How did the world’s favourite crime writer become involved in a mystery of her very own?
Agatha Miller was born in 1890, the youngest child of a wealthy American businessman. But after her father contracted double pneumonia, he was unable to provide for his young family and sank into a depression, dying when Agatha was only eleven. The poverty-stricken Millers almost lost their home as a result. The lesson was a harsh one for the young Agatha, and her continuing sense of financial insecurity was later to have disastrous consequences.
At a dance in Devon in 1912, Agatha, now an attractive 22-year-old, met a tall, dashing young army officer. Archibald Christie had trained at the Royal Woolwich Military Academy in London and had been posted to Exeter soon after he had been commissioned. Over the next two years, they slowly fell in love. When war broke out in 1914, Archie was sent to France. During his first return on leave later that year, the couple quickly got married. While Archie served in Europe, Agatha became a voluntary nurse at the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay and spent her many free hours (not many casualties were sent to Torquay) reading hundreds of detective stories.
She was desperate to be a writer like her elder sister Madge, whom she idolized and whose stories were regularly published in Vanity Fair. In a moment of inspiration Madge challenged her to write a good detective story, Agatha’s favourite genre. At the time, Torquay was full of Belgian refugees, and her first story featured a Belgian detective – one Hercule Poirot – who would become one of the most popular fictional detective characters in the world.
After the war ended, Archie started work at the Air Ministry in London, and the couple had a daughter in 1919. The Christies were struggling to make ends meet and so Agatha decided to approach a publisher with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel. John Lane at Bodley Head read and liked it. He persuaded the inexperienced young writer to sign a five-book deal with them, heavily weighted in their favour. She grew to regret this, however, when despite the book’s success and sales of 2,000 copies in America and Great Britain, she received only £25 in royalties.
Her final book for Bodley Head, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), had a controversial twist – the book’s narrator turned out to be the murderer – and it received lots of attention in the press as a result. That same year, Agatha moved publishers. Collins offered her an advance of £200 for her first book, an impressive sum in the postwar 1920s.
The Christies moved into a new house in Berkshire which she called Styles, after her first novel. Flushed with her growing success and sudden minor celebrity status, Agatha failed to notice her husband’s increasing resentment at her refusal to share any of her new income with him. Despite the fact that they were now comfortably off, she insisted on careful economy and thrift, something clearly related to her own father’s previous loss of wealth. Unknown to Agatha, Archie now began to spend a lot of time with Nancy Neele, a secretary and ten years her junior, whom he had met on the golf course.
But as her financial situation improved, other aspects of her life took a turn for the worse. In April that same year, Agatha, en route to visit her mother in Torquay, felt a strong premonition that she was dead. Then, upon her arrival in Torquay, she was informed her beloved mother had, in fact, died suddenly and unexpectedly, from bronchitis. Later that year, returning from a foreign holiday, Agatha got wind of her husband’s adultery. She immediately confronted Archie and collapsed in shock when he admitted that he had indeed been having an affair for the previous eighteen months. Agatha begged Archie to stay so that they could try to save their marriage, but Archie refused, moving out of the family home and into his club in London.
Then, on the morning of 4 December, a cold and wintry day, the Surrey police were called to the scene of a motor accident at Newlands Corner in Guildford. Agatha Christie’s car had been found halfway down a bank and partly buried in some bushes. The headlights were blazing, a suitcase and coat had been left on the back seat but there was no sign of the author. Upon discovering that the police suspected either suicide or murder, the press descended on Guildford and the Christies’ Berkshire home, thrilled at the prospect of a real-life mystery. By the following morning, the disappearance of the still relatively little-known author was a front-page story on every national newspaper. Agatha Christie was suddenly big news.
In one of the finest publicity coups of all time (intentional or otherwise, but for her publisher the cheapest), members of the public were offered rewards for sightings, and newspapers revelled in their ongoing real-life whodunnit, with new ‘evidence’ regularly being reported. Some observers suggested that it must have been Archie – with much to gain from his wife’s death – who had been responsible for her disappearance. But then it was discovered he had been at a weekend party with his mistress. The focus then moved on to Nancy Neele, and she was hounded by the press, eager to find a culprit. For ten days Surrey Police combed the area for evidence, and reports of sightings continued to pour in. People scoured her books for clues (the police actually dredged a pool that featured in one of Agatha Christie’s books and in which one of her characters had drowned) and followed the story avidly in the newspapers
The breakthrough finally came when, after ten days, the head waiter at the Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan Hotel) in Harrogate, Yorkshire, realized that the mysterious novelist he had been reading about for nearly two weeks looked exactly like a stylish female guest who had booked in under the name of Mrs Neele, claiming to be from South Africa. For ten days ‘Mrs Neele’ had been singing, dancing and enjoying the company of the other guests while, like them, also following the Agatha Christie mystery in the newspapers.
