You’ve definitely heard of her before: as the best selling novelist of all time, mystery writer Agatha Christie is a name that even the least bookwormy among us will recognize. Born in the United Kingdom in the last decade of the 19th century, Christie became a prolific novelist, playwright, and even poet (see: betcha didn’t know that!) whose sales stats are only bested by the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. Her novels have inspired everything from films and television shows to radio broadcasts and plays. Basically, she’s iconic.
But it’s only befitting that a truly great mystery writer — and, arguably the best — have a little drama and intrigue in her personal life as well. From quirky writing habits and globetrotting adventures to a surprising day job and a super mysterious incident of her own (one with a plot perfect for the pages of a detective novel) some of the most interesting stories of Agatha Christie’s life happened off the page.
Here are 13 things that might surprise you about Agatha Christie — and might even inspire you to pick up a title or two (or, you know, 66) of hers next time you’re looking for something to add to your shelves.
She worked as an apothecary.
She completed the examination of the Society of Apothecaries, and worked at a hospital dispensary after World War I. This explains her frequent literary use of poisons — if making her wealth of knowledge slightly more eerie. A book has even been written about her extensive knowledge, A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup.
She actually began her writing career as a poet.
Christie’s print debut came at the ripe old age of 11-years-old, when she had a poem published in a London newspaper. By the end of her teens she’d enjoyed the publication of several other poems, many featured in the now-iconic London literary magazine, The Poetry Review.
She started writing detective novels, in part, to win a bet with her older sister.
Like another story writer we all know and love (Mary Shelley) Christie wrote her debut detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, on something of a dare — her older sister Madge bet her that she couldn’t write a good detective story (one in which the reader wouldn’t be able to detect the criminal.) That debut was published in the U.S. in 1920 and the U.K. in 1921 (earning Christie a five-book deal,) and went on to be adapted for radio, stage, and television.
She experienced some real-life mystery of her own.
One winter evening, Christie disappeared herself. Her abandoned car was found miles away from the family home, and after a nationwide search Christie was discovered staying in a hotel under an assumed name. Examined for a concussion and suffering from amnesia, Christie did not know who she was, nor did she recognize her husband when he came to retrieve her. The incident — which preceded the end of her already-rocky marriage — was something she never spoke of publicly.
She met her second husband at the site of what might be her most-recognized novel: the Orient Express.
While fans of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express might not suspect the novel setting to be one of romance, Christie actually met her second husband, Max Mallowan, as a result of her lifelong desire to travel on the Orient Express. The couple met at the archeological site Ur, near the southern border of Iraq.
She would often dictate her stories, and then have someone else type them for her.
Described — by her grandson — to be averse to typing, Christie would record her stories into a Dictaphone (a small audio recording device designed by Alexander Graham Bell) before having them typed.
She typically wrote two or three books a year.
Not surprising, since this bestselling novelist of all time is known for the 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections she wrote and published throughout her life.
Speaking of which: she is the best selling novelist of all time.
But you probably already knew that. Her novels have sold (according to the Guinness World Records) approximately two billion copies — a billion in English and another billion in translation; and her books are ranked third on the list of the world’s most widely-published books — behind only the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays.
She also wrote the world’s longest-running play.
The Mousetrap, which actually began as a short radio production, is a murder mystery play boasts the longest run of any play in history. It celebrated a whopping 25,000 performances in 2012.
She filled and kept over 100 notebooks over the course of her life.
Known for constantly jotting down ideas and overheard conversations, Christie was said to have compiled over 100 handwritten notebooks in her life — 73 of which have survived the test of time, and are explored in depth in the 2009 title Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making by John Curran.
According to a 2011, article in The Guardian, Agatha Christie may have been one of the first U.K. citizens to learn how to surf. (Who'd've thought?) Apparently the mystery writer was also an avid rider of waves, surfing off the coasts of Cape Town and Honolulu.
She re-read her own novels.
Most writers will tell you that after a book is published, they never, ever want to look at it again — unable to resist taking a critical, editing eye to a work that is too late to change. But not Christie. Apparently the author would re-read her own novels, as she said: "for some particular reason, to answer a question that has been asked me, perhaps.” She was also notoriously unable to pick a favorite.