Agatha Christie: The Mystery

Happy July! If you know anything about Agatha Christie, you’re probably aware of her disappearance. After all, those of us who love her work love a good mystery, and her disappearance is exactly that. There’s been so much speculation over the years, with theories ranging from plausible to absurd. In sharing quotes from Agatha’s autobiography, I wanted to highlight her voice instead of indulging assumptions, so this is the first time I’m wandering out into speculative territory. But like any good investigator, I’m going to back it up with evidence, focusing on some key clues in Agatha’s autobiography.

So let’s start with the facts. Here’s what we know: on the evening of December 3, 1926, Agatha Christie (who by this point had published six novels but was not the legend she is now) left home in her Morris Crowley car (this is significant). The next morning, her Morris Crowley was found abandoned on a steep slope near a quarry. A search ensued. For eleven days, this was big news, her face plastered on newspapers across the country.

On December 14, Agatha was recognized at a spa hotel, checked in under the name Mrs. Tressa Neele. After she was found, her husband told everyone she was suffering from amnesia and didn’t know who she was. Agatha herself didn’t offer any explanation for her disappearance and never spoke about it publicly. If she spoke to friends about it, they’ve kept quiet. (May we all have such loyal friends!)

There’s no mention in Agatha’s autobiography about this event, but there were a few things that stood out to me, clues that I think are meaningful.

Clue #1: Agatha Christie did not like public attention.

In her autobiography, she mentions several times about having stage fright. She was a very private person, not someone who liked to be the center of attention. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t sociable, but it sounds like she was much more comfortable as an observer.

She says of writing, “The most blessed thing about being an author is that you do it in private and in your own time. It can worry you, bother you, give you a headache; you can go nearly mad trying to arrange your plot in the way it should go and you know it could go; but — you do not have to stand up and make a fool of yourself in public.”

So the theory that her disappearance was all a publicity stunt? Highly unlikely. She later says of the press after that incident, “I had felt like a fox, hunted, my earths dug up and yelping hounds following me everywhere. I had always hated notoriety of any kind, and now I had had such a dose of it that at some moments I felt I could hardly bear to go on living.”

This is not a woman who likes notoriety, okay? I highly doubt she concocted this scheme to try to sell books. As clever as she was at crafting mysteries, she was not a schemer when it came to promoting herself. So I feel comfortable fully dismissing that theory.

Clue #2: Her mother died in April 1926, and in August, her husband asked for a divorce.

If you want to talk about stressors, you have two significant ones right here. In April, Agatha lost her mother, someone she was very close to. Her husband was traveling a lot at the time, and her sister was busy, so it fell to Agatha to get a start on overseeing repairs and cleaning out Ashfield, her childhood home. She took her young daughter and began the daunting process.

She says of that experience, “I suppose I was already run down and slightly ill, but turning out that house, with the memories, the hard work, the sleepless nights, reduced me to such a nervous state that I hardly knew what I was doing.”

She later admits, “I began to get confused and muddled over things. I never felt hungry and ate less and less. Sometimes I would sit down, put my hands to my head, and try to remember what it was I was doing.”

She was so isolated and overwhelmed, she tried to convince her husband to visit for the weekend, but he declined, saying it would be a long trip for such a short time. She talks about the loneliness she felt, saying, “I had always been extremely strong, and I had no understanding of how unhappiness, worry and overwork could affect your physical health. But I was upset one day when I was just about to sign a cheque and could not remember the name to sign it with. I felt exactly like Alice in Wonderland touching the tree.”

A couple days later, she had trouble starting her car. She cranked and cranked and it wouldn’t start. She says, “Finally I burst into tears, came into the house, and lay on the sofa sobbing. That worried me. Crying just because a car wouldn’t start; I must be crazy.”

You’re probably realizing how significant all of these pieces are, since one of the theories about her disappearance is that she had a nervous breakdown. This suggests that’s possible. She mentions in this section that later in life a friend was telling her about a period of unhappiness she was going through where the slightest thing made her break down in tears. Agatha’s response to her was “I think you had better be very careful; it is probably the beginning of a nervous breakdown. You ought to go and see someone about it.”

She admits she had no awareness of things like that back in 1926. This is a woman who was already under an immense amount of stress. When her husband finally did come to Ashfield in August as planned, he told her he’d fallen in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. Not exactly the comfort Agatha was desperately seeking. Honestly, that would push anyone to their breaking point. Not only did she lose her mother, she was losing her marriage too. Those are major, foundational shifts, and two of the most significant psychological stressors a person can experience.

Clue #3: Agatha loved her Morris Crowley.

Throughout Agatha’s autobiography are multiple mentions of her Morris Crowley. In 1924, after having a serialized story in The Evening News, Agatha bought herself a Morris Crowley car and learned how to drive. She had a few terrifying initial experiences (who among us wasn’t terrified to learn to operate such a mechanical beast?), but she eventually got the hang of things.

