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 left.
The next morning the car was found several miles away – abandoned.
Where was she?
She left behind a letter, addressed to the local constable, saying she feared for her life.
So – had she been murdered?
To add to the intrigue, the writer’s mother had died just a few months earlier and she was said to be severely depressed. 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 – must be suicide then.
The police started dredging the lake. Fifteen thousand volunteers joined the search of the surrounding countryside.
The writer’s name? You might have heard of her. It was Agatha Christie.
And now the plot thickens…
The police discovered that Agatha’s husband, Archie, a handsome fighter pilot and war hero, had been having an affair with a woman named Nancy Neele. He had told Agatha he was going to spend the weekend with Nancy at their love nest in Surrey.
He had asked for a divorce, but she had refused to give him one.
Was this the reason she feared for her life?
Had he murdered his wife so he could marry his mistress?
The police started following him, even tapped his phone.
Or perhaps, you know, the butler did it?
The police investigated further. The family didn’t have a butler. Damn.
For eleven days in 1926, all England was abuzz with the mystery of what had happened to the woman who was to become the greatest mystery writer in literary history.
What had happened to Agatha Christie?
The story 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; Sayers spent days inspecting the scene of the crime and then announced that she had now enough material to write another book.
A typical writer.
If Agatha was dead – where was her body?
Her body was still breathing and sitting in a cane chair reading magazines in Yorkshire.
In fact Agatha’s brother-in-law, Campbell, had already told the police that Agatha had written to him the week before she disappeared, saying she was going to a spa in Yorkshire. But the police didn’t believe him – they thought it was a red herring.
In the denouement, it was revealed that he was right after all. She had checked in – disappointingly not under the name Miss Marple – but the name Theresa Neele – the same surname as her husband’s paramour.
Like any good crime writer, she had even left clues; she had placed an advertisement in the London Times saying Mrs. Theresa Neele’s relatives could find her at the Hydro in Harrogate.
But the Poirots 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 after she had dumped her car, she had simply walked into town and caught a train to London. Once there, she did a little retail therapy, posted the letter to Archie 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; why had she done it?
She refused to say.
In fact, she kept silent about the whole episode her entire life. Her most enduring mystery died with her, unsolved.
The official line was that she had amnesia brought on by grief over her mother’s death, or that she was in a fugue state, a rare psychogenic condition brought on by trauma and depression.
Another theory was that her devious writer’s mind contrived the whole affair to ruin her husband’s dirty weekend.
No! I believe the real culprit is right here in this room, I say, pointing my 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, because 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 languages.)
She and Archie were divorced in 1928 and Agatha later married archaeologist Max Mallowan, 15 years her junior. (She reportedly said that the great thing about marrying an archaeologist was that the older she got, the more interested he was in her.)
She finally died in 1975, aged 86, from natural causes.
At least that’s what she wants us all to think.
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