The Mystery of the Disappearing Agatha

The Mystery of the Disappearing Agatha

Disappearing Agatha

“Truth” I observed, laying aside the “Daily Newsmonger” is stranger than fiction!” The remark was not perhaps an original one. It appeared to incense my friend. Tilting his egg-shaped head on one side, the little man carefully flicked and imaginary speck of dust from his carefully creased trousers and observed, “How profound! What a thinker is my friend Hastings!” From: The King of Clubs

The Mysterious affair at Styles

Truth is indeed stranger than Fiction. What more exciting and mysterious drama then than the actual real-life disappearance of Agatha Christie, that great crime novelist, at 9.45 pm on the evening of December 3rd. 1926? Her car had been noticed the next morning, its headlamps probing the half-light of a rising dawn, perched on the edge of a chalk pit by Water Lane, near a little village named Aldbury in Surrey. A couple of early risers had passed the car by without much speculation, obviously bent on their own business and lacking curiosity. So it was not till Frederick Dore, a local car mechanic spotted the abandoned car some time after 8.00 am on the 4th December that the police were notified and called to the scene.

The brakes were off, the gear in neutral position and it was evident the car had been pushed down the hill by someone. Inside the car was a case with women’s clothing and a fur coat that had been left in the car despite the extremely cold temperature of the previous night. All deeply suspicious indeed. Agatha Christie’s husband, Colonel Archibald Christie, had been away for the weekend with friends, which included in the party a young lady, Nancy Neele, who was undoubtedly his mistress. Colonel Christie was called back to his home, Styles, to answer questions about the sudden disappearance of his wife, none too pleased to be dragged away, and insisted that he had not seen his wife since Friday morning before leaving for work. On arriving at Styles, he discovered a letter left by Agatha on the hall table, full of accusations, anger and insinuations. Colonel Christie knew full well this was her way of trying to implicate him and revenge herself for his faithlessness and the fact that their marriage was breaking up and so he burnt the incriminating letter and told the secretary not to mention it to a soul.

Her sudden leave-taking from home in her car, after kissing her sleeping child goodbye, placing Peter the dog, which she normally took with her everywhere, on the front mat, was secretive, strange dramatic enough to make the servants sense something wrong. Then, it was as if she faded into a mysterious nowhere. In a letter that she left for her secretary, she said” my head is bursting, I cannot stay in this house.” It seemed to indicate a person ready to burst, with a great desire to run away and be freed from intolerable pain and anguish.

A Vengeful Lady

“Yes, affection may turn to hate under the stimulus of jealousy…she would want an outcry…a scandal.”
Hercule Poirot to Hastings: The Cornish Mystery

Agatha Christie was already a highly successful novelist famous for her crime stories though she also wrote later in more romantic vein under the name of Mary Woolacott. But fame is not always as wonderful as it seems to those who look from afar on the famous with awe and admiration. Agatha was beginning to fin that her fame was becoming a restriction and a burden upon her. At the time of her disappearance, she had been through a great deal of personal pain and loss for her beloved mother had died shortly before the publication of one of her most famous books “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” . With astonishing lack of sensitivity, her husband, that dashing flying hero of the First World War, announced that he now loved Nancy Neele. All the abandonment and painful separation anxiety in her life must have unhinged her ever sensitive nervous system.

Agatha’s disappearance created an immense public reaction, far greater than anything she might have had expected herself. She was an intensely shy person as most Virgo people are. On the night she planned her dramatic disappearance there is a sense of her need to revenge herself - much as some suicides are said to do, leaving in their wake, guilt, anger, fear. Her darker side, the side that wrote of crime, murder, hate and anger was her Achilles heel and her dark, inner secret. She loved her husband deeply and now Archie was to feel the full weight of this obsessive love. This was the 1920’s when extra marital affairs were considered scandalous. Her disappearance left him in danger of having his love affair revealed to the world, his business in ruins, his social standing in tatters and the possibility of losing the woman he now loved and wanted to marry into the bargain. What sweet revenge for Agatha . . . better than cutting up ties anyday!

A letter arrived on Dec 4th. At the offices of Agatha’s brother in law that proved she was still alive at that point and Archie knew instinctively that she was perfectly well and probably enjoying the scandal she was creating around him. Looking back now at this strange incident, we too get the sense that it gave an enjoyable sense of power and freedom to someone who up to that point had felt powerless. Agatha put her wits and her genius to creating mysteries and this was her true power as we see from her brilliant stories. And indeed this particular Christie drama was talked about everywhere, even in the States; everyone was gripped by this real life mystery, as good as anything Agatha’s fertile imagination could have devised! Even clairvoyants were ringing to help and the police and the public never left the unhappy Archie alone. Arthur Conan Doyle gave her glove to a medium who could find nothing about her. The medium, Horace Leaf, reported that the woman called Agath was alive and well, half dazed, half purposeful. She would be heard of by the next Wednesday. His predictions were pretty close.

