Tuesday, January 26, 2016

History’s Rich With Mysteries with Earl Staggs: AGATHA CHRISTIE – The original “Gone Girl"

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…


When 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 Christie, 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 archaeologist. She passed 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 temporary amnesia.

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 divorce.

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.

Public 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:

“I believe 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.”

Laura 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 be salvaged.

In his 1998 book, AGATHA CHRISTIE AND THE ELEVEN MISSING DAYS, author Jared Cade believes Agatha’s motive was clear:

“She 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 wrong."

It’s interesting that she mentioned Agatha using the last name Neele. That, in my mind, rules out amnesia.  If she 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 Christie.

For example:

. . . 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 Christie’s mistress.

. . .in GONE GIRL, the husband is suspected of foul play in the disappearance of his wife as Archie was in Agatha’s disappearance.

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
Earl 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 seminars. 

He invites any comments via email at earlstaggs@sbcglobal.net
He also invites you to visit his blog site at http://earlwstaggs.wordpress.com to learn more about his novels and stories.


Bill Crider said...

Interesting coincidence that my blog post today on Overlooked Movies is on this same topic.

Kaye George said...

This is one of my all-time favorite real-life mysteries. I can't make up my own mind and flip back and forth among theories. What a great job you did, laying it all out here--thanks!

Earl Staggs said...

How neat, Bill, that we posted on the same topic today. I haven't seen the movie "Agatha" which you mentioned, but now I'll go looking for it.

Earl Staggs said...

It's certainly a mystery for the ages, Kaye. And who better to leave us with it than Dame Agatha, the Queen of Mystery herself.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I love the film based on this. If I remember it right, Vanessa Redgrave played Christie and she was excellent in the part. Dustin Hoffman always had an interesting role.

Jan Christensen said...

A fascinating post, as always, Earl. I enjoyed it. Keep up the good work.

Morgan Mandel said...

Agatha's mysterious disappearance reminds me of Castle's disappearance. We still don't know the whole story about that. Hopefully, we'll learn before the present cast is through this season. Rumor is Nathan will not be returning, but some spin-off may be in the works.

Morgan Mandel

Susan Oleksiw said...

I thought I knew this story fairly well but you've brought up a lot of information that's new to me. I didn't know about the sister-in-law and her role in the disappearance. This story continues to fascinate me.

Caroline Clemmons said...

I think she was simply near a nervous breakdown and needed time alone to recover. She had too much happen in too short a time. Her husband's infidelity was the final straw and she had to go somewhere to recover. Not hard to understand.

Great post, Earl.

Earl Staggs said...

Jacqueline, Bill Crider talked about the movie "Agatha" on his blog site a couple days ago. If you go to http://billcrider.blogspot.com/ and scroll down a little, you'll find it.

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks, Jan. Glad you liked it. I'll keep it up as long as Kevin lets me.

Earl Staggs said...

Hi, Morgan. It's hard to imagine Castle with the titular character. As you said, we'll have to wait and see.

Earl Staggs said...

It's a fascinating story for sure, Susan. I believe the sister-in-law was in on it and was probably the only person other than Agatha who knew the whole story. Like a true BFF, she never betrayed Agatha's trust and never told anyone.

Earl Staggs said...

Caroline, you're probably right about her frame of mind. That still leaves me wondering about the details of her going off the grid. She abandoned her car in a remote area leaving personal items inside, and signed into the spa using a fictitious name borrowed from her husband's mistress. Some people feel those acts were to direct suspicion toward her husband. Too bad we'll never know for sure. On the other hand, we certainly love a good mystery, don't we?

Marian Lanouette said...

I loved the mystery and the comparison.

Earl Staggs said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Marian, and thanks for stopping by.

Susan said...

A lovely analysis of a perpetual puzzle. Thank you, Earl.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Earl always contributes good stuff.

His next column runs later this week on 02/24. I could tell you all about it now, but won't because that is the kind of guy I am.