In December 1926, Agatha Christie vanished.
If, like me, you’re a fan of Agatha Christie, you already know about her disappearance. She left her home in the evening on December 3 and her abandoned car was found off the side of the road the next day. Eleven days later, after massive searches of the area involving police and concerned volunteers, she was found over 200 miles away, registered at a posh spa and using the last name of her husband’s lover. The reason? She claimed temporary amnesia from the car accident.
Those are the bare bones facts and Agatha herself never publicly talked about what happened during her disappearance. Veiled references popped up in her later books, but she refused to be interviewed about those eleven days. Her autobiography, in fact, makes no mention of the incident.
So I was interested when I found Jared Cade’s Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days. This is not a new book (originally published in 1998 and revised and expanded in 2011), but it is no less fascinating. Using interviews and special access from the Christie estate to her letters and papers, he pieces together the events leading up to the disappearance, what she did while she was holed away at the spa, and how the incident affected her for the rest of her life. Most of all, he provides the why.
The book is an easy read and it covers Agatha Christie’s life both before and after, weaving in events that shaped her mind into thinking that a staged disappearance was a good thing. Most horrifying, though, was the prying onslaught of the press while she was missing.
These days the hounding of the paparazzi against celebrities is normal, but when Agatha vanished, that level of intrusiveness was new. Papers printed salacious rumors about her marriage and wild speculations about where her husband hid the body. They grabbed onto anyone who believed they saw her after the accident (and there were many “sightings”). After she was found, Agatha dodged reporters and went into hiding, Seeing her private life splashed across the pages of the daily newspapers so traumatized her that she spent the rest of her life trying to avoid a repeat. Unfortunately, that also meant that she suffered with bad decisions because she didn’t want to give the snoopy press another reason to dig into her life.
Nowadays we give away our privacy on a daily basis every time we reach for our phones or surf the internet. Yet in Agatha Christie’s lifetime, people expected their private lives to remain private unless they voluntarily gave it up. True, tales of scandal and murder have popped up in newspapers since newspapers were invented, but the level of intrusion into her disappearance was something new.
I still love her books. But now I have more sympathy for a woman who was fragile and unprepared for the consequences of a stunt gone terribly wrong.