It was the zipper on her black handbag that blew Agatha Christie’s cover.
Rosie Asher, a chambermaid at the opulent Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, had only seen zippers on bags in fashion magazines, never one in person. It was just too chic an accessory even for the celebrated clientele at the Hydro.
Asher’s suspicions were confirmed when she later glanced at a picture of a missing woman on the front page of a newspaper — there was that same handbag being held by Agatha Christie, a 36-year-old mystery writer whose career was starting to bloom.
It was 1926 and Christie was the subject of the largest manhunt in British history. She had gone missing on Friday, December 3 from her home in Surrey, some two hundred miles from Harrogate. The disappearance had attracted international attention.
Asher’s discovery put her in a bind. Guests at the Hydro were accustomed to privacy. If Asher tipped off the authorities, a landslide of attention would wallop the staid spa: Asher might lose her position.
So, she played it safe by discussing her hunch with two members of the hotel’s ballroom band, Bob Tappin and Bob Leeming. The musicians had observed Christie dancing and working crossword puzzles in the salon. After consulting with their wives, Tappin and Leeming went to the local police. That was Sunday, December 12. Within two days, Agatha Christie’s ordeal was over: her husband, Archie, identified her to the police. Yet the reasons for her dramatic disappearance have never been fully determined. It was Christie’s greatest mystery and the only one she left unsolved.
The months prior to the puzzling Harrogate episode were a highly unsettling time in Christie’s life. Her mother, Clara, had passed away on April 5 at the age of 72. According to biographer Laura Thompson, Clara had been the true love of the author’s life, the anchor who provided much needed succorance. The event of her death was imbued with guilt: when Clara passed, Christie could not be present.
Then, in June, Christie’s world exploded with the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, her seminal work with a monumental twist at the end. It propelled her to the front ranks of contemporary writers.
Fate again seesawed: her husband of ten years, Archie, resolved to end their marriage. He had been carrying on a lengthy romantic relationship with Nancy Neele and wanted a divorce so that they could marry. Agatha had known about the dalliance but did not believe it would ultimately destroy her marriage. On December 3, she conclusively accepted the searing truth and left their home without explanation.
Although Agatha did not mention her disappearance in her posthumously published autobiography, she did discuss her mental status during this period: “What I could not understand was his (Archie) continued unkindness to me…my mother had always said he was ruthless. I had always seen so clearly his many acts of kindness, his good nature, his helpfulness…but he was ruthless now, because he was fighting for his happiness. I had admired his ruthlessness before. Now I saw the other side of it.”
The eleven-day Harrogate episode was like a collection of plot devices from the author’s carefully constructed mysteries. There was her abandoned car — headlights still burning — stuck on a country road, surrounded by thick, creepy undergrowth and eerie ponds. Also, the trail of three letters Christie left behind, one of which her husband read and promptly destroyed. And then, the curious pseudonym Christie used to register at the Hydro — “Teresa Neele,” an obvious reference to her husband’s paramour. All very Agatha.
Adding to the literary ambience of the search for Christie was the active participation of her colleagues, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers.
Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes’ creator and paranormal enthusiast, gave one of Christie’s gloves to a medium. He claimed the psychic correctly identified the owner and said she was still alive.
Sayers, known for her Lord Peter Wimsey novels, appeared briefly at one of the search locations. Later she used the events, slightly altered, for material in one of her books.
Following Christie’s discovery at the Hydro, she spent the rest of her life airbrushing the incident. One of the few public comments she made about the disappearance came in an interview with the Daily Mail in 1928. “What happened was this,” she said. “I left home that night in a state of high nervous strain with the intention of doing something desperate. I drove my car…in the direction of a quarry…the car struck something with a jerk and pulled up suddenly. I was flung against the steering wheel, and my head hit something. Up to this moment I was Mrs. Christie…after the accident in the car, however, I lost my memory.”
Perhaps her version of the events is true, but many other theories have been put forth through the years. Most center on her relationship with Archie. Was she fleeing in some kind of attempt to win him back? Did she stage the disappearance to put him through the ringer with the press and the police? Was she in some type of fugue state?
What we do know for sure is that during the disappearance Archie was considered a possible murder suspect and the press made his life miserable. The Christies eventually divorced, and Archie married Nancy Neele. Agatha also remarried, this time to a man 14 years her junior, archeologist Max Mallowan.
Christie and Mallowan stayed together until her death at the age of 85 on January 12, 1976. She remains the bestselling author of all time with more than two billion copies of her novels in print.
What truly happened in 1926 is best summarized by Christie biographer Janet Morgan: “There are moments in people’s lives on which it is unwise, as well as impertinent, for an outsider to speculate…often, indeed, the people most closely concerned cannot explain how they reacted and why.”