how the mys­tery writer’s own dis­ap­pear­ance shocked the world

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

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.

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