Some crime writers have an intimate connection to crime. James Ellroy’s mother was murdered. As a teenager, Anne Perry (then Juliet Hulme) helped her friend bludgeon to death the friend’s mother. Perry says of her time in prison, “I went down on my knees and repented,” and of the connection between the crime and her novels, “[It] is vital for me to go on exploring moral matters.” Ellroy openly admits that his mother’s violent death fuels his writing.
In a case of far less gravity, Agatha Christie went missing for more than a week in 1926. Already a well-known mystery novelist, she refused to reveal where she had gone—let alone suggest that the incident in any way affected her writing. What Christie did—she left her home and daughter without warning at night, abandoned her car on the edge of a chalk pit, and was found 11 days later at a hotel unharmed and in full possession of her senses—seems minor compared to the serious crime Perry participated in or what Ellroy experienced, yet those 11 missing days continue to exert a hold on Christie’s fans.
In addition to several biographies that discuss the disappearance (the charming graphic biography Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie is a favorite), speculation about what actually happened has inspired novels and films, including A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson; Agatha by Kathleen Tynan; Agatha, the 1979 film adaptation of Tynan’s novel starring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman; and the 2018 film, Agatha and the Truth of Murder. The missing days are also a theme in the upcoming debut, The Truants, by Kate Weinberg. In an article for the Financial Times, Wilson says, “Central to the allure [of the event] is its mysterious nature, an absence of fact, into which others can project their own fantasies and imaginings.” There is that, of course, and there is the obvious self-referentiality—who can resist the mystery of a mystery writer’s missing days—but I believe the fascination also stems from the kind of writer Christie was, and our (often unspoken) expectation of a direct connection between a writer’s life and her writing.
Earlier this year, The New York Times published “When the World’s Most Famous Mystery Writer Vanished.” The article chronicles what happened during those days. In short: on Dec. 4, 1926, Christie kissed her daughter good night and drove away into the darkness. Her mother had recently died, her husband was having an affair and had asked for a divorce (which she knew, but the public didn’t). She left her car hanging on the edge of a chalk pit and vanished. The incident made headlines all over the world, including the front page of The New York Times. A desperate manhunt began, but three days later Christie’s brother-in-law reported that he had received a letter from her “saying she was going to a spa ‘for rest and treatment.’ ” Yet, detectives kept searching. There were rumors of suicide. Amateur sleuths and spiritualists became involved. Police studied her writing for clues and 10,000 to 15,000 people were involved in the hunt with the assistance of trained canines. When Christie was found at a spa, her husband said she had suffered from a complete loss of memory. She had checked in under the name of his mistress.
Christie doesn’t mention the incident in her autobiography, and she never discussed the disappearance in public except for one occasion, on which she said, “I left home that night in a state of high nervous strain with the intention of doing something desperate.”
The gap has been filled in by others. What is interesting about so many of the fictional accounts mentioned above, including Wilson’s, is that they picture Agatha spending her missing days solving crimes. This interpretation only makes sense if we imagine Christie the woman to be like the books she writes: concise, consistent, controlled, with every loose end tied up. If, for instance, it had been Raymond Chandler—whose stories are morally ambiguous and who famously didn’t care about his plots or loose ends—who had disappeared, I wonder if anyone would have noticed. And if future writers happened to speculate about what he had been doing during that time, I doubt that they would imagine him busy detecting.
We build a picture of our most loved authors from reading their books. We expect their personalities to match their writing styles. We certainly don’t expect Chandler, with his hard-boiled, hard-talking detectives, to be a product of a British public (which is to say, private) school education and an expert in the classics—both of which he was. Similarly, we don’t expect the author of clear-headed, no-nonsense mysteries and creator of clear-headed, no-nonsense detectives such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, to have been in a “ ‘fugue state,’ or a period of out-of-body amnesia triggered by stress” as some of her biographers have conjectured. (Even Ariadne Oliver, the scatterbrained mystery novelist who appears in some of Christie’s books doesn’t feel like an alter ego for the author herself.) It is the discrepancy between those unaccounted for days, when Christie may have been out of control, and her taut controlled writing style that makes the disappearance so fascinating.
It is perhaps because Christie wanted to retain control over her own narrative that she chose never to comment on it. By not saying a word, she didn’t have to explain how and why Agatha Christie the author could have behaved in such an un-Agatha Christie-like manner. She said about the end of her marriage in her autobiography: “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it. I stood out for a year, hoping he would change. But he did not. So ended my first married life.”
The writer who could write those sensible yet moving sentences would seem to be a very different sort of individual than the one who could put a nation into panic, no doubt terrify her daughter, and set off a manhunt several thousand people strong. Perhaps she didn’t want to admit they were the same person, or that her writing helped tidy up a life that was messier than she might have wished for.
Mystery correspondent Radha Vatsal is the author of Murder Between the Lines and A Front Page Affair.