6.10 Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime (Part 2)

Agatha Christie (Part 2)

In Part 2, Agatha’s mysterious disappearance is solved (sort of) and her career soars.

I highly recommend reading or listening to Part 1 before starting this episode. Both are part of Series 6: Ground-Breaking Novelists.

Full Transcript

If you haven’t listened to last week’s episode, please go back and listen. This will make so much more sense if you’ve listened to Part 1. We left Agatha at the most difficult point in her life: her mother was dead, her husband wanted a divorce, she had driven off into the night on Friday, December 3rd, 1926. Her car was found on Saturday December 4th, a long way from anywhere, 300 yards off the road, stuck in a bush. Agatha was nowhere to be found.

The police were called, of course. It was clear to them that her car could not possibly have gotten there by accident. A few discreet questions proved that the lady’s marriage was highly contentious. By Tuesday the case of the missing detective novelist was front page news. The local chemist said she had discussed poison with him. Multiple locals with conflicting stories came forward to claim they had seen her. Airplanes scoured the area looking for her body. Hundreds of police were put on the case along with six bloodhounds and thousands of volunteers who showed up uninvited. Seances were held. The rumor mill hummed with theories: her husband had killed her, her husband had driven her to suicide, two strangers had attacked her, she was in a spa on the coast, she was in a spa in Yorkshire, she was in London disguised as a man.

The newspapers were having a field day, and everything Archie said made it worse. He had received a letter written before she left the house, but he had burned it. Very suspicious. His brother had received a letter from her written on Saturday, December 4th, but he had thrown it away. Obviously a coverup. Archie said Agatha had discussed how she could disappear at will. Very convenient.

The story had simply become public property. On December 14th, eleven days after her disappearance, police got word that she might be at Harrogate in Yorkshire over 200 miles away. Archie went up to the hotel there, and yes, it was Agatha. She had been there the whole time, eating, shopping, dancing, and singing.

Archie’s official statement to the press was:

“She is suffering from complete loss of memory and identity. She does not know who she is. She does not know me, and she does not know why she is in Harrogate. I am hoping to take her to London to see a doctor and a specialist, and I hope that rest and quiet will put her right.”

Thompson, 216

If Archie thought an explanation like that was going to make everyone say, “Oh well, that’s all right then,” he had another think coming.

The police felt foolish. The journalists felt tricked. The public felt outraged.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The press coverage continued, now smearing Agatha for selfish, irresponsible behavior, claiming it was all a publicity stunt to sell more novels, and demanding that the Christies repay everyone for the enormous waste of time and money. To that last Archie retorted angrily that he knew all along his wife was alive, and he had told the police so. Was it his fault they hadn’t believed him? Agatha said nothing at all. Then or ever. The family stuck to the amnesia story for years.

So what did really happen? We will never know for sure. There are still many competing theories about her mental state, and how she got from Surrey to Yorkshire, and if she had an accomplice. The version I’m going to give you is the one by biographer Laura Thompson, and it is one that makes sense of Agatha’s motivations. Thompson, like many others, completely dismisses the idea that this was a stunt to sell more books. That theory is completely at odds with her character both before and after. It ignores that she truly was in an emotional crisis and had good reasons for it. This then is the version I think is true.

On December 3rd, Agatha drove away with no fixed plan, but a burning desire to escape the life she was living. She drove vaguely in the direction where Archie was staying, maybe in the hopes of confronting him, maybe with an idea of killing herself. She got out for a while and walked. This is supported by a witness who helped her restart her car early in the morning of December 4th. Some time later, she put the car in neutral at the top of a hill and let it slide over the edge. There is simply no way it could have gotten where it was found without some intent. Then she walked to Chilworth Station and took a train to London.

Why would she do that? Well, this theory is that it was a sort of stunt. But it wasn’t for the purpose of selling books. It wasn’t for the public at all. She hoped that if the family didn’t know where she was for a day or two, Archie would feel worried, regretful, might even remember his love for her and come to find her.

Obviously, he would need to know how to find her, so in London she posted a letter to his brother Campbell Christie at his office. The letter said she was unwell and going to a Yorkshire spa. When Campbell came to work on Monday morning, he’d get the letter, tell Archie, and Archie, having suffered a weekend of remorse, would come up and find her for a romantic reunion on Monday evening or Tuesday at the latest.

