When the World’s Most Famous Mystery Writer Vanished
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because great writers are people, too.
By Sean Braswell
Vanished Without a Trace: Our take on some of history’s enduring mysteries.
In her favorite armchair, deep within the confines of her Berkshire home, Mrs. Archibald Christie leaned back and closed her eyes. In spite of the cozy fire, she shivered on the chilly December evening.
Mentally, she replayed the whirlwind of events as best she could in her addled mind. The death of her beloved mother, taken well before her time. The runaway success of her sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd — what a profitable hobby her passion was turning into. Her beautiful, creative daughter, sweet Rosalind, how she deserved better than this.
And, of course, she thought of Archie. Her husband of 12 years, that handsome and dashing aviator with the curly hair who had taken her surfing in Hawaii. Her dear husband, Archie, who didn’t particularly want children, who now seemed to want only to play golf on the weekend. Who seemed to want only … that woman.
She must not think of Archie … Was it really his intention to leave them alone? Had he demanded a divorce or had she only imagined it? Yet here she was, just 36, alone, still mourning the death of a parent and now facing the loss of her husband and home. She shivered again.
Had she pursued the lovers to their nest, where the whole affair had suddenly turned ugly?
How she longed to be free of it all, to get away. Could it work? She could not tell yet where the story, her story, would end. But she knew where it would start. Her business was mystery, after all.
And then, with a cold feeling around her heart, she methodically — like one of her dastardly villains — climbed the stairs, kissed her sleeping daughter and packed a bag and coat before climbing into her green Morris Cowley motorcar and driving off into the winter night.
That Friday, Dec. 3, 1926, at 21:45 hours, Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime and the woman the Guinness World Records book calls the best-selling novelist of all time, engineered what remains her greatest mystery of all: her own unsolved disappearance.
* * *
Superintendent William Kenward, the deputy chief constable in Surrey, had dispatched many important cases during his long career, but this one had him baffled. As his fellow constables steered a small group of bystanders away from the abandoned Morris Cowley, he laid out the facts in his mind like one might shake out a box of American Cracker Jacks to locate the prize.
One Frederick Dore of Thames Ditton had discovered the motorcar earlier that day, its bonnet buried in the bushes, on the steep dirt track near the quarry he was now standing by at Newlands Corner, near Guildford. Inside was a fur coat, a case containing some clothes and an expired driver’s license belonging to the most famous woman this side of London. There was no sign of forced entry or struggle, and nobody inside. Someone had pushed the vehicle down the hill. But was it the owner? Her abductor? Her killer?
The police had already issued a description of the missing writer: “Aged 35 [sic], height 5 feet, 7 inches, hair reddish and shingled, eyes gray, complexion fair. Well-built, dressed in gray and dark gray cardigan, small green velour hat, wearing a platinum ring with one pearl, but no wedding ring.”
Another local, one Edward McAlister of Merrow, had come forward claiming that he had been approached by a woman matching that description at 6:20 a.m., asking to help start her car. She had been in a strange manner and wore no coat or hat despite the cold weather. Once the car had started, she thanked him and drove away. Yet now, here was the car, back at Newlands Corner.
Could the husband have been responsible? The colonel was having an affair with a younger woman named Nancy Neele, who lived not far from the crash site. He and Mrs. Christie had been quarreling, and he had informed her he would be spending the weekend with Miss Neele. Had she pursued the lovers to their nest, where the whole affair had suddenly turned ugly?
Yes, Superintendent Kenward thought, the husband was the prime suspect. They always were. But it didn’t seem to fit with the scene he saw before him. In fact, he tended to agree with the husband’s straightforward assessment of the case: Mrs. Christie’s disappearance was voluntary, either the result of memory loss or suicide. Though the last option seemed unlikely. “If a person intends to end his life,” he had overheard Mr. Christie tell a reporter for the Daily Mail, “he does not take the trouble to go miles away and then remove a heavy coat and then walk off into the blue before doing it.”
No, something else was going on here. Had Mrs. Christie, out of her mind with grief, just struck out into the great beyond? Or was this some elaborate ploy to embarrass or shame her husband — to place him at the scene of his infidelity and make him a murder suspect in the eyes of the world? Kenward felt the hand of a criminal mastermind behind the whole affair, even if, as of yet, there was no crime to be found.
