how the mystery writer’s own disappearance shocked the world
In The National Archives in Kew, just outside London, Agatha Christie’s divorce records outline the basic chronology of the “Christie vs Christie” case, which was finalised 90 years ago. They provide the date when Agatha Miller married Archibald Christie (Christmas Eve 1914); the birth of their only child – daughter Rosalind – in 1919; and the petition that: “On the 18th and/or 19th and/or 20th November 1927 at the Grosvenor Hotel, Victoria SW, the said Archibald Christie committed adultery with a woman whose name is unknown to your petitioner.”
The dusty papers give no indication, however, of the drama that lay behind the 14-year marriage – or how it contributed to making Agatha the best-selling novelist in history.
In December 1926 – shortly after Archie declared that he wanted a divorce in order to marry his younger mistress, Nancy Neele – Agatha disappeared. The facts of her disappearance are well known: the then 36-year-old writer’s car was found abandoned at an isolated beauty spot in Surrey; 15,000 volunteers, bloodhounds and aeroplanes searched for clues; and police suspected Archie had murdered his wife. But 10 days later, she turned up at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, after registering under the surname of her husband’s mistress.
The story made headlines around the world at the time; and fascination with Agatha shows no sign of abating today. The sales of her 66 detective novels stand at around two billion and, more than 40 years after her death in 1976, new adaptations of her books continue apace.
There have been several recent
TV and film adaptations of her books and next year Kenneth Branagh directs a follow-up to Murder on the Orient Express with a star-studded feature film of Death on the Nile.
End of happiness
The Nile was released almost a decade after Agatha’s most difficult period in her life. The year 1926 was one of her lowest, with the death of her mother, Clara, robbing her of her best friend and bringing on a crisis of identity for the then 36-year-old.
One day, Agatha later recalled, she was sorting through her mother’s things at the family home in Torquay when she began to lose sense of who she was; she signed a cheque with the name of a character from a William Thackeray novel.
Later that year, when Archie travelled down to Torquay from London to celebrate Rosalind’s seventh birthday, Agatha intuited that his feelings for her had changed. Finally, he told her that he wanted a divorce and had met a beautiful brunette who was 10 years younger than her. “I suppose, with those words, that part of my life – my happy, successful, confident life – ended,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It was not as quick as that, of course – because I couldn’t believe it.”
The couple tried to patch up their differences for the sake of their daughter, but Archie, who Agatha depicts in her autobiography as a supremely selfish man, could not sacrifice the chance of finding happiness with his new lover, whom he went on to marry in 1928. “I did tell you once, long ago,” he said to Agatha, “that I hate it when people are ill or unhappy – it spoils everything for me.”
In Unfinished Portrait, a semifictional portrait of her marriage breakdown, which Agatha wrote in 1934 under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, the character representing Archie is depicted not only as a coward but as a potential murderer. Celia (the Agatha figure) is so afraid that her husband Dermot (Archie) is going to poison her that she takes the precaution of locking up a packet of weedkiller she finds in the garden shed. “He wished her dead,” Agatha writes in the novel. “He must wish her dead, otherwise she wouldn’t be so afraid.”
The vanishing novelist
When Agatha disappeared in December 1926, one of the lines of enquiry pursued by the Surrey police was the suspicion that Archie had killed his wife so he would be free to marry his mistress. After the writer was found at the hotel in Harrogate – now the scene of a crime-writing festival held each year in July – psychiatrists determined that she had suffered a serious episode of amnesia.
A number of contemporary witnesses who gave accounts to the police and the newspapers at the time said they saw her at the hotel, singing, dancing and playing billiards, while she introduced herself to fellow guests as a woman from South Africa who had lost a baby. Yet the question of why she disappeared from her Berkshire home remains a mystery.
Over the years, theories have included a diagnosis of dissociative fugue state (a psychiatric condition involving loss of identity, often brought on by trauma), while one writer alleges that Agatha planned the whole episode to win back her husband’s love. Had this been her motive, the mission was a failure: Archie was appalled by the ensuing scandal, which made him more determined to leave her.
Some critics even alleged that, at the time, Agatha had staged her disappearance in order to boost her
public profile; by this point she had published only six novels, though one of them was the groundbreaking The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, earlier in 1926. “That success, in part, was why her disappearance received so much attention,” wrote Joan Acocella in 2010 in The New Yorker. “Conversely, her disappearance, with its interesting link to detective fiction, made her a celebrity.”
In A Talent for Murder, the first of my novels in a series featuring Agatha Christie, I outline a fictional reimagining of her disappearance.
But in reality, I believe that she experienced a deep psychological crisis that pushed her to the point where she contemplated suicide. I suspect that she drove away from her house in Sunningdale with the intention of killing herself, but at the last minute decided she could not go through with it. Not only was Agatha a Christian, for whom suicide was a sin, but she realised that the news would devastate others, particularly her daughter and sister.
