The Lady Vanishes Part II: Agatha Christie

Part I is here.

The Solution

The amnesia explanation was too dodgy to convince everyone, and instead of curtailing rumours, it only caused curiosity about the “missing eleven days” to escalate over the years.

One curious person was Jared Cade, a young Christie fan and collector from Australia. He had studied the mystery carefully, and in the end he simply couldn’t accept that Agatha had behaved so dramatically while suffering memory loss. He was fascinated by the contrast between her actions at the Hydro Hotel and her refined, decorous persona. He wondered why she hadn’t explained the disappearance in her autobiography. In short, Jared Cade wanted to know the real story.
In 1989 he traveled to England to see some of the locations that had inspired Agatha Christie. In the archives of the British Library he located her obituary box, and was astonished to find a complete account of her activities during the “eleven missing days”.
Cade would spend the next six years of his life filling in the blanks. He contributed information to a 1997 BBC programme, Mysteries with Carol Vanderman, that re-enacted the known facts of the disappearance, but saved the big revelations for his book, Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days.
The first thing Cade discovered is that reliable information on Agatha’s disappearance is scarce. The Surrey police files relating to it were destroyed in the Blitz. Contemporary news accounts were sensationalistic and contradictory. The principal players had clammed up as soon as Agatha was found, and at any rate were dead by the time Cade began his investigation.
Cade made one decision that broke the case, though: He visited Abney Hall, now home of Nan Watts’ daughter Judith Gardner and her husband Graham, both of whom had been close to Agatha.
The Gardners had previously refused to contribute to a biography commissioned by Agatha’s daughter in the early ’80s. Janet Morgan, the author of this official biography, had edited political diaries for the Labour Party. The Gardners felt that Agatha – a lifelong Tory – would not have appreciated that. Both Rosalind and Judith had also unsuccessfully tried to prevent the release of a 1979 film, Agatha, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman, which portrayed Agatha’s disappearance as voluntary.
The Gardners were impressed by the enthusiastic young Cade, however. The elderly couple soon trusted him enough to finally divulge the details of Agatha Christie’s disappearance.

Here, according to the Gardners, is what really happened December 3-13, 1926:

On the morning of December 3, Archie and Agatha argued over his intentions to end the marriage and to attend the houseparty with Nancy, but Archie wouldn’t be deterred. He departed for London, and Agatha was left at Styles to pen a reproachful letter. She also wrote a letter to her secretary, calling off all her plans for the week. She may also have written and sent a letter to Deputy Constable Kenward of the Surrey Constabulary, informing him that she feared for her life, but if so this letter has never been found. Remember that Kenward was the only investigator who believed Agatha was murdered.

In the afternoon Agatha and Rosalind visited Archie’s mother, Rosamund Helmsley. Agatha seemed cheerful, though concerned about her inability to get much writing done. Mrs. Helmsley noticed that she had removed her wedding ring. Mrs. Helmsley would later defend her daughter-in-law to the police and the press, insisting that Agatha would never willingly leave her husband and child. Yet almost in the same breath she speculated that Agatha had been planning suicide when she drove to Newland’s corner. In retrospect, Mrs. Helmsley clearly knew more than she revealed.

Shortly before 10 p.m., Agatha drove her car about half a mile from Styles, to Newlands Corner. This location was mere miles from the house where Archie and Nancy were staying. One rumor had it that after receiving a phone call from his wife that night, Archie went off to meet her somewhere. As we shall see, that was false.
Agatha parked at the edge of Waters Road and pushed her still-running car down the slope towards the chalk pit.
She then walked to West Clandon Station and took a train to London, where she stayed overnight with Nan. This explains how Agatha passed the first 24 hours of her disappearance; she was not wandering the countryside in a state of confusion, but confiding in a close friend. Nan knew all about Agatha’s marital problems and was probably sympathetic. She agreed to give Agatha some nice clothes and enough money to stay in Yorkshire for several days.

On the morning of December 4th, right around the time her car was found at the chalk pit, Agatha posted the letter to Archie’s brother Cameron, explaining she was on her way to a Yorkshire spa. This letter, she believed, would give people a clue as to where to start looking for her. However, Cameron lost the letter and this delayed her discovery by several days.
After lunch, she caught a 1:40 train to Harrogate, six hours away. That night she danced the Charleston to “Yes, We Have No Bananas” in the Hydro ballroom.

By Sunday, December 12 (the day of the “Great Sunday Hunt”), two members of the band that was playing the Hydro had recognized Theresa Neele as the missing woman in the papers, and called the police. The head waiter did the same. The police followed up these tips by placing plainclothes officers in the hotel on Monday, December 13. Confident they had found Agatha Christie, on Tuesday they called on Mr. Christie to travel to Harrogate and identify his wife.

Agatha was persuaded by Archie and the Watts family to stick to the amnesia story. It seemed, at the time, to be in everyone’s best interests: Culpability would be reduced on both sides, and the family would not be shamed by Agatha’s bizarre behaviour. The Watts family bribed two doctors into diagnosing amnesia.

