby-hued castor oil flowers, yellow jasmine blossoms and stalks of foxglove seem to glow against the indigo sky. The plants’ beauty belies their deadliness: a demise from yew-derived taxine poisoning is brought about by heart failure; ricin from the castor bean causes violent stomach ache and failure of the kidneys; a small dose of jasmine’s gelsemium may simply bring on double vision, but a larger dose equals sure death; and, while digitalis is used to treat heart conditions, administering a large dose makes the heart stop. All around me, there are similarly toxic flora, lush, green and inviting. Information plaques warn visitors not to touch or pick any of the plants. It’s not to protect the vegetation.

Alone in the garden, save for one other visitor on the other side of the hedges, the evening suddenly feels ominous.

There are actually 13 nasty shrubs, trees and flowers – to varying degrees of deadliness – in the Agatha Christie Potent Plants Garden at Torre Abbey, a stunning medieval monastery located on the seafront in Torquay on the English Riviera; it’s a horticultural homage to the town’s most famous resident, and all the poisonous plants relate to her writing in some way.

The garden seems a fitting tribute. It’s been argued by scholars that a deadly dose of poison is a Christie hallmark, possibly her favourite method to dispatch the victims in her books. The author famously quipped, “Give me a decent bottle of poison, and I’ll construct the perfect crime.”

Her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920, involves the strychnine poisoning of Emily Inglethorp, an elderly and unpleasant woman living at Styles, a traditional English country house. The story introduced some of the classic Christie motifs: multiple suspects and murder among the British upper classes, as well as a certain Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who helps Scotland Yard solve the case.

Before her death in 1976, Christie wrote more than 80 novels, story collections and plays, which have sold more than two billion copies worldwide. (An oft-repeated stat is that her sales are only surpassed by William Shakespeare and the Bible.) In the academic study, The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie, pharmacology professor Michael Gerald found that Christie used poison to dispatch more than 30 victims in her 66 mystery novels – more than any other writer of detective fiction.

While Christie was voted Best Writer of the 20th Century and her Poirot books were named Best Series of the Century by the international Boucheron writers convention, the biggest Christie mystery can be found not within the pages of a Poirot novel but in her biography.

Though true events, they have all the suspense and salacious appeal of Gillian Flynn’s breakout thriller Gone Girl. (Flynn herself calls Christie her favourite crime writer.) In 1926, Agatha Christie vanished for 11 days. At the time, she was 36 years old, and her sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was selling well, gaining the author a certain degree of fame. She was last seen on Dec. 3 driving away from Styles, the home in Berkshire she shared with her first husband, Archibald Christie (the house was named for her first novel). Later, her car was found by the side of a chalk pit and natural spring. Although the car contained several items of her clothing and her driver’s licence, there was no sign of Christie – or her body.

A few days later, her disappearance had become the stuff of international headlines, even making the front page of the New York Times. There was a massive manhunt with more than 15,000 people searching the countryside. Bloodhounds were used to try to track the missing woman. Biplanes scanned from the sky, and lakes and streams were dredged.

Some of her author friends got involved. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a fervent believer in the occult, gave one of Christie’s discarded gloves to a medium in hopes of tracking her down. Dorothy L. Sayers visited the site of the disappearance multiple times (and later used the setting in her novel Unnatural Death).

Theories abounded. Was Christie drumming up publicity for her next novel? Had she met with disaster or fallen victim to a violent crime? Or, as suspected by the local deputy chief constable, had Christie been murdered by her husband?

She was found 11 days later at a spa hotel, the Swan Hydropathic in Harrogate. She’d been using cash from a money belt to pay for her expenses and had been staying under an assumed name, which was eventually revealed to be the surname of her husband’s mistress.

Archie Christie spoke to the press on Dec. 14, claiming his wife was suffering from amnesia. It was the last time anyone from the Christie family ever spoke on the matter.

The same can’t be said of the press or Christie’s biographers. Decades-long speculation into the motives behind Christie’s disappearance ranges from her desire to punish Archie to a complete nervous breakdown. The incident has also seen various adaptations and references in pop culture. A 1979 film starring Dustin Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave, with the uninspired title of Agatha, imagined Christie heading to the Harrogate spa to concoct a malicious revenge. Recently, an episode of British cult favourite Dr. Who had the doctor meeting the mystery writer on the eve of her disappearance and a subsequent alien encounter causing her memory loss.

