Peggy Keener: Queen of the nail biters

Published 5:20 pm Friday, August 18, 2023

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It’s midnight. You know you should be asleep … but nothing can stop you from turning the page. You must find out what happens next. It’s all the fault of one lady. She is the most-translated author of all time with 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, the world’s longest running play and 6 novels. She is, indeed, the best selling fiction writer the world has known with book sales of more than two billion dollars. And she, dear readers, is the one to blame for those dark circles under your eyes.

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie was born into a wealthy upper middle class family in Devon, England. Her first six books flopped!

Agatha served in hospital dispensaries during two wars where she learned a thorough knowledge of poisons. This creepy information later served her well in her writings. Every year she also spent several months doing Middle Eastern archaeological digs, also critical to her writings. A woman of many interests, she was deeply involved in spiritualism and the paranormal. Besides these endeavors, her hobbies were attending country house parties, horseback riding, hunting, dancing …. and roller skating. Later she became an accomplished surfer, a sport she adored.

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In 1914, after a three-month courtship with Archibald Christie, they married. One child and fourteen years later, he asked for a divorce. Following their final heated quarrel, Agatha disappeared. Her car and personal belongings were found near a chalk quarry where it was feared she may have drown herself. Tens of thousands of air pilots, volunteers and police officers joined in the search. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle played a role when he engaged a spirit medium using one of the Agatha’s gloves.

Theories abounded following her disappearance. One was that she went into a fugue state where she remembered nothing. Another was that she planned the event to embarrass her husband. The most likely was that she had a nervous breakdown, losing all emotional control of herself.

Despite the extensive manhunt, she was not found for ten days. She then moved in with her sister where she was sequestered in a guarded hall with locked gates, cut off telephones and all visitors turned away. The public reaction was largely negative, supposing Agatha had planned a publicity stunt or an attempt to frame her husband for murder.

A decade later, she left England and took the Orient Express to Istanbul and Cairo. There she met Max Mallowan, thirteen years her junior. They married in 1930 and remained so until her death.

Christie’s first famous book introduced the world to Hercule Poirot, a former Belgian police officer with a magnificent mustache and a head shaped exactly like an egg. He appeared in 33 of her novels and more than 50 of her short stories. In time, albeit, she became disillusioned finding him “insufferable” after his “becoming an egocentric creep.” Later in life, however, she sought to protect him as powerfully as if he were her own flesh and blood.

Agatha said of herself, “My chief dislikes are crowds, loud noises, gramophones and cinemas. I dislike the taste of alcohol and do not like smoking. I do like sun, sea, flowers, traveling, strange foods, sports, concerts, theaters, pianos and doing embroidery.” She was a shy person and disliked public appearances. Nonetheless she was friendly and sharp witted and always remained a woman of proper English breeding.

When she was 81, a professor of English suggested that there were tell-tale signs of early Alzheimer’s in her most recent books. He took 16 of the novels, written over more than 50 years, and fed them into a computer program. The computer spit out data looking for the frequency of different words and the number of them used in each text.

When he looked at the results of her 73rd novel written when she was 81, he noticed something strange. Her use of words like “thing,” “anything,” “something,” and “nothing,” — all terms he classified as “indefinite words,” had spiked. At the same time, the number of different words she used dropped by 20%. His findings were astounding, showing that 1/5th of her vocabulary had been lost. His findings supported the idea that she had developed the disease.

As she aged Christie often complained of an inability to concentrate. And her friends reported that she would have fits of anger and wouldn’t make sense in conversation.

In her 73rd book, there were signs of explicit trouble. The critics dismissed the book as being full of errors and being poorly plotted. The title was “Elephants Can Remember,” and the central character was a female novelist who was struggling with memory loss as she attempted to help Hercule Poirot with an unsolved murder.

The professor who did the study felt that Christie was actually aware of what was happening to her. Although she was never clinically diagnosed, he felt that when she kept on writing, even as she was undergoing mental changes, it struck him as heroic. Perhaps Agatha Christie left us with her greatest mystery of all.