For eleven days in December 1926, the world had only one question: Where is Agatha Christie?
In this episode, historical true crime author Stephanie Hoover walks you through Agatha Christie's mysterious disappearance and the worldwide manhunt that ensued.
[Simulated 1920s News Bulletin]
***Sound Effects: Beep… Beep… Beep…***
News Reporter: We interrupt your show to bring you the disturbing news that beloved mystery writer Agatha Christie has vanished. She was last seen on December 6, 1926. Her abandoned car has been found - but there is no sign of Mrs. Christie and police have no clue as to her whereabouts.
[Podcast Intro: music bed with voice over saying
"Whether it's crime, mystery or legend… Stephanie Hoover has that story."]
[Narrator Stephanie Hoover:]
That's how long Agatha Christie went "missing" in 1926.
And during those eleven December days, England - and indeed the world - went mad searching and speculating about where the beloved author might be.
Was she abducted? Lost? Had she harmed herself? Was the disappearance revenge on her cheating spouse?
Or was it just a publicity stunt?
During her lifetime, Christie wrote 80 novels. In June of 1926, she released her sixth mystery (and third Poirot book) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It was an immediate worldwide success, including America where newspapers such as the Kansas City Star described it as a "very satisfying murder mystery." But things were not as promising in her personal life.
Christie's mother, Clara Miller, died not long after the book's release. Her husband, Archibald, being what modern psychiatrists might describe as "emotionally unavailable," left Agatha to deal with her mother's death alone. Not long after, he announced he wanted a divorce. It would make way for his long-time mistress to become his next wife.
On the evening of December 3, 1926, Christie packed a suitcase, kissed her young daughter Rosalind goodbye, and drove away from her home in Sunningdale, Berkshire, England. The next morning, Christie's car was found over an embankment, hood open, headlights still burning.
A national search ensued. It marked the first time England used airplanes in an attempt to locate a missing person. Hundreds of police, scouts and bloodhounds scoured the lake and woods near the empty vehicle. Thousands of volunteers searched the area on foot. Arthur Conan Doyle, by now an avowed Spiritualist, took one of Christie's gloves to a medium hoping she might offer a clue to the author's whereabouts. Hope was nearly lost. But then, on the eleventh day of her absence, Agatha Christie was found - staying under the assumed name Mrs. Teresa Neele (coincidentally, the surname of Archie's mistress) at the Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate.
Christie, it was determined, suffered amnesia, ostensibly from injuries received in the car accident. Yet, she had supposedly written a note, making clear her plans to go away for a few days. Unfortunately, it was lost and not read until after the great hysteria over her disappearance had dissipated.
Christie eventually returned home, divorced Archie, and never spoke of the "disappearance" again. Even her daughter, Rosalind, never discussed these strange events with Christie.
When Agatha Christie passed away in 1976, Rosalind became both her mother's literary and legacy gatekeeper. So protective was she of Christie's missing eleven days that she (unsuccessfully) attempted to block two works focusing on the incident: the 1979 film Agatha, and the 1998 book Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days by Jared Cade.
So what happened to Agatha Christie in December 1926, and what was the real reason behind her disappearance? Of all of the theories, the least likely to me is the publicity stunt argument. Yes, sales of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, reportedly increased during and after the incident, but the book was already a success before Christie packed a bag and drove away from her home and daughter.
As for amnesia or the "fugue state" theories, there are reports that Christie, while staying at the Hydropathic Hotel, sent letters to a department store inquiring about a ring she'd lost there. This could be characterized as an unlikely activity for a woman who'd forgotten her own identity. Compounding these doubts, the writer apparently responded affirmatively when someone at the hotel addressed her as "Mrs. Christie."
Certainly Christie was likely deeply saddened and depressed by events in her personal life. Still, if reports are to be believed, she was very social with other hotel guests and had on her person a great sum of money, a precaution that seemingly indicates some level of lucidity and planning.
So, we are left with revenge. Did Christie, as if plotting one of her mysteries, plan to make her disappearance look like a murder - one that might be pinned on her philandering spouse? While intriguing, this seems a bit far-fetched. Archie's affair likely caused great emotional suffering for Christie, but she was an intelligent, successful woman. Would she really risk the embarrassment and detriment to her career by crafting such an outlandish reprisal?
Rather than any single reason, Christie's disappearance may have resulted from a combination of factors: sadness, betrayal, disappointment, uncertainty. Perhaps she didn't so much disappear, as she'd simply escaped; perhaps she temporarily abandoned reality while she strengthened and steeled herself for the challenges ahead.
Whatever the truth, Agatha Christie's eleven days in December 1926 remain one of the best-remembered puzzles in literary history. As recently as 2014, ABC's Castle paid homage to Christie when its main character also inexplicably vanished. Prose ‘n Cons, upon noting the similarity between Agatha Christie's and Richard Castle's disappearances, received this response from the show's creator and writer, Andrew W. Marlowe:
"Agatha Christie's legendary disappearance was very much on our minds when we were crafting the storyline for Castle's disappearance. It is such a delicious irony to have a mystery writer thrust into the heart of their very own mystery. We thought it would invite tremendous speculation from our audience, just as it did among the general public and Christie's fans when she inexplicably vanished."
While the audience eventually learned exactly how and why Mr. Castle disappeared, during those eleven days in December 1926, only Agatha Christie really knew what happened - and she took her secret to the grave.