The Lady Vanishes

Agatha Christie was one of the first grown-up authors I read, as a child making her transition into the world of books where the author’s name was as big as the title on the front cover. I loved her clever, twisty plots and the ease with which she took the reader into the heart of the story. I determined to read everything she had ever written, and had more or less managed it by the age of 15. I also read her autobiography and books about her books, as avidly as the novels themselves. I don’t recall when I first found out about her notorious disappearance, and looking back over my reading in those years I don’t know how I can have found out about it – in her own autobiography Christie doesn’t breathe a word about an event that upset her so much she refused (with one exception) to talk about it for the rest of her life. But somehow the whole legend that is Agatha Christie is inseparable from the enigma of the time she went missing and the story was as fascinating to me as it was to the general public at that time.

So when I came across a book by Jared Cade entitled Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days, I just knew I had to read it. Cade claimed to have solved the riddle of her disappearance thanks to unprecedented contact with members of Agatha Christie’s family, and indeed he goes into the story in detail and produces a highly plausible explanation. But it’s also a full biography of her life, intended to show both the origins of her disappearance and the repercussions that never really went away. The fundamental cause, however, was quite simple: her husband, Archie Christie, was having an affair with his golfing partner, Nancy Neele and was determined to divorce Agatha in order to marry her. Despite what was evidently a rather tempestuous relationship, Agatha Christie was devastated. Her own parents had been a devoted couple and she had expected as much for herself. She remained very close to her mother, who had recently died, topping her marital troubles with some pretty hefty grief. And the years of her marriage had witnessed an extraordinary creative output (which she managed to keep up for several decades). Not only had she managed to write five novels in five years, she had also written and published almost 70 short stories in the previous two years, as her reputation had begun to grow. Her most recent novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, had sold quite well and provoked a lot of comment due to its unusual solution, and Agatha Christie was on the cusp of becoming well known. It would be her disappearance that made her famous.

What happened was this: on Friday 3rd December 1926, Agatha and Archie had what seemed to be a definitive row over the state of their marriage, with Archie admitting he planned to spend the weekend with his mistress. When he did not return for dinner that night, it seemed evident he had gone for good. In some distress, at 9.45 that evening, Agatha went out in the car. The car was found the following morning, its headlights still on, abandoned by a local beauty spot, with her fur coat and dressing case on the back seat. What happened then was a potent cocktail of police and media concern. The spot where the incident occurred was in between two county constabularies, and it seems that a certain amount of rivalry pushed the officers involved to ever greater endeavour. But things might still have been kept in hand if the press hadn’t picked up the story and found a hungry audience for it. It was 1926, the year of the General Strike in Britain, a dreary, depressing and unsettling year of hardship, but also a time when class constraints were being keenly felt. Agatha Christie was a well-to-do lady, but also a crime novelist; she would not have wanted her picture in the paper, but she was nevertheless known more widely than many of her kind. It was a delicious irony that she should have disappeared in circumstances as strange as any one of her plots, and a combination of lingering respect for the upper classes as well as schadenfreude over what might have happened provoked thousands to help search for her.

Convinced that the worst had happened, the  police search concentrated on the local area and pools were dredged and acres of land carefully searched. It was over a week before Agatha Christie was spotted at a spa in Harrogate going under the name of Mrs Theresa Neele. Archie Christie was taken up north to retrieve her and a distinctly awkward reunion resulted (not least because the police had a fair mind to charge him with murder in the event of a body being found). The family declared that Agatha Christie was suffering from memory loss brought on by stress but neither press nor police were happy with this conclusion, the media speculating that it had all been a publicity stunt and the constabulary looking to charge the Christies with the costs of the search.

Eventually the fuss died down, but exactly what happened was never revealed – and naturally I won’t give you any clues. You’ll have to read the book if you want to find out. And it is no hardship at all to do so; this is a gripping read, very accessible and informative and I certainly learned more about Agatha Christie than I ever knew before. I didn’t know, for instance, that she was very religious, although some of the things that happened to her shook her faith considerably. Nor did I know that she had a very chequered marital history, with neither of her husbands remaining faithful to her, which seems a terrible shame when she set such store on the thought of a perfectly happy marriage. The only quibble I have with the book is that I came away with no clear picture of Agatha Christie’s character. I can see this is partly because she was a very private person, who often pretended very convincingly that all was well when it most certainly wasn’t. But underneath that veneer, a powerful and inconsistent persona seems to reveal itself. She was very romantic and idealistic, often uncertain where the boundary between fantasy and reality lay, and yet she also seems proud and a little capricious and willful, too. One of the serious bones of contention between herself and Archie was the fact that she wouldn’t permit him access to the money she earned from writing, which was difficult when Archie couldn’t at that time find a job he wanted to do. She was an extraordinary person, but also highly-strung when younger. Where she does seem very admirable is in the way she grew and adapted over the course of her life, always determined to make the best of things and to find a philosophy to help her through.

