One December morning, a car belonging to the celebrated author Agatha Christie was found abandoned beside a quarry in Surrey. Inside were a fur coat, a weekend bag and an out- of-date driving licence. Of the writer herself, there was no sign.
Searches of the area and of places she knew well yielded nothing. Extra police were drafted in to help. Ponds and streams were dredged and thousands of members of the public turned out to join the hunt. But the novelist had simply disappeared.
It could have been a plot from one of the author’s own detective novels. But this was all too real.
Agatha Christie, pictured around 1926, went missing in the December of that year days after her husband Archie, a WW1 fighter pilot, had said he wanted a divorce as he was leaving her for his female golfing partner
Archie Christie, pictured, divorced his wife in 1928 before marrying his younger lover Nancy Neele
It was believed Agatha may have taken her own life which prompted a massive police search after her car was found abandoned beside a quarry in Surrey. Officers were here searching a waterway in Newlands Corner, Surrey
Just a few days earlier in that winter of 1926, her husband Archie had told her that he had fallen in love with his golf partner, a beautiful woman several years younger than him called Nancy Neele, and wanted a divorce. For Agatha, already reeling from the recent death of her mother, the news was shattering.
Was her disappearance, which lasted 11 days, an attempt to win him back? Or the result of a severe memory loss, as her family maintained for years? Perhaps even, as some have suggested, a publicity stunt to promote her latest novel?
The answer will probably never be fully known, although numerous theories have been put forward in the decades since.
Today, 100 years after the publication of her first novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, which introduced Hercule Poirot to the reading public, interest in the story of Agatha’s disappearance shows no sign of abating.
Although she never referred publicly to the episode, clues can be found in semi-autobiographical references in her novels and poetry, and in her private papers.
Thanks to unprecedented access to these, and to conversations with surviving members of her family, I have pieced together the events of those mysterious 11 days from Agatha’s perspective.
But her personal story – unlike her carefully crafted tales – did not end in the way she might have hoped or intended.
Agatha Christie, then aged 36, had dined alone on the evening of Friday, December 3, 1926. As she ate, she waited for the sound of Archie’s car. She had made a gap in the curtains and every so often she saw lights approach. But he did not appear.
The novelist’s disappearance became a major story – even though she had not
Agatha had been staying at the Harrogate Hydro in Yorkshire – now known as The Old Swan Hotel, pictured
Upstairs was a bag still packed for a weekend away in Yorkshire that the couple had planned, even though Archie, a colonel and former First World War fighter pilot, had told her that morning it had been cancelled as he would be away with friends.
‘When you come back, I won’t be here,’ she had said.
But surely he would change his mind? Surely he would remember how much they had once loved each other?
The road outside grew quiet. Agatha wrote two letters, one to their daughter’s governess Charlotte Fisher, and another to Archie, and left them in the hall. She slipped into their daughter Rosalind’s bedroom and looked down at her sleeping face.
Then, remaining unseen by the servants, she walked softly out of the house and started the car, a grey Morris Cowley.
It took her a long time to find the house where she knew her husband would be staying with his mistress. She sat in the driver’s seat, staring at it. A dog began to bark.
Agatha drove on, parked near the quarry and got out. It was 2.10am.
How long did she spend looking down at the quarry? It was a sin to take one’s life, she knew, according to biblical teaching. But it crossed her mind. How much sadness could she tolerate?
‘She was up against reality. The reality of herself and what she could bear, and what she could not bear,’ Agatha would write many years later, in a book called Destination Unknown, having forgotten nothing.
Agatha eventually returned to the car and, exhausted, wrapped herself in a fur coat and fell asleep.
After her 11-day adventure, Agatha’s public profile increased dramatically, becoming a legend in the crime writing community
The following morning she got out of the vehicle, released the handbrake and let the car roll into a bush, its lights staring at nothing, then began to walk the mile or two to the nearest railway station to catch the 7.30am train. London was bustling with pre-Christmas shoppers when she arrived at Waterloo Station at 9am. She bought a stamp and a Daily Mail. During her journey she had written a letter to her brother-in-law, Campbell Christie, a man she liked and trusted.
She explained she was going away to Yorkshire, as she had planned with her husband, although to a different place: the spa town of Harrogate. Her health was not good. In fact, she was very distressed, and he would understand why.
Agatha posted it to his workplace. He would read it on Monday morning, she thought, and take action to rescue her.
Everything was going right. Just after 1.30pm, she caught a train to Harrogate.
