The disappearance of the bestselling mystery writer shocked the British nation, including Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who took a surprising part in the unprecedented search mission
One rainy December evening, Agatha Christie disappeared without a trace, as if she were swallowed up by the ground.
All of Britain was anxious about the fate of their beloved novelist, and thousands of fans and volunteers joined in what was, at the time, the largest ever search operation conducted by the British police. Among the volunteers was none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who employed methods that might cause you to raise an eyebrow or two.
It sounds like the plot of a good English detective story. One that Christie herself, or Conan Doyle, could have easily written, but it turns out that reality sometimes trumps fiction.
In December 1926, Agatha Christie was already a famous writer. Her book The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published a few months earlier, spread her fame beyond England and made her a respected figure in the international literary world. Her married life, however, was not as great a success.
She wed Archie Christie (whose name she kept until her death) on the eve of the First World War, in a hasty decision that was characteristic of many marriages all over the continent at the time.
Their relationship began to fizzle after the war. Archie returned to London from the trench war in France as Colonel Archibald Christie, and typical of the men of his day, he had a hard time dealing with his wife’s independence and professional success.
Agatha, however, was devoted to her family, even with her successful writing career well underway. “I didn’t consider myself a writer. A married woman was a profession in itself. Writing books was something I did on the side,” she said of those years.
Still, that “something she did on the side” was a sensation that brought publishers and fans knocking on her door while driving her husband away.
On the night she disappeared, her husband confessed to her that he was in love with another woman—Nancy Neele— that he had been having an affair with her for two years and that he wanted a divorce. After dropping this bombshell, he left their house to spend the weekend in the arms of his mistress (who would later become his wife). Christie then went into her daughter’s bedroom, gave her sleeping child a kiss, and then she too left the house.
She didn’t come back
Her car was found the next day between an abandoned quarry and a lake, with its headlights on and the motor still running. Inside was a bag with her personal belongings and an expired driver’s license.
Britain was gripped with worry. Did the beloved writer commit suicide? Had she been murdered? Did she drown in a terrible accident?
Thousands of volunteers (estimates range from 2,000 to 15,000), sniffer dogs and police officers embarked on an unprecedented search. For the first time in the history of the British police, planes were sent to assist in the search. But in vain.
Her disappearance made waves far from Britain’s shores, and was reported in the Jewish press around the world.
This edition of The Palestine Bulletin was also quite detailed:
The editors of the American Yiddish newspapers Forṿerṭs (The Forward) and Der Ṭog devoted more space to the headlines, and in general were much more informative:
It was at this point that no less a figure than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle entered the story. The creator of Sherlock Holmes offered to help with the police search for the vanished murder mystery novelist. However, contrary to what one might have expected, he did not offer Scotland Yard the benefit of his sharp logical mind, instead volunteering to help in a completely unexpected way.
By this point in his life, Conan Doyle had become an ardent spiritualist, something that Sherlock Holmes would have surely curled his lip at. He was now a firm believer in the existence of the world beyond this one as well as our ability to communicate with it.
The police gave Conan Doyle one of Christie’s gloves that was found in the abandoned car. He then took it to a local medium hoping that she would use her special abilities to uncover Christie’s whereabouts. The medium was unable to find out the exact location of the missing person, but declared decisively that she was alive, in no physical danger and would be found soon.
The proof Conan Doyle had been waiting for came eleven days later. A waiter or receptionist at a spa hotel in Harrogate where Christie was staying under a false name recognized her, and contacted the authorities. She was picked up by Archie and the police, safe and sound, her sanity intact, but she never fully explained her disappearance.
The official version (probably put out by her husband) was that she suffered from what would be described today as dissociation, and was not aware of what was happening to her the whole time.
But this explanation, is, shall we say, less plausible than some other possibilities. Did Agatha Christie stage her own disappearance? And if so, to what end?
She never offered an official version of events and the episode is not even mentioned in her autobiography. But years later it came out that on that evening, after abandoning her car, Agatha boarded a train to London, where she stayed the night with a friend in Chelsea Park Gardens.
The cynics tried to claim that it was a brazen publicity stunt. A sort of elaborate ruse to promote her detective novels.
The romantics, on the other hand (and probably also tabloid readers, in other words – almost everyone), thought differently.
Was it an attempt to embarrass her husband (whom the police snatched from Nancy’s bed the night Christie went missing), or worse—to frame him for her murder? Was she trying to shock him so that he would return to her or was it really the mental collapse of a woman who had just discovered the answer to a mystery that had been brewing in her own home for over two years?
In retrospect, we can reasonably assume that the motives were related to the betrayal, since beyond the extraordinarily coincidental timing, it turns out that the pseudonym Christie used to register at the hotel included the last name of her husband’s lover—she called herself “Teresa Neele.”
We will never really know for sure. This mystery, unlike all the hundreds of mysteries she solved for us, will remain just as it is: open and intriguing.
From that point, Agatha Christie’s life took a massively positive turn. She remarried an archaeologist, Max Mallowan, who took her on fascinating journeys around the world, and she won unprecedented professional success, the likes of which no other writer has been able to replicate to this day. Only the Bible and Shakespeare have sold more copies.
In 1971, Christie was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, so in fact proper protocol would decree that we should have added the title “Dame” to her name throughout this article.
Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie passed away on January 12, 1976, taking the secret surrounding her disappearance for eleven days with her to her grave.
Courtesy: National Library of Israel (Published on Feb 23, 2023)