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Agatha Christie, the queen of detective fiction, was born 125 years ago; fans around the world are celebrating her anniversary

Writer created much-loved investigators Hercule Poirot, based on a Belgian refugee, and Miss Marple, inspired by her grandmother

Her books have been translated into 100 languages, selling more than 100 million copies worldwide

London CNN  — 

She’s the “Queen of Crime,” the doyenne of detective fiction, the creator of some of the most famous whodunnits ever published. But did you know Agatha Christie – born 125 years ago today – was also a roller-skating and surfing action woman?

It’s a far cry from the image of her as a version of one of her most famous creations, Miss Marple: a matronly Englishwoman – keenly intelligent, but with a kind smile.

To mark her anniversary, Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, opened up the family archives – and photo albums – to show a side of the writer many of her fans won’t know about.

“The early years of my grandmother, up till her 30s really, she was a different person to what she became after she became famous and was known for her writing,” Prichard told CNN. “Then, you might say, she was herself.”

The images show Christie roller-skating on the pier in Torquay, on the southwest coast of England; traveling to Paris before World War One, serving as a volunteer nurse during the war, and criss-crossing the globe after it with her new husband, soldier and airman Archie Christie.

Voracious reader

Christie – then Agatha Miller – was born in Torquay in 1890, and taught at home by her mother, Clara, who encouraged her to read voraciously then urged her to take up a pen when, in her late teens, she ran out of books while stuck at home with the flu.

“Her mother said to her, ‘Well, if you’ve finished reading everything, maybe you’d better write something,’” Prichard explained.

Prichard, the keeper of Christie’s legacy, manager of her literary estate for more than 40 years, and self-described “glorified brand manager,” said his grandmother wrote her first notes and drafts in “sixpenny notebooks from Woolworths.”

“There is one page which only has six words on it: ‘Who? Why? When? How? Where? Which?’ This was her idea of how to write a detective story,” he explained in a video on the official Agatha Christie website.

Christie’s fastidious detective Hercule Poirot was inspired by the sight of a Belgian refugee stepping off a bus in her hometown in 1912 or 1913.

Prichard said she spotted “a funny little man with an egg-shaped head, a rather strange-shaped moustache, holding his head on one side, looking a bit perplexed. ‘There we are,’ she said, ‘that would be perfect.’ And there was born Hercule Poirot.”

But Poirot’s waxed moustache and quick wits did not make it into print immediately – his first appearance, in 1920’s “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” was rejected six times by publishers before one agreed to take it. He went on to star in more than 40 novels, including “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile.”

Poirot killed off

Bored of her finicky hero, Christie “killed off” Poirot in the early 1940s, in the novel “Curtain,” but was persuaded not to publish it, and later wrote further stories featuring the character. The book was finally released in 1975, shortly before her own death.

Miss Marple, her other longstanding detective featured in 12 novels and short stories; Christie claimed the amateur investigator had “insinuated herself so quietly into my life that … I hardly noticed her arrival.”

Speaking in a recording made for her autobiography, the writer described her crime-fighting heroine as “an old spinster lady, living in a village, the sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my grandmother’s cronies.”

And while Christie denied that Marple was a portrayal of her elderly relative, she admitted that the senior sleuth was, at least in part, inspired by her.

Agatha at her home, Greenway. Photo by Svend Aage Dantoft.

“She had this in common with my grandmother,” Christie explained, “that although a cheeky, cheerful person, she always expected the worst, of anyone and everything – usually proved right.”

Riddle remains

But for a woman who spent her entire life concocting mysteries and then explaining them, one riddle still remains unanswered, nine decades later: Exactly why she vanished for 11 days in 1926.

Mathew declined to talk about his grandmother’s disappearance in an interview with CNN, but in a clip posted on the Agatha Christie website, he suggested she may have suffered some sort of breakdown.

The writer’s mother had recently died, and when her first husband announced his plans to leave her for another woman, she went missing.

“It was, I think, the confluence of these two situations that made [her] … ill, to such an extent that she eventually ‘disappeared,’ went off to Harrogate in North Yorkshire and forgot about herself as an individual.

“I think it was a mixture of loss of memory and intolerable sadness, almost despair,” he said. Christie herself never talked about what had happened, and did not mention the episode in her autobiography.

Whatever the full reasons for her brief interlude away, Christie soon returned to the typewriter, crafting more than 60 detective novels and dozens of short stories over the course of her long career.

Detective fiction fans are gathering at a festival in her hometown this week to celebrate her anniversary.

Almost 40 years after her death, TV adaptations and theatrical productions continue, and her books are still hugely popular – translated into 100 languages, more than 100 million copies have been sold worldwide.

“She gave me the rights to ‘The Mousetrap’ for my ninth birthday,” said Prichard. The play, which opened in London’s West End in 1952, is still running after 25,000 performances.

“Not that I knew very much about it at the time, but I don’t think she realized how generous she was being.”

The International Agatha Christie Festival takes place in Torquay, England, from September 11 to 20.