Articles

The Mysterious Affair of Agatha Christie

by Mac Carey

It’s a story that even the Queen of Crime couldn’t have come up with: the mysterious disappearance of the most famous writer in England and subsequent nationwide search, then fifty years later a seance in a glamorous Istanbul hotel and the discovery of a key that could solve the whole mystery.

It all began on December 14th 1926.  For the past eleven days England and the rest of the English-speaking world had been up in arms over the disappearance of none other than one of the most famous authors in the world. Agatha Christie, the best-selling murder mystery writer, had left her home in Berkshire, England late at night on Friday the 3rd and had not been seen again. Her abandoned car was discovered the next day in a ditch a few miles from her home.

Double banner headlines proclaimed “Agatha Christie Vanishes” and “Mystery of Woman Novelist’s Disappearance.” Her disappearance even made the front cover of The New York Times. The Daily Newsoffered a 100 pound reward for anyone with a lead as to the author’s whereabouts.  Even fellow mystery writers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the infamous Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy Sayers, of the Lord Peter mysteries, were enlisted to help find the missing writer. Doyle, due to a nascent interest in the occult, held a seance with a glove of Christie’s. Sayers took a more pragmatic approach and visited the place where her car was found.

Christie had been noticeably distressed for the last few months. Her beloved mother, Clarissa Miller, had died a few months before, and the devastated Christie had gone to France for a month to recover. Upon returning to England, she learned that her husband, Colonel Archibald Christie, was in the midst of a long-running affair. Her sixth and latest book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, while selling well, was also receiving a tremendous amount of attention due to its unorthodox plot device, which many people claimed broke the generally accepted rules of a murder mystery. She was nearly kicked out of the Detection Club for “violating the rules of fair play.”

Tall, with reddish-blonde hair and what was once described as “Scandinavian coloring,” Agatha Christie was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller in Torquay, England in 1890. Christie had married the dashing World War I pilot Colonel Archibald Christie in 1914. They had one daughter, Rosalind, in 1919. That same year Christie wrote her first mystery, on a dare from her sister. Released in 1920, The Mysterious Affair of Stylesbecame a smash hit and introduced the eccentric Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot to the world. Since her debut book she had written five more mysteries, all successes that could be found on best-seller lists. Incredibly shy from childhood, Christie rarely spoke to strangers first. She was uncomfortable with any kind of attention from the press and worked hard to maintain her privacy.

On Friday December 3rd, the date of her disappearance, she spent the day at Styles, the manor house outside of London that was named after her debut book. She had an argument at breakfast with her husband, presumably about his leaving for the weekend to see his mistress, a young woman named Nancy Neele. Her husband left for his trip a few hours later. Late in the afternoon Christie wrote two notes, one to her husband and one to her secretary, telling them to cancel all her appointments. She left in her black Morris Cowley sports car with one small bag, and that was the last anyone had seen of her.

Alarm was raised the next morning when she had yet to return. Later that day her car was found in a ditch off the side of the road a few miles from Styles, near the hotel where her husband was going to spend the weekend with his mistress. The car was abandoned and covered in frost, with the lights left on. Inside was an expired driver’s license identifying the car’s former occupant as Christie, a fur coat, and a small suitcase containing a couple of pieces of clothing. The next day the papers got a hold of the story and immediately it became a sensation. 15,000 volunteers were dispatched to search the surrounding countryside. The police used previously unheard of amounts of money to find her. The search marked the first time in British history that airplanes were used as part of a search party when the police sent a small airplane to fly over the surrounding countryside at a low altitude to check on the progress of the volunteers.

When they learned of Archibald Christie’s long-standing affair, suspicion fell on him. The phones at Styles were tapped and he was followed wherever he went. Archibald Christie, for his part, played the concerned husband, announcing publicly, “I would gladly give 500 pounds if I could only learn where my wife is.”

There were many guesses as to what happened. Some people thought that she had been murdered, others that she had suffered a bout of amnesia. There were several cynics who suspected an elaborate publicity stunt. Several writers wrote articles outlining their elaborate theories as to what they believed to have really happened. As the days passed, more and more people believed her to be dead.

The truth was much less sensational, but did little to answer questions. On December 14th, Christie was found at Harrogate Hydropathic Hotel, a spa and hotel in Yorkshire in the north of England. She had taken a train from London and checked in the Saturday after her disappearance. She checked in under the name of Teresa Neele, the same surname as her husband’s mistress. Several guests recognized her but she denied being the missing celebrity. But suspicion grew and her husband was eventually contacted. Upon his arrival at the hotel, Christie exclaimed, “Fancy, my brother has just arrived.”