In recalling those days, she says, “Oh the joy that car was to me! I don’t suppose anyone nowadays could believe the difference it made to one’s life. To be able to go anywhere you chose; to places beyond the reach of your legs — it widened your whole horizon.”

She loved going out on drives and taking her mother out for drives. She remarks, “I don’t think anything has given me more pleasure, more joy of achievement, than my dear bottle-nosed Morris Crowley.”

Does that sound like someone who would happily abandon her dear car on the side of the road? It really doesn’t. This car represented freedom to her, and probably a sense of power, since she pushed through the terror and learned to drive. It was a gift to herself, and her husband had a significant role in helping her push through her fear to find the freedom on the other side, assuring her that of course she could learn to drive. He often provided a strong counterbalance to Agatha’s self-doubt.

Clue #4: Her friends and relatives kept telling her that her husband would change his mind.

Oooph. There are times in life when friends, in spite of their best intentions, are not helpful. They kept telling Agatha this was normal. Husbands cheat. But he would come back. Of course he would come back. Agatha was not the type of person who would’ve kicked him out and said good riddance. No, she was more than willing to forgive. She absolutely hated divorce. So she was happy to believe he would come back, that he would get over this fling and return to their family.

But that didn’t happen, except for a brief moment, a spark of hope. But that moment of “Maybe we can make this work” only seemed to reinforce his unhappiness. All that false hope people had been offering to Agatha probably made this harsh reality even more heartbreaking. And from there, her husband turned mean.

Agatha says he behaved with “a certain ruthlessness.” She doesn’t specify what that entailed, but you can imagine what happens during a contentious divorce. So the theory that her disappearance was a ploy to get her husband back . . . I understand where this theory comes from, and I can’t rule it out, but I don’t think this is the one. Maybe she got a little bit of enjoyment out of the thought of him worrying about her, but, from what I can tell, by this point in December, things were getting contentious.

Combining the Evidence

Here’s where I wander into conjecture and offer my version of events. Based on the evidence and what I’ve learned about Agatha, I think she was overwhelmed and in the middle of a ton of unresolved grief. She was struggling with grieving her mother when her husband asked for a divorce. After holding out hope that he would come to his senses, she finally began to realize this was for real and it started to become acrimonious. I don’t think she had the time or space to fully process either loss.

I think she went for a drive in her beloved Morris Crowley, probably desperate to have a moment of peace, no matter how temporary. Maybe something went wrong—an animal darted across the road, a loud noise startled her, who knows. Something forced her to pull off the road and then abandon her car. It’s possible she hit her head and suffered a concussion. And I think that was it, the final straw.

I mean, we’ve all had those times when a cascade of events all go so wrong that we just want to scream and quit everything. I believe that’s what happened for Agatha. Is that considered a nervous breakdown? Possibly. That phrase is not a clinical diagnosis, but a general and rather archaic term to describe a series of symptoms resulting in a lack of ability to perform the functions of everyday life. It’s usually triggered by extreme stress, anxiety, depression, or abuse. We can identify several of those factors in Agatha’s life that year.

Many people have found significance in the surname Agatha used to check in to the hotel, since it was the same as her husband’s lover. I don’t know whether that was intentional. I think it’s more likely that she didn’t want to use her real name and that was the first one that came to mind. There’s evidence to support that. When Agatha was signing checks after her mother died and couldn’t remember her own name, she thought maybe it was Blanche Amory, a fictional character from a story she had read. Given that, it seems likely the surname was just there in her mind and she grabbed it.

Could the whole thing have been a ploy to punish her husband or frame him for her murder? Maybe, but there’s nothing in Agatha’s life or autobiography that suggests she was ever spiteful. In fact, quite the opposite. She could’ve laid out all her ex-husband’s misdeeds in print, but she didn’t. She recounted the good times and was light on detail in the bad times. I honestly don’t think she was someone who took delight in hurting anyone else.

The full truth behind Agatha Christie’s disappearance is known only to the lady herself, but those are my thoughts, based on the evidence in her autobiography. Next month, I’ll share my final thoughts on my Agatha Christie discovery journey. But for now, I’d like to let her have the final word:

“If one chooses to look back over the journey that has been one’s life, is one entitled to ignore those memories that one dislikes? Or is that cowardice? I think, perhaps, one should take one brief look, and say: ‘Yes, this is part of my life; but it’s done with. It is a strand in the tapestry of my existence. I must recognize it because it is a part of me. But there is no need to dwell upon it.'”

Agatha Said, pt. 16

Happy June! Cicada Brood X has emerged and is causing quite a racket in my neighborhood, but I can’t say I mind it. A little white noise is good for my brain. I just finished my most recent manuscript and am now trying to catch up on some reading while ideas of my next project circle around my mind like sharks going for the kill. That’s one reason I chose this month’s quote.

