The Original Gone Girl: Did Agatha Christie Try to Frame Her Cheating Husband for Murder?

Lori Lamothe

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(Hulton Archives)

It has been nearly 50 years since Agatha Christie’s death, but the “Queen of Crime” remains the best-selling novelist in history. Only the Bible and Shakespeare’s works have sold more copies than her books and her legacy shows no signs of fading.

In addition to the two billion copies of her mysteries in circulation, Christie’s play The Mousetrap remains the longest-running theatrical production of all time. First staged in 1952, it only closed down temporarily in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Add to that the countless movies, plays, radio broadcasts, graphic novels, and even video games that have been adapted from her work.

Christie's greatest mystery may be her own disappearance, however. The case remains unsolved but the answer just might be hidden in one of her own novels.

Psychics and Sherlocks

Thousands of fans have tried to piece together what happened when the novelist disappeared on December 3, 1926. Not to mention the police who worked the case, the reporters who covered it, and the official biographers who received full access to her private papers.

Over the years, there has been no shortage of theories about the 11 days when Christie could not be located. Despite extensive searches that involved thousands of volunteers and covered vast stretches of land, she seemed to have vanished into thin air. Dogs were brought in and airplanes flew over England, which marked the first time British planes were used in a missing person case. News of Christie’s disappearance made front-page news across England and from there the furor surrounding the real-life mystery spread around the world.

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Police search for Agatha Christie.(Topical Press Agency)

As days went by, with investigators making no progress, even famous writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers got involved.

Sherlock Holmes may have held mediums in contempt but his creator had no such reservations. Conan Doyle managed to obtain one of Agatha’s gloves and promptly brought it to a renowned psychic, who predicted that Christie would be found alive. Sayers visited the area and made her own pronouncements about the fate of the novelist. She too turned out to be correct.

Well, partly correct.

Silence and publicity stunts

So what really happened on the night of December 3? And why has there been so much confusion in the 94 years since she turned up at an exclusive hotel spa a week and a half later?

Over the ensuing decades, Christie’s family staunchly maintained that she lost her memory. Others claimed it was all a publicity stunt to catapult her novels onto the bestseller lists.

As for Agatha, she made one statement only in an interview two months before the divorce trial that would determine who got custody of her daughter. According to her story, she hit her head, lost her memory and that was that.

After the divorce was granted in 1928 and Agatha gained full custody of Rosalind, she never spoke of her disappearance again. Her autobiography, which runs to more than 500 pages, makes no mention at all of the incident. Moreover, it was well known that anyone who brought up the matter risked being cut off as a friend.

The facts of the case suggest something altogether different happened, however. Witness statements, police records, interviews with hotel employees, and the plot of one of Agatha’s earliest novels suggest she may well have staged her disappearance as a way to punish her unfaithful husband.

Amnesia, she wrote

From the start, Archie Christie was the man of Agatha’s dreams. A handsome war pilot, he convinced her to marry him on Christmas Eve despite his lack of prospects. Agatha’s parents, particularly her mother, did not approve — which made the dashing charmer all the more appealing.

Partly because the couple had little money and partly because Agatha was a born writer, she began composing novels early on in their marriage. Agatha had served as a nurse during the war and the knowledge she’d picked up about poisons became integral to her mystery plots. Yet, she didn’t immediately focus on the whodunit detective novels that made her famous.

Her second book, in fact, seems to be partly modeled on Agatha and Archie. The Secret Adversary is a thriller that features two adventurous twenty-somethings, former soldier Tommy and ex-nurse Tuppence. They’re soon caught up in a plot that involves an attempt to embarrass the British via a secret treaty.

Published in 1922, the thriller did fairly well and Agatha continued the couple’s adventures in a series of stories published in 1924. But did the novel serve as a blueprint for Agatha’s actions four years later on the night of her disappearance?

The key plot point of The Secret Adversary involves the missing Jane Finn, a young war nurse who has disappeared without a trace. Readers later learn she faked amnesia to keep herself safe. When her ruse is revealed, Jane explains:

“Suddenly something put the thought of loss of memory into my head. The subject had always interested me, and I’d read an awful lot about it. I had the whole thing at my finger-tips. If only I could succeed in carrying the bluff through, it might save me.”