About four hours later, using the surname of Archie’s mistress, she checked in at the town’s renowned Hydro hotel as Mrs Teresa Neele of Cape Town, South Africa.
The next day, Agatha slept long and late, taking care to shield her face when the maid brought breakfast and the newspapers, and tended the fire. It was a pity to have to wear the same clothes again, but she had no choice until the shops opened the following day.
She put on the same grey and green outfit she’d worn when she left home on Friday and she walked into town. By the end of the day these clothes would already have formed part of a description given out to police stations after her abandoned car had been found.
While in Harrogate, she noticed people were fascinated by her disappearance. She had booked into the hotel under an assumed name, though some people claimed she looked like the missing writer
Agatha was delighted with Harrogate. She lunched among women like herself at Betty’s famous tearoom, then walked all afternoon.
The next day, Campbell would read her letter and things would start happening. She had said ‘a Yorkshire spa’. He’d know that Harrogate was the sort of place she would go. And he would say to Archie: ‘Look, she is distraught. She needs you. What are you doing?’
In her heart of hearts she knew that everything would be all right. After finding the car, the police would be rapping on their front door and then, a bit later, visiting the home of their friends, the Jameses, where Archie was staying with his mistress.
Poor Archie. He would be worrying about her dreadfully. She had wanted to die, that was certain. But tomorrow, after he had come to find her, everybody would know she was alive.
Back at the hotel she chatted to Mrs Taylor, the pleasant manageress. Then, after dinner, Agatha went with the other guests into the ballroom where she drank her coffee and did a crossword. She thought about all the nice things she would do the following day.
Monday, December 6. The maid brought her breakfast and newspapers in bed.
There was a picture of her in several of them. ‘A beautiful woman,’ they called her. Her car had been found at 8am on the Saturday.
‘It is believed that it was allowed deliberately to run down from Newlands Corner, near Guildford, with its brakes off,’ a policeman had said. All weekend they had searched for her on the North Downs.
The newspaper also carried a smaller picture of Colonel Christie, her handsome husband. Archie had said that she was suffering from a nervous breakdown. ‘She is a very nervous person,’ he said. He had returned to their home.
She got up and went out into the streets of Harrogate, hat down, collar up. She enjoyed looking at clothes, trying things on. A dress of pink georgette would be wonderful for the evening.
While in Harrogate, Agatha read the newspapers where her husband claimed she had been ‘recovering from a nervous breakdown’
Archie would surely like it. She bought shoes to go with it, and underwear.
After dinner that night a band played in the ballroom, and people got up and danced. It occurred to Agatha that she could do anything she liked. She could sleep with one of these men, if she really put her mind to it.
There were two or three who were apparently unattached. One was looking at her, admiringly, it seemed.
Of course she would not do it. But she sat with her coffee and meditated on her freedom nonetheless.
Tuesday, December 7. The newspapers were beginning to get worried about her.
The police officer in charge of her case was a Superintendent Kenward. He believed that she had inadvertently driven her car off the road, got out of it and watched, terrified, as it rolled down the hill. She had stumbled away and got lost. Although he did not say so, he believed she was dead.
After reading the reports, Agatha went downstairs and out into the streets certain that she would hear from Archie that night.
She was surprised that she hadn’t heard from him already – surely her letter to his brother had reached him by now.
Wednesday, December 8 and the mystery of the letter was solved. Her brother-in-law had read the letter on Saturday then initially thrown it away, according to one report: ‘It was learned late last night that a brother of Colonel Christie living in London had received a letter written by the missing woman since her disappearance, and that in it she stated that she was in ill-health and was going to a Yorkshire spa. The Surrey police, however, have communicated with certain centres in Yorkshire, and as a result are satisfied, it is understood, that Mrs Christie is not in that county.’
Agatha was aghast. This was not how she had planned things.
That night she accepted an invitation to dance with a fellow guest.
Thursday, December 9. The maid looked at her a little strangely as she brought in her breakfast.
One guest at the the hotel asked Agatha whether the ‘missing novelist had been murdered by her husband’
Agatha resolved that the first thing she would do was place a small advertisement in a national newspaper. The story was not going the way she expected, but she was determined to regain control of it.
‘Friends and relatives of Teresa Neele, late of South Africa, please communicate,’ she wrote, giving a contact address to the newspaper and paying 15 shillings.
That night the guests were agog with the story of missing Mrs Christie. One of them even unwittingly asked the incognito Agatha if she thought the novelist had been murdered by her husband. Just the sort of thing that Mrs Christie herself might have written, in fact.
