NOTE: This piece was originally written for the University of Exeter’s Centre for South West Writing.
‘In August all this part of the world is a seething mass of strangers. They come over every day from Brixham and Torquay and Paignton in cars and busses and on foot. […] I wish they didn’t! You’ve no idea how beautiful and peaceful this part of the world is in June and the beginning of July.’ (Agatha Christie, The ABC Murders)
A prolific author of detective fiction, Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976) was born in Torquay. Her first publication, as a child, was a poem about local attitudes to public transport:
When first the electric trams did run
In all their scarlet glory
’Twas well, but ’ere the day was done,
It was another story.
Growing up in Devon, Christie was surrounded by rural responses to modernity, and a number of her books are set in superstitious English villages, with detectives who use gossip to obtain information.
The family moved to France in 1906, but as an adult Christie returned to Devon, with an affection that informs her writing. Her Torquay estate features in Dead Man’s Folly (1952). The Sittaford Mystery (1931), reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, but with séances and a snowdrift, is set on Dartmoor. The village of Churston features in The ABC Murders
(1935), with one character decrying the ‘seething mass of strangers’ in her ‘natural beauty spot’, making it impossible to know anyone, reflecting a conflict between inbred conservatism and a society of strangers.
Christie wrote her first detective story while volunteering as a VAD during the First World War, in Torbay. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920, was the first of thirty-three novels featuring her most famous creation, Hercule Poirot, a petite Belgian detective with a flamboyant moustache. Poirot, in part a parodic contrast to Sherlock Holmes, was also a tribute to the Belgian refugees Christie cared for.
By the Second World War, Christie was a bestseller, her formulaic plots and lively characterisation providing distraction from everyday tragedy. And Then There Were None appeared in 1939 and Evil Under the Sun in 1941, both set on a pre-war, and fictionalised, Burgh Island, just off the west coast. In these books, the concept of retreat becomes one of isolation, as holiday-makers are systematically murdered. Like the west country, Christie’s escapism is never quite as beautiful or unspoilt as it seems.
In 1961, the University of Exeter awarded Christie an honorary doctorate, and her business correspondence is archived in the Special Collections. Christie is also receiving renewed academic attention, including research at Exeter: my PhD thesis examines attitudes to gender and sexuality in her writing.
Agatha Christie’s business papers are archived by the University of Exeter. This archive contains correspondence between Christie, her agent, her UK and US publishers, and fans.