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 Agatha's 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 on some document, 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 Christie 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, attaché case and 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?

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 "Smith" (Somerset Maugham) to impersonate her, while she took the part of the maid – because nobody looks at a servant. 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 is the mistress of a rich city man, but earlier in her career she pinched 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. Christie 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 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.

Update: I learn from Agatha Christie: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction by J.C. Bernthal that Christie gave an interview in 1926, very soon after these events, in which she describes her loss of memory, and the fun she had as "Mrs Neele", reading about her own disappearance every day and concluding that the missing mystery writer must be dead. And apparently Edgar Wallace commented at the time that the disappearance looked like a stunt that was a way of getting back at somebody.

The Companion also reveals that The Affair at the Bungalow was foreshadowed by a 1923 story The Actress (also known as A Trap for the Unwary, it appears in the collection While the Light Lasts). In this story an actress who has changed her name and identity is recognised by a blackmailer who has something on her. She uses a trick later employed in the short story The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, and the identity swap that later appeared in The Affair at the Bungalow. It's a good story, and more coherent than "Bungalow". (Another trick that Christie used later is the "face disguised with greasepaint that's too horrible to do more than glance at".)

Christie was always fascinated by doubles, impersonations and people who weren't who they pretended to be.

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'?

  4. She was in her mid-30s. She could have taken another coat (and bag, and suitcase).

  5. Update from Dolores Gordon-Smith:
    As to who recognised Agatha Christie ... I thought it was a waitress who was fascinated by the newly invented zip that AC had on her handbag. That made the waitress look more closely at the handbag's owner and the rest we know. Or don't know.