Christie claimed that she was suffering from amnesia. She and her husband went back to their home and told the press that she was coping with memory loss as a result of her mother’s death.   Despite two doctors examining her and agreeing with this prognosis, the public remained skeptical. Some maintained that it was a publicity stunt, and criticized her for wasting the taxpayer’s money. Others believed that she had done it to publicly embarrass her husband as revenge for his adultery.

Christie and her husband divorced the next year and she refused to ever speak of the incident again, even forty years later in her autobiography. Then in 1979, the Warner Brothers film studio decided to make a film about the incident. Entitled Agatha, and starring Vanessa Redgrave as the author, the movie resurrected the unsolved mystery for publicity for the film.

The studio turned its attention to the Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul, the exotic and glamorous hotel that overlooked the banks of the Bosphorus. The hotel was built to house the guests of the famous Orient Express, the train that ran from London through continental Europe, finishing its course in Istanbul. Crowded with 19th century furniture and opulent decorations, the hotel has not been a stranger to media attention and controversy in its 110-year history.  It has bedded the likes of treasonous World War I spy Mata Hari, and Edward VIII, the King of Britain who abdicated to marry the American divorcee, Wallace Simpson. During the War of Turkish Independence, Mustafa Kemal Atatrk planned his military resistance in one of the rooms, which is now a museum. The doors are adorned with the names of the celebrities who graced the interior with their presence: Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, Josephine Baker.

Built in 1892, the Pera Palas still stands, its French architecture leaving visitors with no doubt that they are crossing to the European side of the Bosphorus as they traverse the Golden Horn that connects Europe and Asia within Istanbul. Although it has undergone several renovations, only one third of the hotel’s rooms come with air conditioning, and visitors should expect all the predictable drafts in winter typical of a building of its age.

Christie had frequented Istanbul and the Pera Palas Hotel in the late twenties and early thirties, when the hotel was at its height. Christie, inspired by her long train ride, wrote her famous book, Murder on the Orient Express, in room 411 in 1934. The room is still kept the way it had been when Christie penned the whodunnit classic–visitors can view her humble writing desk directly facing her long, narrow bed.

Before Agathathe movie was released, the studio hired a celebrated medium, Tamara Rand, to hold a seance in Christie’s hotel room in the hopes of contacting Christie, who had died three years before, and finally solving the mystery of her disappearance. Rand would achieve further fame a few years later for her controversial prediction of Reagan’s assassination attempt.

With the help of hotel management, the studio connected Rand in Los Angeles to workers who had gathered in room 411 to hopefully find an answer to the disappearance. On March 7th, 1979, Turkish journalists and hotel workers convened on the room. Rand, in Los Angeles, communicated with the hotel workers on the telephone. The seance that was held was broadcast via satellite onto American television. A little into the seance Rand said that she went into a trance during which she began to write in a language she didn’t understand and which she later learned was Turkish. She even began to write in Christie’s handwriting. She wrote out the words “Mesrutiyet Caddesi, ” which turned out to be the street the Pera Palas was located on. She then saw the image of a large elegant building with a sign that said Pera Palas, and had a vision of Christie entering the building and walking up the stairs to room 411. When Christie entered the room, Rand claimed that she saw Christie close the door behind her and hide a key in the floorboards.

The workers in Christie’s room tore up all the floorboards. In the corner between the door and the wall, they found a small, rusty key. Rand claimed that this key would open Christie’s diary and would reveal the secret to Christie’s disappearance. The press was ecstatic about the potential of the discovery. But celebration came too soon. The diary key couldn’t be taken back to England and tested. The hotel management and the movie studio could not reach an agreement on the price to be paid for the key, so the key never actually left the premises of the hotel, and it remains there today, the last hope perhaps to obtaining the answers to her disappearance.   Another key numbered 411 was found in another room in the Pera Palas in 1987, adding further confusion to this mystery.

Christie would go on to write more than seventy books. Nearly all made the best-seller lists in English speaking countries. She eventually outsold all books but the Bible and has been translated into more languages than anyone but Shakespeare. In 1971 the Queen of Crime became an official Dame Commander of the British Empire.

Agatha Christie died in Oxfordshire, England in 1976, at the age of 85, never revealing the reasons behind her disappearance. It remains the only mystery that Christie wouldn’t solve, taking the last chapter to her grave.