Monday, 24 October 2016

The Lady Vanishes

Is that you, Mrs Oliver?

“Ruthless” – it’s a word Agatha Christie is fond of. In Murder in Mesopotamia, Fr Lavigny says of the fascinating Mrs Leidner: “I think she could be ruthless.” She IS ruthless – she has no conscience about teasing and bullying vulnerable members of the expedition, or betraying her husband. And it’s what Christie’s mother said about her husband, Archie, when she first met him – “I think he could be ruthless”. They married during World War One.

In April 1926, Christie's mother died. Agatha spent weeks clearing out her beloved home Ashfield, where her mother and grandmother (a hoarder) had lived. For some of the time she had her young daughter Rosalind with her, but Archie always had an excuse not to come down for the weekend. She disposed of wardrobes full of clothes, and threw away piles of rubbish. She became exhausted. In her autobiography she reveals that when she had to sign her name, for a frightening moment she couldn’t remember it.

She returned home to Sunningdale, but Archie seemed different, and had not booked the trip abroad they were planning. Archie revealed he was having an affair with a younger woman, Nancy Neele, and wanted a divorce. He always said he was no good when anyone was unhappy or ill: his own happiness came first. (Is it a coincidence that Agatha had become successful and famous?)

In December 1926 she went out late at night in her car and didn’t come back. The car was found at Newlands Corner, near a supposedly haunted lake called the Silent Pool. In it was her fur coat, her handbag and her passport. A nationwide search was launched, involving aeroplanes and Conan Doyle (he held a séance). A newspaper published mockups of how she might look, her appearance changed with different hairstyles and glasses (see above).

Eleven days later she was recognised by a musician (saxophonist? banjo player?) at the Swan hotel in Harrogate. She had checked into the hotel under the name Theresa Neele. Archie turned up to collect her and gave out that she had been suffering from amnesia.

There are various accounts – did she make Archie wait while she changed her dress? Did she come downstairs and admit who she was? Did she fail to recognise him?

Some say that, according to her sister and brother-in-law, a telegram detailing her plans had gone astray. That was their story and they stuck to it.

In 1928 the Christies divorced, and Archie and Nancy married. Agatha met her second husband, Max Mallowan, in Mesopotamia in 1930.

In 1932 a short story The Affair at the Bungalow was published in the collection The Thirteen Problems (spoiler alert). A group of friends meet weekly. At each gathering one of them tells the story of an “unsolved mystery” to which she or he knows the answer and challenges the others to solve it. In the corner is a little old white haired lady; the others hardly realised she was playing. You know the rest...

It’s the turn of actress Jane Hellier, a guest of Colonel and Dolly Bantry, to tell a story. She’s beautiful, but not known for her brains. She begins a rather rambling tale (appealing for help in naming the characters) about a "friend" of hers, also an actress, who is playing the provinces somewhere like Marlow.

Jane's "friend" is summoned to a police station to meet a young man. He turns out to be a playwright, who’s been found wandering dazedly. He says that he sent the actress a play to read, and she invited him to a riverside bungalow to discuss it. He turned up, and there she was, they had a cup of tea, and then everything went black... (At about this point Jane gives up pretending it all happened to a friend.)

Meanwhile the bungalow has been found turned upside down as if by burglars. The playwright says he’s never seen the real Miss Hellier before, and she claims she’s never met him. The bungalow was inhabited by yet another actress, the mistress of a wealthy city man, who was mysteriously summoned to London (along with her maid) to get her out of the way. But nothing has been taken.

All confess themselves baffled, and turn to Miss Marple, who says something like “All I know is that women should stick together.” The company departs, and Dolly and Jane go up to bed.

“Dolly,” asks Jane. “Do you think there are many like her?” Like Miss Marple, she explains. Because Miss Marple has guessed the answer to her mystery – it was all a put-up job by Jane herself. She got the actress playing her maid in the play to impersonate her, while she played the maid – because nobody looks at a maid. They drugged the young man, faked the burglary, and dragged the unconscious man outside. “But I’d be in her power, wouldn’t I?” she asked, meaning that the other woman could always blackmail her.

“But it’s too late now!” says Dolly. Jane explains that “it hasn’t happened YET, I was just ‘trying it on the dog’ so to speak”, to see if anyone could unravel her plot.

“But what's the point of it all?” asks Dolly, utterly baffled, as the reader will be by now. Jane explains. The actress who is living in the bungalow as the mistress of a rich city man stole Jane’s husband. “She was the one who took Claude from me!”

“But, but...?” stammers Dolly.

“You see,” says Jane, “It would be in all the papers, and everybody would see what kind of a woman she was.”

And that’s my solution to The Case of the Vanishing Writer. She must have walked from the car to Guildford station, got a train to London and from there to Harrogate. She could have gone to her London flat and picked up some clothes. She must also have taken cash and another bag with her. Cash, because how could she write a cheque without using her own name? The search was all over the papers every day - if she didn’t want to disappear, why didn’t she call or telegraph to her sister?

Many years later, Christie invented her comical alter ego, Mrs Ariadne Oliver, who appears in many of her books as a sidekick to Poirot. In Third Girl, which I love despite some absurdities, Mrs Oliver sets out to shadow a young man in a café. She nips into the loo and scrapes her hair back into a bun and puts on a pair of reading glasses. He is not fooled by the disguise.

More Christie here.


  1. Update: According to the American programme Unsolved Mysteries, Christie was seen at Guildford station. It claims that she came downstairs and greeted Archie as her brother. They then went upstairs and talked all night. Not a bad reconstruction, though they show her being met by a butler at Ashfield: her family fell on hard times, and her mother ended up living in a few rooms with one or two servants.

  2. Update II: Another writer claims a waiter at the hotel rang the police, who contacted Archie. He went to the restaurant and waited for his wife to appear. When she did, she appeared not to recognise him. Take your pick!

  3. From Newland's Corner where her car was found, to Guildford railway station is 3.6 miles. At least 1h 10min accoording to Google. And she did this at night? In the middle of winter? With no winter clothing? And possibly in 'heels'?