Having posted her letter, Agatha got on a train for Harrogate, where she checked herself in as Mrs. Neele, which just so happened to be the name of Archie’s mistress. It was a clue. And then she sat down to wait.

Agatha Christie was a master of controlling the plots in her novels, and her problem here was that real life cannot be plotted so carefully.

For one thing, Campbell Christie unexpectedly went to work on Saturday and got her letter two days early. She hadn’t been reported missing yet. He didn’t know there was anything important about it, so he read it and threw it away. He didn’t tell Archie. It didn’t occur to him.

For another thing, she hadn’t counted on the police being called in so quickly. She’d thought it would simply be the family who didn’t know where she was. She certainly didn’t expect the public to take notice. She didn’t consider herself a celebrity, and she wasn’t. Her books had sold, but she was not a sensation. Her name was not well known. The police constable behaved exactly like the most bumbling of police in a classic detective novel. When he saw the car, he assumed the woman was dead and he clung to that theory, ignoring any evidence to the contrary. So when Campbell Christie told him about the letter, posted after the supposed death, the Constable dismissed it out of hand. Obviously it was posted by someone else to cover their tracks. Or maybe it never existed at all. At no point did he even consider that if Campbell said Agatha said she was going to a Yorkshire spa, then maybe she was at a Yorkshire spa.

The plot had simply spiraled out of her control, as people made decisions she had not anticipated.

It was clearly not a well thought-out plan, but people might have forgiven her that if it had not gone on so long. Why didn’t she step forward when she became headline news? Laura Thompson’s explanation is that Agatha was genuinely in an emotional breakdown and though it was not amnesia, it was enough to prevent her from making rational decisions. True enough, I’m sure, but I think there are also explanations that are perfectly rational.

It is assumed that Agatha knew people were looking for her because she was the top story for nine of eleven days. Everyone in England knew. But all that presupposes she was reading the papers, which doesn’t seem like a guarantee to me. Some of us like to unplug from the world when we go on vacation. And unplugging from her real life was what this flight was all about.

Even if she read all the papers, even if she knew, there is still another explanation which makes sense to me: Having seen the plot spiral out of her control, she simply did not know how to end it. She had come because reality was unbearable, hoping that Archie would come and rescue her. When her story became a tabloid sensation, imagine how much guts it would have taken to call Archie or the police or the press and say “Actually I’m here because I made an ill-conceived and pathetically desperate attempt to reclaim my husband and it hasn’t worked at all. In fact, it’s made things infinitely worse.” I would suggest that Agatha, grieving, embarrassed, and afraid, simply lacked the courage and the stamina to do that. She took the easier route, which was to do nothing.

Or not quite nothing. She could have hidden in her room the whole time where no one would see her. But she didn’t. She went out every day and every evening. Perhaps part of her was hoping that someone would recognize her and help her get off this ghastly circus ride. Which, finally, two members of the hotel band did. They told the police, who told Archie, who came and got her.

Agatha went home to “recover her memory.” Archie was furious. The world had thought him a murderer for 11 days and if he had wanted a divorce before, now he really wanted one.

They were formally divorced in 1928. This was no modern no-fault divorce. You had to have fault. So Archie did what was very common: he confessed to adultery with an unnamed party. This may or may not have been true. He was certainly in love with Nancy Neele, but opinions vary on whether they were actually lovers. Anyway divorce was granted. Agatha got full custody of Rosalind. As far as I can tell there was no question of money changing hands on either side.

But what it did mean was that being a wife was no longer her profession. She was no longer an amateur, writing because she wanted to. Now she was a professional, writing because she had to support herself and her daughter. Poirot was as strong as ever, though she now realized that making him so old to begin with was a mistake. He had to keep living. That recognition did not prevent her from making the exact same mistake with her second great detective, Miss Marple. She had to keep living too.

The irony was that though the huge negative publicity was not intended as a stunt to sell books, it still worked that way. Everyone knew her name now, and all her books were bestsellers.

So financially, it was okay, but on an emotional level she couldn’t stand being in England. When Rosalind entered boarding school, Agatha booked herself a ticket on the Orient Express and went alone to see new places. That trip began a life-long love of the Near East that became part of her appeal as a writer. She was so English and yet many of her books also had the appeal of an exotic location, which she could easily describe because she had been there.

It was on her second trip to Iraq that a young man named Max Mallowan was ordered to escort her around to the sites. Agatha didn’t want him. She was sure a young archaeologist would find it very boring to escort a middle-aged enthusiast around, but his boss was a fan of her books, so there it was.

