In 1926 the renowned crime novelist Agatha Christie was involved in a mystery that sounds like the plot of one of her own novels. One freezing cold December night, Christie disappeared without trace from her home in Berkshire, only to reappear eleven days later claiming that she had no memory of where she had been or what she had done. Unlike the fictional crimes unravelled by her famous sleuths Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, this puzzle has never been solved satisfactorily.
At 11am on the morning after Christie’s disappearance a Police Superintendent in the neighbouring county of Surrey was handed a report on a ‘road accident’ at Newlands Corner, just outside Guildford. Christie’s car had been found halfway down a grassy bank with its bonnet buried in a clump of bushes and no sign of the driver apart from an abandoned fur coat, seeming to imply that she had not intended to go far. From the start the police hinted that they suspected suicide, although this seemed an unlikely theory. At the age of 36 Agatha Christie appeared to be an enviable figure. She was an attractive redhead with a burgeoning career as a novelist, who lived with her husband, Colonel Archibald Christie, in a magnificent country house. What nobody knew, however, was that Christie’s life was not as perfect as it looked. Her husband had recently fallen in love with a younger woman and told his wife that he wanted a divorce. On top of this the death of her mother had been another psychological shock and Christie was sleeping badly, eating erratically and appeared on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
In true detective novel fashion, the plot thickened when it was reported that some female clothes had been found in a lonely hut near Newlands Corner, together with a bottle labelled ‘opium’. But this proved to be a false alarm and the ‘opium’ turned out to be a harmless stomach remedy. Another interesting touch of mystery was added when Christie’s brother-in-law revealed that he had received a letter from her whose postmark indicated that it had been posted in London at 9.45am on the day after her disappearance, when she was meant to be wandering around the Surrey woods. It was 11 days after Christie’s disappearance that the head waiter at a hotel in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, looked more closely at a female guest and recognized her from newspaper photographs as the missing novelist. The Colonel travelled up on the first train as soon as he heard and was surprised when his wife appeared not to know him. A doctor later confirmed that she was suffering from temporary loss of memory and she shortly recovered full use of all her faculties, although she never confirmed what happened during what came to be known as her ‘missing eleven days’.
There are many aspects of this ‘disappearance’ which do not seem to add up. When Christie vanished she had been dressed casually, indeed almost dowdily, in a knitted skirt and cardigan yet, when she was found, she was dressed stylishly and had £300 on her. It is hard to believe that her amnesia was so complete that, while staying in comfort at a hotel, she was able to read accounts of her own disappearance, look at her pictures in the papers and still not even suspect her identity. These discrepancies led many journalists at the time to wonder whether the whole affair had been a publicity stunt – after all, following the widespread coverage, Christie’s next novel sold more than twice as many copies as her last. From then on her career only went from strength to strength and she was to become the century’s most successful crime writer. Christie divorced the Colonel (who wed his fancy woman) and in 1930 married Professor Sir Max Mallowan. But for the rest of her life she refused to discuss her disappearance, and would only grant interviews on condition that it was not mentioned. This then, is one Agatha Christie mystery that resolutely remains unsolved.