As the International Agatha Christie Festival celebrates what would have been the author’s 125th birthday, Anne Miller enters its Christie writing competition, wins it and reports back from the writer’s home, Greenway.
Agatha Christie’s output was beyond prolific. While her detective novels starring Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are the most well-known, she also wrote plays, thrillers, memoirs and a set of novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, which her daughter Rosalind described as “bittersweet stories about love”.
She also pioneered accessible reading: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was the first RNIB Talking Book while large-print books took off after a Christie endorsement. She is the bestselling novelist of all time, only outsold by Shakespeare and the Bible.
I’ve been fascinated by Christie ever since I found a stash of her books on holiday then promptly ploughed my way through the shelves in my local library once home.
Her legacy is phenomenal but what makes it all the more remarkable is that Christie didn’t initially plan to be an author. In her autobiography she mused: “How much more interesting it would be if I could say that I always longed to be a writer and was determined that someday I would succeed, but honestly, such an idea never came into my head.”
In 2013, the Agatha Christie Estate began a Write Your Own Christie competition where they took the first 1,000 words of A Murder Is Announced (her 50th novel) then invited people to submit the next chapters. There were 10 in total and while the headings were fixed (including ‘Enter The Detective’ and ‘The Suspects Assemble’), everything else was up for grabs. I won chapter four: ‘A Mysterious Stranger’ and introduced Teddy Hinchcliffe to the story – then spent the rest of the competition agonising over whether or not the following winners would let him walk free or whether he would end up in the dock.
“Mathew remembers his grandmother gathering the family to read from A Pocket Full of Rye to see if they could guess the murderer. The only one to get it right was her husband, who was quickly told that he couldn’t possibly have known as he’d been asleep for the past two hours.”
The grand prize for the chapter winners was dinner at Agatha Christie’s house Greenway, tucked away in Devon just a few miles from Torquay, with the competition’s judges – her grandson Mathew Prichard and publisher David Brawn (who also looks after the Tolkien estate). The dinner took place on the eve of the International Agatha Christie Festival 2015, celebrating 125 years since her birth, so last week I boarded the 12:06 from Paddington and set off on an Agatha adventure.
Greenway looks just as it did when Christie holidayed there and is full of family collections, from the stack of hats in the hall to cupboards bursting with china to the archaeological treasures dotted around the house. Her husband Max Mallowan was one of the leading archaeologists of the time and he and Christie, who famously only needed a ‘sturdy table’ to write, worked on digs across the Middle East.
Seeing where she lived was fascinating, and being shown around by Mathew was incredibly special. He and David were both hugely generous with their time, encouragement and anecdotes and as we walked round those 1950s rooms it felt as though Christie herself could come through the doorway at any moment.
I particularly loved the drawing room, with its plump green suite around the fireplace where Mathew remembers his grandmother gathering the family to read from A Pocket Full of Rye to see if they could guess the murderer. The only one to get it right was her husband, who was quickly told that he couldn’t possibly have known as he’d been asleep for the past two hours.
Mathew also pointed out the golden serpent used as a doorstop in the dining room – which has had a cork placed over its fangs ever since Christie snagged her stockings on them – and took us to see the family collection of first editions. Later we found dozens of beautiful facsimile editions on sale in the Festival’s book tent; it took a lot of self-control to only leave with one.
A global vote was recently held to find the World’s Favourite Christie. Standalone novel And Then There Were None came out on top, closely followed by Murder on the Orient Express and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. If you’re new to Christie these are the best three to start with (although I’m also partial to my own ‘first Christie’, The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side).
And Then There Were None is a truly deserving winner – a rattling ride of suspects, deaths and intrigue – which has sold over 100 million copies. A BBC adaptation starring Miranda Richardson, Aidan Turner and Anna Maxwell Martin is in the works and will be hitting TV screens shortly.
Ackroyd gave me the best kind of shivers when I turned those final pages and Orient Express is a fantastic read but even more so if you don’t know the ending – it’s superb but spoilers lurk everywhere. The great news is if you polish off these titles there are still plenty more treats in the Christie canon.
The International Agatha Christie Festival runs until 20 September. http://www.agathachristiefestival.com3217 Views
Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne