Here’s a full transcript of the fourth episode of Shedunnit.
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On 3 December 1926, Agatha Christie left her home in the southern English county of Berkshire just after 9.30 in the evening. She drove away in her Morris Cowley car, taking a small suitcase and a fur coat with her. Her secretary Carlo Fisher, who also helped to look after Agatha’s then seven year old daughter Rosalind, later related that the author had said nothing about where she was going.
The following morning, the car was found 15 miles away at Newlands Corner near Guildford in Surrey, on the edge of a lake called Silent Pool. The headlights were still on and her luggage was inside, but the driver was nowhere to be seen. The police quickly identified it and brought Fisher and Agatha’s husband Archie Christie to the scene to see if they could shed any light on what had happened. By the time they got there, the car was already surrounded by members of the public, their curiosity piqued by the mystery of the mystery writer’s disappearance.
The word was out: the lady had vanished.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton
At the end of 1926, Agatha Christie was already a well known author, although not yet the worldwide bestseller she became later in her career. Hercule Poirot had made his debut in her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1920, and she had also introduced the recurring sleuthing pair Tommy and Tuppence in 1922’s The Secret Adversary. Four more books had followed, the most recent at the time of her disappearance being The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published in June 1926. This last proved to be something of a breakthrough for her, with its unusual structure and twist earning good reviews and sales. It marked the start of a new, much more profitable, publishing deal with William Collins and Sons, the firm that would remain her publisher for the rest of her life. It’s also probably one of her most enduringly popular books, and in 2013 was voted the best crime novel ever by the members of the Crime Writers’ Association.
It might have been a good year for her professionally, but Agatha Christie’s personal life in 1926 was a lot tougher. She wrote in her autobiography that it was a year of her life she hated recalling, because “when one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong”. Her mother Clara, with whom she had an especially close relationship, had died earlier in the year. Relations with her husband Archie were already strained, thanks partly to his golf obsession — Agatha described herself as “that well-known figure, the golf widow”. They had been apart for lengthy periods that year already, Agatha going to Corsica and Archie to Spain, and after her mother’s death Archie’s disinterest in her grief drove them further apart. Archie stayed in London while Agatha took their daughter to Devon and spent the summer months back at her childhood home in Torquay, sorting out the house and its contents. She was lonely, ill, grieving and clearly depressed — she wrote later about how during this time she kept bursting into tears all the time for no reason, or over seemingly trivial things like not being able to remember how to start her car.
When Archie finally visited in August, it was not to take her to Italy for two weeks to recuperate as she had been expecting. Instead, he told her that he was in love with someone else: Nancy Neele, a secretary ten years his junior. Neele had previously worked for Major Belcher, the director of the British Empire Mission, who had arranged for the Christies to go on a ten-month round the world trip in 1924. Archie and Neele had been seeing a lot of each other in London while Agatha was in Devon, and now he wanted a divorce as quickly as possible. In the weeks that followed, the Christies attempted a brief reconciliation, mostly for their daughter’s sake, but it was no good.
They had been together for over a decade. Archie had swept Agatha off her feet in 1913, even though she was engaged to someone else. They had married on Christmas Eve 1914, two days before he was sent into action. He served with the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War and won two medals for bravery.
It was Archie’s ruthlessness and decisiveness that Agatha had initially found attractive in him, but now those same qualities were instrumental in making her terrible year much worse. During the breakdown of their marriage, Archie was relentless in pursuit of his own happiness with Nancy, Agatha recalled later. That his happiness came at the cost of hers didn’t seem to register.
On 3 December, which was a Friday, Agatha was out during the day. Archie packed his bags during her absence. Their attempted reunion was a waste of time, he had decided. He had been invited to a house party that weekend, and Nancy would be there. By the time Agatha got home, her husband had already left.
In her autobiography, Agatha discreetly draws a veil over what happened next. “So ended my first married life,” she wrote, before skipping ahead to the next February, when she went to the Canary Islands with her daughter and her beloved secretary Carlo. This is understandable: Agatha Christie had spent 11 days at the centre of a nationwide manhunt and media maelstrom. She probably didn’t want to dwell on all the ugly details.
Luckily for your curiosity, though, that’s exactly what we’re about to do.
Something that’s important to know as we try to understand what really happened on the night of 3 December 1926 is that Agatha Christie really, really loved her car. She said once that nothing else had given her “more pleasure, more joy of achievement, than my dear bottle nosed Morris Cowley”. She had bought it a few years previous with the £500 she had received from a newspaper for the serial rights for her novel The Man in the Brown Suit. That was a lot of money: according to the National Archives currency convertor, it would be about £20,000 in today’s money. Cars were still relatively rare in Britain at this time: none of her friends had one. Buying it herself with money that she had earned with her writing was one of the most exciting things she ever did, equalled only by being invited to have dinner with the Queen at Buckingham Palace forty years later.
