Torquay on the English Riviera throws birthday bash for Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime

In September of this year, Agatha Christie fans from all over the world will converge on Torquay to celebrate the 120th anniversary of her birth in a week-long festival of murder, mayhem and mischief.

With two billion books in 50 languages in print, Christie is the most-published novelist in the world; online games based on her mysteries have had 30 million downloads. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1971 and her summer house, Greenway, was gifted to Britain’s National Trust in 1999, and opened to the public last year.

(Agatha Christie Bust unveiled by her daughter on September 15th, 1990 to mark Christie’s 100th birthday.)On September 12, Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, will launch the festival with a re-creation of an English country fête of the 1920s and ’30s, with period costumes and a jazz band. A Hercule Poirot lookalike will be on hand to solve any mysteries that might arise. The festival’s 40-odd events will include murder mysteries aboard a train and a vintage bus, treasure hunts, fireworks, productions of Christie’s plays and films, and even a charity swim along the same beach where Christie herself used to bathe. (Dame Agatha was certainly no sissy — the water temperature hovers around 55° F in midsummer.)

Like millions of Christie’s fans, I’ve “traveled” with Agatha — in a beach chair, on trains, on planes, whiling away the hours with the 80 ingenious whodunits that featured her engaging detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. So I’ll be joining the crowds at Torquay to enjoy the celebration and to sample the attractions of the English Riviera.

Dame Agatha herself was an intrepid traveler and explorer. She visited Egypt and the Middle East and met her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, while visiting an excavation. In her imagination, she saw crime everywhere she went. Result: Murder in Mesopotamia, They Came to Baghdad, and Death on the Nile.

Christie rode the famous Venice-Simplon Express to Istanbul, and, like all upper class Britons of the time, stopped at the Pera Palace. She may even have written Murder on the Orient Express here. Her room, 411, is now called the Agatha Christie Room, and the hotel’s new international restaurant will be called the Agatha Restaurant when the Pera Palace reopens on September 1 after an extended renovation. The Pera Palace will also observe its famous guest’s birthday with a party on September 15.

Back in England’s capital, Brown’s Hotel will be offering a special Agatha Christie Afternoon Tea, September 12-19. Brown’s was the inspiration for the too-perfectly-English-to-be-true hotel in At Bertram’s Hotel. While in London, fans can take in The Mousetrap at St. Martin’s Theatre in the West End, where it continues its incredible world-record run of 58 years and counting.

But it was the people and places of her own hometown of Torquay, in the idyllic rural county of Devon, that really fired Christie’s murderous imagination, resulting in no fewer than 15 mysteries, some set in her gracious Georgian home, Greenway.

(Greenway, Christie’s Georgian-style home, and the setting for Dead Man’s Folly)

In Christie’s time, Torquay was a fashionable seaside resort, with stately hotels, sandy beaches and a glorious harbor; the 1948 Olympic sailing events took place here. Britain’s upper classes came for the sea air and a bit of golf or cricket.

Today, the palm-lined promenade and seafront gardens give a nod to the French Riviera; the international marina is a recreational hub of sailing, water-skiing, and diving. Occasionally there’s even a pirate sighting — as when Johnny Depp sailed into Torquay on the Black Pearl (aka HMS Bounty).

(Torquay Harbour and the new harbour bridge)

Stroll along the sea front and you can’t miss the Grand Hotel, an aptly named Victorian-era pile with an Art Deco flourish. Agatha and first husband Archie Christie spent their honeymoon at the Grand in December 1914. During the festival month, the hotel has a special package that starts at £159 (about $246) per room (three-night minimum) and includes a full West Country Breakfast daily, nightly dinner in the AA Rosette Gainsborough Restaurant, one complimentary Devon Cream Tea, and tickets to several Christie attractions.

The Grand Hotel is also the start of the Agatha Christie Mile, which takes in many of the landmarks pertaining to the author’s past and which can be walked with the aid of a leaflet, available from the local Tourist Information Centre.

(Grand Hotel, where Christie and her first husband, Archie, spent their honeymoon.)

In her youth, Agatha roller skated on Princess Pier, attended concerts at the Torquay Pavilion and went to balls at the Imperial Hotel, featured in three of her novels — Peril at End House, The Body in the Library, and Sleeping Murder. Built on the top of a cliff, the hotel commands a sweeping view of the coastline from its well-known Regatta restaurant as well as 77 of its 152 rooms.

High on my sightseeing list are the Torquay Museum, which has an entire gallery dedicated to Christie and the Agatha Christie Potent Plants Garden, which opened last year. Call it a “green” attraction, but fans will instantly recognize the garden as a cornucopia of grow-your-own murder weapon choices: dwarf peaches and nectarines, whose fruit stones produce cyanide, used in Sparkling Cyanide; deadly nightshade, the murder weapon in The Caribbean Mystery; and aconite, which dispatched several characters in 4.50 from Paddington.

If time permits, I’ll visit the prehistoric caves at Kents Cavern. Though Christie never chose the caves as a setting for murder, they are perhaps Torquay’s most mysterious places, pre-dating proper British society by about half a million years and said by some visitors to be haunted by ghosts of Stone Age man.

You can travel to Torquay by train from London’s Paddington Station; it’s an easy three-and-a-half hour ride. A number of hotels and guest houses are offering special festival packages.

Stay tuned for more from Agatha Christie Country.