On one outing their car sunk into the sand. Max and the driver worked for hours in the blazing sun to dig it out. Agatha lay down in the teeny tiny bit of shaded went to sleep.

Max told her afterwards that “it was at that moment he decided that [she] would make an excellent wife for him. ‘No fuss!’ he said. ‘You didn’t complain or say that it was my fault, or that we never should have stopped there. You seemed not to care whether we went on or not. Really it was at that moment I began to think you were wonderful.'” (Christie, 397)

Agatha had absolutely no such thoughts. Having been burned once, she was scared of marriage. She was also 14 years older than Max.

So it was quite a surprise when he proposed. She took some time to think and consult others. Rosalind was in favor. Pretty much everyone else was opposed. Hadn’t she heard about gold-digging young men who flattered older women for their money? Yes, of course, she had. She’d written a book on it, in fact. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the younger man murdered his wife.

Agatha decided she didn’t care, and she married him anyway, and this marriage lasted the rest of her life. She continued to write at least one book a year (the new Christie for Christmas was a thing). But she was determined not to leave this husband alone. It was Rosalind who was left behind, as Agatha went to the archaeological digs every year.

She learned to dig, excavate, clean, and photograph. In particular, she is linked to the Mona Lisa of Nimrud, an ivory of a woman’s face. She spent hours drying and cleaning it. I’ll put a picture on the website.

Source: Wikiwand

And it is just as well that someone led the excavations in the 20th century because the site was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. The Mona Lisa is owned by the Iraq Museum, not the British Museum, in case that’s a sore topic with you. Sadly, the Iraq Museum was looted in 1991 and then attacked in 2003 and then a bank vault flooded. Definitely some of the Nimrud ivories were lost, but I have been unable to find anything that tells me anything specific about the Mona Lisa of Nimrud (Chandler, Horry). I hope it’s still on display in Baghdad.  

Agatha would have been heart-broken to see all of that, but there was still war ahead in her life. World War II was less of a surprise than World War I, but equally devastating. The digs were shut down, obviously. Max was assigned to a unit in Africa where he could use his Arabic. Their country house was requisitioned by the American army. Agatha moved to London and went back to work in the pharmacy. She lived and worked there all through the blitz, even when her house was bombed. Fortunately, she wasn’t in it at the time, though she never went to the shelters. She said:

“I always had a horror of being trapped underground—so I slept in my own bed no matter where I was. I became used in the end to raids on London—so much so, that I hardly woke up. I would think, half drowsily, that I heard the siren, or bombs not too far away. ‘Oh dear, there they are again!’ I would mutter, and turn over.”

Christie, 486

Her writing through the war was meant to lift people’s spirits, and it did. A recent documentary interviewed a wonderful woman who had worked as an air warden during the war and loved Agatha Christie at the time. “Her books were wonderful” she said, “because although they were crimes, to what was going on in the world, they were gentle. . . She had justice for everyone in every one of her books” (KCTS9).

The worst part was that Rosalind’s husband was killed in the war. In her autobiography, Agatha expressed no doubt about how she constantly left Rosalind behind as she traveled the year, but her most vulnerable moment as a mother came now.

“The saddest thing in life and the hardest to live through, is the knowledge that there is someone you love very much whom you cannot save from suffering,” she wrote. “You can do things to aid people’s physical disabilities; but you can do little to help the pain of the heart. I thought, maybe I was wrong, that the best thing I could do to help Rosalind was to say as little as possible, to go on as usual. I think that would have been my own feeling. You hope no one will speak to you, or enlarge upon things. I hope that was best for her, but you cannot know for another person. It may be it would have been easier for her if I had been the determined kind of mother who broke her down and insisted on her being more demonstrative. Instinct cannot be infallible. One wants so badly not to hurt the person one loves—not to do the wrong thing for them. One feels one ought to know, but one can never be sure.”

Christie, 502

Her relationship with Rosalind would remain complicated.

After the war, Agatha found success as a playwright. She had always been irritated by adaptations of her books. She was extremely upset by MGM studios. So she decided to do it herself. Not all her plays were a success. But The Mousetrap was.