Agatha Said:

“There is always, of course, that terrible three weeks, or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book. There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off. Then you go out, you interrupt someone who is busy — Max usually, because he is so good-natured — and you say: ‘It’s awful, Max, do you know I have quite forgotten how to write — I simply can’t do it any more! I shall never write another book.’

“‘Oh yes, you will,’ Max would say consolingly. He used to say it with some anxiety at first; now his eyes stray back again to his work while he talks soothingly.

“‘But I know I won’t. I can’t think of an idea. I had an idea, but now it seems no good.’

“‘You’ll just have to get through this phase. You’ve had all this before. You said it last year. You said it the year before.’

“‘It’s different this time,’ I say, with positive assurance.

“But it wasn’t different, of course, it was just the same. You forget every time what you felt before when it comes again. Such misery and despair, such inability to do anything that will be in the least creative. And yet it seems that this particular phase of misery has got to be lived through.”

The Context: In this recollection, Agatha has just finished writing a theatrical adaptation of The Hollow. Once it was a success, she felt she really had a handle on the whole writing thing, although every time she had a bit of despair at the beginning of a new project, wondering if maybe this time would be the time she couldn’t do it.

Why I Chose It: Well, it’s majorly relatable. I think most writers know that feeling very well. You finish one project and you’re floating on that high for a while. Then you think, “I’m going to start my next one,” and you have ideas—so many ideas!—but choosing the right one and starting on it can feel like trying to push a semi uphill. And slowly the question creeps in, what if you can’t actually write another one? What if you’ve written all you had in you and you’re all out? Evidently it does’t matter how much you’ve written before (at that point, Agatha had written dozens of books), there’s always a point where a writer wonders if they can actually do it again.

But in the end, Agatha and the rest of us realize this is what we do. There are always ideas and there are always more books/stories/plays in us. We’ll get there, as long as we (and our loved ones) can survive the initial painful month of questioning everything we ever thought we knew. (Speaking of what we think we know, next month I’ll be shifting a bit and sharing what I think happened during Agatha’s mysterious disappearance, based on all the clues laid out in her autobiography. I can’t wait. I have thoughts.)

A quote from Agatha Christie: An Autobiography that says, "There is always, of course, that terrible three weeks, or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book. There is no agony like it." The background is a mug, an open book, and a vase of roses.

Agatha Said, pt. 15

Happy May! I hope the spring weather is absolutely lovely where you are. This month, I’m focusing on how Agatha Christie viewed her writing, especially in the early days as she was establishing herself as a storyteller.

Agatha Said:

“It was by now just beginning to dawn on me that perhaps I might be a writer by profession. I was not sure of it yet. I still had an idea that writing books was only the natural successor to embroidering sofa-cushions.”

The Context: This quote is actually in the same section as the one I shared last month. (There are so many quotable pieces about writing in that section!) This was when she was still married to her first husband and had just moved to Scotswood. At that point, she had written four published novels. I’ve pointed out in previous posts that Agatha didn’t really have a strong aspiration to become a writer. In many ways, she sort of fell into it. She also talks in this section about how she had taken lessons in sculpture because, “I was a great admirer of the art — much more than of pictures — and I had a real yearning to be a sculptor myself.” But upon attempting it, she realized she didn’t have a natural capacity for it. She was also a talented pianist as a child, but had such stage fright, she struggled to perform for an audience. As an adult, she tried to compose songs, but didn’t know much about harmony and composition. Only after trying all these other artistic pursuits did she realize, “… writing seemed to be indicated as my proper trade and self-expression.”

Why I Chose It: It’s interesting to examine how people end up in specific careers, especially people who find great success and come to define a certain profession. The fact that Agatha was able to try things until she found something she was good at is definitely a privilege of the wealthier classes. Artistic endeavors were just something people in her social class did, like learning to embroider—stitched a lovely sofa-cushion, wrote an amusing story, all in a day’s work! But it also highlights her natural creativity, that she always wanted to be creating something, whether it was music or poetry or an imaginary friend.

When writing comes out of that mindset, I imagine it can take a minute to recognize it as a full profession instead of simply a hobby. And as someone who used to cross-stitch as a child, started learning and performing music at the age of nine, and loved acting and dancing, I appreciate knowing I share that craftiness and creativity with Agatha.

There is no set definition for success in a specific profession. There’s no singular moment that defines a writer as a true professional instead of a dabbler, so it’s no surprise that the realization came to Agatha slowly, a gentle dawning of the idea that, in fact, she might be a real writer, officially, professionally. As humble as she was, I think she’d be quite shocked to know that, even now, she’s one of the bestselling authors of all time. I think we can all agree she definitely found her profession.