Agatha Christie is, perhaps barring Shakespeare, the bestselling author of all time. She has sold a minimum estimate of 2 billion copies of her books. Her characters are so famous that one (Hercule Poirot) became the first fictional character to have an obituary in The New York Times. Christie’s art is in the slow reveal of how a seemingly impossible event could in fact be made possible, usually with the detective gathering the suspects and revealing their reasoning as to why one specific person was the guilty party.
Her characters varied and so did her settings, though many stories take place in a small village setting. The stories featuring Miss Marple are considered to have created the genre of ‘cosy mystery’. I preferred her Poirot stories as they had a similar set-up of friend and detective as Watson and Holmes, which I also liked. As an aside, I have a distinct recollection of being told off in a year 7 math class for reading the Poirot story The Big Four instead of working on my mathematics (Sorry, Mr Glass!). In that story, Poirot disappears before reappearing later in the text. This eerily mirrors Christie’s own brief disappearance in 1926 which is a great (as in infamous) moment in literature.
On 3 December 1926, Christie and her husband had an argument, but this was no surprise as he had already asked her for a divorce. Later that evening, Christie disappeared. The following morning, her car was discovered crashed above a chalk quarry with an expired driving licence and clothes inside, which sounds like a set-up for an investigation.
Imagine if JK Rowling disappeared after The Goblet of Fire and you have some idea of the sensation Christie’s disappearance caused, so when the search began the scale was incredible. Monetary rewards were offered by newspapers for information. More than a thousand police officers, 15,000 volunteers, and airplanes searched for her. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even gave a spirit medium one of Christie’s gloves to help find her (despite Sherlock’s strict reason and scientific thinking, Doyle was a believer in spirits). Christie’s disappearance was front page news around the world. Despite the extensive manhunt, Christie was not found for 10 days. That’s ten days where despite the efforts of tens of thousands of people, she could not be tracked.
On 14 December 1926, she was located at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Yorkshire, though there is indication she had been there for some days, the exact timeframe wasn’t mentioned in the sources I read about the event. The next day, Christie left for her sister’s residence at Abney Hall, Cheadle, where she remained “in guarded hall, gates locked, telephone cut off, and callers turned away”.
Two doctors diagnosed her as suffering from an unquestionably genuine loss of memory, yet opinion remains divided over the reason for her disappearance. Some, including one of her biographers, believe she disappeared during a fugue state. I can’t help but wonder if that is where the showrunner for Breaking Bad got the idea for when that show used such an idea as a plot device.
Others argue a more Gone Girl type motive of planning to embarrass her husband or worse, get him accused of murder. Certainly the car, licence and clothes lend themselves to that interpretation. Another biographer argues the more innocent view that Christie disappeared during a nervous breakdown, conscious of her actions but not in emotional control of herself. We will never know the truth as Christie never referred to the incident in her autobiography. Mirroring what happened to Poe in his final days, the event leaves a great legacy – a mystery we readers cannot solve, despite having so many details about the event, yet something we can still debate and form our own opinion on. As a mystery writer, isn’t that the ultimate gift to fans?
From an author who invented a genre, next time I’ll talk about one of the most inventive children’s books of all time.
This post is part of my Great Moments in Literature series. So you never miss a new Great Moment, please subscribe to my mailchimp list or this website.