I’ve been away for a few days from blogging partly because silly bloglines won’t let me comment on any blogs and now I can’t recall which post I saw where (I do apologise, but I have read you all!), but mostly because I’ve had cystitis (why do I never get illnesses I can be proud of?). I have just picked up my antibiotics from the chemist and I loathe taking them because of all the possible side effects (coma, convulsions, death). I hope to return to the reading room again soon, unless of course I have jaundice or an allergic reaction or exploding tendons (!) in the meantime. Cross your fingers for me.

26 thoughts on “The Lady Vanishes

  1. This sounds absolutely intriguing — don’t you think there was just something just absolutely thrilling and new, perhaps untried during the early years of the 1900s? I find I’m so sucked into those worlds and I love reading about them. Not to mention, Agatha Christie living eleven days of essentially one of her own story lines? Fascinating and definitely one I need to check out!

  2. Fingers dutifully crossed for you. And I must read this book. I, too, gobbled up Agatha Christie when I was a young teenager and read her autobiography. I didn’t remember a thing about her having disappeared. Not a thing. Funny how mystery writers often have events in their lives that could be in their novels (the disappearance of Ross Macdonald’s and Margaret Millar’s daughter springs to mind).

  3. Fingers crossed. I hope you feel better very soon. And the book sounds like a great read. Agatha Christie brought pleasure to so many people. It’s too bad she didn’t fare better with her personal life. I didn’t know that about her.

  4. I’m definitely going to read this one! I also read and loved Christie’s entire oeuvre in my early teens, and I revisited her work for the first time as an adult just this summer with a serious Poirot binge–eleven novels in the past three weeks. I’d been thinking a good biography might be just the thing to read next but wasn’t sure which of the many available to choose. Now, your post has made the decision for me! Another Christie book that I read about recently that I suspect would be a fascinating read for true aficionados is “Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.” They are indeed her notebooks, only recently discovered and published for the first time a year or so ago, and apparently they offer a very detailed look at her novel drafting process. I’m going to reread several more of her books before I dive into that one though, as it’s been long enough between readings for me to have forgotten all the clever twists, and I want the opportunity to enjoy them all over again before I take the peek behind the curtain that the notebooks offer.

  5. I thought this was a fascinating book. I did feel as though I was intruding into Agatha Christie’s private life that she had not wanted made known but Cade writes sympathetically, so I read on. I remember seeing a TV programme about AC’s disappearance some years ago – I think it was based on this book.

    As another cystitis sufferer you have my sympathies. Without the antibiotics I would be in agony. Why is it that I don’t even like to mention that I get it?

  6. I have my fingers crossed. Are you one of those people who gets side effects a lot? My mother and sister, I swear, get every weird side effect to every medication they ever take.:/

    I’m a smidge embarrassed to say I never knew about Christie’s disappearance until I learned about it from Doctor Who. Perhaps it would behoove me to get a more likely account of the event. :p

  7. Dear LL, I haven’t been around blogworld in ages and so glad I clicked here now, on the venerable Ms Christie. Yup, thanks very much, you have now forced me to go out in search of the book. Completely intrigued, I am and ready to jump to the conclusion that it was a bit of a publicity stunt. And…I am sorry to see that her husbands were unfaithful as she sat scribbling. Indeed, writing takes such time and solitary-ness…and so all in all, I do need to see what unravels. But before going off in search of this treasure, I must earn it – clean out the mudroom, start some laundry, and plan the day’s menu before everyone is up and going in sixteen directions!
    I do hope you’re feeling well, with meds in hand…
    Happy summer! (I’m still saying it, though the season wanes but I cling to it and its barefoot nonchalance.)

