It has been a mystery that has sparked decades of theories, and even inspired the plot of a Doctor Who episode. Now, a BBC historian believes she has finally got to the bottom of the bizarre disappearance of Agatha Christie.
By the end of 1926, the famed murder-mystery writer was dealing with the loss of her mother, as well as a divorce from her husband after he admitted to an affair.
Mrs Christie’s mother, Clarissa, had died in April that year. The author had been very close to her mother, after her father died when she was just eleven, an event she said marked the end of her childhood.
Her mother’s death a quarter of a century later is widely regarded to have sent Mrs Christie into a deep depression, which was only compounded by the pressure to produce new novels.
Four months later, her then-husband Colonel Archibald Christie asked her for a divorce, revealing that he had fallen in love with a woman called Nancy Neele, a friend of Major Ernest Belcher, who had led them around the world on the British Empire Exhibition tour in 1922.
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At some point, the two had started an affair, and he was now leaving the author for his mistress. Ms Neele and Col Christie would marry two years later.
On December 3, 1926, Col Christie told Mrs Christie that he intended to spend the weekend with his friends without her, and the pair quarrelled.
Late that evening, the famed mystery writer would start a mystery of her own by disappearing from her family home in Sunningdale.
The next morning, her Morris Cowley was discovered parked above a chalk quarry in Surrey, with an expired driving licence and clothes inside the car.
After police begun a manhunt for Mrs Christie, rumours started to spread that she had taken her own life.
Lucy Worsley, a BBC historian known for her royal documentaries, believes the series of emotionally calamitous events created a mental state in Mrs Christie in which a sudden shock could trigger a “fugue state”.
She explained: “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.”
Ms Worsley, who has researched the disappearance for a new book on the author, told BBC History magazine: “This mysterious disappearance of eleven days seems to be the central injustice of Agatha Christie’s life.
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“By 1926 Agatha was a successful novelist, and she was under a lot of pressure to keep producing books. But her mother died that year, and she went into an episode of what today would be described as a depression.
“She reported forgetfulness, tearfulness, insomnia, an inability to cope with normal life. Her mental state became so bad that she considered suicide.”
Media attention meant the search for Mrs Christie reached an estimated 15,000 volunteers, with some speculating that it may have been a stunt.
She eventually resurfaced in Harrogate, in Yorkshire, with no recollection of who she was or what she had done.
The writer had booked into the hotel she was staying at under the name Neele, her husband’s mistress, which has led to claims that Mrs Christie confected the entire event to spite her husband, or even as an elaborate plot to frame him for a crime.
But Ms Worsley thinks otherwise, commenting: “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 trick on the world; to frame her husband or get attention to sell novels.”
In January 1927, Mrs Christie’s daughter, Rosalind, took her to Las Palmas for three months to improve her health. In April, she filed for divorce, which was finalised in October of the following year. Col Christie married Ms Neele a week later.
In 1928, the author took a trip on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then Baghdad. On her return, a friend introduced her to archaeologist Max Mallowan, who she married in 1930.
Mrs Christie spoke of the disappearance only once in an interview, in which she mentioned wanting to deliberately crash her car before stopping.
She said she bumped her head while driving, and after that point did not feel like she was herself anymore.