The enormous success and timeless popularity of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery novels is built on skilfully crafted whodunnit plot formulas. Crucially, whichever of her famous protagonists is on the case, the ‘mystery’ component of her intricately plotted detective fiction classics is always resolved. The ‘who’ in Christie’s whodunnits is ultimately revealed thanks to the brilliant deductions of her charismatic sleuths.
Of course, real life rarely adheres to such neat plotting devices and mysteries aren’t always tied up in a satisfying bow of narrative closure. Indeed, the great mystery of Christie’s own life remains notoriously puzzling.
On the evening of 3 December 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared from her home in Sunningdale, Berkshire and remained missing for 11 days. Considering her standing as the bestselling novelist of all time (outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare), it’s surprising that such a well-chronicled episode of Christie’s life has remained resistant to the narrative closure that was so important to her own work.
A troubled marriage
Agatha Christie’s extraordinary career as a murder mystery author was already hitting impressive heights in 1926. Five years earlier, her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, had introduced her ingenious plotting and most famous character, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, quickly establishing the brilliantly crafted template that would launch her to literary fame.
At the time of her disappearance, Christie’s most recent release was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a tour de force that is widely considered to be her greatest novel. Indeed, in 2013, the British Crime Writers’ Association voted it the best crime novel of all time.
But for all her literary success, Christie wasn’t happy. Her husband, Archie Christie, a former World War One pilot, had been having an affair with his young secretary, Nancy Neele, and in August 1926 he had asked Agatha for a divorce. Tensions continued to simmer and seemingly boiled over on the day of her disappearance. Following a particularly vicious fight, Archie left to stay with friends. That same evening, Agatha is said to have left her daughter with their maid and departed the property in her Morris Cowley.
A mysterious vanishing
The next morning Christie’s abandoned car was discovered by the local police several miles from her property. It was partially submerged in roadside bushes and appeared to have been involved in some sort of accident. The headlights were on and a suitcase and coat remained in the back seat, but Christie was nowhere to be seen. News of the suspicious discovery quickly spread, hitting the front pages of the national press and capturing the public’s imagination.
A significant manhunt involving thousands of policemen and volunteers promptly commenced and Christie’s mysterious disappearance became big news, attracting the involvement of politicians and other public figures. Fellow mystery writer and keen spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even sought the assistance of a clairvoyant, using one of Christie’s gloves as a guide.
Perhaps inevitably given Christie’s novelistic oeuvre, news of her disappearance led to widespread rumours of foul play, with Archie and his mistress Nancy Neale emerging as prime suspects. The police even dredged a local lake, known as the Silent Pool, in search of a body.
A bizarre twist
The first breakthrough didn’t come for another 10 days but delivered a satisfyingly bizarre plot twist that wouldn’t have been out of place on the pages of one of Christie’s mysteries. The police received word from the Swan Hydro Hotel in fashionable Harrogate of an out-going South African lady, going by the name of Theresa Neale (notably, Neale was the surname of Archie’s mistress), who bore an uncanny resemblance to the missing mystery author.
The police accompanied Archie Christie to the Harrogate hotel and he quickly identified his wife as she sat in the dining room reading a newspaper emblazoned with headline news of her own disappearance. Curiously, she greeted Archie’s appearance with apparent bewilderment.
According to Archie, his wife’s confusion was the result of amnesia and a possible concussion, and perhaps the mysterious circumstances surrounding her disappearance and subsequent behaviour can, to some extent, be explained by such a diagnosis. It certainly seems plausible that Christie’s failing marriage, along with the recent death of her mother, could have sparked a nervous breakdown. Indeed, biographer Andrew Norman believes that she may have fallen into a ‘fugue state’ – a rare form of psychogenic trance triggered by trauma or depression.
But what exactly happened during those 11 days seems likely to remain a mystery. The disappearance is completely unmentioned in Christie’s posthumously released 1977 autobiography, and no one who might have had any further insight into the affair spoke of it again.