Agatha later refused to talk about her disappearance and the 560-page autobiography published after her death does not contain a single detail about the episode. She sums up the experience as such: “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”
Instead, much of Agatha’s autobiography focuses on her happy childhood in the seaside town of Torquay, which was fashionable among the wealthy at the time.
Becoming a writer
She was born in 1890, the third and youngest child of an American father, Frederick Miller, and an English mother, Clara, who entertained writers such as Henry James and Rudyard Kipling in their home. Although her siblings were educated at private schools, Agatha was for the most part raised at home.
She was a highly imaginative and sensitive child, always making up stories; though her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was the product of a bet with her elder sister Madge, who declared Agatha too stupid to write a detective novel. The resulting book, published in 1920 when she was 30, is the first featuring her retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Success was not immediate and the novel netted her just £25, at a time when Archie was earning £500 a year. However, four years later she was paid the equivalent of her husband’s annual salary for the serialisation rights to The Man in the Brown Suit, which enabled her to buy a car of her own, the beloved Morris Cowley she drove the night she disappeared.
By the time she began divorce proceedings at the High Court of Justice in December 1927, Agatha had realised that, with no husband to support her, she would have to earn her own living. She was under contract to deliver a novel and, although she did not feel in the mood to write, she knew she had no choice.
In January 1927, together with Rosalind and her secretary Carlo Fisher, Agatha sailed on the SS Gelria bound for the Canary Islands and while staying at the glamorous Taoro Hotel in Tenerife, then an upmarket winter destination, she forced herself to finish the novel The Mystery of the Blue Train. “That was the moment when I changed from being an amateur to a professional,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you are writing and aren’t writing particularly well.”
The resulting novel was one of her least favourites; she often wondered how “that wretched book ever came to be written”.
Life after divorce
At this time, stigma still surrounded the dissolution of marriage. Agatha had grown up with a deep faith and from the moment her divorce was finalised in October 1928, she did not take communion in church.
Rosalind seemed to accept her parents’ split with equanimity – “I know Daddy likes me, and would like to be with me,” she once told her mother. “It’s you he doesn’t seem to like.” But later, when Rosalind was presented at court as a debutante, Agatha was not allowed to accompany her because she was a divorcee.
Nonetheless, the split from Archie also proved creatively inspiring, requiring her to write more books and prompting her to explore new horizons. In fact, it’s arguable that without the divorce Agatha would not have gone on to become the bestselling novelist of all time.
Although she had been around a good deal of the world with Archie back in 1922, when he worked as financial adviser to the British Empire Exhibition, now she felt at a crossroads. “I should find out now what kind of person I was – whether I had become entirely dependent on other people as I feared,” she said.
In the autumn of 1928, aged 38, she journeyed alone on the Orient Express to Damascus, and then on to Baghdad. From there she went south to the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, site of a famous archaeological dig, where in 1930 she would meet her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, 14 years her junior. The marriage was a happy one and each winter Agatha would accompany Max on his digs to the Near East.
She used her growing wealth to buy houses – at one stage she owned eight, including a house in Kensington and a magnificent Georgian country estate, Greenway, overlooking the River Dart in Devon, which she used for holidays for the rest of her life.
The split from Archie also affected her work: although she had explored the concept of evil lurking under a sheen of respectability in her early books, it was the brutal experience of her divorce that provided some of the power and plots of her greatest novels. In the aftermath of the divorce, she published many of her most popular titles, including The Murder at the Vicarage, Peril at End House and Murder on the Orient Express.
During one of Agatha’s lowest moments, when her handsome first husband told her he wanted to leave her, she later said she came to the realisation that he was not what he seemed. An old childhood nightmare came back to haunt her, a sense that a malign presence had stolen into the body of someone close to her. “He went through the motions of ordinary greetings, but he was, quite simply, not Archie,” she wrote.
The same sentiment is expressed by Celia, the heroine in her novel Unfinished Portrait. Of this character – a woman whose husband leaves her for another woman, and who then goes on to contemplate suicide – Max Mallowan said that in her “we have more nearly than anywhere else a portrait of Agatha”.
Towards the end of Unfinished Portrait, with Christie writing as Westmacott (a pseudonym that was not exposed until 1949), she says through the guise of Celia, “Nobody can hurt you except a husband – nobody’s near enough.” If her husband was treacherous, then “anyone could be treacherous. The world itself became unsure. I couldn’t trust anyone or anything any more.” No doubt Agatha felt the same.
A Talent for Murder and A Different Kind of Evil, by Andrew Wilson, Simon and Schuster, are both out now.
ABOVE: Agatha Christie working at her home in Devonshire, England, in 1946. LEFT: Front-page news – a report of the writer’s return after she went missing for 11 days in 1926.
The 2017 film Murder on the Orient Express, stars Kenneth Branagh as Poirot (left), Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfieffer (below). RIGHT: Bill Nighy in 2018 TV drama Ordeal by Innocence.
Agatha with her second husband Max Mallowan in Devon, where she owned Greenway Estate by the River Dart.