UPDATE: In honor of Agatha Christie's 125 birthday, we're revisiting what is perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding this remarkable woman — the unsolved one. This story was originally published on August 4, 2014.
On December 3, 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared. She was 36 years old and already a famous novelist, having published the first three books of her long career. Around 11 p.m. her car was found, the engine having run dead, by the side of a lake. Inside the car were several items of her clothing and identification. But, she was gone.
For 11 days, a massive manhunt ensued to find the legendary mystery writer. More than 15,000 people searched the countryside by foot, biplanes scanning from the sky, and bloodhounds were sent out to seek the woman everyone believed was the victim of some terrible crime. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a friend of Christie's and deep believer in the occult, gave one of her gloves to a spiritual medium in hopes of tracking her down. Every major newspaper broadcast the disappearance, and each day updated the grim report asking: "What Happened To Mrs. Christie?"
While local lakes were dredged, divers dispatched, and the search expanded to four counties, police eventually announced they were looking for a body. Their primary suspect, of course, was Christie's husband, Archie.
And, it was Archie who announced to the press on December 14, that his recently recovered wife was suffering from amnesia. That was the last the Christie family ever spoke on the matter. But, what happened during those 11 days is a great deal more complex and fascinating — and likely quite familiar to Gillian Flynn fans.
In 1926, Agatha's marriage was falling apart. Her husband had recently started an affair with a younger woman named Nancy Neele, and he asked Agatha for a divorce. They'd had a terrible fight over the matter, and a few nights later, she kissed her sleeping daughter goodbye and drove off. Whatever her intentions were, she never revealed. But, these are the facts:
After leaving her car, she walked to town, taking the train to London and then on Harrogate, a spa town in Yorkshire. There, she checked into the Old Swan Hotel under the name Mrs. Teresa Neele of Cape Town. Even more strange than registering under the surname of her husband's mistress, she sent a personal notice to the London Times alerting "relatives of Mrs. Teresa Neele" that she could be reached at the hotel.
While at the hotel, Christie made no attempt to hide from guests or staff. She ate meals in the dining hall, and dressed in glamorous new gowns. She bought the newspaper every day, reading the front-page stories of the disappearance and making no attempt to hide the reprinted photos of her own undisguised face. Though her bank accounts were frozen upon her disappearance, she had plenty of cash, kept in a money belt, to pay for the room and new wardrobe.
After 10 days at The Old Swan, two members of the hotel band finally recognized Teresa Neele as Agatha Christie and phoned the police. News broke, and members of press descended upon the site, many even beating the police. One of them addressed her as "Mrs. Christie," and she responded, but when Archie and the detectives arrived, she introduced herself as Teresa Neele, a stranger. Whether she or the doctors first claimed amnesia, it was Archie who officially reported it. After 11 days under suspicion, he was finally off the hook with this strange and miraculous turn of events. In any event, Agatha left the hotel as herself and never spoke of the disappearance again.
Theories abounded. Was this all a publicity stunt to boost book sales? Had it been a fugue state, induced by the trauma of her crumbling marriage? Or, had Agatha Christie planned the entire plot in an attempt to frame her cheating husband for murder?
Though we'll never know for sure, Christie remained mum on the incident, the third theory has always prevailed. "This was a very complicated sort of revenge," suggests Christie biographer Janet Morgan. "If she disappeared, it might be thought that her husband had intended to murder her...and that would be the end of him." And, when Gillian Flynn, a longtime Christie fan, released her monster best-seller, seizing millions of readers with a tale of marital manipulation, one had to wonder if this mystery writer was paying quiet homage to another.
To be sure, Christie's case is far more complex, but she and Gone Girl's Amy, both brilliant, famous women, incited an equal amount of intrigue and outrage with their sudden, ominous vanishings. Like the fictional Amy, Agatha, too, left mysterious letters in advance of her leaving. She sent one to her brother-in-law saying she was going on vacation. Another went to the local police constable, claiming she feared for her life. One she left for her husband — which he burned before the police could read.
Archie, like Gone Girl's Nick, was an unsympathetic character. He was dashing, to be sure, but almost as soon as they married, it became a game of keeping up appearances. Though a loving father, he was never a kind husband and thought little of his wife's work. He eventually married Nancy Neele, and remained similarly silent on the disappearance of his ex-wife for the rest of his life. Agatha went on to remarry, as well, to young archaeologist Max Mallowan. Both couples lived, if not happily ever after, then happily enough — and without further scandal. Christie's career continued to soar into legend, long past her death in 1976.
Agatha Christie's greatest mystery ends in a tangle. As a writer, she never would have left her heroine in such a mire, but in life the best plot lines have a tendency to twist. And — money belt, abandoned car, and foreshadowing letters aside — this may have been more passion than plan. This curious story leaves us with a handful of scattered clues, a climax, and no ending. But, that's what books are for.