Not long afterward, Christie would write another Tommy and Tuppence story, “Publicity,” in which Tuppence convinces a friend to “disappear” for several days in order to goad her wishy-washy suitor to realize he loves her. When Tuppence then “finds” the man’s girlfriend he is so relieved she’s safe that he finally pops the question. Tommy has no idea what’s going on, so the clever Tuppence enlightens him:

“We fixed up the whole thing between us. She was to rub the advertisement well into young St. Vincent, and then disappear. Wonderful efficiency of Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives. Publicity for us and the necessary fillip to young St. Vincent…”

Though the story — later renamed “A Pot of Tea” — has been mentioned in relation to her own vanishing act, many fans mistakenly believe Christie wrote the story afterward because the collection it appears in, Partners in Crime, came out in 1929. But in fact, the story appeared in a small magazine in 1924 — two years before she went missing.

Clearly, Christie’s female characters were adept at disappearance and disguise. The parallels between her early fiction and her own disappearance are striking.

The most important difference is that in Christie’s case the clues left behind resulted in her husband, Archie, being cast as the prime suspect in her murder.

But what are the facts of the real-life case?

A fur coat, a license, and a crashed car

Things began to go wrong for the Christies months before the situation reached a crisis point on December 3. Agatha’s mother died in April, an event that devastated her and set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately destroy the marriage.

While Agatha was at her mother’s estate with her seven-year-old daughter that summer, Archie turned up and informed Agatha that he wanted a divorce. Even worse, he had fallen in love with another woman, Nancy Neele, and had been carrying on an affair with her for at least the past year.

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Archibald Christie(English Heritage Media)

Agatha refused. She was still madly in love with Archie and wanted to save her marriage. It was not to be, however, and over the next several months their relationship continued to deteriorate.

On the morning of December 3, Archie informed Agatha that he had no intention of remaining married to her and that he would be spending the weekend with his mistress. Agatha’s actions that day are still in question, but there seems to be agreement on two points: 1) she left their house in her car at some point that day; and 2) she wrote three letters, one to her secretary Charlotte Fisher, one to Archie, and a third to Archie’s brother Campbell.

When Archie didn’t return home that night, Agatha left home in her car at approximately 9:45 p.m. She told no one where she was going and the following day a gypsy boy discovered her Morris-Cowley perched above a local quarry. The car had gone over a plateau and crashed into a tree about a quarter-mile from The Silent Pool, a pond where two people had allegedly drowned. There was no sign of Agatha but her fur coat, a small suitcase, and her driver’s license were found inside the car.

The police were soon on the case, as were numerous reporters who had already caught wind of the rumors about the strange circumstances surrounding the disappearance. Charlotte and Archie returned to Berkshire, where the Christies lived, only to find a letter addressed to each of them. The letter to Charlotte was a perfunctory missive about scheduling. As for the letter to Archie, no one will ever know what it said because he immediately burned it.

Needless to say, the police found this highly suspicious. They also found it suspicious that the letter to his brother had been posted on Saturday morning — the day after Agatha vanished— and that it too was missing. All Campbell could present them with was an empty envelope. He claimed the letter said she was visiting a spa but it is believed that he also burned her letter.

As the search intensified with no sign of the mystery writer, it began to look like she might not be found alive. Had she committed suicide? Ponds were dragged and drained. Every inch of ground was searched. But there was no body.

Might it be likely that her husband — who had been carrying on an affair and desperately wanted a divorce — had been driven to do something terrible? Especially since Agatha, the primary wage-earner in the family, had vetoed his request to let him marry his mistress?

Is it possible Agatha really did fear for her own life that night?

A few additional facts pointed to foul play. Witness statements maintained that the handbrake on the car had not been pulled and that the gearshift was in neutral. Had the car crashed, surely there would have been traces of blood, skid marks, and other evidence of an accident. No such evidence existed.

It looked as if someone had pushed the car off the edge of the road. Because of the precariousness of the location, to do so would not have required much strength.