  8. Sorry to hear you’ve not been feeling well. And why is it that a medication to fix one problem usually results in messing up half a dozen other things that were working just fine before you took the medication?! I sometimes prefer to suffer than to take them, but sometimes you have no choice. I hope you’re back to feeling better very soon. As for Agatha–I think she was such an intriguing person. I saw a movie about her life and they showed this occurrence–maybe the same one Booksplease mentions. I don’t blame her–I’d be devastated too after what happened with her husband. I have a biography of her that I am looking forward to reading and will have to get this one as well. I can’t remember what resolution the movie gave and you’ve left us hanging…will have to get to it soon. 🙂

  9. My fingers are crossed! The book sounds fascinating. It’s so enjoyable to read a god biography, particularly one with such an interesting focus. I read tons of Christie as a kid, as many people here did as well, and haven’t read much as an adult, but I enjoyed my recent read of Ackroyd so much that I may have to pick her up again!

  10. I hope you feel much better soon, LL. You’re a treasure, and your national health care ought to recognize you as warranting special care. Of course, even your everyday health insurance is better than what we offer many here in the US, purported land of plenty. Take good care of yourself!

  11. Sounds like a great read, complete with the no-good Archie. Fascinating to see how her life mirrored one of her own mysteries. And do we still need to cross our fingers or are you feeling a bit better now?

  12. Comas? I did not know that was one of the many possible side effects – think I stop reading the small print after four or five side effects and skip to the ‘might possibly make worse what it claims to cure’ side effect they tend to put at the end. Hope you feel better soon and get through that nasty course of antibiotics (yuck).

    Fantastic post about Agatha Christie. I knew she’d disappeared and wouldn’t say why, but had no idea her marriage was so bad, or that anyone had worked out just what happened to her while she was missing. Imagine that reunion betwen her and Archie, played out in front of the journalists. I bet he was happy not to go to prison, but probably also rather miffed that she’d turned up. And for her could there be anything worse than having to make up to a husband you know doesn’t love you for appearances sake and then have to admit you’ve no idea why you went missing. I bet he was very scornful. I must read this now to see exactly what went on.

  13. Get well soon, Litlove. I just loved this piece (I’m a huge Christie fan). I love a well-written, well-researched biography (in fact I’m reading one now called Becoming Victoria by Kate Williams which I am really enjoying) and you’ve made me determined to order this one as well. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd still boggles my mind. O to have that much creative genius! Rest up.

  14. As a Christie fan from my pre-teen years, I had known of the disappearance. My mother was also a Christie fan and it was her bookshelf I raided. She was told by HER mother of the newspaper brouhaha at the time and that “She was no better than she should have been!” That was the view of one very judgemental lady from the antipodes and it was the view which coloured my early reading. Since then I have read a couple of biographies and the mystery is still a mystery. I must find this new biography.

  15. Oh, h ow suspsenseful! I’m not an Agatha Christie fan, maybe I will be some day, who knows? But this book still sounds really interesting. I hope you feel better soon with no horrible side effects!

  16. Bluestocking – oho you have a treat in store; she had a very interesting life. Would love to know what you make of this book.

    CB Chick – I couldn’t agree more – I love this era in books and find it completely fascinating. I’ve just finished Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis set in the 1920s and 30s and it was also a treat.

    Emily – you intrigue me! I didn’t know about that and will have to look it up now. It would be easy not to hear about Christie’s disappearance because she hated it being talked about. But it’s a really fascinating story, particularly if you love her work (and I still do!).

    Lilian – life isn’t fair, is it? She certainly deserved better marital luck than she had, although she did at least have the pleasure of much adulation in her lifetime. Problem was, of course, that she was the sort not to really enjoy that. She loved writing books, didn’t give two hoots for fame. Isn’t that the way?!

    Kate – a Poirot binge sounds completely wonderful. I fancy one myself. And I’ve seen those Secret Notebooks in the bookstore and have been considering getting them. But one thing I do find about her books, is that the solutions are often so ingenious, I’ve forgotten them by the time a few years have passed, and so I can read her over and over. I’d love to know how you get on with this book if you get hold of it.

    Charlotte – thank you, my friend. And yes! It is such an intriguing story, well worth delving into.

    Booksplease – oh my heart goes out to a fellow sufferer. I joke with my doctor because everything wrong with me involves some sort of intimate private function that I have no wish to discuss. When my back hurt a while ago, we laughed over how nice it was that for once I didn’t have to get undressed! I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed this too, and I know what you mean about intrusion but agree that Cared is very sympathetic in his approach.

