1926 was the worst of years for Agatha Christie in spite of her successful career as one of the world’s most famous detective fiction authors. Her sixth novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published that year. Yes it was, and still is, massively successful, but it had its critics and detractors, becoming almost a notorious book, and a difficult one to follow up.
Agatha’s husband Colonel Archibald Christie took himself off, overseas then to London, leaving Agatha to cope with first the illness, then the death of her mother, alone. She had the task of clearing her childhood home, again, without her husband of 12 years’ support. Meanwhile, he had announced he was having an affair with Nancy Neele, the former secretary of a friend, and that he wanted to end his marriage to Agatha and marry Nancy.
After a brief reconciliation in 1926 which Agatha described as ‘a period of sorrow, misery and heartbreak’, on the 3rd of December he packed his bags and left for good, stating that he wanted a divorce. That was the day Agatha disappeared. He went to a friend’s for a weekend house-party, planning to meet Nancy Neele there. She left the house late that evening, and was not seen again for eleven days.
Her car was found abandoned off the road at Newland’s Corner in Surrey. It’s a fairly remote spot, even today, and a beautiful, popular place for walking. Her fur coat and a suitcase containing clothes and an expired driving license were found in the car, prompting fears of kidnapping or worse. It was all over the news, with sensational headlines such as ‘Where is Mrs Christie? Foul Play?’ and my personal favourite, from the Surrey Times: ‘Riddle of Newlands
Corner: Strange Disappearance of Authoress: Hatless and Coatless at 6am’. It’s easy to see how exciting this all was for everyone not actually involved. A mystery author caught up in her very own mystery. She had left home the night before, so the ‘At 6am’ bit was a melodramatic invention. But they came by that because a man claimed to have been stopped by a woman who asked him to start her car for her, and the description answered hers. It’s all a bit tricky to piece together now, as this was supposed to have been at Newland’s Corner, so did she drive off then come back to the same spot? Or did he just want his fifteen minutes of fame? Anyway, she was gone, and it wasn’t until the 14th December that she was found, 230 miles away.
Agatha Christie was found at the Hydropathic Hotel (now called the Old Swan, a lovely-looking place) in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, where she had been staying, registered under the name of Mrs Teresa Neele, purporting to be a widow from South Africa. It was said that she had seen the newspaper reports and had even joined in with the speculation about the fate of the missing author. Staff and guests at the hotel had seen her dancing the Charleston, doing crosswords, reading the newspaper and playing Bridge, apparently unaware of the furore her disappearance had caused.
And it was a furore, too. There were an estimated 500-1000 police officers involved in the search for her, and approximately 15,000 people volunteered to help in the search of the area in Surrey. Bloodhounds, Beagles and German Shepherds sniffed the area, and even her own fox terrier was brought in to try to track her down. Local ponds were dredged or searched by divers, airplanes flew over the area.
In the literary world, her colleagues were keen to help: Arthur Conan Doyle took a glove of Agatha’s to a medium as he feared she was dead, but received no help from the ‘other side’. Dorothy L Sayers searched for clues and generally did her bit as a sleuth to try to get to the bottom of the problem. Rewards were offered and Archie Christie wanted Scotland Yard to be called in.
A couple of people said they made this discovery and rang the police to claim the £100 reward, a member of the hotel staff, a musician in a band playing in the hotel. Whoever did it, the police, and Archie Christie arrived in a media flurry to claim both. Christie and the truth about what happened. Officially, she hit her head and lost her memory. Archie got her to a psychiatrist or two to bear out the story, and then took her home to recover.
The theories abounded. Some said it was a fake, a mere publicity stunt to boost book sales (not that she needed to). Others said the memory loss was genuine, amnesia is not always total. Psychiatrists seemed to be divided in their opinions. Officially, the line was never wavered from: she hit her head when she crashed her car, and she lost consciousness. When she awoke, she thought she was someone else. Still other opinions suggested she had sought revenge on Archie, and wanted to either panic him, or make him realise how much he still loved her, or even, in extremis, to have him arrested for her murder.
But she came home, the marriage was dissolved, somehow life got back to some kind of normality. And the books continued to be written, Including Unfinished Portrait, a book under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott, where a woman attempts suicide, prompting parallels to be drawn with Christie’s own life.
My personal view is, this was a woman at a crisis point in her life. Her mother had died, her husband was leaving her, and a successful career was a daunting and unforeseen prospect for a shy country woman. She was known to have suffered periodically from depression and had by her own admission had thoughts of suicide, though her Christian upbringing precluded that as an option. I think she just had to get away, fix herself, rest, and the amnesia story was the only half-credible way out of the fix. These days celebs and career people dash off to little refuges and retreats to get away from the media. In those days, I’m not sure they did. I just think she felt out of options.