Jared Cade’s Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days bolsters the theory that police believed Archie killed Agatha then got rid of her corpse. According to an interview with Sebastian Earl, a man who worked in the office next to Archie’s:

“He was in a terribly nervous state and told me the police had followed him. . .and were now waiting outside. ‘They think I murdered my wife,’ he said.”

Due to the intervention of two hotel musicians, the world would soon learn that Archie wasn’t a murderer. Agatha surfaced on December 14 at the Harrogate Hydro, a luxury spa where she had been holed up since the day after her disappearance. Strangest of all, she was registered as Mrs. Teresa Neele.

She had used the same last name as her husband’s lover. So what had she been up to for the past 11 days?

The Charleston, crossword puzzles, and billiards

Playing pool, forone thing. At least that’s what “Mrs. Neele” was doing when police arrived at the hotel on December 14th.

According to the hotel maids, the mysterious guest had been having a grand time since her arrival. She spent her first night dancing the Charleston to the song “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and took breakfast in bed for the remainder of her stay. She regularly read the daily newspapers, including the ones covering her disappearance (which, essentially, was all of them) and she liked doing the crosswords. She also mingled with the other guests and would play the piano for them as she sang along to the melodies.

She explained to guests that she had just arrived from South Africa and had lost her son not long before. On her bedside table, she kept a photo of her daughter and she checked out several mysteries from the library, informing the librarian that she was fond of the genre. She also did quite a bit of shopping, which would have been necessary since she’d left her small suitcase behind in the crashed car. She even bought herself a new suitcase.

When Archie and the police showed up at the hotel after the two musicians tipped them off, she knew the jig was up.

To avoid a media frenzy, decoys left the hotel from the front door while the unhappy couple made their escape via a side entrance. Because of deep skepticism from the public and the press, Archie Christie immediately called in two doctors who interviewed Agatha at her sister’s home. Just why he decided to cover for his wife is unclear.

Agatha claimed to have hit her head during the crash and sustained a deep bruise, though no such bruise was visible. She told both doctors she had no idea how she came to be at the Harrogate Hydro and had no recollection of her time as Mrs. Teresa Neele. They subsequently issued statements that corroborated her story.

Curtain

If Agatha wanted to put her husband through hell, she more than accomplished her goal. While sales of her books soared following her disappearance, Archie was cast as the lying, cheating spouse. His affair was splashed across newspapers throughout the world. Agatha’s use of his mistress’s last name all but guaranteed their affair would go public.

What about the woman he was in love with? Nancy Neele’s parents scandalized that their daughter was having an affair, sent her on a ten-month trip around the world. She was completely out of reach, thus their relationship seemed to have come to a forced end.

But Agatha’s scheme, if it was that, didn’t accomplish what she truly wanted. Less than two years later, Archie finally got the divorce he sought. And he did marry Nancy in the end.

Maybe Agatha got what she needed though. She moved to a new place with her daughter and went on to write her greatest mysteries. After being thrust into the spotlight, she became immensely wealthy — wealthy enough to finance her future archaeologist husband’s digs for years to come. She also avoided publicity for the rest of her life.

There is no question her husband’s affair devastated her — and it remains that a bottle of laudanum, labeled “Poison,” was found in her hotel room. It is possible she contemplated suicide, perhaps as part of a plan to exact revenge on Archie, or perhaps because she was in despair.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of amateurs and experts have tried to fathom the mystery of her disappearance. One recent book, Agatha Christie: The Finished Portrait, by Dr. Andrew Norman, posits that Agatha was so distraught by her mother’s death and by Archie’s betrayal that she lapsed into a fugue state of mind, “a psychogenic trance, a rare, deluded condition brought on by trauma or depression.” Other experts have posited she really had suffered from temporary amnesia.

Neither condition explains the discrepancies in the case, however, and both are extremely rare. “Dissociative fugue states” affect less than 0.2 percent of the population. “Transient global amnesia” may be common in movies but it strikes only three to ten people per 100,000 and it almost always lasts less than 24 hours. In addition, those affected do not believe they are someone else.

So, maybe this is one Christie mystery that can be solved, after all. Did Agatha lapse into a condition that affects less than one-fifth of one percent of the population while dancing the Charleston?

Or did the world’s most brilliant mystery writer adapt one of her own plots?

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com.

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