When The World’s Greatest Whodunit Writer Disappeared, The Police Were Left Utterly Clueless

On an ice-cold winter evening in 1926 Agatha Christie kissed her daughter goodnight, got into her car, and disappeared. The woman who created mysteries for a living had now become engulfed in one herself. Decades on, and the incident still baffles people. So, what happened? Why did she feel the need to leave? And, maybe the biggest question of all… Whodunit?

Christie’s disappearance has been fictionalized for a long time now. Writers have offered their own ideas about what made her leave, with some being more serious than others. The 1979 film Agatha, for example, suggested that she had a vendetta against her husband. Meanwhile, a 2008 Doctor Who episode brought alien wasps into the fold.

Of course, it was much easier in 1929 to fall off the face of the Earth if you wished – assuming, of course, that Christie actually did want to. There was no GPS, no CCTV, no cell phones. Even someone famous, as Christie very much was, could potentially run away and never be found.

Christie was already a renowned crime writer by that point in her life, having previously introduced her iconic Hercule Poirot character back in 1920. Moreover, her sixth novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was doing very well. So, it probably hadn’t been money issues making her flee, right?

Perhaps Christie’s personal life held the answer? She married a man named Archie Christie in 1914 – he’s where she got that now-famous last name from, her original one having been Miller. The couple had one child together, a daughter they named Rosalind. Could a mother really just walk out on her own child without ever planning to return?

ADVERTISEMENT

The police asked themselves those questions and many others as they tried to investigate what had happened. They found some answers in the end – but not all of them. Today, the disappearance is an established part of the Agatha Christie legend. And it proves that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

Only the household staff were around on the night that Christie left her Berkshire home and got into her car. Notably, her husband Archie wasn’t there. The couple were having some pretty major marital problems. Archie had already confessed to being in love with another woman, and that was where he’d been – with his mistress.

ADVERTISEMENT

With her husband playing away Christie had the whole house to herself. Except, she chose to leave it. Before getting in her car she wrote a brisk letter to her secretary saying she was going on vacation and not to expect her back that same night, which was December 3, 1926. Then, she simply drove into the pitch-black darkness of 1920s England.

There were other letters that Christie left behind, as well. She’d written notes for her brother-in-law Campbell Christie and for her spouse Archie. The note to Campbell claimed she was visiting a spa in the English region of Yorkshire, but the letter to Archie was apparently much more intimate. Even when the search was in full swing, he wouldn’t reveal its contents.

ADVERTISEMENT

Despite what was said in the note, Christie’s staff began to worry when she didn’t come back. Quite aside from anything else, there was a young child in the house who needed her mother. Eventually, Christie’s secretary decided to call the police. Knowing what a big deal the mystery author was, they got to work straight away.

It wasn’t, however, the police who found the first clue, but rather an ordinary person who could’ve come out of a Christie novel himself. A young Romani fellow named George Best was walking in Guildford, near the area where the Christies lived, when he found an empty vehicle on a slope. He immediately reported it to the local authorities.

ADVERTISEMENT

The car had been deserted over 12 miles away from the Christie house, and worryingly it was on an incline near a quarry. Even more concerning was that Christie’s possessions were still inside. Police found some of her clothes, a case full of her papers and a driver’s license. All clues, but where did they lead?

The letters Christie had left behind may have been useful… if they were still there. But over the following days, the police interviewed Archie and Campbell and found, bafflingly, that both of them had apparently burnt their letters. Campbell did, however, provide his envelope, which was postmarked the day after Christie’s disappearance.

ADVERTISEMENT

The police were able to get a description of Christie to put on “missing” posters. She’d been wearing a hat, a skirt, a jumper and a cardigan. Notably, she was apparently not wearing her wedding ring. That wasn’t the biggest issue, though. Dressed as she was in the freezing cold of England, Christie was in danger of hypothermia. If, of course, she was alive.

The area Christie had been in was considered a dangerous one. Near where the car had been found lurked something called the Silent Pool. This was a natural spring with a very bad reputation. It had a legendary ghost story involving a King of England attached to it, for a start.

ADVERTISEMENT

So the story goes, a young King John I was riding by the pool and noticed a beautiful girl bathing there. He made advances on her, but she was unsettled and retreated into the water. She began to panic and her brother came running to save her, but he couldn’t swim well, either. Both drowned, and when their bodies were found a royal crest lay near them.

The truth of whether that’s a true story or one made up to discredit King John I has been lost to history. But Agatha Christie hadn’t gone the same way just yet. The police were operating on the assumption that she was still alive, even though rumors spread that she’d met her fate in the Silent Pool.

ADVERTISEMENT

Before long, over 1,000 policemen and 15,000 citizens were helping to look for Christie. The Silent Pool was searched, but nothing was found. Lead detective William Kenward told the Daily Mail, “I have handled many important cases during my career, but this is the most baffling ever.” Plenty were treating the case like a real-life whodunit.

Quickly, the rumor mill spun out of control. Some people thought it was all a big plot orchestrated by Christie herself to drum up publicity for a new book. Others, though, whispered that perhaps her spouse had killed her and disposed of the body. He was, after all, having an affair.

ADVERTISEMENT

Christie’s secretary absolutely denied the suggestion it was a publicity stunt. As the search continued The New York Times reported her as saying, “It is ridiculous. Mrs. Christie is quite too much a lady for that. She never for one moment would think of causing all this sorrow and suspense.”

