Agatha Christie’s Greatest Mystery

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She has been called the “Duchess of Death”, the “Mistress of Mystery”, and the “Queen of Crime”. She wrote sixty-six detective novels and fourteen short story collections.

The Guinness Book of World Records has named her the “best-selling novelist of all time”. She is also one of the world’s best-selling writers of any kind, second only to William Shakespeare. An estimated one billion copies of her novels have been sold in English, and another billion in 103 other languages. She is famous for intriguing plot twists that make the seemingly impossible, possible.

Fans of every generation cannot get enough.

 But did you know that a non-fictional event in Agatha Christie’s life proved to be as mysterious as one of her novels? Read on to learn more about Agatha and the disappearance of the century!

Just My Imagination…

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on this day, September 15, 1890 in Devon, England. She was the youngest of three children. Her parents, Frederick Alvah Miller and his wife Clarissa were wealthy recipients of a family fortune. Because her siblings were so much older, little Agatha is spent much of her time with pets and “imaginary friends”. This may have fueled her great ability to later imagine characters for her novels.

Young Agatha was a clever child, able to read at age four. She was home schooled, but at age twelve she attended boarding school in Paris. She always had a keen interest in reading and writing, and even wrote and performed amateur plays as a child.

At First Sight

In October 1912, at age twenty two, she was introduced to Archibald “Archie” Christie at a formal dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford of Chudleigh.

Archie was a dashing army officer. The couple quickly fell in love. Just three months after their first meeting, Archie proposed and Agatha accepted. They were married on Christmas Eve, 1914.

During World War I, Agatha  served as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Red Cross. She worked as a nurse, a medical dispenser and an apothecaries’ assistant.

It was here that she acquired special knowledge of poisons which she would later use in the plots of her stories. She was a huge fan of  Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ series. Her own first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920.  Her second novel The Secret Adversary, was published in 1922. Both became bestsellers.

After the war, the Christies settled into home life. Agatha gave birth to a daughter named Rosalind.

They also toured the world, visiting exotic places like South Africa, Hawaii and New Zealand. They bought a house in Sunningdale, Berkshire, which they called “Styles”, named after the mansion in Agatha’s novel.

For all practical purposes, they seemed to have an ideal marriage. But trouble was brewing…

An Officer, Not a Gentleman

In April of 1926, Agatha’s mother died. They had an extremely close relationship, and the death sent Agatha into a deep depression. She was so distraught that she traveled to a small village in the Basque country of southern France to recover from a “nervous breakdown”.

When Agatha returned four months later, Archie asked her for a divorce. He had never actually been a very faithful husband. He now claimed he had fallen in love with a woman named Nancy Neele, whom he had met through his military connections. This, no doubt, added insult and agony to the already fragile Agatha.

 On Friday, December 3, 1926, Archie and Agatha had an argument when Archie announced he planned to spend the weekend “away with friends” and unaccompanied by his wife. Agatha did not take it well.

Without a Trace

At shortly after 9.30 pm that night, Agatha kissed her sleeping daughter Rosalind goodnight. She then exited the house, climbed into her Morris Cowley automobile, and drove off into the night. She would not be seen again for 11 days. Her disappearance resulted in the largest manhunt ever conducted in British history.

Agatha Christie was a famous and beloved author. Her disappearance created a state of emergency. The Home Secretary, William Joyson Hicks, assigned over one thousand policeman to the case. Hundreds of civilians volunteered to help, bringing along bloodhounds, terriers and police dogs. For the first time ever, aeroplanes were incorporated in a missing person search, gliding over the rural landscape.

Searchers try to find clues to Christie's disappearance.

Even Agatha’s idol, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was called in, as well as detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers. It was hoped that their special knowledge of crime would help solve the mystery.  

The next morning, Agatha’s car was found abandoned on a steep slope at Newlands Corner nature resort near Guildford. The car was reported to be “dangling on the edge of a chalk pit, the front wheels actually overhanging the edge,” with only a thick hedge-growth preventing it from plunging into the pit.  Inside the car was an expired driver’s license and some clothes.

Agatha, however, was not there.  