‘You look very much like the missing lady, Mrs Neele,’ said another.
‘Do I?’ she had replied.
Friday, December 10. Another statement in the newspapers from Archie. He knew his wife was alive, he said. If she’d contemplated suicide, he said, she would have turned to poison, which she knew all about because of her writing.
‘It is absolutely untrue to suggest there was anything in the nature of a row or tiff between my wife and myself,’ Archie was quoted as saying.
Not true, thought Agatha.
‘I strongly deprecate introducing any tittle-tattle into this matter,’ he added. ‘My wife has never made the slightest objection to any of my friends, all of whom she knew.’
Not true either, she said to herself.
Agatha read that 500 police were searching for her. It was ridiculous. She had told them where she was, where she had gone, and none of them believed her.
Saturday, December 11. A week since her arrival in Harrogate. ‘It has been hinted that Archie and Agatha had a quarrel or tiff on Friday morning. But they were a devoted couple,’ her mother-in-law had told a newspaper. ‘I believe she is dead and on the Surrey Downs.’
Sunday, December 12. Agatha was beginning to feel bored with the whole saga. They were still searching for her across the North Downs: police and aeroplanes and dogs and sensation-seekers. Even the crime novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, author of the Peter Wimsey novels, had been drafted in to help. There had apparently been sightings of Agatha all over Britain.
The band did not play that night at the Harrogate Hydro but earlier in the day, two of its members had gone to the police. They suspected, as did other hotel staff, that the nice lady who called herself Mrs Neele was, in fact, Agatha Christie. It was almost over.
Monday, December 13. It was suggested that she might be living in London, dressed as a man, like poisoner Dr Crippen’s accomplice girlfriend Ethel le Neve had once done. How ridiculous it all was.
Tuesday, December 14. A former policeman had written: ‘One great difficulty is that the search is for a woman with certain attributes that are not common to the ordinary individual,’ he had said. ‘She is talented. She is a woman who by the very nature of her work would have an exceptionally elastic brain. Consequently, one would expect her to do something extraordinary.’
‘Well,’ thought Agatha, ‘that is really rather nice.’
That night she put on the pink dress she’d bought when she first arrived at the hotel more than a week ago and walked down the short flight of stairs to the dining room.
By the fire sat Archie.
She saw how tired and sad he looked, and she knew that she loved him now, always, for ever. She had done this only for him.
‘Yes, that is my wife,’ she heard him say to a good-looking man she had seen in the lounge the day before. It turned out that he was a policeman.
She told the officer that she remembered nothing of what had happened since she left her home 11 days previously, and that only now was she beginning to regain her memory.
‘Yes, my wife remembers nothing,’ Archie had confirmed.
For a second time she was overwhelmed by the thought of how much she loved him. But she knew, too, with piercing clarity, that she had lost him. In trying to lure him back, she had driven him further away. Archie Christie was gone, never to return.
The mystery of those few days will always remain. Did Agatha plan it all? Did she lose her memory? Was she after revenge, or pity, or to end it all? Did she want Archie to be suspected, or even arrested?
Such questions have been asked repeatedly, in the hope of a simple answer. But there is no such solution.
There is no Poirot or Miss Marple who can simply take the facts – the letters, the abandoned car, the train journeys, the advert in the newspaper – and wrap them up into a neat conclusion. Far more likely than any of the long-held theories is that Agatha Christie was simply a fragile woman who had suffered immeasurably from losing her mother, to whom she had been extremely close, and then her husband.
In today’s terminology, what happened would be regarded as a mental breakdown, in which her cumulative suffering had driven her to the edge.
Worst of all, her wrenching griefs had been exposed to public scrutiny, and sometimes to ridicule and anger, too. The ending of the great thriller writer’s own story had been cruelly wrenched from her grasp.
Archie and his mistress Nancy were married shortly afterwards and remained contentedly together for the rest of their lives.
Agatha, meanwhile, turned her terrible anguish into material for her books, entering a period of extreme creativity which produced some of her best-known works, making her one of the most famous women in the world.
Perhaps the last word should go to the wise and inscrutable Hercule Poirot. ‘There is, sometimes, a deep chasm between the past and the future,’ he says in Agatha’s 1940 novel Sad Cypress. ‘When one has walked in the valley of the shadow of death, and come out of it into the sunshine – then, mon cher, it is a new life that begins.’
A sentiment with which, despite her suffering, his creator might wholeheartedly have agreed.
© Laura Thompson, 2007, 2020
Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, by Laura Thompson, will be published by Headline on April 30, priced £12.99.