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Today in history... birth of fiction's 'Grand Dame of Crime'

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Born on this day in 1890, Mary Clarissa Agatha Miller would grow to become a prolific author and the best-known crime writer of all time – Agatha Christie.

The youngest of three children in an upper middle-class family, she was raised and educated at her parents' comfortable home in Torquay. From an early age Agatha was a voracious reader and, inspired by the books she read, soon began writing her own stories.

She enjoyed a happy childhood, but later wrote that it came to an abrupt end when her beloved father died from a heart attack in 1901 when Agatha was just 11. The following year she was sent to a girls' school in Torquay to receive a more formal education, and later to a finishing school in Paris, but failed to respond to the more disciplined atmosphere at either of them.

Returning to England in 1910, she found that her mother was ill and accompanied her for an extended stay in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, to benefit from the warmer climate. Her experiences there would influence much of her later writing, with several stories set in Egypt. 

On returning to England she resumed her two main pursuits – writing and searching for a husband – both with little success! She was disappointed when her stories were initially rejected by a string of publishers, and there were several failed relationships and one engagement before she met Colonel Archibald Christie, a dashing army officer who was seconded to the new Royal Flying Corps in 1913.

The couple were married on Christmas Eve 1914, while Archie was on leave from his First World War posting to France. To do her bit for the war Agatha volunteered in the hospital in Torquay where she qualified as an "apothecaries' assistant", her work in the dispensary giving her knowledge of various poisons which would feature in her later novels.

After the war the couple settled in London, where Archie was now stationed as a colonel in the Air Ministry. Agatha too finally had some success when one of her novels, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles", was finally published in 1920. Introducing Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, it enjoyed moderate success and was followed by several others, but it wasn't until "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" became a bestseller in 1926 that her literary career really took off.

In total she would publish 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections under her own name, plus six romantic novels under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. Having enjoyed involvement in amateur dramatics in her youth, she also penned 15 stage plays, including "The Mousetrap". It opened in London's West End in 1952 and has been running continuously ever since, making it by far the longest-running play in history.

But while she enjoyed increasing success and celebrity, Agatha's home life was not always happy. The death of her mother in 1926 hit her hard, followed by Archie – who had been having an affair – asking her for a divorce. She had also been overworking on her writing and trying to raise their daughter Rosalind, who was born in 1919.

It all culminated in a notorious 11-day disappearance in December 1926, when Agatha left her home in London saying only that she was going to Yorkshire. When her car was found apparently abandoned perched above a chalk quarry in Surrey, it sparked a huge search involving over a thousand police officers, 15,000 volunteers and several aeroplanes scouring the landscape.

A newspaper offered a £100 reward – a huge sum in the 1920s – and the story of Agatha's disappearance was syndicated around the world. She eventually turned up safe and well, having booked into what is now the Old Swan Hotel, in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, under a false name and address.

No real explanation was ever given for the bizarre episode, although two doctors diagnosed amnesia. Other theories suggested it was a publicity stunt, or even a failed bid to fake her own death and frame her husband's mistress for murder in a plot worthy of one of her own novels!

Four years later Agatha found happiness again, when she married her second husband, archaeologist Sir Max Mallowman. They would remain happily married until her death from natural causes in 1976, at the age of 85. When she was made a Dame in the 1971 New Year Honours List she became Lady Mallowman, but continued to write under her firmly established name of Agatha Christie.

The Guinness Book of Records lists her as the bestselling novelist of all time, her books having been translated into countless languages and selling an estimated two billion copies worldwide. Most of her novels and short stories have also been adapted for feature films, television and radio, with characters such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple becoming household names.

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