When her husband and close friend saw this beloved car abandoned on the edge of a lake, therefore, they would have immediately jumped to the conclusion that something was very, very wrong. Inside, the police had found her coat, luggage and expired drivers’ licence. There was no sign of the woman herself, so a missing persons report was issued. A hundred police officers combed the Surrey Downs for the vanished author, assisted by concerned members of the public who started arriving as the story began to appear in the newspapers. The initial theory was that Agatha had had a motor crash and wandered away from the car in a state of shock, but that quickly collapsed as no trace of her was found in the surrounding countryside. Several ponds, including the Silent Pool, were dragged, but nothing was found. An aeroplane was used to survey the area from above — the first time this was done for a missing persons case in Britain — but to no avail.
By 7 December, Scotland Yard had been called in and newspapers all over Britain were breathlessly reporting every development in the case of the “vanished woman novelist”. The stories mentioned her happy home life (Archie Christie obviously choosing not to contradict them) and speculated about a possible nervous breakdown over the loss of her mother and the hard work of producing so many novels in such a short time. As the days went by and nothing new emerged other than lots of false sightings, the coverage became wilder and wilder, even turning towards the supernatural for answers. The Daily Sketch newspaper called in a clairvoyant, who suggested that Christie’s body would soon be found in a woodshed. The Daily Express asked the retired detective Walter Dew, “the man who caught Crippen” — who we met in episode two — for his thoughts. He gave his opinion that “all women are subject to hysteria at times”, but made no actually practical suggestions. Christie’s fellow crime author Dorothy L Sayers even wrote an article for the Daily News where she ran through all the possible solutions to the mystery, from suicide to a voluntary disappearance. The incident clearly stayed with Sayers, too, because a similar abandoned car and missing woman scene appears in her novel Unnatural Death, which was published the following year.
Perhaps the most bizarre intervention in the case was from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. He was in his late 60s now, and had formerly served in the ceremonial role of Deputy Lieutenant of Surrey, which gave him a certain measure of authority. The police gave him one of Agatha’s gloves so that he could take part in the inquiries, and he took it to a spiritualist medium called Horace Leaf for information. Leaf wasn’t able to divine a location, but he did say that he thought Agatha was still alive. Conan Doyle conveyed this news to Archie and announced to the press that it proved how useful psychometry was to the detective. The police, increasingly desperate for hard evidence amid the media furore, appealed directly to the public for help. On 12 December, over 2,000 people turned out for what was dubbed “the Great Sunday Hunt”, wrapped up warmly against the cold. Sayers went along herself, but neither she nor anyone else found anything significant, and the search was called off when darkness fell.
During the time that Christie had been missing, there had been several suggestions from more cynical observers that this was all just a stunt to sell more copies of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The story just seemed too perfect to be true: famous mystery writer, wife of war hero and mother of beautiful little girl, disappears under mysterious circumstances and even the greatest detectives of the day can’t find her. The headlines from those days are like something that would spin up into view on the screen during a silent film: “Search intensifies”, “Mystery Deepens”, “Police Baffled”, “Still No Clue”. There were even convincing red herrings, just like in one of Christie’s novels — on 10 December it was reported that her body had been found in a canal near Basingstoke, but the corpse was later positively identified as that of Mrs Alice Livings, a widow from Aldershot. There were also persistent rumours that she was hiding in London or Cornwall, for no clear reason at all. It’s really no wonder people started to think it was all engineered for publicity — Christie was already believed to be brilliant at concocting unsolvable plots. Who else could be behind something like this, but her?
The police repeatedly stated that they felt the disappearance was genuine, but the longer it went on, the more public opinion began to turn against Christie. Then, on 14 December, two musicians in the band at the Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, reported their hunch that one of the guests there looked a lot like Agatha Christie. Their suspicious were correct, and within hours new headlines were blazing everywhere: “Mrs Christie At Harrogate Under A False Name”. She had been there the whole time.
Over the next few days, the newspapers expressed their disappointment at the unlikely and somewhat anticlimactic end to the story with articles decrying all the resources wasted on the search. The Leeds Mercury described the public mood as “one of intense exasperation that so much money and time should have been wasted on futile searches”, and contrasted all the attention Christie had received with the virtually ignored case of a missing vicar in Yorkshire two years before. Soon, because the Christie family gave no comment or further explanation beyond the fact that she had suffered from amnesia and remembered nothing, the momentum died out of the story, and it fell off the front pages.
So what really happened on the night of 3 December? Christie never spoke about it publicly, but we can make a reasonable guess as to the logistics. After abandoning her car, she walked to the nearest station, took a train to London, and from there another train on to Harrogate. Somewhere along the way she did some shopping, because when she arrived at the hotel she had a small suitcase and suitable clothing for her stay. She had plenty of money with her, too, because she took a five guineas a week room at the Hydropathic. Crucially, she gave her name as “Mrs Theresa Neele from Cape Town” — Neele being the surname of her husband’s mistress. She seemingly spent a pleasant and relaxing ten days, playing bridge and billiards, dancing, doing crosswords and borrowing thrillers from the library. After the tip, the police brought Archie up to the hotel, and he identified her. She resumed her own identity, and was taken home.
