I find it fascinating what childhood interests we take with us into adulthood. For example, I had a huge Smurf figurine collection when I was young, but I probably couldn’t name even five of the Smurfs now. On the other hand, I discovered the works of Agatha Christie when I was eight, and today I am still a (self-proclaimed) Christie expert. I have read all of her mystery books many times, and I also have a huge collection of books about her. There are a lot of books about Agatha Christie and it isn’t just because she’s the world’s best-selling author, famous for her detective novels, but because she also had a genuinely interesting life. Let me tell you about it!
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born in 1890 to a wealthy family in Torquay, Devon, the youngest of the three Miller children. While her much older brother and sister were schooled from a young age, Agatha’s mother, Clara, decided she should be homeschooled, so Agatha spent much of her early life only in the company of her parents, pets, and imaginary friends. Agatha’s mother was even against her learning to read at a young age, so Agatha taught herself at age four, already showing signs of her brilliant mind. She was a voracious reader, and she wrote her first poem at the age of ten.
When she was eleven, Agatha’s father died, and she and her mother moved homes due to the financial strain. At twelve, Agatha was sent off to boarding schools where she was supposed to study music and song, but due to a lack of talent for both playing an instrument and singing, Agatha didn’t plan on a future in music.
After finishing school, she and her mother spent a summer in Egypt, a place that would later have a big impact on her life and her suspense novels. She wrote her first novel at eighteen, and though it was repeatedly rejected by publishers, they did tell her she had promise and not to give up. In 1914, Agatha married an army officer, Archibald Christie, three months after meeting him. While Archie was fighting in France, Agatha became involved with the war effort at home. She worked as a nurse and a dispenser in an apothecary for the Red Cross, which is where she first developed an interest in poisons, which she later put to use in her suspense books.
Even though she had settled down like her mother wanted, her love of the detective stories she enjoyed and her passion for writing had not abated, and in 1916 she wrote and sold her first mystery suspense novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was published in 1920, a year after the birth of her only child, Rosalind. While raising her daughter, Agatha continued to write more novels, featuring her famous detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, which were published in quick succession and to growing acclaim and readership.
Now here’s where the ‘disappearance’ in the title of this post comes from. That’s right—the Queen of Mystery literally disappeared at one time, turning her life into a mystery straight out of her novels and creating theories about what happened that persist today, almost a century later. Here’s what we do know: In 1926, Agatha’s husband, Archie, asked her for a divorce. He had fallen in love with a younger woman, Nancy Neele. (Remember that name.) A few months later, on December 3, 1926, the couple had a big fight, which ended when Archie went to spend the night with friends. The next morning, he reported his wife missing. She wasn’t in their home, and a quick search turned up her car, abandoned above a chalk quarry, with her license and clothes inside.
Suspicion immediately turned to Archie, the last to see Agatha alive. For eleven days, the police turned up the pressure on her husband, while continuing to search the area for her, until they received a call: Agatha was spotted in a spa in Yorkshire, registered under the name—wait for it—Nancy Neele. You have to remember that this was before the internet and cell phone cameras. While the news of her disappearance made headlines across the world, it still wasn’t the information dump we are used to today, which is probably why it took so long for someone to recognize her.
Now here’s where the real-life mystery gets murkier: Agatha claimed amnesia and said she didn’t remember how she got to the spa. Some people thought she was in a fugue state, a temporary memory lapse due to the stress of her impending divorce. Other people speculated that she staged the whole thing to embarrass her cheating husband that would make her the original Gone Girl. In her memoir, Agatha barely devotes a page to the event, still claiming amnesia. Her famous disappearance has been the subject of several books and films. There’s a movie, Agatha, with Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman, in which the author has an affair with a reporter during her disappearance. There’s also an episode of Doctor Who about it, in which Agatha’s disappearance is the result of giant alien wasps. (While this is the coolest explanation, it pains me to admit it is the least probable explanation.) And just a few months ago, Marie Benedict released a new novel about the author’s missing days: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie.
Whatever the explanation, Agatha and Archie divorced. She continued to write novels, plays, and stories, many of which were adapted, and her popularity exploded. She was—and remains—the best-selling author of all time. In 1930, she met and married her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, who took Agatha along on many of his expeditions, where her fascination for archaeology and ancient Egypt really bloomed. (My favorite Agatha Christie quote is “An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets the more interested he is in her.”) Between traveling and expeditions, Agatha continued to write novels. She also developed a love of surfing, and is often credited with being the first woman to bring worldwide attention to the sport.
Agatha lived out her years with her husband, daughter, and beloved grandson, continuing to write mysteries (and romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott) right up until the end, although it is believed she was losing her memory in her later years. (Radiolab did a fascinating episode on the subject.) In 1971, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Agatha Christie died on January 12, 1976 at the age of 85. And while the Queen of Mystery’s legacy lives on and her books still sell millions of copies every year, none of her mysteries have ever captured imaginations quite as much as her own personal disappearance.
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