Texas author Earl Staggs is back
with another mystery from the past that fascinates him. This is a case I had
never heard of before Earl’s piece below…
RICH WITH MYSTERIES
I look at the past, I find stories about people which fascinate me,
particularly those in which there is a curious mixture of fact, legend, and
mysterious uncertainty. In this series of articles, I want to explore some of
those stories. I think of them as mysteries swaddled in legend. While truth is
always desired in most things, truth easily becomes staid and boring. Legend,
on the other hand, forever holds a hint of romanticism and an aura of
excitement borne of adventure, imagination and, of course, mystery.
AGATHA CHRISTIE – The original “Gone Girl”
By Earl Staggs
Born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller
on September 15, 1890, in Torquay, Devon, England, she married Archibald
a hero of the Royal Flying Corps, in 1914. The couple had one daughter, Rosalind,
and divorced in 1928. In 1930, she married Sir Max Mallowan, a noted
away of natural causes on January 12, 1976, at the age of 85.
According to The Guinness Book of
World Records, she is the best-selling novelist of all time. Only the Bible and
Shakespeare’s works have sold more. Her books have been translated into 103
languages, more than any other author.
While she wrote six romance
novels under the name Mary Westmacott, she is best known for her novels and
short stories written under her own name and featuring, among others, two of
the most popular characters in the mystery genre, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane
Marple. She also wrote “The Mousetrap,” a murder mystery play which opened in
1952 and as of 2015 is still running after more than 25,000 performances,
making it the longest running play in history.
Her novel AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is her biggest seller with 100 million
sales to date, making it the world's best-selling mystery ever and one of the
best-selling books of all time.
In 1955, she was the first
recipient of the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award, its highest
honor. That same year, her play “Witness for the Prosecution” received an Edgar
Award from MWA for Best Play. In 1971, she was made a Dame Commander of the
Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Her novel THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD
was voted the best crime novel ever by 600 fellow writers of the Crime Writers’
Association in 2013.
With all those honors, awards and
accolades, you’d think everything about her has been said. Not so. Among
mystery readers and writers, she is also well-known for her mysterious disappearance
in 1926 and reappearance eleven days later. Agatha
refused to explain the incident,
simply putting it down to a bout of
She reportedly said only, "For 24 hours I wandered in a dream, and
then found myself in Harrogate as a well-contented and perfectly happy woman
who believed she had just come from South Africa.
Few people were convinced by this explanation. In her autobiography, she
made no mention of those missing eleven days.
Over the years, a number of theories have surfaced regarding the incident. Some
believe it was a publicity stunt to boost sales of THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD
which was published in 1926 and became her first major success. That same year,
her beloved mother died. Agatha considered her mom her best friend, confidante,
and biggest supporter and felt her loss deeply. She took her daughter Rosalind
to the home where she had grown up to sort through her mother’s things. Her
husband Archie did not accompany them. Agatha fell into a deep depression over
her mother’s death. When Archie finally came to visit, he gave her more bad
news. He had become involved with a woman named Nancy Neele, and he wanted a
In an effort to save her marriage, Agatha took Rosalind and
moved back home. On the evening of December 3, 1926, Archie went out alone. He
said he was going to a weekend house party, but most likely, it was a
rendezvous with his mistress.
Later that evening, Agatha left the house. Her maids said
she was visibly upset. The next morning, her car was found abandoned an hour’s
drive from home. Inside the car were clothes and other personal possessions. It
appeared she had vanished into thin air.
The police launched a nationwide search involving more than a thousand police
officers and members of the public, and for the first time in UK history,
airplanes were used in the search effort. Two of Agatha’s fellow authors,
Dorothy L Sayers and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, helped with the search. Newspapers
offered rewards for information.
Many suspected her husband Archie had murdered her and
disposed of the body.
Eleven days after her disappearance, she was recognized at a spa in
Yorkshire, two hundred miles from home. She had registered as Theresa Neele,
using the surname of Archie’s mistress. Archie traveled there to take her home.
Agatha and Archie may have tried to save their marriage after her
reappearance, but it was not to be. They divorced in 1928. Archie married Nancy
Neele that same year and Agatha married archeologist Max Mallowan in 1930.
sentiment was negative toward the disappearance. Many felt it had been a
publicity stunt which had cost the taxpayers a substantial amount of money.