The police were called and Archie Christie travelled to Harrogate to identify his wife. In a scene that could have come straight from a Christie novel, Archie placed himself at a table in the corner of the dining room, hidden behind a large newspaper. From there he watched his wife enter the room, pick up the papers containing her picture and the story of the continued search, and sit at another table. The hotel manager later said that as Archie Christie approached his wife, she ‘looked distant as though she recognized him but could not remember where from’.
So as the police were scouring the hills around Guildford on their hands and knees, Agatha had been alive and well up in Yorkshire rather than lying dead at the bottom of a lake somewhere in Surrey. Needless to say, the police were not impressed; indeed some newspapers claimed the whole thing had been a publicity stunt. The press pack raced to Harrogate nevertheless, but few believed Archie when he informed them that Agatha was suffering from memory loss. There was a public backlash with demands for the police to be repaid the estimated £3,000 cost of the search for the missing novelist – indeed Guildford residents blamed the next increase in their rates on her. Reviews of her next book, The Big Four, were spiteful as a result, but Agatha Christie was now nationally famous and sales of this new work topped nine thousand copies. The whole affair was a marketing man’s dream, with all of Agatha’s earlier books being reprinted and enjoying healthy sales.
But the personal outcome for the author was not so positive, as Archie promptly divorced her and married Nancy Neele. In 1930 Agatha met and married archaeologist Max Mallowan, with whom, having learned her lesson, she immediately shared her resources. None of the parties involved ever spoke of the writer’s mysterious disappearance again.
But the debate continued. Could Agatha Christie have had a nervous breakdown? After all, how could she have read about her disappearance in the newspapers and not even recognize a picture or description of herself. For that matter, how could the other guests not have recognised her earlier? Many commentators have suspected a conspiracy – a pact of silence between the writer and her fellow guests.
It was only after the death of Agatha Christie, in January 1976, that the mystery was finally unravelled. It is obvious from the detail that the whole affair was in fact far from a publicity stunt. Indeed Agatha was mortified at seeing so much made of her disappearance. The great mystery of the 1920s, involving the crime writer who was to become one of the most famous and successful in the world, is in fact an easy one to solve.
In 1926, as we have seen, Agatha Christie’s world was thrown into turmoil by the sudden death of her mother and the breakdown of her marriage. The mixture of grief, anger and humiliation that she felt following these events led Agatha to the verge of a nervous breakdown and, for the first time in her life, she began to behave irrationally. On the morning of Friday 3 December, Agatha and Archie had a major argument about Archie’s intention to spend the weekend in Surrey at the house of a friend. He didn’t want her to accompany him because, as the writer later discovered, Nancy Neele was going to be present. Such a public breakdown of her marriage was incredibly humiliating and so – fuelled by despair, vengeance and plain old attention seeking – Agatha, assisted by her sister-in-law Nan, hatched a plot worthy of one of her own novels.
At 10 p.m. on 3 December, after Archie had left for the weekend, Agatha drove to Newlands Corner, parked on the edge of the road and pushed her car down the bank, leaving a suitcase and coat on the back seat and the headlights on, presumably to ensure the car would be discovered. Carrying a second suitcase, she then walked or received a lift to West Clandon station nearby, from where she caught the train to London. After staying the night with Nan, she wrote a letter to Archie’s brother Campbell and posted it at 9.45 a.m. on the Saturday, informing him she was travelling to the hotel in Harrogate. She addressed the letter to his office, knowing it would not arrive until at least Monday morning. In the meantime, she was fully expecting the car accident to ruin Archie’s weekend, and that of the other guests who, she presumed, would all be out looking for her rather than having fun without her. When Campbell received the letter on Monday morning, she thought that everything would then die down, and she herself, no doubt, already had her own story worked out about how she could explain the events to her own advantage and to Archie’s further misery.
Unfortunately, when Campbell opened the letter that Monday, he hardly looked at it and then managed to lose it, leaving Agatha’s whereabouts unknown and the so-called mystery in the hands of the frenzied press. Agatha, clearly alarmed that her mind games had rapidly become so public and out of her control, decided to lie low to consider her next move. Perhaps she would have continued to hide – clearly she hadn’t expected anybody to recognize her; or perhaps she would have fled abroad to escape the growing scandal.
It is intriguing to think what Agatha’s next real-life storyline would have been if the head waiter at the Harrogate Hydropathic Hotel had not finally recognized the author. But let us be grateful that he did, because some very fine stories subsequently began to flow out of this now famous author. I am off out now to leave my car at Beachy Head to see how many of you come looking for me. If, after a week or so, nobody has tracked me down, try the Old Swan at Harrogate. I don’t want to be left there too long.
Extract from Gone Missing
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