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Agatha Christie: Writing Murder Mysteries And Surfing

08/02/2011 11:53 am ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

Which famous author wrote the following passage?

'Surfing looks perfectly easy. It isn't. I say no more. I got very angry and fairly hurled my plank from me. Nevertheless, I determined to return on the first possible opportunity and have another go. Quite by mistake I then got a good run on my board and came out delirious with happiness. Surfing is like that. You are either vigorously cursing or else you are idiotically pleased with yourself.'

Need a hint? It is from a novel written and published in the 1920s and the scene is South Africa. Still no idea? The book is in print in almost every bookshop around the world to this day. One last clue? It was written by one of the most popular authors of the last hundred years and the word 'clue' really is a clue. Would you believe Agatha Christie?

Yes, the creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple loved to surf! Despite the cozy image of afternoon tea at the Vicarage -- although with the possibility of poison in the sandwiches -- and pre-dinner cocktails in the library -- just before the retired Colonel discovers a dead body sprawled on the carpet -- there were other, and much unexpected, sides to Agatha Christie. There was the Christie who, for many years, spent three or four months living in the desert in a tent while working on her husband's archaeological digs, the Christie who endured a fourteen-hour mule ride during her honeymoon in Greece and the Christie who describes in her "Autobiography" the joys of surfing in Honolulu.

Perhaps because she was born in Torquay, a coastal town of south-west England's Devon, dominated by the majestic sweep of Torbay, Agatha Christie loved the sea. Swimming in the sea was a favourite pastime; as she writes in her "Autobiography," 'Bathing was one of the joys of my life.' She goes on to describe in detail the complicated process this involved in the early days of the 20th century -- segregated beaches and a 'bathing-machine' to preserve one's modesty. A major innovation in the teenage Agatha's world was the introduction of mixed bathing; although it seems to have involved putting on more clothes than one took off! The closing pages of her "Autobiography" lists, ruefully, the pleasures that advancing years forced her to abandon and 'swimming in the sea' was one of these. Poignantly, the last page of "Autobiography" records that one everlasting memory will be of 'swimming in the sea at Torbay with [her daughter] Rosalind.' And an exhibition in Tokyo last year included rare home-movie footage of the Queen of Crime swimming in her beloved Devon.

Although the extract above, from her 1924 novel "The Man in the Brown Suit," is narrated by its heroine Anne Beddingfeld, it exactly mirrors Christie's own experiences while travelling the world with her first husband, Archie. He was asked to join a trade delegation, the British Empire Mission and, with a far-from-reluctant Agatha in tow, he left England in January 1922. Over the next year they visited South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada with a holiday in Hawaii as an unnecessary inducement. Agatha hadn't needed one; she was an ardent and life-long traveller and she considered the possibility of seeing these (then) remote parts of the world was 'the kind of fantasy you had in dreams'. She wrote much of "The Man in the Brown Suit" during this tour and many of the travel experiences of Anne in the novel were, in reality, the experiences of Agatha in real life.

She devotes a few pages of her "Autobiography" to the initial difficulties, but eventual joys, of her surfing adventures in 1922 - being towed out by a native Hawaiian, waiting for her wave, and, initially, coming to grief. Perseverance paid off, however, and one can sense her exultation as she writes: 'Oh, the moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right into shore standing upright on my board!' And when you remember that these triumphant words were written a quarter-of-a-century afterwards, you realise what a memorable and exhilarating experience it must have been. To clinch the matter, there is a photo of the 32-year old Agatha standing in front of her surf-board!

Some of her most memorable characters and plots involve the sea. Emily Brewster in "Evil under the Sun" is a hearty swimmer; and one of her novels involves the killer's ability to swim strongly across a body of water. The victim in "The Hollow" dies at the side of a private swimming-pool; Christie got the inspiration for this setting from her visits, and, in all likelihood, swims, at the home of her actor friend Francis L. Sullivan, one of the earliest Poirots in the London's West End. The short story "The Bloodstained Pavement" from "The Thirteen Problems" (aka "The Tuesday Night Club") centers around two women who go swimming in the sea but only one returns; and "The Rajah's Emerald" concerns one James Bond and his adventures after an enjoyable swim at a fashionable beach. "A Caribbean Mystery" and "Evil under the Sun," "Triangle at Rhodes," "Problem at Sea" -- these and other titles reflect Christie's love of travel and the sea.

So, having examined the clues and carefully considered the evidence I think we can safely call that early surfing challenge in Honolulu, and its subsequent appearance in her third book, the start of a crime wave...

John Curran, a life-long Christie aficionado, and formerly editor of the Christie Newsletter, is a leading authority on the writer. He is the author of "AGATHA CHRISTIE'S SECRET NOTEBOOKS" and the forthcoming "AGATHA CHRISTIE: MURDER IN THE MAKING," both from HarperCollins Publishers. He lives in Dublin, where he is writing a doctoral thesis on Christie and her contemporaries.