The mystery of where she had been was solved. The mystery of why she had vanished remained a puzzle.
The first official biography of Agatha Christie was published eight years after her death in 1984. Unlike the author’s own autobiography, Janet Morgan’s account of Christie’s life does contain a version of the events of December 1926, but offers no explanation beyond the amnesia statement made by Archie Christie at the time. Without more details, fans and writers have speculated endlessly to fill in the gaps. Over the decades since it occurred, the 11 day disappearance of Agatha Christie has garnered a reputation for intrigue as it it was one of detective fiction’s greatest unsolved crimes, and plenty of people have tried to work out what really happened and why.
In the late 1970s the writer Kathleen Tynan published a novel based on the case, which was also adapted into the film Agatha starring Vanessa Redgrave as Agatha and Timothy Dalton as Archie. It also pushed the amnesia theory, but included a bizarre secret murder-suicide plot as well. The film was generally well received, although the fictional character of Wally Stanton, played by Dustin Hoffman, was criticised as unrealistic.
Another book published in 1998, Agatha Christie and the Missing Eleven Days, put forward a different theory: that Agatha had done the whole thing deliberately, not for book publicity but to humiliate her husband for his infidelity, hence her choice of his mistress’s name for her alias. What could be a more apt punishment for cheating on a mystery writer than to be suspected of her murder? Agatha’s grandson Mathew Pritchard strongly refuted this, but the suggestion has lingered on in some quarters. Plenty of people still like the idea that Agatha, a mastermind of plotting let us not forget, engineered the whole scenario to teach her husband a lesson about considering the feelings of others.
People are still investigating the possibilities. In 2006 Andrew Norman published a book titled The Finished Portrait, in which he argued that the trauma of her marriage breaking down sent Christie into something like a fugue state. This is the name for a period of out of body amnesia, often triggered by stress. This fits all the facts, Norman argues — it even explains why she read about her own disappearance in the newspaper but didn’t come forward, because people experience a fugue state often temporarily adopt a new personality and don’t recognise their previous persona. In the book, he carefully compares the Christie case to a number of medical case studies, pointing out the similarities.
It’s all very interesting and it gave the British newspapers another chance to speculate, but of course there’s no way to prove any of it now. Alternative theories still crop up periodically: for instance, in 2017 Andrew Wilson published a fictionalised version of the case called A Talent for Murder, in which Christie is the heroine of her own detective story, locked in battle with a blackmailer. At the time of the book’s release, Wilson also put forward the suggestion that the real explanation for her disappearance was that she had attempted suicide — by driving her car in to Silent Pool — and then been overcome by shame when the attempt failed and run off to Harrogate rather than face anyone.
There’s even a Doctor Who episode that tries to solve the case, from 2008, in which the disappearance is explained via the presence of giant alien wasps. After spending a few weeks immersed in all these theories, this started to feel like the most sensible one, to be honest.
Agatha Christie spent the following year at the home she had shared with Archie in Berkshire, which they had renamed “Styles” in honour of the setting of her first novel. She travelled with her daughter, and slowly recovered from the traumas of 1926. Public opinion was not always kind to her in the aftermath of the disappearance. In February 1927 there was even a question asked in parliament about how much the search and rescue efforts for her had cost, and once the home secretary revealed them to be about £12, a fellow MP angrily demanded “and who is going to compensate the thousands of people who were deliberately misled by this cruel hoax?”. She became shy in front of crowds and distrustful of the press, and found that writing did not come so easily to her as it had before. She did manage to stitch together some previously published short stories to create the Poirot spy thriller book The Big Four, which is enjoyably absurd if not among some of her finest work. In 1928 she expanded another short story to create The Mystery of the Blue Train, which was a book the author herself said she hated. Her divorce from Archie was finalised that same year, and she dedicated the book to “the OFD”, or “the order of the faithful dogs”, i.e. those of her friends who had stuck with her through the ordeal.
Another spy romp followed in 1929 in the form of The Seven Dials Mystery, again repurposing elements introduced in a previous novel. By this time, the furore surrounding her disappearance and divorce had faded, and Christie began to travel again and take an interest in the development of detective writing. Of course, fans remain obsessed with what really happened during those 11 days still — it’s still an irresistible mystery, never fully explained. But Agatha herself seems to have put it behind her at last, at least in the part of her life that she chose to share with the public.
It wasn’t until 1930 that Agatha Christie really got back on track with her writing with The Murder at the Vicarage, the first novel-length appearance of Miss Marple. It was dedicated to Rosalind, by now 11 years old, and although didn’t receive a universally positive reception with critics, was very popular with fans.
That same year, Christie also published another book, except at the time nobody knew she had written it. Giant’s Bread appeared under the pseudonym “Mary Westmacott”, and deals with themes such as divorce, financial trouble, and death — many have seen it and those like it that followed as the place where Agatha really worked out the problems that led to her 11-day disappearance in 1926. But that, as they say, is another story.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the events and books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/theladyvanishes. There, you can also read a full transcript.
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Next time on Shedunnit: Crime at Christmas.