    Jenny – ah that just shows that Dr Who is really educational.🙂 I do tend always to get side effects, although thankfully not the rare ones on the whole, just the usual unpleasant things like nausea and headaches. My heart goes out to your mother and sister if they have to deal with the really weird ones!

    Oh – and a very happy summer to you. You put me to shame earning your reading treats so diligently. I am greedy and reckless with mine.🙂 This is a good book about a very intriguing period in Christie’s life. But I’ll give you one clue: it certainly wasn’t a publicity stunt, not least because Agatha Christie was wholly averse to publicity. Nor was it a wholly innocent affair, though. Do read it and see!

  17. Danielle – it is SO true! Medication so often has unwanted knock-on effects, it’s a real pain! And I think I have heard about that movie but I haven’t seen it. Poor Agatha had every incentive to act as she did as I feel she was really at the end of her tether. I’d love to know what you make of your biography of her. I think I read the Janet Martin one, only it’s so long ago now. I’ll have to look it out!

    Dorothy – I admit I am a real sucker for a good literary biography. Probably Margaret Forster’s account of Daphne du Maurier’s life is the best I’ve read so far, but there’ve been many enjoyable ones along the way. I didn’t remember that you were a Christie fan, although I’m delighted to find out you are!

    Ben – aww hugs to you, that is so sweet and kind.

    Pete – as someone with a vested interest in psychotherapy,I know you’ll know how much interest there is in digging beneath the facade to find all the secrets… I am always so curious, I just love that sort of thing. And I have update on my complicated health in the next post – thank you for asking!

    Jodie – you are imagining it with great perception there! It was hideously awkward and continued to be for months, what with all the media attention too. I’d love to know what you think of this book if you get hold of it, or indeed any Christie biography. And I am thinking that it is very wise to stop reading the leaflets that accompany drugs. Mister Litlove tells me not to read them at all, but that might veer too far in the other direction. About four or five side effects in is probably a good place to call a halt!

    Grad – always so happy to be in the company of another Christie fan – and another biography fan. The best ones are every bit as good as a good novel, no? Thank you for the recommendation, I will certainly look out for it. And thank you for your kind wishes, too.

    Archie – I’d love to know what you make of it if you can get hold of it. I only wish your grandmother could have read it, as the problem was certainly not with Agatha’s morals (she was most loyal and virtuous). But ah, women are so often hard on one another without much good reason. And yay for another Christie fan – she is such a treat, no?

  18. Stefanie – your comment came in while I was replying to the others! I think you could enjoy this book without having to know much about Christie or like her novels. It’s an intriguing story in its own right! And thank you for the kind wishes, you are a darling.

  19. An illness you can be proud of – and what, darling Litlove, could possibly qualify?! Poor you, at any rate, because that sounds ghastly. You should be buoyed, however, by your capacity to write wonderful posts while under duress – it’s most impressive! I didn’t know ANY of this – do you know, I don’t think I’ve read a single Agatha Christie novel – and her taking the mistress’s surname while on walkabout does put the lie to the claim of memory loss, so I am dying to know the truth. Is it a dreary, mundane sort of truth, or does it deserve the appetite you’ve whet?

    I’m off now to read the latest update on your health… needless to say, I’m glad to see the antibiotics did *not* occasion coma, convulsions or death!

  20. I didn’t know abt AC’s disappearance but I was like you in that I began reading her books (as you so nicely put ” the world of books where the author’s name was as big as the title on the front cover”!) when I was young and astonished that I was smart enough to read ‘adult’ books. I never did go back and read anything for my age group except for the Chronicles of Narnia.
    I’m back to NOT reading books with the author name bigger than the title, though.

  21. Wow, that sounds terribly interesting, so much so that I might have to order me a copy straight away. I bought an Agatha Christie book when I was in middle school, but didn’t particularly like it. My tastes back then were horrible. I find that I love certain types of books now that I hated when I was younger. Like the classics. Thanks for such a riveting review.

  22. Just wanted to give you a heads up that I recently read And Then There Were None — specifically so that I could get my Agatha Christie foundation started before I read this book. I also made sure to include the reasons why I read this Christie mystery, and linked to this post. Thanks for introducing me and nudging me to read Agatha Christie!

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