The true story behind Agatha Christie’s Gone Girl-style disappearance and the documentary behind it

With a new BBC Two documentary that takes a look at the life and work of the world’s bestselling crime writer, we take a moment to look into the real-life story of Agatha Christie’s shocking disappearance.

Content note: this article contains references to suicidal ideation that readers may find upsetting.

It’s no understatement to say that Agatha Christie is the undisputed queen of the mystery genre.

Known for her ground-breaking and genre-forming detective novels, short stories and for writing what would go on to become the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap, Christie has not only become synonymous with all things crime and mystery-related over the decades but also went on to become the bestselling novelist of all time.

A new three-part BBC Two documentary Agatha Christie: Lucy Worsley On The Mystery Queen follows historian Lucy Worsley as she investigates the life of the Miss Marple and Murder On The Orient Express creator, uncovering just how intriguing the crime fiction mogul’s life really was.

But sometimes, when it comes to mystery, the truth is stranger than fiction. That could certainly be the case in Christie’s own life, especially when it comes to her brief but legendary disappearance in 1926 – something that echoes one of the great modern crime mysteries of our time: Gone Girl.

Step aside, Amy Dunne. The ‘Duchess of Death’ has you beat.

At around 9.30pm on Friday 3 December 1926, Christie walked up the stairs of her home in Berkshire. After kissing her seven-year-old daughter goodnight, she got into her car and drove away into the dark. 

For the next 11 days, one of the most famous women in the world would completely disappear.

No, this isn’t the opening scene from one of Christie’s novels. This quiet evening would set off a chain of events that led to one of the country’s largest manhunts at the time. 

A police force one thousand strong would set off in search for Christie, as well as a horde of concerned civilians and fans. To give an idea of just how large the scale of this expedition was, it’s worth noting that even aeroplanes were utilised in the search.

Reportedly, some of her fellow famous peers were even roped into the search, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers, creators of Sherlock Holmes and the Lord Peter Wimsey series respectively. Avengers, assemble. 

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Christie’s novels have inspired countless adaptations over the years, including the 1974 adaptation of Murder On The Orient Express.

They eventually found Christie’s car near Guildford but, shockingly, no Christie. With no evidence of a major accident or foul play, the search could only continue. 

In the meantime, the press was running rampant with theories, speculations and wild stories as to what could have happened to the writer. There were whispered reports of suicide and accidents, but with no body and no clues, everything was hearsay. Rumours that the disappearance was part of a cleverly planned publicity stunt also spread, although with Christie already being a well-established novelist at the time, the publicity hardly seemed necessary.

Things took an even more bizarre turn when Conan Doyle, a fan of the occult, took one of Christie’s gloves to a medium in the hopes of stirring some form of supernatural assistance in locating the novelist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this didn’t prove to be useful.

Eleven days later, after the story hit the airwaves around the world and even made front page of The New York Times, Christie was finally found alive and well in perhaps one of the most anticlimactic locations of all time: a hotel in Harrogate.

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But with her sudden reappearance came more questions. According to Christie, she had no idea what had taken place. Seemingly unable to remember any details about what had happened after she walked out her front door that evening 11 days prior, the police were left scratching their heads. 

Their only conclusion was that Christie had left her home and headed towards London, crashing her car on the way. She would have then boarded a train to Harrogate, where she checked into the hotel (at that time named the Swan Hydropathic Hotel). With no luggage and no idea where she was or how she got there, it must have been quite a surprise to hotel staff when one of the world’s fastest-rising authors turned up on their doorstep.

After essentially taking a mini-break while the entire country frantically searched for one of their beloved literary treasures, Christie never spoke about those curious days between the 3-14 December ever again. It was decided that she had suffered from memory loss as a result of crashing her car or perhaps fell into some type of fugue state (a rare condition that can be brought on by trauma or depression). 

Lucy Worsley dives into the life of Agatha Christie in the new BBC Two documentary.

What could have caused this is still in question, although we do know that Christie’s husband, Colonel Christie, was having an affair at the time. In fact, Christie even used his mistress’s name, Neele, to check into the hotel. Some people even suggested that the entire tale was a scheme cooked up by Christie to humiliate her husband, although Lucy Worsley disagrees with this theory.

Multiple life events, including experiencing two World Wars, the recent death of her mother and the pressure weighing on her as a successful novelist, formed what Worsley believed to be the catalysts in Christie’s disappearance.

“Agatha became very low and on 3 December, her mental state became so bad that she considered suicide. She then entered, I believe, into a fugue state,” Worsley said. “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.

“That’s not framing your cheating husband for murder – that is living with a really serious mental health condition,” she continued. “And yet the narrative is that she was somehow a bad person who was playing some sort of a trick on the world.”

Agatha Christie at her home in 1946

This disappearance forms the exploration at the heart of the documentary’s second episode, as Worsley tries to clear the stigma behind Christie’s mental health issues and finally put to rest any sensationalised rumours and misunderstandings over what really happened in that December of 1926.

Thankfully, Christie recovered from the incident, returning to writing and going on to produce additional instalments of her cherished crime novels and murder mysteries. 

As well as being lauded as one of the most successful authors of all time, Christie was also an inspiration. An adventurer, mother and creator, she has become a figurehead for what it means to find success in later life. Christie’s life, and this peculiar saga that comes with it, only adds to her wildly compelling legacy.

And, for whatever the reason behind the melodrama, Christie’s disappearance can certainly prove one thing: sometimes art and the artist really do become one.

Agatha Christie: Lucy Worsley on the Mystery Queen will air weekly on Fridays from 25th November on BBC Two at 9pm and will be available to stream on BBC iPlayer.

Images: Getty; BBC

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