Agatha Christie’s mysterious 11-day disappearance after husband’s affair exposed
Dame Agatha Christie is still known as the queen of crime fiction, 100 years after her debut novel was published.
The author’s books have sold more than two billion copies and her stage play The Mousetrap is the world’s longest-running drama.
Many of her books and short stories have also been adapted for television, radio or the big screen.
But despite all of Christie’s fame and success, she took a mystery of her own to the grave – and it would even baffle her sleuths Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.
At around 9pm on December 3, 1926, Christie climbed into her Morris Cowley car and drove away from the family home in Berkshire. She would not be seen again for 11 days.
Christie was already a household name following the success of her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
And when her car was found parked above a quarry at Newlands Corner in Surrey the following day, the mystery deepened.
More than 1,000 police officers and hundreds of civilians were involved in the search for the writer and, for the first time ever, aeroplanes were used. Some suggested Christie had killed herself or been murdered, while others said it was a publicity stunt for her new book.
But on December 14, she was found safe and well at a hotel in Harrogate, North Yorks. She claimed to remember nothing and it was left to the police to try and piece the puzzle together.
A few days before her disappearance, Christie discovered her husband Archie had been having an affair with his golf partner, Nancy Neele. He had asked Christie for a divorce.
Oddly, Christie had booked into the hotel under the name Neele.
Four months earlier, the author’s mother Clarissa had also died. In 1928, she divorced Archie and in an interview that year, gave a few clues to her disappearance.
She said: “There came into my mind the thought of driving into it [the quarry]. However, as my daughter [Rosalind, then seven] was with me in the car, I dismissed the idea at once. That night I felt terribly miserable. I felt that I could go on no longer.
“I left home that night in a state of high nervous strain with the intention of doing something desperate.”
It later emerged that Christie had written to her husband’s brother to say she was feeling unwell and heading to a spa in York. But she checked in to the hotel using the name Theresa Neele.
After she returned home, the deeply private author claimed “amnesia” had caused her to flee. She never spoke of it again.
Christie, who was born Agatha Miller, had a happy childhood in Torquay, Devon, which she said was largely due to her “very agreeable” father Frederick and mother Clarissa.
Her brother Louis and sister Margaret were sent to boarding school but Christie did not have a formal education. By the age of five, however, she had taught herself to read and indulged her passion for books in her father’s library.
Even at an early age, she was fascinated by the macabre and amused herself by learning about poisons.
Writing in her autobiography, she asked: “Why did I like being frightened? What instinctive need is satisfied by terror? Why, indeed, do children like stories about bears, wolves and witches?”
But her childhood came to an abrupt end in 1901, aged 11, when her father died. She said his death caused her to “step out of my child’s world, a world of security and thoughtlessness, to enter the fringes of the world of reality”.
Clarissa went on to have a number of serious heart attacks, leaving the family in a constant state of worry and turmoil. And by 14, Christie said she felt almost entirely responsible for her mother. Writing stories became her form of escape.
In 1912 she met military officer Archie Christie and they married on Christmas Eve 1914, despite the uncertainties of the First World War.
Christie wrote: “We had an engagement that lasted a year-and-a-half. It was a tempestuous time, full of ups and downs and deep unhappiness because we had the feeling that we were reaching out for something we would never attain.”
Christie was a nurse for the Voluntary Aid Detachment in a Red Cross Hospital in Torquay. In 1918, she qualified as a pharmacist.
Her passion for poisons and potions continued and she prided herself on her professional knowledge of “the bottles of arsenic and digitalis” which turned up frequently in her whodunnits. In 1919, Rosalind was born, and the Christies enjoyed a life of travel and luxury due to Archie’s job of promoting the British Empire Exhibition.
The writer remarked: “Going round the world was one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me.”
But Christie’s biographer Laura Thompson said that between April and August 1926, everything fell apart and Christie suffered a type of nervous breakdown.
She said: “She was not herself. She’d lost her mother and she’d lost her husband. The shock must have felt like her world had fallen in. She hadn’t really seen it coming and she had taken Archie a bit for granted. But she was madly in love with him.
“When she disappeared – which was a cry for help to him – she wasn’t thinking the way she would have done in her normal capacity and hadn’t foreseen it would be a tabloid sensation.
“She did rebuild herself after 1926 in a way that I find extremely admirable. It’s how you come out of a crisis that shows what kind of person you are.”
After her marriage collapsed, Christie travelled to Iraq to mend her broken heart. There she fell in love with archaeologist Max Mallowan, who was 13 years her junior. They married in Edinburgh in 1930 and the marriage lasted until Christie’s death in 1976, aged 85.
After she met Mallowan, Christie’s life seemed to settle and she was able to focus on her writing – penning two to three books a year – including Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express.
In 1971 she was made a Dame for her contribution to literature – and her work, which includes 75 novels, 165 short stories and 16 plays, has remained popular.
Hercule Poirot, the fussy Belgian detective who featured in more than 83 of her stories, has been played by numerous TV stars, including David Suchet.
And her clever sleuth Miss Marple has proved equally popular, with the likes of Joan Hickson, Margaret Rutherford and Julia McKenzie taking the part.
But we’ll probably never know for certain what happened in those 11 lost days.
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