Agatha Christie: Lucy Worsley and the Mystery Queen

Agatha Christie: Lucy Worsley and the Mystery Queen (BBC Two, 9pm)

She’s known as the First Lady of Crime, but what was Agatha Christie really like?

Despite writing an autobiography, which was published in 1977, a year after her death, little is known about writer. In fact, her life is shrouded in almost as much mystery as one of her best-selling novels, although it’s believed she did leave clues to her personality in many of her stories.

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Publicly, she cultivated an image similar to that of one of her most famous creations, Miss Marple. But she was far from being a dowdy spinster like the ageing female detective – she led an exciting life, which included being a surfing pioneer.

Born in Devon in 1890, she was the daughter of Frederick Alvah Miller, an American with a private income, and his wife Clarissa. Her father died when she was a little girl; her devoted mother encouraged her daughter to write, although Agatha herself originally dreamed of becoming a professional musician – until stage fright got the better of her.

Later, during a trip to Cairo with her mother, she wrote a novel and, on her return home, enjoyed her first literary success when she had several short stories published.

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In 1914, she married her first husband, Archibald Christie, with whom she had a daughter. Archibald became a First World War hero, and during the conflict, Agatha worked as a nurse which enabled her to learn all about poisons – something which came in handy when she began penning detective novels.

Her first, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920, and introduced the fastidious Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. He went on to feature in 32 more novels. Miss Marple didn’t appear until 1930 in The Sleeping Murder, and she only plied her trade in a total of 12 cases.

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Agatha’s first marriage ended in 1926 when her husband fell in love with a younger woman. The writer then notoriously disappeared for three weeks and is believed to have spent time at The Old Swan hotel in Harrogate, which is now home of a hugely popular annual crime writing festival. What she got up to and why she did it remains unknown.

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A subsequent marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan proved happier, and their travels to sites around the world inspired some of her greatest stories, including Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile.

The writer continues to be hugely popular, with adaptations of her work popping up all the time. Earlier this year, Lucy Worsley published a new biography of her and now, on the 70th anniversary of the opening of Agatha’s long-running play The Mousetrap, the historian presents the first in a three-part insight into her life and career.

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She examines key moments in Agatha’s life, and meets up with fellow fans and relatives, including her great-grandson James Pritchard, expert Jamie Bernthal and Sarah Phelps, a screenwriter who has adapted several of Agatha’s tales for the small screen in recent years.

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Whether we’ll know the woman behind the image after tuning in remains to be seen, but whatever happens, as her life straddled some of the 20th centuries most momentous events, it should at the very least be entertaining – like Agatha’s books continue to be.

Lucy Worsley