As the days passed and there was still no sign of her, speculation began to mount. The Christies were a stylish, high profile couple. Plus Archie’s infidelity was a known fact. The public was eager for gossip and the press quickly exploited the story. One newspaper offered a £100 reward for Agatha’s return (approximately equivalent to £6,000 in today’s money). Her disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times.

Stranger Than Fiction

It was the perfect tabloid story, with – ironically –  all the elements of an Agatha Christie whodunnit. For the vivid imagination, there were also several spooky elements.

Close to the place where the car had been found was a lake known as the Silent Pool, where two young children were said to have died. Some tabloids began suggesting that Agatha had drowned herself.

Yet her body was nowhere to be found.

Rumors began circulating that Archie had killed her, wanting to be free to go off with his mistress.

Yet another tabloid specullated that Agatha had fled her own house, fearing it was haunted! “It stands in a lonely lane,” the paper claimed, “unlit at night, which has a reputation of being haunted. The lane has been the scene of a murder of a woman and the suicide of a man. … ‘If I do not leave Sunningdale soon, Sunningdale will be the end of me,’ she once said to a friend.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was known to have occult beliefs, tried using paranormal powers to solve the mystery. He took one of Christie’s gloves to a celebrated medium in the hope that it would provide answers. It did not. Other spiritualists even held a séance at the chalk pit where the car had been found.

To make things even more dramatic, one newspaper reported that eerie clues had been found near the site, including “a bottle labeled poison, lead and opium, fragments of a torn-up postcard, a woman’s fur-lined coat, a box of face powder, the end of a loaf of bread, a cardboard box and two children’s books.”

At this point it was anyone’s guess.

Swan Song

On December 14, a full eleven days later, Agatha was finally found. She was safe and well, having checked into the posh Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

Harrogate Hydro, the spa where Christie was found.

Interestingly, she had registered as “Teresa Neele of Cape Town, South Africa”, using the last name of her husband’s lover.

Upon questioning, Agatha claimed she remembered nothing.

So what happened?

The police put together a story they believed was reasonable. They thought Agatha had left home and headed for London but crashed her car en route. She then boarded a train to Harrogate, Yorkshire, where she checked into the Swan Hotel with no luggage.  

The town of Harrogate was a spa resort. In the 1920s it was known for its elegance. Agatha, a wealthy world traveler, probably looked right at home in the chic establishment. Apparently, she mingled around, attending balls and dances. It was a man named Bob Tappin, a banjo player, who finally recognized her and contacted the police. Archie was then notified.

When Archie showed up at the Swan to collect his wife, it was reported that she was “in no hurry to leave.” She even kept him waiting in the hotel lounge while she changed into her evening dress. It was not a happy reunion. When Agatha finally emerged, Archie was “welcomed by her with a stony stare.”

The celebrity couple continued to attract attention at the train station. Hundreds of people showed up, hoping to catch a glimpse.

Within the next year, Agatha sued her husband for divorce.

Silence is Golden

Agatha herself never offered an explanation for her eleven lost days.

Over the years, observers have crafted several theories as to what happened. Some believe it was amnesia. Others think she may have been in a “fugue” state – a rare condition brought on by trauma or depression. During this time, she could have developed her new personality, Theresa Neele, and failed to recognize herself in newspaper photographs.

Agatha Christie biographer Andrew Norman, who studied the case extensively, stated: “I believe she was suicidal. Her state of mind was very low and she writes about it later through the character of Celia in her autobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait.”

In her own autobiography, Christie wrote simply, “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”

Love on the Orient Express

Needless to say, Agatha Christie went on to have an amazing career. She took several journeys on the Orient Express, traveling to places like Istanbul and Bagdad. It was on these journeys that she gathered inspiration for future novels. She also met the man who was to be her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. (Archie ended up marrying his mistress, Nancy Neele.)

Agatha Christie received many awards in her long career. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1950, and appointed  Commander of the Order of British Literature  (CBE) in 1956. She was the co-president of the Detection Club  from 1958 to her death in 1976. In 1961, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature Degree  by the University of Exeter. Her play The Mousetrap was the world’s longest-running play, performed in London’s West End from 1952 to 2020, only being shut down this year in response to the Covid pandemic.    

