WHEN Agatha Christie abandoned her car by a quarry in Surrey late on December 3, 1926, she couldn’t have imagined igniting a mystery so intriguing it is still being dissected a century later.
Married society girls did not walk alone at night, no matter how capable. They certainly were not expected to disappear, which is exactly what Mrs Christie did that evening.
Was the whole event a publicity stunt, or a nervous breakdown brought on by Archie’s request for a divorce on the day of her disappearance? The 36-year-old English author appeared on the cover of The New York Times only days after her green Morris Cowley was discovered. Police mobilised multiple counties into a hunt for the crime writer – or her body – while an international press pack pursued Agatha’s husband Archie.
Books, films and articles have explored everything between these two extremes, but the seeds of Agatha Christie’s escape may well have been planted years before.
The first way to understand the incident is to apply a bit of context.
Agatha Christie the ‘Queen of Crime’ did not exist in 1926. After serving their country in World War One – Agatha as a voluntary nurse, Archie in the Flying Corps – the couple produced a daughter and settled into civilian life.
“I had written three books, was happily married, and my heart’s desire was to live in the country …” Agatha wrote in her autobiography, “and then something completely unforeseen came up.”
This was an offer for the couple to join delegates on a ‘grand tour’ of the world while drumming up participation for the British Empire Exhibition.
In June, 1922, on a weekend escape from meeting dignitaries, Archie and Agatha made a dash to Australia’s largest cave system – Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains of NSW.
Agatha wrote home about the one-night trip to the remote holiday resort. “So we started in style, much to Archie’s annoyance. He hates motoring in the cold, and much prefers going by train any day,” she guilelessly joked, indicating it wasn’t all plain sailing.
“Our car went well until we started climbing miles from anywhere when it proceeded to turn nasty. We induced it to go on for a bit but it broke down about six times and eventually we arrived at the Jenolan Caves at 6pm instead of 2.30, freezing cold and dead tired.
“After a meal we were taken as a ‘special party’ around the Orient Cave which is supposed to be the best. It really is wonderful, you go for two miles through the bowels of the earth, up and down steps (1500 in all – and you know it the next morning!) twisting in and out through labyrinths and coming to the different chambers.
“We were up early the next morning and did some of the open air caves. The Hotel (or Cave House as it is called) is right in the heart of the mountains.
“They rise up all round it, and to get to it the road zig zags down and seems to end, but really it is a great natural arch through the mountain itself.
“We had to start back at 2 o’clock unfortunately. I could have spent a week there quite happily.”
This and countless other letters languished in family hands for ninety years until they were published in 2012 by the Christies’ grandson Matthew Prichard, revealing glimpses of the marriage that crumbled so swiftly less than four years after the tour.
Settling back into their home life a second time saw a typical divide quickly develop. Her burgeoning writing career kept Agatha in the city and his struggle to get a foothold in the corporate world drew Archie away from it to the Christie’s Berkshire home and its adjacent golf course.
Into this fertile ground came a rival for Archie’s affections – a younger woman called Nancy Neele – who worked as a clerk in London but frequented the same country house parties as the couple.
A trial separation and reconciliation ensued, until Archie’s December, 1926, divorce demand.
When Agatha ran from her marital home on the back of such life-changing news, dumped the car and walked to a nearby railway station, she slipped back into holiday mode and headed for a place just like Jenolan Caves – a classic resort in the Belle Époque tradition.
The name she used to check into Harrogate’s Swan Hotel – Teresa Neele – not only bore the surname of Archie’s mistress, but her fictitious character was from South Africa.
In a sense, she killed-off her old life with that fake signature, as surely as she would have if she’d put her foot down and stayed longer at Jenolan Caves.
“The fiction that began when Agatha signed the hotel register was only just beginning.”
Agatha’s Harrogate holiday lasted slightly longer than the week she yearned for at Jenolan. When a band member took a punt and identified her, the eleven-day ruse was over. Archie hurried to Yorkshire to collect his wife, who, it was announced to the press, was suffering a bout of amnesia.
Reality closed in fast. A year later the Christies divorced and Archie married Nancy.
But the fiction that began when Agatha signed the hotel register was only just beginning. She entered a cycle of imagination that would transform her career, and as she began to polish her oeuvre, she was far from settling on her primary detectives.
By the time of Agatha’s disappearance, many of her famous sleuths had been created – Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and regulars Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle, Inspector Japp and Arthur Hastings.
Marriage over, Christie’s experimentation continued, with spinster Miss Marple’s appearance in a 1927 short story collection. Two single young female detectives were trialled in the early 1930s. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s mystery author alter-ego, married but with no husband to account for, also appeared. Harley Quin got a run, as did another detective by the name of Parker Pyne.
Parker Pyne Investigates is a rumination on troubled marriages, kicking off with The Case of the Middle Aged Wife, in which a husband runs around with a mistress called Nancy – a clear reference to the new Mrs Christie – leaving his wife to seek help from Mr Pyne to win him back.
Christie turns the focus onto Archie in The Case of the Discontented Husband, where a different couple is challenged by his love of golf and hers of the arts.
Parker Pyne’s common sense marriage advice is so benign it suggests Agatha had undergone some kind of counselling after her disappearance, or at least listened to loved ones about what she may have contributed to the demise of her marriage.
Agatha’s confidante may well have been her new love Max Mallowan. The couple married in 1930 after meeting while she was on another holiday, this time at Mesopotamian dig in modern-day Iraq.
After joining Mallowan’s digs throughout the Middle East, trains, boats, islands, archaeological digs and isolated resorts emerged with indelible force in Christie’s work, replacing the stately homes, villages, and coastal towns she’d limited herself to.
Readers can see the transformation taking place across the Parker Pyne collection, in which Agatha Christie combined exotic locations with marriage fallouts, but it made for pleasant distraction more than gripping crime drama, and was possibly not enough to placate her damaged heart.
It wasn’t until she located an array of scheming lovers – with no patience for divorce – right within her great ‘destination crime’ cycle that she found the winning combination.
These shameless paramours do away with hapless wives far from home, but they never quite get away with it. Christie delivers justice in the form of a funny little Belgian with a penchant for travel, and forever challenges her readers to guess who life’s real villains are.
The author who never had an exotic honeymoon when she married Archie Christie on the eve of war had finally flown the coop for good, and in doing so she became the Queen of Crime.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.