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Agatha Christie once came to New Zealand – and left with a new villain

Agatha Christie during the British trade delegation voyage. Photo/The Christie Archive
Crime writer Agatha Christie sailed into Wellington on a perfect day in July 1922, surrounded by a cast of characters that could have come out of Murder on the Orient Express.

There was the bombastic Major Belcher; his sinister secretary Francis Bates; Mr Hiam, the root-vegetable expert from East Anglia; and his twitchy daughter Sylvia.

Christie was the wife of a member of a British trade delegation travelling the Dominions to promote an “Empire Exhibition” – a kind of world fair – to politicians and businessmen. In her seaboard diary, she called New Zealand “the most beautiful country I have ever seen”.

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She was midway through a challenging voyage. A devoted wife to the debonair Archibald (Archie) Christie, she looked after the entire delegation as they struggled through three overheated months in South Africa. “I iron their clothes for them … deal and shuffle for them when we play cards,” she wrote.

In Australia, she spent two more months living out of suitcases. When Belcher got a septic foot in Melbourne, Christie went out and bought him socks and linen. He repaid the favour by shouting at her.

She would later write: “If anything put him in a bad mood he was so impossible … he’d go red in the face like a turkey cock … when he recovered his temper he could display so much bonhomie and charm.”

Major Ernest Albert Belcher.

In 1922, Christie was 31, mother of a three-year-old daughter (left behind with relatives) and a budding author still grappling with publishers’ rejection letters.

She had one book to her name, a 1920 crime novel called The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring mustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. She’d bash out a second Poirot novel on her Corona typewriter that year. In time, he’d appear in 33 of her novels, one play, and 50 short stories.

Christie’s 1977 autobiography records her response to the South Island: “Everywhere the beauty of the countryside was astonishing. I vowed then that I would come back one day, in the spring – their spring, I mean, not ours – and see the rata in flower: all golden and red. I have never done so.”

Their month here was a welcome distraction from Belcher’s rudeness and constant demands. By the time they arrived, the Christies were barely willing to talk to him.

Local newspapers record a more charming side to the major at the constant churn of civic receptions and Rotary meetings. Crowds applauded after Belcher addressed a mass gathering at Wellington’s Town Hall, followed by high-level briefings at Parliament.

In the end, Belcher persuaded the Massey administration to part with the equivalent of six million dollars. Opened in 1924 in London, the Empire Exhibition attracted 27 million visitors. Its buildings were later converted into Wembley Stadium.

Archibald and Agatha Christie. Photo/The Christie Archive

The Christies left alone for Canada, the mission’s final destination (Belcher and other delegation members remained in New Zealand for a few more weeks). The couple paid their own way and stopped off in Hawaii for some sun, where Agatha successfully managed some surfing, despite losing most of her bathing costume in the waves.

Belcher’s mood hadn’t improved when they reunited in Vancouver. The delegation abandoned the couple when Archie got sick, causing a huge amount of financial and emotional stress. After ministering to Archie in their hotel room, she typed into the night. They finally got home late in November 1922.

Her second novel, The Secret Adversary, appeared that year, and they’d keep coming.

Christie truly became a household name in 1926, when she disappeared for 11 days in mysterious circumstances. These events were later linked to a nervous breakdown after the death of her mother – and Archie’s request for a divorce so he could marry his mistress.

Her difficult year – and Major Belcher in particular – provided great raw material. She’d feature him as the villainous Sir Eustace Pedler in The Man in the Brown Suit. But she somehow managed to see his good side, writing in the novel: “Never to this day have I been able to rid myself of a sneaking fondness for Sir Eustace … I dare say it’s reprehensible, but there it is.”

This article was first published in the June 9, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.