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Agatha Christie’s greatest mystery? Her own puzzling disappearance

Happy birthday Agatha Christie! Here’s a look at the novelist’s strange 1926 disappearance

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A portrait of English novelist Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie’s greatest mystery may be her own puzzling disappearance.

Associated Press

Agatha Christie’s greatest mystery may be her own puzzling disappearance.

On the night of Dec. 6, 1926, the whodunit novelist kissed her 7-year-old daughter goodnight and sped off from the England home she shared with her husband, Col. Archibald Christie, with nothing more than an attaché case, per The New York Times. It was a rather insignificant turn of events — until the writer didn’t turn up for nearly two weeks.

At just 36, Christie was already a prolific mystery novel writer. She had published several notable detective novels, including: “The Man in the Brown Suit,” “The Secret Adversary” and “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.”

Her disappearance felt like a plot straight out of her own novels. The strange circumstances sparked a massive manhunt. More than a thousand police officers were tasked with tracking Christie down. Hundreds of civilians joined the search. For the first time, even airplanes got involved in the case, reports History Extra.

Police quickly located Christie’s abandoned vehicle on a steep slope near Guildford, England. Evidence at the scene was limited. There was still no sign of where Christie ran off to — or why she ran away at all.

“The novelist’s car was found abandoned near Guildford on the edge of a chalk pit, the front wheels actually overhanging the edge,” The New York Times reported in 1926. “The car evidently had run away, and only a thick hedge-growth prevented it from plunging into the pit.”

“In the car were found articles of clothing and an attaché case containing papers.”

As the police search spread, so did rumors. Some claimed Christie’s disappearance was nothing more than an elaborate publicity stunt. Others had darker theories, suggesting the writer had deliberately drowned herself or was murdered by her husband, who was known to have a mistress, per History Extra. Several people even believed Christie was attempting to frame her husband for murder.

“She set out deliberately — the facts shout it — to throw murder suspicion upon her husband,” one biographer claimed, per the Guardian.

To this day, the intentions behind her disappearance remain vague.

Police expand their search for Christie

After searching for three days, Police claimed Christie’s brother-in-law had received a letter from the novelist confirming her whereabouts. According to the alleged letter, she had gone to a Yorkshire spa “for rest and treatment,” per The New York Times.

Apparently unconvinced by the letter, police expanded their search with trained canines, Christie’s own pet dog and help from amateur sleuths.

A week into Christie’s disappearance, detectives remained puzzled. “No reliable witness has seen her since the night she left her house in Sunningdale a week ago,” the Times reported in 1926. Detectives began to believe Christie had committed suicide.

Police had three potential clues. Before taking off, Christie wrote letters for her secretary, her husband and her brother-in-law. Strangely, the letters written to Christie’s husband and brother-in-law were both burned.

“Before her disappearance, Mrs. Christie wrote three letters in none of which she said anything indicating mental aberration. The most important one was left to her secretary. It was the only one that was not destroyed and is in the hands of the police,” the Times reported in 1926.

“One of the letters was a personal letter to her husband. He declared there was nothing in it having any possible bearing on his wife’s whereabouts.”

Wild theories regarding the novelist’s disappearance continued to unfold. Some police believed Christie was “disguised and probably in men’s clothes,” The New York Times wrote during her disappearance. Others claimed the writer has left behind a sealed envelope to be opened in the event her body was found.

More than a week had passed and there were still no solid answers regarding Christie’s whereabouts.

“The police have information which they refuse to divulge and which leads them to the view that Mrs. Christie had no intention of returning when she left home,” wrote The New York Times in 1926.

Where did Agatha Christie stay during her disappearance?

On Dec, 14, 1926, a full 11 days following her disappearance, Agatha Christie was found alive. But the strange circumstances of her reappearance raised more questions than answers.

Christie was found in a hotel in Harrogate with complete memory loss due to a car accident, per History Extra. Though alive, Christie was in a “fugue” state or psychogenic trance. This is a rare condition resulting from trauma or depression.

Upon arriving at the Harrogate spa, Christie checked in under the assumed name of Theresa Neele — her husband’s mistress. She was eventually recognized by a member of the hotel’s band, who alerted the police, per History Extra.

“She does not know who she is … she has suffered from the most complete loss of memory,” Christie’s husband told reporters at the time, per The New York Times.

After crashing her vehicle into a hedge, Christie abandoned the car and took on a newfound identity. “Up to this moment I was Mrs Christie,” she finally realized she could be something else, reports the Guardian.

“As Mrs Neele,” Christie said, “I was very happy and contented.”

“At Harrogate,” she said, per the Guardian, “I read every day about Mrs Christie’s disappearance … I regarded her as having acted stupidly.”

She later wrote that at the time of her disappearance she was, “at the beginning of a nervous breakdown,” per the Guardian.

“I just wanted my life to end,” Christie explained, per the Guardian. “All that night I drove aimlessly about. … In my mind there was the vague idea of ending everything. I drove automatically down roads I knew … to Maidenhead, where I looked at the river. I thought about jumping in, but realized that I could swim too well to drown … then back to London again, and then on to Sunningdale. From there I went to Newlands Corner.”

“When I reached a point in the road which I thought was near the quarry I had seen in the afternoon, I turned the car off the road down the hill towards it. I left the wheel and let the car run. The car struck something with a jerk and pulled up suddenly. I was flung against the steering wheel and my head hit something.”

Some people are not convinced by Christie’s account of her disappearance, but BBC historian Lucy Worsley argues Christie truly entered a “fugue” state, per the Independent. Discovering her husband was having an affair with a younger woman and the recent death of her mother both could have led to Christie’s deteriorating mental state, explains Worsley.

“She reported forgetfulness, tearfulness, insomnia, an inability to cope with normal life,” Worsley told the Independent. “Her mental state became so bad that she considered suicide. She then entered, I believe, into a fugue state.”

“That’s not framing your cheating husband for murder, that is living with a really serious mental health condition,” Worsley continued.

“And yet the narrative is that she was somehow a bad person who was playing some sort of trick on the world; to frame her husband or get attention to sell novels.”

Though she lived on for another nearly 50 years, she never talked about her disappearance.

“So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it,” Christie wrote in her autobiography, “Agatha Christie: An Autobiography.”