In 1971 she received the title Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Her husband Max also received  knighthood for his archaeological work. After her husband’s knighthood, Agatha could also use the title “Lady Mallowan”.

She died peacefully of natural causes on January 12, 1976.

Happy Birthday Agatha! You gave us so much, and a part of you will always be a mystery.

 

Happy Birthday Jack Kerouac!

 

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He was a wide spirit, a dazzling voice that revealed a landscape of metaphor, a believer in humanity, a dreamer, a doer and an explorer of metaphysical consciousness. He was also a recluse, socially awkward, a drug abuser, an alcoholic and a man who became so overwhelmed with his own fame it ultimately destroyed him.

There are two types of people in this world; those that ‘get’ Kerouac, and those that do not. I am in the first category, of course 🙂

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac (aka Jack) was born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell Massachusetts to French Canadian parents who had emigrated from Quebec.  Little Jack spoke French as a child and reportedly did not learn English until he was six years old. Yet he went on to become one of the most prolific and controversial American  writers of the 20th century.

Kerouac’s childhood was a mix of working class sensibilities and Catholic spirituality. When Jack was just four years old, he lost his older brother Gerard to rheumatic fever. He never quite recovered from the loss and believed Gerard followed him around as a guardian angel. After meeting  Neal Cassady in the late 1940’s, the two developed a close bond and Jack always felt that Neal was possibly the reincarnation of Gerard.

Jack played football and earned a scholarship to Columbia University. It was there he met fellow writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

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Jack broke his leg playing football, lost his scholarship and dropped out of school but nevertheless he, Ginsberg and Burroughs became known as the founders of Beat Literature. Jack went on to serve in the Merchant Marine and the Navy, later taking a series of odd jobs. All the while he was writing, writing and writing more. Some of his early books were not published until after his death.

Ironically, when people think of the word Beat, they associate it with Beatniks — those cool-cat-hip beret-wearing bongo players who eventually took over the poetry cafe scene. This idea was, however, not what Kerouac & company intended. The true meaning of Beat, Kerouac insisted, was the feeling his generation had after being ‘beat down’ by World War 2. It also referred to beatific, as in the Beatitudes of the Bible. The Beats were a marginalized segment of American society; leftover hobos, shell shocked veterans, ramshackle misfits — the exact types of characters Jack met during his cross country adventures. They shared a longing for the Divine.

His masterpiece novel ‘On The Road’ was published in 1957.  It brought him almost instant fame and success. That success was, in reality, hard earned, as Kerouac had spent most of his life as a poor drifter and outcast bum. Fame and fortune overwhelmed and eventually devastated him.

A restless heart, often accused of misogyny, Kerouac was married three times and had one daughter. His life followed a nomadic pattern that he could never quite resolve.  He made his home in various places around the country, never truly settling down. On The Road is a thinly disguised memoir of his trips between the East and West coasts. He often traveled with best friend Neal Cassady.

The Beat movement represented a certain type of freedom, patriotism and love for the land. Apple pie diners, Colorado cowboys, Frisco jazz clubs, purple mountains, red rock deserts and the tranquility of nature.  Jack began to study Buddhism in his quest for spirituality.  In later years, the peace loving Hippies of Haight Ashbury would pay tribute to  the Beats.

Jack may have had a guardian angel, but his demons never left him.

Jack-Kerouac

After he achieved literary success, his privacy became a thing of the past. He was now a celebrated author, the spotlight forced upon him.  Still socially awkward, Jack took to heavy drinking. He once told his friend and fellow poet Fran Landesman that he would have liked to commit suicide, but because his Catholic faith prevented him from doing so, he had decided to simply drink himself to death.

It worked. Jack Kerouac died on October 21, 1969 at the young age of 47.  The official cause of his death was internal bleeding due to alcohol abuse. Jack had once said he wrote his novels because “we’re all gonna die.”  Luckily for us, his words live on.

Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs wrote this musical tribute ‘Hey Jack Kerouac’:

This short documentary (30 minutes) captures some of the most important parts of Kerouac’s life. Hope you enjoy it!