This month’s mystery is another literary one. Agatha Christie is one of the best mystery writers to have ever lived, creating beloved characters that live on in pop culture today. However, despite the number of mysteries Christie penned, one she lived through has lived on as the most confounding and complex enigmas in the literary world. Agatha Christie vanished for eleven days in the winter of 1926, and her whereabouts during that time remain cloudy to this day. This mystery has so enraptured fans that books have been written about those eleven days. We’ll cover the basics of the case and some theories. Let’s explore.
On the evening of December 3, 1926, Agatha Christie and her husband Archie got into an argument. He had been having an affair with a woman named Nancy Neale (sometimes spelled Neele). He told Agatha he wanted a divorce and, to add insult to injury, that he would be spending the weekend “with friends” – a group which included Neale. When the fight was over, Christie went upstairs, kissed her seven-year-old daughter goodnight, and left the house in her Morris Cowley. The car was found near a chalk quarry the next morning. The lights were on and all of Christie’s belongings were still inside. A young boy saw the car and alerted the police.
The car sparked one of the largest investigations the United Kingdom has ever seen. Over a thousand police officers were put on the case to investigate, airplanes were tasked with flying over key points to look for clues, dogs were used to track her scent, rewards were offered and more. The public got involved as well, mounting their own searches and muddying the waters. Two of Christie’s friends and fellow writers also began to investigate, albeit in very different ways. Dorothy Sayers visited the Christie home and scoured it, hoping for clues but finding nothing. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, on the other hand, took one of Christie’s gloves to a psychic in hopes of finding a thread to follow. He was also unsuccessful.
The only lead came around ten days later. The Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate was a swanky spa that boasted Turkish Baths. The head waiter there thought they recognized a guest as Christie, though she claimed to be a South African woman named Theresa Neale.
With this new information in hand, Archie and investigators travelled to Yorkshire, where the Hydropathic Hotel was located. Rather than confront the guest or gather information, they conducted a dining room stakeout. Sure enough, the woman known to staff as Theresa Neale blew in without a glance at Archie. Sure enough, Archie recognized the woman as his missing wife. When he spoke to her, onlookers say she looked genuinely puzzled and didn’t seem to recognize him. But Agatha had been found.
All of the theories in this case fall under one of two headings – either Christie disappeared due in some part to her husband, or that she disappeared for an unrelated reason. For the purposes of this blog, we will cover five of the larger theories, though there are dozens of others. First, we’ll cover three theories that are related to her relationship.
The first theory is that Agatha Christie disappeared with the intention of dying by suicide. She had been presented with the idea of divorce by her husband, who had been carrying on an affair. It is possible that she felt this constituted enough of a disruption of her life that she saw no other way to cope. Of course, none of us knew what was going on in her head, so it is impossible to say. Along with this first theory, the second theory is that Christie disappeared while in a dissociative fugue. Briefly, a dissociative fugue is an amnesiac episode in which a person loses their sense of identity, memories, and typically travels. It’s possible that the idea of divorce triggered this in her, but the fact that she tucked her daughter into bed before leaving does not point to this. It’s possible that Christie went out that night to blow off steam and something else occurred to trigger a fugue state but, again, we don’t have anything to point to that.
The next theory is that Christie purposefully staged her disappearance to ruin her husband’s life. I have to say that I really like the spiteful revenge fantasy of this. It is possible that she disappeared with the intention of ruining her husband’s weekend getaway with his mistress. Additionally, it’s been said that Christie signed into the hotel under Neale, which was the surname of her husband’s mistress. That is too intentional to ignore.
The theories that fall under the unrelated-to-husband umbrella are…varied. First is that some people believed that Agatha Christie had vanished because she was off investigating a homicide somewhere. There is no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, to point to this, but I suppose it makes sense on a certain level that people would jump to this. One of the greatest minds in murder mystery writing goes off the grid – maybe she was called to do so.
And then we have the more cynical and derogatory theory that the disappearance was a publicity stunt. This is another act of conclusion jumping that does make sense to me – we see ad campaigns that are “interactive” and not branded as the brainchild of ad execs. My issue with this theory is that Christie’s career was never in danger of failing. She did not need a publicity stunt to get her name out there or boost sales.
Based on what we know, I lean towards the idea that Christie left her home in a fit of passion – she was likely angry and frustrated with her husband, and possibly feeling hopeless at the situation she found herself in. After the initial act of leaving, though, I’m less convinced of what happened, simply because eleven days is a long time to stay gone. What do you all think?