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. 10

It’s time for another Agatha Day! Usually this day falls on the first Wednesday of the month, but I pushed it a day due to the Vice Presidential debate. (On that note, please vote. I’m sure you’ve been seeing that reminder everywhere, but it’s so important. You have a voice. Don’t let anyone muffle it.)

In other news, the weather here in VA has turned beautifully crisp and I’m loving it. And while I love to write in every season, fall is my absolute favorite and seems to stir up extra creativity in me. While spring might be the season that represents new beginnings to most people, for me, it’s fall. And so today I’m sharing a quote that represents the beginning of something incredible for our dear Agatha Christie.

Agatha Said:

“Fired with all this [discussion of detective stories], I said I should like to try my hand at a detective story.

“‘I don’t think you could do it,’ said Madge. ‘They are very difficult to do. I’ve thought about it.’

“‘I should like to try.’

“‘Well, I bet you couldn’t,’ said Madge.

“There the matter rested. It was never a definite bet; we never set out terms — but the words had been said. From that moment I was fired by the determination that I would write a detective story. It didn’t go further than that. I didn’t start to write it then, or plan it out; the seed had been sown. At the back of my mind, where the stories of the books I am going to write take their place long before the germination of the seed occurs, the idea had been planted: some day I would write a detective story.

The Context: Agatha is talking about her childhood and how her older sister, Madge, introduced her to detective stories through the tales of Sherlock Holmes, followed by The Leavenworth Case when Agatha was eight. She talks about how they used to love discussing their favorite mystery stories, and that memory leads into the statement that opens the quotation.

Why I Chose It: Everyone wants to know where the greats in every field began. When was the moment they decided to pursue that dream? And here we get a glimpse at it. Young Agatha, when talking about the detective stories she so deeply loves, wonders if she can write one. She’s immediately met with discouragement from her sister, which likely only strengthened her resolve. As Agatha points out, she didn’t start right then, but the seed was planted. The idea was there, and over the years, it would grow.

As they did for Agatha, the seeds of my own ideas and choices are planted long before they become anything. Some seeds just die in the dirt like some of my houseplants. Others lie dormant until one day they burst to life. Sometimes I don’t recognize the moment a seed is planted until the plant begins to grow and I trace its roots back to their origin. Sometimes the moment seems so insignificant and small, like this conversation Agatha had with her sister. It’s funny to read that conversation with the knowledge of the mystery legend Agatha Christie became.

Who knows what seeds might be within you, waiting for their chance to break through the surface? Who knows what seeds of ideas and inspiration you may plant in the hearts of others?

Agatha Said, pt. 9

We’re now easing our way into September (a celebration for those of us who love fall; my sympathies to anyone who adores summer), which means it’s time for another Agatha Day! This one is all about how her murder-y writer’s mind worked.

Agatha Said:

“Plots come to me at such odd moments: when I am walking along a street, or examining a hat-shop with particular interest, suddenly a splendid idea comes into my head, and I think, ‘Now that would be a neat way of covering up the crime so that nobody would see the point.’ Of course, all the practical details are still to be worked out, and the people have to creep slowly into my consciousness, but I jot down my splendid idea in an exercise book.”

Context: In this section, Agatha is reflecting on the creation of Miss Marple, her second significant detective hero. She lists various Marple mysteries, along with some of her other books. Then she mentions Peril at End House, acknowledging that it left so little an impression on her that she has no recollection of even writing it. She admits it’s possible she thought of the plot long before she wrote it, which she says is a habit a of hers. That leads into this specific quote.

Why I Chose It: Quite simply, I relate to this quote so much. Sometimes I think I’m fully engaged with what I’m doing—washing dishes, for instance—and the next thing I know, I’ve created a full murder plot centering on a chipped dinner plate.

For creative people, inspiration is everywhere. I never know what will be the spark that will set my imagination ablaze, engulfed in flames of creative ideas. Sometimes it’s remarkably inconvenient. It’s difficult to explain to your dinner companions (back when I used to hang out with people in person) why you’re suddenly staring off in the distance with a sadistic smile. But I’m fortunate to have some incredible friends who know my creative side and happily engage with my brainstorming. (My sister-in-law even volunteered to play a corpse once so I could try dragging her along the beach.)

And also like Agatha, I often end up with ideas dwelling and growing within my mind for so long that I can’t even trace the source of them. Some of my manuscripts are linked to specific, striking moments of “What if…”, while others are based on ideas with origins I can’t specifically recall. And like Agatha and so many other writers, I try to capture those ephemeral ideas by scrawling phrases in various notebooks. Maybe I’ll come back to them one day. Maybe they’ll stagnate and fade into unused potential. Maybe I’ll read a line and have no idea what on earth I was talking about.

What matters is that I embrace the ideas when they come and chase them down, sometimes completely surprised by where I end up. It’s encouraging and humbling to know I share that trait with such a literary giant in the world of mystery.