Stranger Than Fiction: Spotlight on an Author

Agatha Christie

They say that the three most read books in the world are the Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, and the novels of Agatha Christie. If you’ve never heard of Christie’s two main creations, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, you are part of a very, very small minority.

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on September 15, 1890 in Torquay, Devon, England and died on January 12, 1976 at the age of 85. She served as a nurse during World War I, and learned a great deal about chemicals while working in a dispensary during her service – especially about poisons. That knowledge would be applied to the plotlines of her novels for the rest of her life. Her first successful novel, The Mysterious Affair of Styles, was published in 1920 and marked the first appearance of Hercule Poirot. In the novel someone is murder, and it is determined that the murder used strychnine to do the dastardly deed.

Christie went on to pen numerous other mysteries, romances, and plays including The Mousetrap which holds the record as the longest running play on Broadway. Another Christie distinction is that Hercule Poirot is the only fictional character to receive an obituary in The New York Times.

Her make-believe sleuth always discovered “who done it,” but in real life Christie was responsible for a mystery that has never been solved. On the evening of December 3, 1926 Agatha said goodbye to her daughter and left in her automobile. The following morning her abandoned car was found in a remote rural area, but Christie had mysteriously disappeared leaving behind her coat and driver’s license. It was suspected that she had become ill or was possibly the victim of a kidnapping or some other sinister event, so a search party of hundreds of men – some with dogs – scoured the countryside as well as the numerous gravel pits, and ponds for days. Airplanes even took part in the attempt to find the novelist. However, the search turned up no clues concerning the fate of Christie.

One thing that did come to light was that Christie’s handsome, womanizing husband Archie Christie had been having an affair with a woman named Nancy Neele and had demanded a divorce from Agatha. So some people wondered if Archie was responsible for Agatha’s disappearance.

Though her photograph appeared in all the newspapers she remained missing for eleven days. Finally two band members who played in a hotel in the spa town of Harrogate thought they recognized a guest as the missing novelist. She was registered as Mrs. Teresa Neele (the same surname as Archie’s paramour) and claimed to be from Cape Town, South Africa.  They went to the police, and it was soon announced that the famous writer had been found alive.

Some believed that Christie had pulled off a massive publicity stunt, but her husband claimed that she was suffering from amnesia. Agatha, even in her later autobiography, never cleared up the mystery. Some people believe that Agatha’s use of the surname Neele, that of Archie’s lover, gives us the key to the mystery. Perhaps, they say, she was publicly exposing Archie’s infidelity in hopes that he and Nancy Neele would be forced to end their affair, and that Archie would be shamed into becoming a dutiful, faithful husband. If that’s what she thought, she was very wrong. Archie and Agatha divorced in 1928 and he married Nancy.

Christie, devastated by the events and the publicity associated with them, decided to leave England. She took the Orient Express to Istanbul, Turkey, and began a 40 year love affair with the middle-east. It was during her travels that she went to an archaeological site and met a young archaeologist named Max Mallowan who would become her second husband in 1930. They would remain happily married until her death in 1976. Christie once said, “An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets the more interested he is in her.”

Agatha

The fact that no one knows what happened to Christie during those eleven days has intrigued many people over the years including writer Kathleen Tynan. She published a fictional account of Christie’s activities during her disappearance in her book Agatha (1978). In it an American newspaper writer tracks down Christie and shadows her for part of the time that she is missing. He even gets to know her somewhat.

Tynan also co-wrote the screenplay for the 1979 movie of the same name. Vanessa Redgrave portrayed Christie, Timothy Dalton portrayed Archie Christie, and Dustin Hoffman portrayed the American newspaperman Wally Stanton.

What happened according to Tynan? You’ll have to read the book or see the movie to find out.

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