When it opened in 1952, she’d have been happy with a run of a few months. But it kept going. And going. And going. It was still going on March 16, 2020, when it shut down for Covid. But I’m pleased to say that it has now reopened. It is the longest running play in the history of the world.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

She also wrote an entirely different type of book under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. They aren’t murder mysteries. They don’t wrap everything off with a tidy little solution. For those who think books should be realistic and realism demands messy uncertainty, the Mary Westmacott books are proof that Agatha could write that too.

Agatha lived well, but she wasn’t as rich as many people supposed. Both the American and British tax people were after her for decades. Not because she refused to pay taxes, but because they couldn’t make up their minds about how much she owed. The amounts they demanded at times were staggering, enough so that bankruptcy was a very real threat. One way she handled it was to simply give away her books and plays. Not to the public, but to people and charities who would then own the income from them. So her grandson got a play, the local church got a book, etc. Wouldn’t that be a delightful gift?

Her detective books also show no sign of losing popularity. In 1970, she had sold more books than anyone but Shakespeare and the Bible, and that is still true today.

Her stories are still hitting the stage and the silver screen and TV and pretty much every other medium. I personally think that David Suchet made the best Poirot ever, and I highly recommend watching his versions, but I admit that I haven’t yet seen the 2022 Kenneth Branagh production of Death on the Nile. I do have to wonder whether Agatha would have liked any of these modern versions, given what she thought about adaptations during her own lifetime. David Suchet has flatly admitted that while he would like to have met her, in another way, he’s glad he didn’t. If she didn’t like his interpretation, it would be devastating (KCTS9).

Plenty of people have tried to account for her popularity. Her books are deceptively simple and that’s part of it: they aren’t intimidating to a general audience. There’s also generally a puzzle element and people like puzzles. One analyst went so far as to say her books were “animated algebra” (Thompson, 382).

They are murder mysteries, but they aren’t in any way grisly, because Agatha was never really interested in the murder. She was interested in human nature: the why of someone’s choosing to commit murder or not commit it. Critics often claim her characters aren’t deep. They don’t change or grow much, if at all. But that actually seems to be her view of people. It’s clear all the way through her autobiography. People are who they are, and much of the anxiety of the modern world, according to her, came from telling people they could or should be something that they simply have no aptitude for. There’s none of this “you can be whoever you want to be” for her. Her characters are like images: beautiful and believable, but unchanging.

Most of all though, her books are popular now for the same reason they were in WWII. They offer hope for a world that can be solved and understood. Laura Thompson put it this way:

Her books “are on the side of the living. They take life—but not themselves—extremely seriously. They inhabit a world free of the creep of moral relativity. They exemplify harmony and order, clarity and optimism. . . This could scarcely be more inimical to the modern sensibility, which throws a veil of doubt and ambivalence over everything except its own politicized opinions. And yet, Agatha Christie survives, to the point where it seems as if she is still, indeed, fulfilling a purpose.”

Thompson, 406

Agatha Christie died on January 12,1976. Like the master of plot that she was, she had planned for this. The book Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, in which the master detective dies, was written in 1940, but not published until 1975, the final Christie for Christmas.

My major sources are Agatha Christie’s Autobiography and Laura Thompson’s biography called Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life. If you haven’t read any Agatha Christie, you should. If you haven’t followed me on Facebook or Twitter or the website, you should. If you haven’t left me a review, you should. And the other thing you should do is come back next week to hear about Zora Neale Hurston. Thanks!

Selected Sources

Chandler, Graham. “The Age of Ivory – AramcoWorld.” Www.aramcoworld.com, Jan. 2019, http://www.aramcoworld.com/Articles/January-2019/The-Age-of-Ivory.

Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. New York, Dodd, Mead, 1977.

Horry, Ruth A, and Eleanor Robson. “The Nimrud Ivories: Forgotten Treasures.” Oracc.museum.upenn.edu, 31 Dec. 2015, oracc.museum.upenn.edu/nimrud/livesofobjects/ivories/index.html.

Jordan, Tina. “When the World’s Most Famous Mystery Writer Vanished.” The New York Times, 11 June 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/11/books/agatha-christie-vanished-11-days-1926.html.

KCTS9. “The Mystery of Agatha Christie with David Suchet.” YouTube, 16 May 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLEWOWcU5-4. Accessed 19 May 2021.

Suggitt, Connie. “Five Record-Breaking Book Facts for National Bookshop Day.” Guinness World Records, 4 Oct. 2018, http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2018/10/5-page-turning-book-facts. Accessed 17 Mar. 2022.

Thompson, Laura. Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life. London, Headline, 2020.

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