The life of Agatha Christie contains a notorious puzzle that has fascinated her admirers since 1926, the year when she abruptly vanished for 11 days, creating page-one headlines across Britain and consternation among her family and friends. At the time, she was already a successful author of mysteries, though nothing like the phenomenon she became. She was 36, a wife, a mother and the loyal daughter of a highly respectable family. Why did she suddenly abandon her car, take a train from the London commuter belt to the Yorkshire town of Harrogate, register in a spa hotel under a false name and hunker down?
Her motive has always seemed clear to me. She wanted to torture her husband by making him a spectacle in the newspapers -- roughly the explanation that Jared Code put forth (after six years of research) in his 1998 book, Agatha and the Eleven Missing Days. Edgar Wallace, a famous thriller writer of an older generation, said at the time that her disappearance was "a typical case of 'mental reprisal' on somebody who has hurt her."
The man who hurt her was Col. Archibald Christie, the love of her life, the dazzling, romantic aviator who had rescued her, just before the First World War, from the string of earnest provincial suitors attracted by her Edwardian beauty. She married him despite the objections of her mother, who saw him as a potential bounder. Christie never doubted that she and Archie were joined for life, till one day he came home and told her he wanted a divorce, right away, so that he could marry a 24-year-old, Nancy Neele, a pretty secretary Agatha knew slightly. (A woman with a taste for not always relevant complications, she chose "Mrs. Neele" as her false name at the Harrogate spa.)
Her reasons for vanishing were later variously explained as depression, shock and amnesia. Archie let it be known she was unstable, therefore capable of goodness knows what. Laura Thompson, an imaginative and industrious author, retells this peculiar story in her engaging if sentimental biography, Agatha Christie: An English Mystery (Headline Review Books).
Thompson probably knows Christie's work better than anyone else alive. She navigates the 70-odd novels with astonishing skill and resourcefulness, using fiction to illuminate fact. The novels, particularly the six non-mysteries Christie wrote under the name Mary Westmacott, function as tunnels into Christie's feelings.
Thompson, following this oblique path to the truth, often seems both shrewd and persuasive. Sometimes, though, her theories overcome good sense.
She tells us, "Agatha never thought of herself as lonely. Such an idea would not have occurred to her." How could anyone know that? But most of the time she convinces us that Christie was a passionate and complicated woman, far more interesting than the world believes -- and, incidentally, a more audacious author than most critics have ever cared to acknowledge.
Living for years with the books and private papers, Thompson has developed a great affection for her subject. Perhaps this blinds her to the altogether understandable malice and lust for revenge that probably put Christie on that train to Yorkshire.
Archie's unexpected and unwelcome announcement closely followed the death of Agatha's mother, a powerful force in her life. During a time of intense grief, Archie was useless; he couldn't stand suffering, so stayed at his club. This meant his wife had two disasters to absorb alone.
When she bolted, he called the police. They assumed they were dealing with a suicide or an accident but suspicions of murder soon leaked to the press. The police dredged a nearby mill pond and searched large areas of Sussex real estate for the body. Some 500 cops were involved, along with dogs and an aircraft. If it was homicide, Archie was the obvious suspect. Servants reported marital spats, to which Archie made indignant statements to reporters: "It is absolutely untrue to suggest that there was anything in the nature of a row or a tiff ... I strongly deprecate introducing any tittle-tattle into this matter."
But Agatha's disappearance had surrounded him with an aura of public tittle-tattle. The man was mortified, and it's hard to avoid thinking this was her purpose. She could have killed him, of course, but that would have led to prison and other inconveniences. This way she marked him for life without ever firing a shot. And despite the cost of searching for her, she wasn't even charged with public nuisance.
Ever since, her escapade has provoked speculation. Derrick Murdoch dealt with it in his similarly titled The Agatha Christie Mystery (1976), and three years later Michael Apted made a film, Agatha, with Vanessa Redgrave as the author and Dustin Hoffman as an American reporter who discovers her at the spa. Kathleen Tynan's fictionalized script may have been promising, but the film was deadly. The producer blamed the rewrites that Hoffman insisted on, no doubt to enhance his part. Others blamed Redgrave for her ennui-projecting performance.
It pleases Thompson that we can't know the truth: "In the end what is left is a story. A mystery story. Her finest, because it cannot be solved." She sees Agatha's "eleven days in the wilderness" as "a myth, a poem." She thinks that explaining it would destroy its beauty.
The main result of those strange 11 days was to modify the effect of the mask Christie wore for the rest of her life -- an industrious but uninteresting producer of carefully crafted stories that just happened to be more attractive to readers than any other books of their kind on Earth.
She and Archie divorced in 1928 and in 1930 she married an archaeologist she met in the Middle East, Max Mallowan, who was 14 years younger. He wondered whether she might be repelled by his fascination with ancient human remains but she reassured him that "I adore corpses and stiffs." While turning out book after book she accompanied him on his annual digs in Iraq. She once told someone, "An archaeologist is the best husband any woman can have: The older she gets, the more interested he is in her." They lived together in apparent happiness until her death at the age of 86. So far as her biographers know, she never told anyone the secret of Harrogate.