Today is the birthday (1890) of Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie (née Miller) who is generally known for her detective fiction, particularly those works revolving around her fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. I have posted on the world’s longest-running play that she wrote, The Mousetrap, https://www.bookofdaystales.com/mousetrap/ and also on Murder on the Orient Express https://www.bookofdaystales.com/orient-express/ . Therefore, I am going to limit my remarks here to her mysterious disappearance in 1926, with bits of context to flesh out the post. I will note that Guinness World Records lists Christie as the best-selling novelist of all time. Her novels have sold roughly 2 billion copies, and her estate claims that her works come third in the rankings of the world’s most-widely published books, behind only Shakespeare’s works and the Bible. According to Index Translationum, she remains the most-translated individual author, having been translated into at least 103 languages. And Then There Were None is Christie’s best-selling novel, with 100 million sales to date, making it the world’s best-selling mystery ever, and one of the best-selling books of all time. I wonder who remembers the original title? It comes from the nursery rhyme that is the backbone of the murders in the story which was not called Ten Little Indians originally (the name the book and subsequent play had for a period). I am old enough to remember.
Christie was born into a wealthy upper-middle-class family in Torquay, Devon. Before marrying and starting a family in London, she had served in a Devon hospital during the First World War, tending to troops coming back from the trenches. She was initially an unsuccessful writer with six consecutive rejections, but this changed when The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring Hercule Poirot, was published in 1920. During the Second World War, she worked as a pharmacy assistant at University College Hospital, London, acquiring a good knowledge of poisons which feature in many of her novels (and in the recipe at the end of this post).
She met Archibald Christie (1889–1962) at a dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford at Ugbrooke, about 12 miles (19 kilometres) from Torquay. Archie was born in India, the son of a barrister in the Indian Civil Service. He was an army officer who was seconded to the Royal Flying Corps in April 1913. The couple quickly fell in love. Upon learning that he would be stationed in Farnborough, Archie proposed marriage, and Agatha accepted. With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Archie was sent to France to fight. They married on the afternoon of Christmas Eve 1914 at Emmanuel Church, Clifton, Bristol, which was close to the home of his parents, while Archie was on home leave.
Rising through the ranks, he was eventually stationed back to Britain in September 1918 as a colonel in the Air Ministry. Agatha involved herself in the war effort. After joining the Voluntary Aid Detachment in 1914, she attended to wounded soldiers at a hospital in Torquay as an unpaid nurse. She performed 3,400 hours of unpaid work between October 1914 and December 1916. On qualifying as an “apothecaries’ assistant” in 1917 and working as a dispenser, she earned £16 a year until the end of her service in September 1918. After the war, Agatha and Archie Christie settled in a flat at 5 Northwick Terrace in St. John’s Wood, northwest London.
Christie had long been a fan of detective novels, having enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and The Moonstone, as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s early Sherlock Holmes stories. She wrote her own detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring Hercule Poirot, a former Belgian police officer noted for his twirly large “magnificent moustaches” and egg-shaped head. Poirot had taken refuge in Britain after Germany invaded Belgium. Christie’s inspiration for the character stemmed from real Belgian refugees who were living in Torquay and the Belgian soldiers whom she helped to treat as a volunteer nurse in Torquay during the First World War. She began working on The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916, writing most of it on Dartmoor. Her original manuscript was rejected by such publishing companies as Hodder and Stoughton and Methuen. After keeping the submission for several months, John Lane at The Bodley Head offered to accept it, provided that Christie change the ending. She did so, and signed a contract which she later felt was exploitative. It was finally published in 1920.
Christie, meanwhile, settled into married life, giving birth to her only child, Rosalind Margaret Hicks, in August 1919 at Ashfield, where the couple spent much of their time, having few friends in London. Archie left the Air Force at the end of the war and started working in the City financial sector at a relatively low salary. Her second novel, The Secret Adversary (1922), featured a new detective couple Tommy and Tuppence, again published by The Bodley Head. It earned her £50. Her third novel, Murder on the Links (1923), again featured Poirot, as did short stories commissioned by Bruce Ingram, editor of The Sketch magazine. In order to tour the world promoting the British Empire Exhibition, the couple left their daughter Rosalind with Agatha’s mother and sister. They traveled to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii.
In late 1926, Archie asked Agatha for a divorce. He had fallen in love with Nancy Neele, who had been a friend of Major Belcher, director of the British Empire Mission, on the promotional tour a few years earlier. On 3rd December 1926, the Christies quarreled and Archie left their house, in Sunningdale, Berkshire, to spend the weekend with his mistress in Godalming, Surrey. At around 9:45 pm, Christie disappeared from her home, leaving behind a letter for her secretary saying that she was going to Yorkshire. Her car, a Morris Cowley, was found at Newlands Corner, perched above a chalk quarry, with an expired driving license and clothes.
The disappearance caused a public outcry. The home secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, pressured police, and a newspaper offered a £100 reward. Over a thousand police officers, 15,000 volunteers, and several aeroplanes scoured the rural landscape. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave a spirit medium one of Christie’s gloves to find her. Crime novelist Dorothy L. Sayers visited the house in Surrey and used the scenario in her book Unnatural Death. Christie’s disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times. Despite the extensive manhunt, she was not found for 10 days. On 14th December 1926, she was found at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan Hotel) in Harrogate, Yorkshire, registered as Mrs Teresa Neele (the surname of her husband’s lover) from Cape Town.
Christie’s autobiography makes no reference to her disappearance. Two doctors diagnosed her as suffering from amnesia, yet opinion remains divided as to why she disappeared. She was known to be in a depressed state from literary overwork, her mother’s death earlier that year, and her husband’s infidelity. Public reaction at the time was largely negative, supposing a publicity stunt or an attempt to frame her husband for murder.
I was not aware of Christie’s disappearance episode until it was featured on Dr Who in “The Unicorn and the Wasp” (17 May 2008), with Fenella Woolgar, in which her disappearance is the result of her suffering a temporary breakdown owing to a brief psychic link being formed between her and an alien wasp called the Vespiform. A strange way to be introduced to history, but it did make me look up historical references. I am not a big Christie fan, but I imagine that her disappearance is old news to those who are, and speculation around it is endless. I’ll leave that to you.
French writer Anna Martinetti wrote the cookbook Creams and Punishments based on the works of Agatha Christie. In the collection are recipes for dishes in which the protagonists of novels and stories of Agatha Christie added the same ingredient – poison. Here is a video for a version of fish in oil from the novel Sad Cypress, a dish to which the murderer added strychnine. I’d be inclined to leave it off your ingredient list.