Agatha Christie's most elusive mystery
Posted by Simon Parke, 16 September 2017, 10.49am
In 1926, Agatha Christie was already a successful author.
Her sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was selling well; she was a household name.
And then something strange happened: for eleven days in December of that year, she disappeared. And the mystery around these events remains to this day.
The known facts are these.
At shortly after 9.30 p.m. on Friday 3 December 1926, Agatha Christie got up from her armchair and climbed the stairs of her Berkshire home. She kissed her sleeping daughter Rosalind, aged seven, goodnight and made her way back downstairs.
She then climbed into her Morris Cowley and drove off into the night.
She would not be seen again – or, at least, not recognised - for eleven days.
Her disappearance would spark one of the largest manhunts ever undertaken. Agatha Christie was a celebrity and so for the first time, aeroplanes were involved in the search, along with a thousand policemen, with the Home Secretary demanding success.
Even two of Britain’s leading crime writers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy L. Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey series, (which Christie was very rude about) were drawn into the investigation.
Their specialist knowledge of detective work, it was hoped, would help find the missing mystery writer…but it didn’t. They were no match for their literary creations.
It wasn’t long before the police had located her car. It was found abandoned on a steep slope at Newlands Corner near Guildford. But there was no sign of Agatha Christie herself; nor any evidence that she’d been involved in an accident.
Lurid stories began to appear in the press, with all the elements of a classic Christie whodunnit.
Close to the scene of the car accident was a natural spring known as the Silent Pool, where two young children were reputed to have died. Some journalists suggested the novelist had deliberately drowned herself.
Others, however, with jaundiced eyes, saw the incident as nothing more than a publicity stunt, a clever ruse to promote her new book.
‘These writers – they’ll do anything to be read.’
While others hinted at darker things, suggesting she’d been murdered by her husband, Archie Christie, a former First World War pilot and serial philanderer. He was known to have a mistress.
Not until 14 December, fully eleven days after she disappeared, was Agatha Christie finally found. She was discovered safe and well in a hotel in Harrogate, but in circumstances so strange that they raised more questions than they solved.
It was reckoned that Agatha Christie had left home to travel to London, when her car broke down. She had then got herself to a station and boarded a train to Harrogate.
On arriving at the spa town, she checked into the Swan Hydro – now the Old Swan Hotel – with almost no luggage. To protect her identity, she used the assumed name of Theresa Neele, her husband’s mistress.
Harrogate was the height of elegance in the 1920s and filled with fashionable young things; and Christie, aged 35, did nothing to arouse suspicions as she joined in with the balls, dances and Palm Court entertainment.
She was eventually recognized by one of the hotel’s banjo players, Bob Tappin, who alerted the police. They then tipped off her husband, Colonel Christie, who came to collect Agatha immediately.
Christie herself claimed to remember nothing of her journey there. And neither was she in any hurry to leave. Indeed, she kept him waiting in the hotel lounge while she changed into her evening dress.
The famous crime writer never spoke about the missing eleven days of her life and over the years there has been much speculation about what really happened between 3 and 14 December 1926.
Her husband said she’d suffered a total memory loss as a result of the car crash; but this was probably nothing more than a version of events that suited him.
Closer to the truth is probably her biographer Andrew Norman, who believed the novelist may have been in a psychogenic trance. It’s a rare condition brought on by trauma or depression.
‘I believe she was suicidal,’ says Norman. ‘Her state of mind was very low and she writes about it later through the character of Celia in her autobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait.
On her return from Yorkshire, Christie made a full recovery and was soon writing again.
But she was no longer prepared to tolerate her husband’s infidelity: she divorced him in 1928 and later married the distinguished archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan.
As she said: ‘The good thing about being married to an archaeologist is the older you get, the more interesting you become.’
But the mystery of the eleven days remains.
Christie never spoke of them; never spoke of the time when something inside her cracked, something inside her broke, and she felt the need to leave her child, get in a car, get on a train and go away to be someone else in Harrogate…
...choosing the name of her husband’s mistress.
My own new Abbot Peter mystery, ‘The Indecent Death of a Madam’ is now out, published by Marylebone House.