A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why did mystery writer Agatha Christie mysteriously disappear?

April 2, 1982

Dear Cecil:

Here is a question that will satisfy the curiosity of anyone who has ever read an Agatha Christie novel or seen one of her books as a movie or play. What is known about her mysterious "disappearance"? (1) When did she disappear? (2) Where was she (at home, on a trip, etc.)? (3) Was foul play suspected? (4) How old was she? (5) Could she have engineered her own disappearance to be dramatic in keeping with her novels? (6) Is she now presumed dead?

Cecil replies:

Inasmuch as Agatha Christie was buried in an English churchyard in 1976, I think it's pretty safe to assume she's dead. However, you never know with these mystery writers. In any event, the famous "disappearance" you refer to occurred some 50 years earlier, and if she was senile at the time it is surely the most protracted case of that disorder in the history of medicine.

Mrs. Christie disappeared on the evening of Friday, December 3, 1926, from her home near a small town in Berkshire, England. She was an established mystery writer even then; her seventh effort, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was on the best-seller lists. Nonetheless, she was known to have been nervous and depressed. Her mother, to whom she had been quite close, had died some months earlier, and perhaps more important, her husband Archie, a handsome war hero, was having an affair with a woman named Nancy Neele, which he made little effort to disguise. On the day Agatha disappeared, in fact, Archie had gone to the home of some friends to spend the weekend with his inamorata. Around 9:45 PM Agatha announced she was going out for a drive. The next morning her car was found abandoned several miles away, with some of her clothes and identification scattered around inside. There was an immediate uproar in the press, with speculation that Mrs. Christie had committed suicide, been murdered, lost her memory, or simply constructed an elaborate publicity stunt.

Agatha had written several confusing letters to her husband and others before vanishing. One, to her brother-in-law, said she was simply going for a vacation in Yorkshire; another, to the local chief constable, said she feared for her life. A quarter mile from where her car was found there was a lake called Silent Pool that Agatha had used in one of her books; one of her characters had drowned there. The police promptly had the lake dredged, without result. Hearing of the husband's infidelities, the police tapped his phones and followed him wherever he went. They also organized 15,000 volunteers to search the surrounding countryside.

As it rather anticlimactically turned out, Agatha had gone to Yorkshire after all, specifically to a health spa in the town of Harrogate, where she signed in on the morning of Saturday, December 4, under the name, significantly, of Teresa Neele. As the days passed and her picture continued to appear in the newspapers, several of the guests recognized her, but she laughed off suggestions that she was the missing author. Finally someone notified the police, who grabbed her husband and rushed up to have him identify her, which, on Tuesday, December 14, he did. Mrs. Christie's comment was, "Fancy, my brother has just arrived."

The Christies immediately went into seclusion, and several doctors were called in; they put out the story that Agatha was suffering from amnesia brought on by grief over her mother's death. Virtually no one believed this, though, and Agatha's subsequent refusal ever to discuss the matter--she made no mention of it in her autobiography--has fueled speculation among mystery buffs that continues to this day. The most plausible explanation is that she simply wanted to get away from a bad situation and embarrass her husband at the same time. At any rate, the two were divorced in 1928 and she later married archaeologist Max Mallowan.

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