The Disappearance of Agatha Christie

In his famous article of January 20, 1945, the distinguished literary critic Edmund Wilson posed the challenging question, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?”  He was referring to the mystery novel of the same name by Agatha Christie. In a previous article in 1944 he had found her writing, “of a mawkishness and banality which seem to me to be impossible to read.” Wilson was surprised that prominent individuals such as Woodrow Wilson, W.B. Yeats, and T.S. Eliot were interested in the mystery novel genre. He would have been even more surprised that the genre constitutes the largest readership.

The mystery novel is a special genre of its own, separate from other types of fiction that it overlaps with such as police procedurals, suspense and thriller works, and hard-boiled noir stories which concentrate on action and realism.  The formula is a mysterious death or commission of a crime to be solved. A number of people are involved in the plot, each with a credible motive and an opportunity to commit the crime, which is usually solved by a detective or official through logical deduction, sometimes with a gifted amateur whom the detective finds annoying at first but comes to admire. During the work, clues are provided for a solution which is believable.

Why are so many people interested in mysteries? Explanation may vary. It is escapist entertainment.  There is fascination with a crime of acceptable violence. The stories, suspenseful in nature, allow us to live vicariously through the characters.

People instinctively like puzzles, as the widespread addiction to crossword puzzles shows.  They match wits with the author. Or they may grow attached to the detectives solving the crime. Reading mysteries is an intellectual exercise. Readers defy the challenge of disorder and intellectually want to find the solution of normality. They like restoring things to order; they want to correct the abnormal or immoral, and see that justice is done, the wrongdoer is discovered and will be punished.

No one will claim that Agatha Christie has the literary skills of Flaubert or Stendhal or Jane Austen.  Yet, despite Wilson’s magisterial assessment of her writing, most people can accept that Agatha Christie, by sheer volume  of output alone, is the queen of mystery writers. She wrote 66 detective mystery books and a number of short story collections, and is said to be the best-selling author of all time, apart from the Bible and Shakespeare. Though most works are admired, some are more controversial because of the introduction of objectionable character stereotypes of Italians, Jews, and non-Europeans. One example is the book The Secret of Chimneys that introduces a character named Herman Isaacstein who is portrayed as a stereotypical Jewish financier with a large nose, and who is referred to by another character as Nosystein.  

One record is secure. Christie is the author of the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap.  She also, because of her extensive knowledge acquired by working in chemical shops and the fact she was a qualified dispenser, used poisons, especially arsenic, to explain the deaths of characters. Indeed, because of this expertise she received a review in the Pharmaceutical Journal.

Among her fictional detectives or solvers of mysteries are some relatively not well-known individuals, Tommy and Tuppence, Ariadne Oliver, Harley Quinn. But two are iconic figures who have become familiar to the general public. First, there is Hercule Poirot, a Belgian born, aging bachelor, highly intelligent, always in neat attire,  immaculately groomed, with his wonderful luxurious moustache, little grey cells, belief in order and method, and gift for psychological penetration of suspects. Poirot appeared in 33 novels, 50 short stories, and two plays, right from the beginning of Christie’s oeuvre in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Poirot is eccentric, bombastic, ego-centered, lacking in modesty. He often refers to himself in the third person. He proclaims, “I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” His closest associate is Captain Arthur Hastings, friend and helper who resembles the role of Dr. Watson in relation to Sherlock Holmes. Poirot seeks justice, but is not immune to humane gestures in a number of stories. Interestingly, in the very book that is Edmund Wilson’s bête noire, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot allows the murderer to escape justice by allowing him to commit suicide, and then withholding the truth of his guilt from his relatives. In the novel and film, Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot lets the perpetrators, twelve people, go free because no one particular person was responsible for the murder and they were justified in their anger. When Poirot “died,” he was given a full-page obituary in the New York Times.

Then there is the less imposing but equivalently brilliant female, Miss Marple, elderly spinster, a sweet attractive little old lady, highly intelligent, leading a sheltered small village life, who is an amateur consulting detective in 18 books and collections.  She is understated but shrewd behind her knitting, gardening, and gossip. With somewhat false modesty she explained she had no gifts except perhaps a certain knowledge of human nature. Christie once explained Marple was modelled on her maternal grandmother.

Those gifts of Miss Marple might have helped in solving an extraordinary whodunnit. The only unsolved mystery concerning Agatha Christie is a mysterious affair in her own life, her disappearance for 11 days in 1926.  The facts are reasonably if not fully known. On December 3, 1926 her husband Archie Christie, a handsome fighter pilot, a colonel in World War I, to whom she has been married on Christmas Eve 1914, told Agatha who was then 36, that he was leaving her for his female golf partner, a much younger woman named Nancy Neele. 

Later that evening Agatha kissed her sleeping seven-year-old daughter Rosalind goodnight, left her home in Sunningdale, and drove off in her Morris Cowley.  The car was found abandoned at Newlands Corner near Guildford in Surrey. It contained her fur coat, bag and out-of-date driving license. Close to where the  car was found was a quarry, a natural spring, the Silent Pool where two young children were reputed to have died. Speculation was immediate. Had Agatha drowned herself or intended to commit suicide, but then changed her mind? The pool was dredged to no avail.

A large police force of 1,000 searched the area joined by thousands of volunteers and individuals were consulted, including well known mystery story writers. Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes and an occultist, used his paranormal powers to no effect, and Dorothy L. Sayers, rival mystery writer and inventor of Lord Peter Wimsey, could not find an explanation. The story of the disappearance was featured on the front page of the New York Times.

There were and remain conjectures about the event. At the time of her disappearance one question was whether Archie Christie had killed his wife. Was Agatha suffering from memory loss,  a fugue state, psychological disorder, with amnesia regarding personal identity? Was she fleeing from her own identity? Did she undergo a  trauma, depression, a nervous breakdown? Was foul play involved? Was it all a publicity stunt?

Agatha had fled to a spa hotel , the Harrogate Hydro (now the Old Swan) in fashionable Harrogate in Yorkshire. where she registered under the last name of Archie’s mistress, Theresa Neele of Capetown, South Africa.  She brought no luggage. She said she remembered nothing of she got there. However, she apparently joined in balls and dances at the hotel.

There were reported sightings of her around the country, but she never left the hotel.

After 11 days Archie on May 6 came to the hotel after some of the staff had become suspicious of their mysterious guest. They left together. Agatha never spoke about the disappearance, and there are no direct references to it in her books, though there may be hints in some of them. She divorced Archie in 1928, and later in 1930 married the famous archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan.  She died in January 1976.

The mystery remains about the 11 missing days. What a pity that neither Poirot nor Miss Marple were available to solve the puzzle of her disappearance.