This is the sixth article in my 1920s Week series.
Aside from Shakespeare and God–or whoever you think wrote the Bible–Agatha Christie is the best-selling author in human history. She wrote 80 books between 1920 and her death in 1976, most of them formula mysteries, and she created the immortal characters of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, clever super-sleuths who use their deductive powers to solve crimes that baffle police. What fewer people know is that Christie herself was once at the center of a rather baffling real-life mystery, and it’s one that hasn’t really be solved nearly 90 years later.
On December 3, 1926, Agatha Christie, age 36, drove away from the house where she and her husband lived in Sunningdale, in Berkshire, England, after the two of them had a fight. The Christies’ marriage was unhappy. Archibald Christie, a former military officer, was having an affair with a younger woman and had asked Agatha for a divorce. In the weeks prior to her flight from Sunningdale the mystery writer acted strangely. There were reports of weird behavior such as continually rearranging the furniture in the house. Some of her friends thought she was having a breakdown.
On the morning of December 4, the car that Agatha was driving was found abandoned in the bushes near Guildford (a location that I’ve featured on this blog before). She was gone but her fur coat and her driver’s license were found in the car. Police suspected suicide–there was a nearby lake that she might have jumped into–but no one was sure. As word spread throughout the countryside about the missing writer, the press became involved. Modern-style media “feeding frenzies” were relatively new in the 1920s, but this definitely qualified. Soon papers all over the UK, and even beyond, were reporting what few facts were known about the case and a whole lot of speculation about what happened.
This is the Old Swan Hotel, as it looks today. Something happened to Agatha Christie here in December 1926, but we’re not sure what.
Ten days later, on December 14, a waiter at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, North Yorkshire–now called the Old Swan Hotel–recognized a woman who’d been staying at the hotel for the better part of a week, and realized she was Agatha Christie, the writer the newspapers were frothing about. Mrs. Christie had checked in under the name of “Teresa Neele”–her husband’s mistress was named Nancy Neele–and said she was from Cape Town, South Africa. In fact the Christies had only recently returned from a trip to Cape Town. There were some signs that Agatha suffered from amnesia. When her husband Archibald arrived to pick her up, she claimed not to know him. Some kind of weird psychological shock seems to have occurred. In any event, Mr. Christie took his wife home, and she recovered, though never satisfactorily explained what happened during the 11 missing days or why she took off in the first place.
Indeed, the mystery deepened in the years after the incident. Agatha refused to discuss it, possibly (some speculated) because of embarrassment. One of the leading theories was that Agatha staged her own disappearance as a way to humiliate her husband and bring his philandering and request for a divorce into the public eye, perhaps as a way to garner sympathy in the eventual divorce proceedings. (Agatha and Archibald Christie were divorced in 1928). Although she was semi-famous at the time, in 1926 Agatha Christie was by no means the best-selling author she would eventually become. She might have underestimated the amount of press attention the case received and realized, as police departments all over the UK were looking for her and speculation about her whereabouts was commanding world headlines, that she’d “created a monster.” Or, she might have done it precisely to jump-start sales of her books; personally I find that theory unlikely.
We just don’t know why Agatha Christie took off that December night or what she was thinking at the time. It’s a curious footnote to an interesting literary career–the mystery writer who herself, briefly, became a mystery.