The unresolved quality of the story is what makes it so appealing. As biographer Laura Thompson says in Agatha Christie, An English Mystery: “Something of the mystery will always remain … The facts may now be known and much of the intention behind them, but in the end what is left is a story. A mystery story. Her finest because it cannot be solved.”

In her own autobiography, Christie glosses over the disappearance entirely, simply referring to her illness, sorrow, despair and heartbreak – and a new revulsion toward the press – after Archie leaves.

“There could be no peace for me in England now after all that I had gone through,” she writes.

That Christie did eventually thrive again in England is not in doubt. The Queen of Crime left a legacy that is unrivalled to this day. Her play, The Mousetrap, is the world’s longest-running stage play, currently marking its 63rd year on London’s West End. It is especially difficult to overestimate the allure of Poirot, her dapper Belgian detective with the waxed moustache and impeccable suit. He appears in 33 of her novels (along with numerous short stories), including some of Christie’s most successful, such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. The TV series, Masterpiece Mystery! Agatha Christie’s Poirot, enjoyed a 25-year run from 1989 to 2014 and attracted 700 million-plus viewers around the globe.

The estate of Agatha Christie, managed by her grandson Mathew Prichard, approved the publication of a new Poirot novel last year. Penned by bestselling writer Sophie Hannah, The Monogram Murders was considered the publishing event of 2014.

Many of her fans are drawn to Torquay and the surrounding area to walk in her footsteps. A tour of the highlights with Alex Graeme of Unique Devon Tours includes the Agatha Christie Mile (“A Writer’s Formative Venue”), a stroll through the landmarks of her life in the town: from the Victorian pier where she roller skated as a teenager on summer weekends to the Grand Hotel, where she spent her wedding night on Christmas Eve 1914 with Archie, a Royal Flying Corps aviator.

Each September the annual International Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay draws thousands of devotees, who celebrate their steadfast fandom with murder-mystery dinners, crime-writing workshops and movie screenings and have even been known to indulge in a little cosplay as Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. As it was in 2014, the 2015 festival – which will have special events and appearances to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth – will be held at Torre Abbey.

Undoubtedly, the most immersive way to connect with the author is at Greenway estate, her “dream house,” which is only about 12 kilometres from her birthplace. This is where she spent nearly every summer, from 1938 until her death in 1976, with her second husband, Max Mallowan, an archeologist 14 years her junior, whom she met while visiting friends at a dig near Baghdad in 1929. (Her exotic travels often found their way into her novels, such as Death on the Nile and Murder in Mesopotamia.) Her daughter and son-in-law donated the property to Britain’s National Trust before their deaths, and it was opened to the public in 2009.

One can simply drive to Greenway from Torquay – though car access is limited by numbers – but my trip takes me by steam train and ferry, granting a scenic approach on the River Dart. This allows for an intriguing vantage of the stone boathouse, purportedly one of Christie’s favourite places: in Dead Man’s Folly, Poirot joins a mystery writer for a party at a Devon estate, Nasse House, a stand-in for Greenway, and discovers the body of a young girl beside the secluded boathouse.

While Greenway underwent serious renovation to stabilize the structure, it has been left as though the family just walked out the door, and provides a remarkable glimpse into the writer’s private life. The walls are literally covered in art, the cabinets overflow with china, interesting objects from the family’s travels are scattered everywhere and the shelves are crammed with books, including various editions of Christie’s own titles. The bar cart in the library is loaded with bottles and crystal, though Christie herself was a teetotaller (she said that alcohol made her weepy and sad; her preferred drink was a double-cream).

In the first year it was open to the public, Greenway attracted close to 100,000 visitors over a nine-month season, close to double the expected numbers. And the numbers have grown each year. The unanticipated popularity of the house underscores Christie’s continued presence in the public consciousness.

Wandering Greenway’s orderly paths and carefully maintained gardens, I stumble into a lush and secluded area with a pool and fountain. Nearby is the pet cemetery for her family’s much-loved dogs. I cannot help but be reminded of that evening in the Potent Plants Garden at Torre Abbey. It is in both these gardens that I get a sense of the key to Christie’s appeal, to what has drawn millions of readers to her novels for almost a century. In her “cozy” mysteries, Christie depicts an orderly world, a carefully curated garden, in which the guilty are exposed and punished, in which logic and deduction provide a degree of stability and grace. But always lurking just below the beauty and the order is a thrilling sense of peril – much like a poison garden. It’s a combination that is impossible to resist.