Some who did not believe it was done for publicity offered other theories. Author
Gillian Gill said this:
that Christie had a definitive and terrible fight with her husband. It drove
her over the edge. She had been depressed, now she becomes on some level psychotic.
She is not herself. She wanders off. She gets on the train. She takes another
name. She goes into this hotel and she lives another life. That’s very, very,
very rare, but it’s known. It’s documented in the annals of psychology.”
Another author, Gwen Robyns, thought it was Agatha’s way of
exacting revenge on her errant husband and said this:
“I think she took endless delight in the fact that the
police shadowed Archie. He couldn’t go anywhere because they suspected him of
murdering her. And I think she took marvelous delight in reading this in the
papers. Again, I think in a sort of revenge and twisted up sort of way, she was
thinking it was very funny.”
Thompson's biography, Agatha Christie, An English Mystery, states
Agatha did disappear as part of a publicity stunt. The purpose was not to increase
sales in her novels, however, but to create a negative feeling toward Archie
for being unfaithful. Unfortunately, instead of saving their marriage as she hoped
it would, it cemented the fact that their relationship was over and could never
In his 1998 book, AGATHA CHRISTIE AND THE ELEVEN MISSING DAYS,
author Jared Cade believes Agatha’s motive was clear:
wanted to disrupt his weekend with Nancy Neele and make him suffer, although
she still adored him. What no one could have foreseen was the press reaction.
She was propelled from being an author with a reputation into one of the most
famous women in England.”
I think the best explanation of the incident comes from journalist John
Ezard, writing for the Guardian newspaper in 2000. Ezard interviewed the
daughter of Agatha’s sister-in-law and close friend, Nan Watts. The daughter
claimed she knew the truth because she was with her mother and Agatha on the
night of the disappearance. She said Agatha was hidden away by Nan Watts at
their Chelsea home before being put on a train to Harrogate the following day.
This makes a lot
of sense because Agatha could not have pulled it off by herself. After
abandoning her car in Surrey, she needed someone to pick her up and transport
her eventually to the train station in London.
Here’s how the
daughter describes it:
"She then just sat there in her hotel room, hiding away...But she
had signed the guests' register in the name Neele - the surname of her
husband's lover...It was carefully orchestrated...She wanted Archie back...She
wanted to give him a shock...If she had had amnesia she would not have signed
the register in the other woman's name...My mother helped her because she was
distraught. I think she went to my mother because she had been through a
divorce. Mrs Christie never did it for the publicity. That was the last thing
she would have thought of. She was very upset and shocked - it all went rather
It’s interesting that she mentioned Agatha using the last name Neele. That,
in my mind, rules out amnesia.
had amnesia, now could she have known that name?
It’s easy to compare Agatha’s disappearance and reappearance
to the plot of Gillian Flynn’s novel GONE GIRL. In fact, it’s hard not
to. Flynn did an excellent job with the novel and she also wrote the screenplay
for the successful movie. While Flynn is a fine writer who made her novel
interesting and unique in its own right, it’s easy to see examples of homage to
. . . in Flynn’s novel, a first person narrator is revealed
as the perpetrator as Christie did in THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD.
. . .in both GONE GIRL and Agatha’s real-life
disappearance, the plot involves a disintegrating marriage and an unhappy wife
who mysteriously disappears.
. . .in GONE GIRL, the wife disappears and
lives under the assumed name “Nancy,” which was the first name of Archie
. . .in GONE GIRL, the husband is suspected
of foul play in the disappearance of his wife as Archie was in Agatha’s
We are all free to form our own opinions as to why Dame Agatha
staged her mysterious disappearance. We will never know for sure. She was the
only person who knew, and she chose never to reveal exactly why she did it. That’s
okay with me. For all her contributions to the world of the written word, for
all the influences her literary legacy have given us, she earned that right.
Besides, once a mystery is solved, it becomes nothing more
than a piece of history. An unsolved mystery lives forever and never stops
taunting us from just beyond our reach.
Earl Staggs ©2016
Staggs earned all Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIEDACTION and has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of
the Year. He served as Managing Editor
of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society,
and is a frequent speaker at conferences and