* * *
What followed was a manhunt unlike any the nation had ever seen. News of the celebrity disappearance had spread quickly. And now more than 1,000 police officers and 15,000 volunteers were scouring the countryside, while airplanes — a first for a missing person case — scanned from above. Local huntsmen and their hounds combed through the valleys and glens, while Mrs. Christie’s own wire-haired terrier had been brought to the crash site. The poor whimpering animal could find no sign of his mistress anywhere.
Superintendent Kenward cringed as Mrs. Christie’s fellow mystery writers, from Dorothy L. Sayers to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, lent their expert, albeit purely fanciful, detective skills to the hunt. Sir Conan Doyle had gone so far as to provide a medium with one of Mrs. Christie’s gloves to see if the spirit world could be pressed into service alongside the manhunt.
She attributed the mysterious vanishing to a dream state.
Meanwhile, countless solutions to the great whodunit were bandied across the newspapers and tearooms of England. Perhaps her unfaithful husband had murdered her. Perhaps the famous novelist was out wandering somewhere after suffering from amnesia after the crash. Perhaps she had drowned herself in a nearby natural spring. Or maybe it was all merely a clever ruse, a massive publicity stunt for her latest book, or to teach her wayward husband a lesson.
“Mrs. Christie,” as no less than Chief Inspector W.C. Gough, late of Scotland Yard, had put it, “has, wittingly or unwittingly, in real life been the central figure in a mystery that surpasses anything in her clever novels.”
* * *
When it comes to fashionable elegance, few locales in England can rival the spa town of Harrogate in Yorkshire. Even the staunchly communist Karl Marx had visited the well-heeled town a half-century earlier, in 1873, taking the waters at the Swan Hydro — later the Old Swan Hotel — after falling ill in London.
Now the Swan was a bustling epicenter of music and balls and pretty young things dancing the night away. Just the kind of place one goes to be seen, or not to be seen, as the case may be. It was here that a rather shy woman, who kept to the sidelines of the festivities, one Miss Theresa Neele of Cape Town, South Africa, had registered with no luggage and taken sanctuary. She bore little resemblance to the Miss Neele who had been in the news of late, but it was uncanny how much she looked like the missing crime novelist half the world had been searching for over the past 11 days.
It was the hotel’s banjo player, a Mr. Bob Tappin, who finally recognized England’s most notorious missing person hiding in plain sight. He notified the police immediately, who summoned Colonel Christie to Yorkshire to collect his wife. When he arrived, there was no joyful reunion — she kept him waiting in the hotel lounge for almost an hour while she changed.
Mrs. Christie was safe and well and alive, albeit more than 200 miles from the spot where she had vanished. Her appearance there, thought Superintendent Kenward, raised more questions than her disappearance. And Mrs. Christie was not able — or perhaps willing — to provide many answers. She claimed to remember almost nothing: not why she had left her home, nor why she had assumed the last name of her husband’s mistress. She attributed the mysterious vanishing to a dream state. “For 24 hours I wandered in a dream,” she said. “And then found myself in Harrogate as a well-contented and perfectly happy woman who believed she had just come from South Africa.”
Her husband appeared completely satisfied with her memory loss, and probably wished it extended to other things as well, thought Kenward. The doctors joined in the diagnosis that Mrs. Christie had entered into a “fugue state,” a sort of psychogenic trance brought on by stress. And yet, mused the skeptical superintendent, in the midst of that state she had somehow managed to board a train and transport herself across much of England and into one of the country’s poshest resorts without being noticed. So be it; at least he could close the book on this one — even if posterity could not.
* * *
In the corner of a first-class carriage, the illustrious Mrs. Christie, newly found and now homeward bound, stared out the window, trying to ignore her husband’s restless gaze. Life was not at all like a mystery novel. It had too many loose ends. There were no bodies to be found, and nothing was ever tidied up completely, much less solved. It was a perfect mess, an unfinished portrait. There was only the courage to act and the time to heal. “I like living,” as the great writer would later reflect. “I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”
Epilogue: Agatha Christie made a full recovery and divorced her husband in 1928. Needing to get away again, she boarded the Orient Express and traveled to the Middle East, where she met an archaeologist named Max Mallowan, who would become the love of her life. Her books have sold more than 2 billion copies worldwide.