Archie himself seemed to believe that his wife was alive. On December 11 he told the Daily News publication, “My wife stated that she could disappear at will if she liked. And, in view of the fact that she was a writer of detective stories, it would be very natural for her to adopt some form of disguise to carry out that idea.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Archie did not, however, mention to the newspaper that he’d been seeing his mistress at the same time his wife vanished, and generally he was criticized for his attitude in the interview. People continued to gossip just as if they, too, were players in a murder mystery. One of the oddest ideas was the theory that Christie was alive in London, but disguising herself in men’s clothes.

And then another famous author got involved in the case. This was Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who created the legendary Sherlock Holmes who was himself a notorious believer in the supernatural. He even went so far as to take one of Christie’s gloves to a medium named Horace Leaf in his quest to recover her.

ADVERTISEMENT

According to Doyle, who revealed his findings to the Morning Press newspaper, Leaf had revealed, “The person who owns [the glove] is half dazed and half purposeful. She is not dead as many think. She is alive. You will hear of her, I think, next Wednesday, in a location with connection to water.”

However, the police didn’t put too much stock in spirit mediums, and they continued to investigate. Some 50 officers investigated a Romani settlement near the Christie home and interviewed people there, but found nothing. Then, they brought out the big guns and used airplanes in the search. This was actually the first time that this had ever been done in the United Kingdom.

ADVERTISEMENT

Everything seemed to point to Archie as the culprit, a philanderer who’d probably murdered his wife and faked her running away. There was the issue of the car, for a start. The police observed that the handbrake hadn’t been pulled and there wasn’t a trace of blood. Christie didn’t seem to have crashed the car, so perhaps it had been pushed near to the Silent Pool.

Archie was very much a person of interest to the police. He offered up £500 to anyone who could tell him where his spouse was, but that didn’t help matters much. Detectives followed him to his office, clearly waiting for him to slip up. It seemed so obvious that the cheating husband was to blame – but it wasn’t him.

ADVERTISEMENT

Christie hadn’t been murdered by her husband, nor had she met her end in the Silent Pool. She was very much alive… Just under strange circumstances. On December 14 – which was a Tuesday, not a Wednesday – it was reported that she’d been found at a place called the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, using a fake name.

A hotel banjo player named Bob Tappin had recognized this hotel guest as the missing mystery author and alerted the police. But that wasn’t the end of the story by a long shot. For a start, Christie had checked into the hotel under the name Teresa Neele – Neele being the last name of her husband’s mistress.

ADVERTISEMENT

What in the world had Christie been doing at the hotel? Well, the maids reported on “Teresa Neele’s” activities. She’d been reading the newspapers avidly – papers which, of course, had been reporting nonstop on Agatha Christie’s disappearance. She’d also been playing the piano, and on her first night she’d been seen dancing to the song “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

“Neele” had told the other hotel guests that she was from South Africa, and that she’d recently lost a child. She’d been getting mystery novels from the library and seemed to be a fan of them. She’d also shopped a lot – perhaps to replace the clothes that she’d abandoned in the car. And perhaps most notably, there was a photograph of Rosalind on her bedside table.

ADVERTISEMENT

Archie traveled down to Harrogate to collect his wayward wife. He waited in the hotel dining area and observed as Christie picked up a newspaper which bore her own picture on the front. When he approached her she seemed puzzled as to who exactly he was, but she did agree to go home with him.

The conclusion to the mystery was obviously a huge deal. Hundreds of civilians crammed into a train station to try and spot Agatha Christie coming home. And the press was there, of course. Archie informed them that his wife was suffering from memory loss, with little idea of who she was. When asked why she chose the name “Neele,” he responded that he didn’t recognize it.

ADVERTISEMENT

So, that’s what had been going on with Agatha Christie. But what had been going on inside her brain? Well, the best explanation would appear to be the one that Christie herself gave. In 1928 – the year she divorced Archie – she spoke to the Daily Mail about what she thought had happened during those lost 11 days.

Christie told the newspaper that she’d intended to take her own life that night, but when the car spun off the road she’d experienced amnesia. She said, “The car struck something with a jerk and pulled up suddenly. I was flung against the steering wheel, and my head hit something. Up to this moment, I was Mrs. Christie.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Was that really what had happened? Unfortunately, the secret died with Christie. In the years since her death, though, many people have come forward to offer new explanations. For example, in 2000 The Guardian scored an interview with the daughter of Christie’s sister-in-law – and she claimed to know some truths about the matter.

Judith Gardner, the daughter of Nan Watts, told the newspaper that she’d been told the account as a child. Christie had fled to Watt’s house the night she disappeared, hiding there until being put on a train to Harrogate. Why? Because, Gardner claimed, Christie wanted revenge against her cheating husband.

ADVERTISEMENT

Gardner pointed out, “If she had had amnesia she would not have signed the register in the other woman’s name. She was a highly intelligent woman.” And many people believe this theory. Christie might have planned, Gone Girl-style, to have her husband suspected of her murder and dragged through the mud.

Not everyone agrees with that story, however. In 2006 biographer Andrew Norman told The Guardian newspaper that he believed Christie had been in a “fugue state” when she disappeared. Unwell mentally, she’d basically taken on the personality of a different, imagined woman named Teresa Neele.

ADVERTISEMENT

So, what’s the answer? Interestingly, if you rearrange the letters of “Teresa” you get “Teaser.” Was Christie’s disappearance all a careful plot, or was it a mental breakdown caused by her unfaithful husband? Perhaps we’ll never know for certain, but the Christie herself might have delighted at the idea of her life becoming such an enduring mystery.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT