The Mousetrap and Other Plays
Death on the Nile
First, the life.
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born in 1891, the third child of an idle well-to-do American father, and a mother who was markedly sensitive and aesthetically perceptive. Her upbringing was unusual only in the fact that she never went to school, but instead was taught at home by her mother and a succession of governesses. Not, of course, by Mr. Miller, who lived like a super-typical leisured gentleman of the time. He left their house in the seaside resort of Torquay every morning, went to his club, was brought back in a cab for lunch, returned to the club for whist in the afternoon, and was home again to dress for dinner.
Such a way of things seemed natural to Agatha, who said afterward that her parents’ was one of the four completely successful marriages she had known. She was eleven years old when Fred Miller died after a series of heart attacks. Most of his money had vanished in ways that he never fully understood, but he survived to the end without having to do a stroke of work. Agatha considered him a totally agreeable man, and he provided a model for the many similar figures in her books. Another model must have been her much-loved brother Monty “Puffing Billy” Miller, who said to his sister once that he owed lots of money to people all over the world and had led “rather a wicked life…but, my word, kid, I’ve enjoyed myself.”
But Agatha’s mother Clara was the formative influence on the girl who never had any formal lessons. She must have been, by her daughter’s account, a remarkable woman, almost clairvoyant at times, fascinated by things mysterious and strange, a woman who saw life and people in colors “always slightly at variance with reality,” as Agatha put it in her autobiography. These qualities were passed on to the child, who evolved elaborate games which she played alone, observed the adults who were her chief companions, and accepted a code of manners and morals that stayed with her for life. Servants worked incredibly hard, but then of course they really liked it. They were professionals, and were to be treated always with the utmost courtesy. It was natural to be a true blue Conservative, a believer in the supremacy and benevolence of the British Empire, because although people with other opinions were known to exist, one never met them.
Certainly they were not to be found at the dances where Agatha always had a feminine companion, because “you did not go to a dance alone with a young man.” The girl who in 1914 married dashing Archie Christie was exceptionally innocent and naïve, and remained so all her life. She adored Archie, who became one of the first pilots in the Royal Flying Corps when World War I began, but it is doubtful if she ever understood him. Trains and houses were, as she mentions casually in her autobiography, always more real to her than…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.