Yorkshire warmth holds the key to Agatha Christie’s biggest mystery

Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie.

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JANE MARPLE would not be impressed in the slightest by the continued speculation that surrounds the disappearance in 1926 of Agatha Christie, who died 40 years ago today.

The elderly spinster with a penchant for solving murder mysteries had little time for tittle-tattle, as she made clear in a short story, The Tuesday Club Murders, penned two years after her creator had been the subject of a nationwide manhunt.

The Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate.

The Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate.

“There is nothing more cruel than talk, and there is nothing more difficult to combat,” she said. “When people say things behind your back there is nothing you can refute or deny, and the rumours go on growing and growing, and no one can stop them.”

The rumour mill has turned almost constantly in the nine decades since Ms Christie fled her home in Berkshire for Harrogate following a domestic altercation with her husband, Colonel Archibald Christie, who had admitted to an affair.

As Ms Christie enjoyed the comforts of the Harrogate Hydro - now the Old Swan Hotel - Scotland Yard mobilised more than 1,000 officers to look for her, believing the author had been abducted.

Almost two weeks later, she was recognised by Bob Tappin, a banjo player at the Hydro, who alerted the police. Within a few hours Ms Christie was reunited with her estranged spouse and promptly diagnosed with stress-induced amnesia, a view that has been repeatedly tested in the intervening nine decades.

“Her behaviour was natural in every way. She went shopping, read the newspapers, some, it is said, with amusement, sang in the hotel lounge, and last evening intended to go to a dance.”

The Yorkshire Post from 1926

One theory is that the disappearing act was an elaborate and perfectly-executed publicity stunt for her new book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; another is that a vengeful Ms Christie was attempting to embarrass her husband by putting him in the frame for her abduction and possibly murder.

At the time, many people assumed she had suffered some sort of head injury after crashing her car on the day of her disappearance: the Morris Cowley was found in a hedge the day after she was reported missing.

Ten years ago biographer Andrew Norman put forward a strong case to support the view that a woman who would go on to be crowned the queen of the ‘Whodunnit?’ genre of English literature had suffered ‘out-of-body’ amnesia, a condition similar to a psychotic trance.

It is widely assumed that fellow guests at the Hydro had little, if any idea about the real identity of the lady who had checked into the hotel as Theresa Neele, the surname of her husband’s mistress, Nancy Neele.

Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie.

As the Yorkshire Post reported on Wednesday December 15, 1926 - the day after her husband had arrived in Harrogate - Ms Christie showed no signs of trauma.

“Her behaviour was natural in every way,” said the report. “She went shopping, read the newspapers, some, it is said, with amusement, sang in the hotel lounge, and last evening intended to go to a dance.”

Col Christie told the Yorkshire Post: “There is no question about her identity. She is my wife. She is suffering from complete loss of memory, and identity. She does not know who she is.

“She does not know me and does not know why she is in Harrogate.”

Yet from the reports of December 15, it seems Ms Christie had built a complex alternative identity when she checked into the Harrogate Hydro, claiming she had travelled from South Africa via Torquay.

The 1926 Yorkshire Post report went on: “Her references to South Africa indicated a knowledge of the conditions there, and the perfectly normal manner in which she related her experienced there aroused no suspicion.

“Neither was there anything unusual in her everyday conduct. Of a friendly disposition she chatted with other residents in the hotel, and visited local entertainments in company with friends she made among the hotel residents. She also went out out into town just as an ordinary visitor would.

“Mrs Christie is very musical, and this trait in her character showed itself in various ways. She has discussed musical questions in quite an expert manner with a distinguished Russian musician, who has been staying at the hotel, and this morning she was in town buying several songs.

“Later this afternoon she was singing to her own accompaniment on the grand piano in the hotel lounge.

“It is only within the last day or so that it appears to have occurred to anybody in the hotel that the last was Mrs Christie. Some comment had been passed on a supposed similarity. This, however, was vague and hardly seriously believed. An extraordinary thing is that some of the guests actually called her Mrs Christie. This could hardly have been meant other than humorously.”

The last comment is particularly telling as it raises the possibility that other guests and staff at the Harrogate Hydro indeed knew the real identity of ‘Theresa Neele’ but were happy to respect her privacy.

It would be wrong to dismiss mental illness as a possible explanation for what happened in Harrogate in 1926 but 40 years after the death of Agatha Christie, it does not require a great leap of faith to believe that a wronged woman simply found solace and comfort in the famed hospitality, friendliness and discretion of the good folk of Yorkshire.

Five famous Agatha Christie quotes:

“Very few of us are what we seem.”

The Man in the Mist, 1929

“I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing”

An Autobiography, 1977

“It is a curious thought, but it is only when you see people looking ridiculous that you realize just how much you love them.”

An Autobiography, 1977

“Curious things, habits. People themselves never knew they had them.”

Witness for the Prosecution, 1925

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