Daily Archives: September 16, 2016

Gone Girl — A Puzzling Disappearance

By Sharon Reily, Reference Deaprtment

An accomplished young woman goes missing and is presumed murdered. Is her cheating husband the culprit or is she deviously punishing him for being unfaithful? After a massive search and media frenzy, she turns up alive. Sound like the premise of Gone Girl, right? Guess again. This actually happened to one of the world’s most beloved novelists!

The titles Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, And Then There Were None might seem a bit familiar as some of the best known mysteries by the queen of whodunits, Agatha Christie. September 15 marks the 126th anniversary of Agatha’s birth in 1890. During a career that thrived from 1920 until her death in 1976, she penned 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, the world’s longest running play (The Mousetrap), and created the beloved fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She also wrote romance novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott. Her intricately plotted tales of love, murder, greed, and jealousy have sold more than a billion copies, making her one of the most popular writers of all time.

agatha-in-1925-how-she-looked-near-the-time-of-the-disappearanceBut in 1926 Agatha, already an established writer, became the subject of a mystery herself – one that has never been solved. She simply vanished one wintery evening. She was found safe 11 days later, but with no memory or explanation of what had happened to her.

At 9:45 on the evening of December 3, 1926, 36-year-old Agatha Christie kissed her sleeping daughter Rosalind, and then drove away from Styles, her English estate. Her abandoned vehicle was found on a slope not far from her home with the hood up and lights on. There was no sign of Agatha, but her fur coat, driver’s license, and overnight bag were still in the car.

Her car had been left near “the Silent Pool,” a natural spring where several children reportedly had died. There was much speculation that she had drowned herself or had been murdered and a massive search ensued.  The search for the author (whose recent novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was already selling briskly) was at the time the largest manhunt in British history with over 1,000 officers and 15,000 volunteers on Agatha’s trail. A fleet of planes was employed – the first time they’d been used in England in a missing person’s case. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got in on the action, taking one of Agatha’s gloves to a famous medium. Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series, examined the scene around the abandoned car. Their efforts turned up no clues.

By the end of the first week, Agatha’s disappearance was a national obsession, and was reported on the cover of the New York Times. Theories abounded. Some thought the disappearance was a publicity stunt to boost sales of her latest book, but it was already selling well before she vanished. Others thought she might have been injured in a car crash and wandered off suffering from amnesia. But the car showed no sign of an accident.

Some also suggested that Agatha was missing because of her husband’s affair. Her husband, Archie Christie, a former Royal Flying Corps pilot, didn’t hide his philandering ways from his wife. He was currently having an affair with Nancy Neele, a young friend of the couple, and Agatha’s car was found near a house where her husband was planning a rendezvous with Nancy. This suggested to some that Agatha was trying to thwart the affair, or even frame Archie and Nancy. Many even suspected Archie had killed Agatha.

christie_at_hydroOn the 11th day of her disappearance, Agatha was recognized by a musician at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel, a luxury spa in Harrogate. She had registered there as “Theresa Neele” from Cape Town, curiously using the last name of her husband’s mistress. Later Agatha’s husband claimed that she was suffering from complete amnesia – she reportedly didn’t know him when he came to collect her at the hotel and she had also failed to recognize herself in newspaper photos during her stay there. Agatha, her family, and friends maintained a lifelong silence about the lost 11 days. So the mystery remained a mystery.

After the incident, Agatha resumed her prolific writing career, which continued with enormous acclaim for many decades. She also divorced Archie in 1928 and made a happier match with the renowned archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930. They were married until her death.

In his 2006 book Agatha Christie: The Finished Portrait, Andrew Norman advanced a new theory that during her disappearance Agatha was experiencing a rare deluded condition called a “fugue state” — a psychogenic trance brought on by trauma or depression. The facts of her life in 1926 seem to back up his conclusions. Her mother passed away, and with immense sorrow Agatha spent a great deal of time alone clearing out the family home. This added strain to her marriage. She was also struggling to write her next novel. To top it off, Archie revealed he had fallen in love with a family friend, Nancy Neele.

Agatha completed her autobiography when she was 75, and one might assume this work would offer the definitive explanation of those 11 days in 1926. Wrong! Not one word about the disappearance is included. Still, Agatha offers some clues about her state of mind around the time of the incident that seem to bolster Andrew Norman’s theory. Of her time spent cleaning out her late mother’s house, she writes, “I began to get confused and muddled over things. I never felt hungry and ate less and less. Sometimes I would sit down, put my hands to my head, and try to remember what it was I was doing.” She later mentions her extreme loneliness and a sense that she was ill. She once started to write a check and could not remember her name. She also suffered a meltdown when her car wouldn’t start. Years later, she believed she had been suffering a nervous breakdown. Could Agatha have been offering an explanation of her odd disappearance, or was she covering up the fact that the incident was an elaborate hoax?

agatha_poster-page-001Almost 90 years later, the story of the missing author still sparks the imagination and has found its place in popular culture, a lot. While not touching on the disappearance, Agatha’s semiautobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait mirrors the disintegration of her first marriage to Archie at the time of the event. Dorothy L. Sayers, who failed to solve Agatha’s disappearance, used elements of it in her novel Unnatural Death. The disappearance was the subject of the 1979 film Agatha starring Vanessa Redgrave as the author and Timothy Dalton as Archie. There are also two new movies in the works about Agatha, one reportedly starring Emma Stone and the other Alicia Vikander. And of course, the Doctor Who episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp” offered a completely plausible explanation of Agatha’s disappearance involving a giant alien wasp (Series 4, Episode 7).  It makes complete sense.

We’ll never know what really happened to Agatha Christie in December of 1926. The incident remains the greatest mystery in the life of one of our greatest mystery writers.

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