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On a cold, dark evening in December of 1926, one of the world’s most prolific mystery authors seemingly vanished into thin air. Agatha Christie was already an icon, cementing her place among the great mystery writers that she herself admired-Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins to name a few. No one-doubtfully not even Christie herself-could have predicted that she would find herself at the center of a mystery that is still unsolved to this day.
What could have caused the famed author of many a whodunit to leave her home as Agatha Christie, only to turn up weeks later with no real memory of who she was or how she’d arrived at her destination? Those snowy weeks in December, the lines between fiction and reality blurred, and Agatha Christie became the subject of her very own mystery.
Some Agatha Christie History
Agatha Christie was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on September 15th, 1890. Her parents Frederick and Clara were an upper middle-class couple, and Agatha was their third and youngest child. According to Christie herself, her childhood was mostly a happy one, however her mother was of an antiquated notion that Agatha should not learn to read until age eight. Being a person with a voracious curiosity, she’d taught herself to read by age five-this in turn would set in motion her lifelong love of reading.
I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow; but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing. -Agatha Christie
Agatha would begin writing in her late teens, penning several short stories as well as her first full length novel titled Snow Upon the Desert. The novel would be declined by several publishers. Through family friend and successful writer Eden Phillpotts, she would be introduced to a literary agent who would encourage her to write a second novel and continue her pursuits.
In 1912, Agatha Christie was introduced to Archibald Christie, a military officer from a well to-do family. On Christmas Eve in 1914, they would marry despite Agatha’s mothers warnings about Archie’s character. While Archie was sent to France to fight in World War I, the new Mrs. Christie busied herself aiding with the war effort, volunteering as a nurse and later as a dispenser for medications. Archie returned to London in September of 1918, and the two promptly moved into a flat in London.
Agatha Christie originally wrote her first detective novel in 1916, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and after a couple of other rejections the novel was published in 1920. This debut gave the world its first look at Christie’s most famous character, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The novel was widely successful, and Agatha would follow it up with equally iconic characters like Tommy & Tuppence (The Secret Adversary, 1922) and later with the wily, middle aged sleuth Miss Marple (Murder at the Vicarage, 1930).
Christie had wedged her way into libraries all over the world. Her twisted narratives, quirky characters and shocking reveals caused her to become a sensation. People wanted more suspense, more intrigue, more mystery. Well, in the winter of 1926 they’d get more than they could have imagined.
Agatha Christie Disappearance
By 1926 Agatha Christie was enjoying quite a bit of success in her writing career-however unfortunately her personal life was less than cheerful. Clara, Agatha’s mother with whom she shared an exceptionally strong bond, passed away in April. This loss caused Agatha a great deal of stress, and she soon fell into a depression, as well as a serious case of writer’s block.
In August of the same year, Agatha’s worst fears concerning her unhappy marriage were confirmed when Archie asked her for a divorce, claiming that he had fallen in love with his then mistress, a woman by the name of Nancy Neele. It’s no wonder that around this time, stories emerged about Agatha retreating to a small village in Southern France due to what the media said was a “breakdown caused by overwork”.
By December of 1926, the marriage was completely on the rocks and many were aware of Archie’s philandering ways. On December 3rd, the couple had a heated argument after Archie announced that he would be leaving town for the weekend with friends, and presumably his mistress as well. Agatha Christie had had enough. She kissed her daughter Rosalind goodnight and left their house, driving off into the wintery night.
The following morning, her car was discovered abandoned at a chalk quarry, with a few items of clothing left, but no sign of Agatha herself. The search for the famed author quickly became front page news, with everyone from local police to psychics being called on to aid in the search (apparently Arthur Conan Doyle himself-a big believer in the occult-gave a glove of Christie’s to a medium in the hopes that it would help lead to her whereabouts). Three days after she disappeared, Agatha’s brother-in-law received a letter from Agatha indicating that she was headed to a Hotel & Spa in Yorkshire to get some rest. For some reason, police felt that this letter was fake, and chose not to follow up on this lead.
Meanwhile, Agatha had indeed found herself in Harrogate, Yorkshire, at the Hydropathic Swan Hotel. Registered under the name Mrs. Tressa Neele-”unintentionally” this was the same last name as her husband’s mistress-she is said to have believed that she was from Cape Town, South Africa. Agatha spent several days enjoying the hotel’s amenities, as it appears that she did leave her house with a decent amount of money in her pocket. She read frequently about the disappearance of a “Mrs. Christie” several days earlier, and even commented to other hotel guests about the resemblance between herself and the women in the papers. However, it wasn’t until about 10 days after she checked in that one of the members of the hotel band noticed her and realized who she really was.
As life goes on it becomes tiring to keep up the character you invented for yourself, and so you relapse into individuality and become more like yourself everyday. -Agatha Christie
Archie immediately drove to the hotel on December 14th, and claimed that when he arrived his wife did not recognize him, nor did she understand why she was at the hotel. The following day, Agatha travelled to her sister’s residence in Cheadle, and turned away all visitors, refusing to speak about the incident. She spent many months recovering, and finally petitioned the court to divorce her husband. The divorce was granted in April of 1928, and finalized that October. Archie married Nancy Neele one week later.
Her Disappearance Theories
There have been many speculations over the years as to what the cause of Agatha Christie’s brief disappearance was. Much of the media at the time was extremely unkind to the author, chalking the entire thing up to a publicity stunt in order to promote her most recent book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This theory doesn’t really track though, since the tale featuring an unreliable narrator had already been performing very well, and was not in need of a publicity boost. The public took things a step further, theorizing that she had set all of this up to embarrass or possibly incriminate her cheating husband in some way.
Several doctors examined Agatha following the incident, and all agreed that she had suffered a genuine loss of memory, though the exact cause has never been determined. Many believe that she experienced some sort of fugue state, or another emotional break in which she was not in control of her actions.
Agatha herself refused to speak about her lost time, and even in her autobiography she said of the time around her disappearance and divorce that “it was best not to dwell on it”. She gave one interview on the subject in February of 1928 for the Daily Mail, wherein she confirmed that she had no real memory of how she came to believe that she was Mrs. Tressa Neele or why she’d gone to Harrogate in the first place. If there really was another reason for this, it appears that Agatha Christie left the world with the ultimate mystery to solve.
Thankfully, after the disintegration of her marriage, Agatha was able to pick up the pieces, and make the best kind of comeback. In 1928, she took the famed Orient Express from Istanbul to Baghdad. This is turn would become the basis for what is widely considered her most famous novel, Murder on the Orient Express. It was during this time when she was introduced to an archaeologist named Max Mallowan, who in 1930 would become her second husband. Luckily, it appears that this marriage was much happier than her first.
Cause Of Death
Christie’s health began to fail in later years, and in the early 1970s it’s believed that she had begun to suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Her final appearance in public was for the 1974 premiere of the film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, which she stated was one of the only adaptations of her work that she enjoyed. Agatha Christie passed away peacefully in her home on January 12th, 1976 at age 85.
The mystery of Agatha Christie and her disappearance has fueled decades of theories, and in turn inspired its own works, most recently with the publication of The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict in 2020, a fictional work that explores that time.
It seems only fitting that the author behind some of the most expertly crafted whodunnits of all time would experience her own unexplained conundrum. We may never know what really happened to Agatha Christie, but one thing is certain: the woman knows how to keep the mystery alive.
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