The incident emotionally aged Agatha Christie. Faced with the disapproval of nearly everyone around her, she must have felt every bit as embarrassed as she had hoped Archie would feel. The plan had blown up in her face. Archie was upset, not contrite, when his affair was paraded in front of the public. The press and the public were upset at being the victims of what they perceived as a cruel, publicity-mongering prank. Agatha was shunned by many of her friends.
She had hoped to shake up her husband a little, embarrass him and force him to recognize the grave consequences of his behaviour. She probably wanted to ruin his weekend with his mistress. Perhaps she hoped, against hope, that her disappearance would revive his love for her. Whatever her intentions, it’s clear that she wanted to have a fun holiday to take her mind off things while Archie sweated it out at home. She might even have taken some delight in the knowledge that Archie would be under suspicion. What she didn’t count on were the lengthy time required to locate her, the intense media coverage, and the public backlash. She also did not expect her family to convince her that hiding her pain behind a tale of amnesia was the wisest course of action. Her scheme had garnered no sympathy.

After the disastrous disappearance and public humiliation, Agatha really had no choice but to give Archie his divorce. Agatha disapproved of divorce on a spiritual basis. More significantly, though, she knew that Rosalind would be devastated if her father moved out. Rosalind ws a confirmed daddy’s girl, so similar to Archie in temperament and tastes that Agatha sometimes felt like the outsider of the family.
James Watts somehow convinced Agatha that a divorce would be best all around, and in 1927 she relented. The grounds were adultery, but a make-believe rendezvous with a strange woman was cited as the reason. In the days before no-fault divorces, the adulterer had to produce the name of his or her extramarital partner along with the details of their indiscretions. Presumably, Archie wanted to shield Nancy Neele from public humiliation.
Less than three weeks after the divorce was granted in 1928, they married. They remained together until Nancy’s death in 1954.

The Aftermath

It was far from the end for Agatha Christie. For one thing, the adage “any publicity is good publicity” proved true in this case. Having her name in the papers for weeks had launched Agatha from the rank and file of mystery authors into the realm of national celebrity. Her next book, The Big Four, sold twice as many copies as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and her sales continued to increase after that. She was easily able to support herself and Rosalind on her writing income.

Her friendship with Nan was undiminished. Nan faithfully kept her friend’s secret, and after WWII she and Judith resided in Devon to be near Agatha.

In 1929, while Rosalind was away at boarding school, Agatha decided to take a holiday by herself, to see the excavations that were taking place in Mesopotamia under the direction of Leonard Woolley.
Agatha found the trip so enjoyable that she returned to the excavation site at Ur in 1930. This time Woolley’s wife, Katherine, asked her husband’s 25-year-old assistant, Max Mallowan, to take Agatha on a sight-seeing tour of the area. The two discovered that they had many things in common, despite considerable differences in age, background, and education.
Max and Agatha both travelled with the Woolleys to Athens after the Ur site was closed for the season. It was there that Agatha learned Rosalind was very sick, and shortly thereafter sprained her ankle. Max promptly cancelled his own plans and offered to accompany her back to England. Within two years, they were married.

Jared Cade believes that Agatha learned much from her experiences with Archie Christie. She learned, first of all, to accept people’s flaws along with their virtues. She was prone to hero-worship and had idealized her first husband; when he betrayed her, she was shattered.
With her second marriage, Agatha also appreciated the value of togetherness. Knowing that Max Mallowan was relatively poor at the time of their marriage, she offered to pool their finances rather than keep her earnings to herself. And while Agatha and Archie had sometimes taken separate vacations, Agatha now dragged her typewriter to archeological digs in far-flung desert locales.

Certainly the marriage was beneficial for both of them, but it was far from idyllic. During the late 1940’s, around the time he was given the archeological chair at London University, Max began an affair with his assistant. He maintained this relationship for years without Agatha’s knowledge. Nan caught wind of Max’s affair and let Agatha know what was happening. She was undoubtedly hurt, but Agatha didn’t wish to open herself up to heartbreak and public scrutiny again. In 1926 she had been overwhelmed by the desires to get back at her husband and to escape the pain of being an unwanted wife. Now that she was older and more settled, she could deal with infidelity in an outwardly calmer way. She didn’t have to run away and became someone else.
Her marriage to Max would last 47 years.

In 1949 it was revealed for the first time that Agatha had published several romantic novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott. It’s odd that her disappearance continued to be considered a mystery at all after this, because one of these pseudonymous novels, Unfinished Portrait, was a barely disguised account of what had taken place just prior to her eleven missing days in 1926. During the last interview she gave, in 1974, she said the writing that had given her the most enjoyment were her romance novels.
Agatha was outraged when her pen name was revealed, though. Mary Westmacott had apparently served much the same purpose for her that Theresa Neele had: To bring hidden aspects of Agatha’s emotional world into the open without really bringing them into the open.

Archie Christie died in 1962. Agatha didn’t write anything overtly negative about her first husband in her posthumously-published autobiography, though it’s interesting that colonels often come to bad ends in Agatha Christie novels.

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