Difficult confrontations

On the following Sunday, two bandsmen reported that they had seen a woman answering Agatha’s description in a hotel that they played in at Harrogate, a spa town in Yorkshire. Intriguingly Agatha had taken the pseudonym of Mrs. Teresa Neele as if trying to assume the identity of Archie’s mistress in some way. She later used this surname for an Inspector in one of her Miss Marple novels. In a way, she seemed almost purposefully to leave clues here and there which like all good detective novels would lead to her whereabouts in the end. Archie went to the hotel with the police and sat in the foyer behind a newspaper in best melodramatic style while the Press shivered outside in the cold night air. An atmosphere of unbearable tension was tangible as all awaited the appearance of “Mrs. Neele” from her room upstairs. As the unwitting Agatha came sweeping down the staircase in a smart, new, salmon-coloured georgette evening dress it seemed obvious to everyone in the know that she was perfectly cheerful, enjoying her adventure, totally cool, calm and collected! Archie made himself known after indicating to the Superintendent that it was indeed his wife and though Agatha said nothing, she accepted his invitation to go to dinner without any trouble. She gave the police the dubious explanation that she had left home in great confusion and temporarily lost her memory which had now come back to her. I suspect she might have worked out a better excuse for one of her books, but it was a story that she was never to deviate from all her life and she never made any mention of the disappearance in her memoirs. But there is no doubt that her nerves were in a very overwrought state on the night she left home and modern research does now indicate that there are forms of amnesia that are like a kind of somnambulism. She might well have acted coolly and logically yet with some part of her mind switched off in order to escape the unbearable pressures she had been under.

Unfortunately this strange and unpleasant incident, a matter that should have been totally private between husband and wife, created the same sort of intense curiosity and feeding frenzy amongst the journalists then as film stars and public figures complain about nowadays. No-one really believed the amnesia excuse; she lost many friends and was to suffer the rest of her life from the fact that people would always recall this ten day incident in her life more than they did her best novels! But as we have already seen, Truth is infinitely more interesting and gripping than fiction and Agatha Christie was after all the Queen of Invention as well as Crime!

Hercule Poirot and Miss Marples: Some tea and a dead body Vicar?

“Here is menace and murder and sudden death In these phials of green and blue!”
Poem: In a dispensary 1924

Agatha Christie had splendid powers of deduction and observation rivalled only by those of Hercule Poirot himself. Yet, her characters can at times tend to be slightly unreal by today’s fictional standards. The art of fleshing out character was not her forte, her stories challenges in using the mind, puzzles and mysteries.

All her life she was haunted by strange dreams and nightmares; one of these was the Gun Man, an evil figure with haunting eyes who seemed connected with her beloved mother. Sensitive and highly imaginative, Agatha picked up the repressed frustration and shadowy, unexpressed darkenss in her merry, vivid, charming mother and used it in her dreams, her writings, her fascination with the mystery and the occult. She tended to use the more feminine term “Mystery” in her titles where the lawyer turned writer, Erle Stanley Gardner, always used the more abstract and masculine word “Case”. It is as if life was always a mystery to shy, secretive Agatha and she was always trying to solve it through her two inner characters, the figure of the foreign, clever, fastidious Hercule Poirot..a very Virgoan type of male and the equally clever, gentle and kindly Virgo like spinster, that lady of the parish, Miss Jane Marples.

Poirot was based on the Belgian refugees that Agatha met during World War One while serving in a hospital in Devon. She worked here as an assistant in the dispensary and drew on this hospital training for information of poisons and other medical matters . . . Agatha was fond of poisons as a means of death!) Poirot was supposed to be a retired Belgian police officer who spent his far from uneventful retirement solving cases almost intuitively. He was the original lateral thinker who flies in the face of orthodox reasoning and deduction. With his ability to spot the minutest detail, snuff the scents, and note the subtle rather than the obvious, he is a brilliant creation. Although, he does not have much modesty for he is highly aware of his abilities and doesn’t mind saying so, yet he will often take the backseat and allow someone less capable to take the credit. His delight is in the mystery and puzzle for its own sake.

Coming Full Circle

The first book in which Agatha introduces Poirot is “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”….which as we know was the name of the home she shared with her first husband, Colonel Archibald Christie. This book was rejected several times before at last being published and going on to form the basis of many, many more books with the Belgian detective, his moustache, his cheerful, flirtatious but rather bemused friend Captain Hastings and all their amazing adventures in crime solving. However, like all crime writers, Agatha eventually tired of her creation and ran out of steam and thus Poirot returns to Styles Court for his last case. He is now sick and enfeebled and calls on his faithful friend Captain Hastings to help him solve five apparently unconnected murders. There appears to be some kind of link between them, a person whom Poirot calls X. But before he can solve the cases, Poirot dies and Hastings is left to solve the murders himself. Inevitably these great genius puzzle solvers such as Poirot, Sherlock Holmes and other famous detectives of the era, tend to have a strange double, a shadow figure such as Watson or Hastings who act as detached narrators, observers and recorders of their own greatness. It takes the death of the more “ego-conscious” figure to allow these shadowy but supportive figures to come into their own. The trend nowadays is to give the sidekick a more definite character, more intelligence and a role other than as a foil for the other man’s greatness. The main detective is allowed to be more human and experience moments of stupidity or failure. A more balanced effect in all. But maybe not so dramatic.

Perhaps the mysterious X whom Poirot and Agatha Christie wanted so much to track down but failed to conquer is after all the common denominator we all know. In other words…..Death itself.

“Agatha Christie and the Missing Eleven Days” by Peter Owen Jared Cade London 1998
“Agatha Christie: A Biography” by Janet Morgan Harper Collins 1997

Loretta Proctor (c) 2015

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“Truth” I observed, laying aside the “Daily Newsmonger” is stranger than fiction!” The remark was not perhaps an original one. It appeared to incense my friend. Tilting his egg-shaped head on one...

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