At quarter to ten on the evening of Friday, December 3, 1926, an up and coming crime writer left her home in Berkshire, England saying she was going out for a drive.
She first went upstairs to kiss her sleeping daughter, Rosalind, then got into her Morris Cowley and drove off. The next morning the car was found abandoned several miles away.
Where was she? She had left behind several confusing letters, one to her brother in law, saying she was going to take a holiday in Yorkshire; another to the local constable, saying she feared for her life.
The writer’s mother had died just a few months earlier and it was reported that she had been depressed over it. There was a lake called Silent Pool just a quarter of a mile from where her car was found. A character in one of her books had drowned there.
So – was it suicide then? The police started dredging the lake. 15,000 volunteers joined the search of the surrounding countryside. (This is before England’s urban planners had done away with the English countryside.)
But now the plot thickens.
The police discovered that the writer’s husband, Archie, a handsome fighter pilot war hero,was having an affair with a woman named Nancy Neele, and had told his wife he was going to spend that weekend with her at their love nest in Surrey. He wanted a divorce but she had refused.
Had he murdered his wife so he could marry his mistress? The police started following him, even tapped his phone.
Or did the butler do it?
The police investigated further. The family didn’t have a butler. Damn.
For eleven days in 1926 all England was abuzz with the story: what had become of Agatha Christie?
The mystery made the front page of the New York Times. The British Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, demanded answers. Even celebrated crime writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers got involved.
Doyle took one of Agatha’s discarded gloves to a medium and tried to get in touch with the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe. Dorothy carefully inspected the scene of the crime and then … and then used all the material she gathered to help her write another book. Typical writer!
Where was Agatha’s body?
Agatha’s body was sitting in a cane chair reading magazines in Yorkshire.
In the end it wasn’t a who-dunnit after all. It was British Literature’s great why-dunnit.
But in the denouement it was revealed that he was right after all. She had checked in – disappointingly not under the name Miss Marple – but as Theresa Neele. (Neele was actually the name of her husband’s paramour.)
She even left clues; she placed an advertisement in the London Times saying Mrs Theresa Neele’s relatives could find her at the Hydro in Harrogate. But the Poirrots at Scotland Yard missed that.
Finally some of the spa’s other guests compared the photographs in the newspaper with their own Mrs Neele, gathered everyone in the dining room, and solved the case.
It seemed that she had just dumped the car, walked into town and caught the train to London. She did a little retail therapy, posted the letter to Archie – a good crime writer always leaves clues – and took the train to Yorkshire. Elementary my dear Watson.
When the press got wind of the fact that Mrs. Agatha Christie was not dead in a ditch but had been relaxing for eleven days at a spa, they were outraged. They demanded answers; Agatha refused to give one.
And she kept silent about the whole episode until the day she died.
So it remains forever The Mysterious Affair When She Wasn’t at Styles.
The official line was that she had amnesia brought on by grief over her mother’s death. It sounds suspiciously like an alibi to me. No true crime buff would believe it.
Another is that she was in a fugue state, a rare psychogenic condition brought on by trauma and depression. Was it then a form of emotional blackmail, a desperate attempt to save a failed marriage?
No! I believe the real culprit is right here in this room, he says pointing his finger accusingly at Agatha herself, and that she did it to boost sales of her new book, The Murder of Peter Ackroyd!
* The rest of the cast gasp, in horror at the deviousness of the plot and in admiration of my brilliant detective work. *
If I’m right, and it was all an elaborate publicity stunt, then it was a stroke of genius.
Ms Christie went on to sell around a billion copies of her eighty novels in English, and another billion in 103 other languages. (I didn’t know there were that many.)
She and Archie were divorced in 1928 and Agatha later married archaeologist MaxMallowan, 15 years her junior. (A sure bet. The great thing about marrying an archaeologist – the older a woman gets, the more interested he is in her.)
She finally died in 1975, aged 86, from natural causes.
At least that’s what she wants us all to think …