TORQUAY, England — "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" was my downfall. From then on I was an Agatha Christie fan. I joined the millions who were addicted to the First Lady of Detective Fiction.
It wasn't just the crime-solving that kept us reading her huge output, or the endearing portrayals of her two master sleuths, Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. Every time any of us started one of her stories, we took Monsieur Poirot's advice to use our "little gray cells," but every time, till the very end, only Agatha knew where the bodies were buried and why.
Last spring, when my husband, Ritchie, and I were planning a trip to England, we set aside a long weekend for the stretch of the South Devon coast known as "Agatha Christie Country." There I would return to the scene of the crime writer, and Ritchie would fulfill the role of Capt. Arthur Hastings, assistant to the sleuth and baggage handler.
BritRail passes in hand (some of Agatha's best mysteries took place on trains), we left London for the four-hour ride west to Devon.
"What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw" from the window of the 4:50 from Paddington Station was a murder being committed on a parallel train. I saw nothing, but never mind. "Right train; wrong time," Ritchie said.
We were headed for Torquay (pronounced tor-KEE), the upper-middle-class seaside resort on Tor Bay where the writer was born, and where, in 1990 on the centenary of her birth, an "Agatha Christie Mile" was marked for self-guided tours.
Although Ashfield, the house where she grew up, was no more, we found that other sites connected with Christie had changed little if at all.
The writer was christened Mary Clarissa Agatha Miller. Christie was the surname of her first husband (a cad if ever there was one). She may not have foreseen 79 crime novels, six other novels, four nonfiction books, 19 plays and more than 150 short stories, but she knew "Mary Miller" didn't have the pizazz of "Agatha Christie."
Torquay began developing as a posh resort in Queen Victoria's day. The town remains uncompromisingly Victorian, from its seaside gardens, which are rather formal for a bathing resort, to the old-fashioned private changing tents on the beach of the Grand Hotel. The accents of those on holiday around us would have satisfied Professor Higgins. We didn't encounter a single American, well-spoken or otherwise.
Outside Torquay proper, other Agatha-specific routes have been designated: Agatha Christie's Riviera, the Coast and Countryside Trail, the Steam Train and Boat Trail. Alas, I had underestimated the time required for full investigation, but we were able to sample the high points.
Christie's world was larger than this, of course. She had visited Egypt with her mother in lieu of making her society debut in London; she circled the globe with her first husband and lived in the Middle East when her second husband, archeologist Sir Max Mallowan, was on a dig. She traveled on the Orient Express and the Blue Train as well as the local line.
The Agatha Christie Mile begins at Beacon Cove, where, as a teenager, she nearly drowned, and proceeds to her father's hangout, the Royal Torbay Yacht Club. Of greater interest is the next stop, the Imperial Hotel, which was the Majestic in "Peril at End House." Ritchie and I had tea on the terrace where Miss Marple presented the solution to "Sleeping Murder," her last case. Christie went to dances here, and the hotel's Edwardian charm is intact.
The trail brochure told us Christie roller-skated on Princess Pier, shopped with her mother on the Strand, set part of "The A.B.C. urders" in the Princess Gardens and attended a concert in the Edwardian Pavilion the night Archie Christie proposed. Today the pavilion holds boutiques, upscale food shops and a bookstore well stocked with Christie mysteries.
Next to the harbor, Torre Abbey houses the art museum and a small memorial room that contains Christie's favorite chair, 1937 Remington portable typewriter, rough notes and hand-corrected typescript of "A Caribbean Mystery." On the grounds of the former monastery is a barn where 400 prisoners were held after the defeat of the Spanish Armada off the coast in 1588. The romantic young Christie must have loved it.
The Grand Hotel, at the end of the Torquay trail, is a monument to the frosted-plum-cake style of Victorian spas. Agatha and Archie Christie spent their wedding night here. It was Christmas Eve, 1914--wartime; she was a nurse's aide, he an officer in the Royal Flying Corps. The Grand, elegant as ever, has named the honeymoon suite in their honor.