What Was Really Behind Agatha Christie's Mysterious Disappearance?

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 
Agatha Christie
Best-selling novelist Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days in 1926. No one really knows the reason behind it. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If life sometimes imitates art, one great example is the mysterious disappearance of famous crime novelist Agatha Christie. In 1926, the Englishwoman disappeared for 11 days, spurring a nationwide search. Feared dead, she was eventually discovered alive, supposedly suffering from amnesia. But many had doubts about this explanation. Was this actually a publicity stunt to spur book sales? Revenge against her adulterous spouse? No one will ever know for sure — perhaps because she intended it to be that way.

Agatha Christie is considered the bestselling novelist of all time, having penned 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections that together have sold more than 2 billion copies. That figure is only surpassed by sales of the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. She also wrote "The Mousetrap," the world's longest-running play, which first debuted in 1952 and is still going strong.


Agatha Christie's Early Life

She was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller in 1890 in Torquay, England. Her father was American, her mother British. The youngest of three children, Agatha spent a happy childhood making up stories, writing, playing piano and singing. Unfortunately, her father died when she was 11, and the family's finances became problematic. As one way to help, her mother hoped her youngest would marry up a social class when she was older. Instead, she fell in love with Archibald Christie.

Archie, as he was known, was a dashing aviator in the Royal Flying Corps, and from a lower social class. Shortly after the two began dating, Archie was sent to France to fight in World War I. When he came home a few months later in Dec. 1914, the couple hastily married. Their only child, Rosalind, was born in 1919. During the war, Christie volunteered at the local Red Cross Hospital and worked in the dispensary, where she learned a lot about poisons, knowledge that would come in handy when she turned to writing detective novels.


During the early years of their marriage, which seemed to be happy ones, Agatha published her first book, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" in 1920. It was the first appearance of the soon-to-be-celebrated detective Hercule Poirot.

The Story Behind Agatha Christie's Disappearance

article about disappearance
Agatha Christie and her daughter Rosalind (right), are featured in a newspaper article reporting the disappearance of the novelist. Thousands joined in the manhunt to find her. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the spring of 1926, Agatha's beloved mother died, leaving her devastated. To make matters worse, Archie (who had earlier told her he didn't like to deal with illness or death) promptly went to London instead of helping his wife to clear out her mother's home in Torquay. Agatha became depressed, and in subsequent weeks appeared to be on the verge of a mental health crisis. Meanwhile, Archie began an affair with Nancy Neele, a family friend, approaching Agatha for a divorce that August; Agatha refused to grant him one. The Christies tried to reconcile but on Dec. 3, they had an argument and Archie left home for the weekend. That's when everything went awry.

Sometime that evening, Agatha left a sleeping Rosalind in the care of house staff, then drove off into the night. The next morning, her abandoned car was discovered stuck in some bushes above a chalk quarry. The police immediately began to search for her, joined by thousands of ordinary people after a flurry of publicity about the case. Rumors began to swirl that she had drowned herself, or that Archie had killed her. Another possibility: She was hiding in order to frame Archie for her murder.


Eleven days after her disappearance, Agatha was found alive at the Harrogate Spa Hotel, curiously registered as Teresa Neele, previously of South Africa. Neele, of course, was the surname of Archie's mistress, while South Africa was a locale where Agatha and Archie had spent happy times. When Archie came to retrieve her, she didn't know who he was.

So, what was the real reason for the disappearance? In the one interview she gave on the subject, Agatha said she'd lost her memory — coincidentally, something that occasionally happened to characters in her novels. After psychotherapy, she was able to recreate a narrative of what had happened. Christie said she had left home that night despondent and contemplating suicide. After aimlessly driving around the countryside, she accidentally crashed her car near the chalk quarry, causing her head to strike something.

After getting out of the car, she made it to a train station, where she traveled to Harrogate. She did not disguise herself in any way, nor hide her handwriting when she registered as Teresa Neele. She dined in the hotel restaurant, took part in the evening dancing and didn't appear to notice the newspaper articles about her disappearance and the ensuing manhunt.

But many people (including later biographers) didn't believe she was suffering from memory loss, speculating that she deliberately engineered her disappearance. However, Lucy Worsley, a historian and author of the new biography "Agatha Christie: An English Mystery," asserts that this was no scam, but a serious mental health episode.

In an interview published in the BBC's HistoryExtra, Worsley said she believes Agatha entered a fugue state. "Now, this is a very rare condition, and it causes you to step right outside your normal self and adopt another persona, so that you don't have to think about the trauma you've been experiencing in your current situation," she said. "That's not framing your cheating husband for murder — that is living with a really serious mental-health condition. And yet the narrative is that she was somehow a bad person who was playing some sort of a trick on the world: perhaps she was doing it to frame the husband; perhaps she was doing it to get attention to sell novels."


A New Start for Agatha

Agatha Christie, Max Mallowan
Agatha Christie and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan stand on the grounds of their home, Greenway House in Devonshire, England in 1946. Daily Herald Archive/National Science & Media Museum/SSPL via Getty Images

After Agatha's return, the couple eventually divorced. In 1930, she married Max Mallowan, an archaeologist 14 years her junior. Agatha joined him on Middle Eastern digs every year, where she became known for her skill cleaning the finds with a brush and her face cream. She also bankrolled his digs. The two enjoyed many happy years together.

Among her bestselling books are "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd," "Murder on the Orient Express" and "And Then There Were None," all of which featured original plot twists that have since been copied endlessly by other novelists and screenwriters.


Agatha's final work — although not the last to be published — was "Postern of Fate," penned in 1973 when she was in her eighties. Sadly, the quality of her writing was declining, Worsley said in the HistoryExtra interview. She and other experts posited the reason may have been dementia.

Perhaps in true Christie fashion, one of the books she penned during this period is titled "Elephants Can Remember" and centers around a female novelist with memory loss. Critics slammed the book for weak plotting and errors. But maybe she was signaling her own cognitive demise in it.

Agatha Christie died in 1976 and is buried in England next to her husband.