Born 15 September 1890 in Devon, Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie (née Miller) was the daughter of a wealthy American stockbroker. She was an avid reader as a child and enjoyed taking part in theatrical productions. As a young woman she began writing, mainly on the subject of dreams and the paranormal. But her work, submitted under pseudonyms, was rejected for publication. Her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, met with the same fate and so her literary career did not boast a promising start.
Christie was a fan of mysteries and detective fiction. She had read Wilkie Collins’ novels The Women in White and The Moonstone together with Sir Arthur Conan Doyles’ early Sherlock Holmes stories. These inspired her to try her hand at writing her own detective novel and the result was The Mysterious Affair at Styles which introduced the world to a Belgian refugee called Hercule Poirot. This time her book was published but nobody could have predicted then just how popular her stories would prove to be.
Agatha Christie was to become the biggest selling novelist of all time. Indeed she has been outsold only by William Shakespeare and the Bible. The single achievement which has eluded her is the writing of the best-selling novel of all time. That honour goes to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Nonetheless, her books have collectively sold in excess of two billion copies worldwide and Christie is now firmly established as the Queen of Crime.
A Successful Formula
So why have the works of Agatha Christie proved to be so popular? Critics would suggest that the quality of her prose does not warrant such success. It would be true to say that Christie was no Dickens but then she wasn’t trying to be. It is perhaps the fact that she lacked literary finesse which made her work so accessible. Formulaic, in many ways repetitive and sometimes even predictable, Christie’s novels were understandable and entertaining. They also featured just the right amount of dastardly acts, cunning, adultery and blackmail!
Many of Christie’s books featured Poirot, a multi-lingual Belgian, and some of the stories were set overseas. But Christie’s work always feels quintessentially English and somewhat upper class. The world she creates for her audience is a strange one but her readers are perfectly happy to suspend their disbelief whilst they enjoy a damn good yarn.
The Inventive Novelist
Christie is most notable for having invented many of the plot devices which still characterise detective fiction today. In her stories, a crime was inevitably followed by the investigation of numerous suspects, all of whom were hiding something. The detective would then solve the mystery whether the book featured Hercule Poirot, who Christie came to rather despise, or Miss Marple for whom she had a great deal of affection. The truth would finally be revealed to the chief protagonists with something of a flourish.
Formulaic they may be, but Agatha Christie’s stories continue to sell in their millions every year. 30 feature films and over 200 television productions have been based on them as have numerous radio shows and theatrical productions. The Queen of Crime’s popularity shows no sign of waning 40 years after her death.
To celebrate the birth of Agatha Christie and the fortieth anniversary of her death, Royal Mail is issuing a set of six stamps, each of which conceals several mysteries of its own. The beautifully conceived and intriguing stamps commemorate a selection of Christie’s best loved works.
Intrigue has been added to the stamps by incorporating hidden elements in each using a combination of microtect, UV ink and thermochromic ink.
Murder on the Orient Express
- the smoke from the train combined with the crescent moon creates a silhouette of Hercule Poirot.
- there is thermochromic ink over the second window, so when a thumb is placed over the window a half-hidden person is revealed wielding a knife.
- the names of the suspects whom Hercule Poirot interviews during the course of the investigation are presented in microtext along the bottom of the stamp.
And Then There Were None
- A silhouette of a person’s head forms the outline of the island.
- The moon’s reflection in the water features the “Ten Little Soldier Boys” poem in microtext.
- The reflection of the house light in the water features the word “U.N. Owen” in microtext.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
- The skull-like middle image created by the two men sitting around the table with the lamp is reproduced in miniature on the poison bottle.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
- An outline of Hercule Poirot’s head appears in the flames in the fire.
- The blood-stained letter hanging from the dead man’s hand features some words from the letter that Roger Ackroyd read aloud before his death.
- A silhouette of the murderer holding a knife created by the shadow of the chair.
The Body in the Library
- The body outline is printed in UV ink to be seen with a UV pen.
- The arrangement of the hat, glasses and book ribbon is intended to represent an outline of Miss Marple.
- Book titles of all Agatha Christie’s books and short-story collections (not featuring Hercule Poirot) that were published before The Body in the Library appear in microtext on the spines of the books on the shelf.
A Murder is Announced
- The spotlight is meant to represent a clock, and the clock numbers are printed in UV ink.
- the word “Switzerland” appears in microtext on the little clock face that is set at 6.30p.m. (both the word and the time are significant to the story)
- The small ads page from the newspaper that feature the “A Murder is Announced” is reproduced in microtext in the paper held by the woman in black.
In addition across the 6 stamps, each feature a hidden letter:
- A – On Orient
- G – On Styles
- A – On Library
- T – And Then There Were None
- H – On Ackroyd
- A – On Library