Between the Covers: Agatha Christie Does a Gone Girl
Consider this: A woman, made famous by a series of books, finds out her husband is cheating on her. Shortly after, she disappears under mysterious circumstances, kicking off a media frenzy and casting a cloud of suspicion over her spouse.
If you think I’ve just described the plot of Gone Girl, you’re totally right. Except, this actually happened, in real life. And the wronged wife in the story was none other than Agatha Christie.
December 1926. Christie, already a celebrated writer, has just published her sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and it’s selling at a brisk pace. But all is not well within the Christie household. Her husband, Archie, a former World War I pilot, has grown bored in peacetime and resents being in his more famous wife’s shadow. He’s taken a mistress and asked Agatha for a divorce.
On the night of 3 December, Agatha kissed her daughter good night, then drove away. Her car was later found, abandoned, with the lights on and Christie’s fur coat and a bag of clothes inside. Unsurprisingly (as the lack of a body ruled out suicide), the authorities immediately suspected foul play.
A massive manhunt was soon underway, involving thousands of officers and volunteers scouring the countryside. For the first time ever, biplanes circled overhead, searching for the missing author. Fellow writers Dorothy L Sayers and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got involved: Sayers visited the crime scene and later used it in her book, Unnatural Death, and Doyle handed one of Christie’s gloves over to a medium, hoping the spirit world could lend a hand in solving the mystery. Even the Home Secretary was anxious, and he urged police to make faster progress in finding her.
The media jumped in: Christie’s disappearance even made the front page of the New York Times. Speculation was rife—had Colonel Christie murdered his wife? Or did Christie disappear herself as a publicity stunt?
After nearly two weeks of searching and international interest, Christie was located, safe and well at a posh hotel in Harrogate. She’d checked in, bizarrely using the surname of her husband’s mistress, and had apparently been enjoying herself for the ten days of her ‘disappearance.’ She was recognised by a musician at the hotel, who notified authorities. But when the authorities questioned her, Agatha seemed unable to remember anything that had happened since she left home.
Some people believed this was a revenge scheme, designed to frame her unfaithful spouse for murder. More recently, biographers have suggested Christie slipped into a fugue state, a rare condition brought on by trauma or depression. Certainly, that had been a rather traumatic year for her: her mother had died, she was exhausted and under heavy pressure from her publishers, and her husband was leaving, so it’s certainly possible she had some kind of breakdown. We’ll never know the truth: she never spoke of the event again, and left it out of her autobiography.
Her bizarre story does get a happy ending, though. Agatha and Archie divorced in 1928, and in 1930 she remarried celebrated archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan. Their happy marriage lasted until Agatha’s death in 1976. She’s now remembered as the ‘Queen of Crime,’ inventor of many of the twists and tropes considered standard in mystery writing, and the best-selling novelist of all time.