Is this what really happened when Agatha Christie disappeared?
Read an excerpt from Marie Benedict's novel The Mystery of Mrs. Christie.
In 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days. The famed murder mystery writer was in the midst of a divorce from her first husband Archie Christie and was dealing with the aftermath of the death of her mother. On Dec. 3, she left her home and the next morning her car was found abandoned nearby. She was later found at a hotel in Yorkshire, England, registered under a different name and with no memory of her last 11 days. Christie's own autobiography makes no mention of her disappearance, and what happened during her time away is still largely a mystery. On Dec. 29, author Marie Benedict will attempt to reconcile the conundrum with her novel The Mystery of Mrs. Christie — written as a fictionalized diary from both Agatha and Archie's points of view, the tome reimagines her disappearance. Below is an excerpt from one of Agatha's chapters, taking place shortly before her disappearance.
Chapter 41: The Manuscript
December 3, 1926
Styles, Sunningdale, England
Three months. Ninety days. Two thousand, one hundred and sixty hours. This was what Archie had allotted me to save our marriage, and when I returned to Styles after the debacle of the Pyrenees, I realized that I had only forty-five days left to convince Archie to stay. Only one thousand and eighty of those original hours remained, and the mere thought of the dwindling minutes was enough to start my heart racing. But how could I win my husband back when he was rarely to be seen?
Over the preceding forty-five of those ninety days, there had been times when I felt like giving up. There had been entire days when I felt like relinquishing him to Nancy [Archie’s mistress] and losing myself in my writing, my family, and my daughter. Would it really be so terrible? I asked myself. After all, if I were honest with myself, our marriage had been empty for some time; golf seemed to play a more robust role in Archie’s life than I did. Yet when I thought about Rosalind [the Christies’ daughter], I knew I had to stay the course. I couldn’t let the stain of divorce taint my beautiful daughter and strain our relationship.
I resolved to wait for him to return. This waiting was different from all the waiting I’d undertaken before. Somehow, waiting for him for leaves during his military training, waiting for him to come home from the Great War, even waiting for him to appear on our London doorstep from Spain after Mummy died did not compare to waiting for him to return my love.
I felt the clock ticking constantly, and more and more, I took walks around the Silent Pool to calm my nerves. Despite the macabre history of the place—legends about dead maidens and rumors about the odd suicide—I found the still body of emerald water and the quiet woods surrounding it strangely soothing. Not to mention that it was the one place where I could indulge in my sobs without a witness.
By the time December arrived, the days left to attempt reconciliation were numbered, and I was in a frenzied state. When Archie was absent—he frequently stayed at his London club on weekdays—I would worry about whether Nancy was with him despite his promise, and Charlotte [the Christies’ governess] would have to urge me to stay at Ashfield and not drive into the city to surprise him. When he made his brief, unannounced visits to Styles on weekends and rare weekday evenings, primarily to see Rosalind, my nerves would shred even further as the pressure mounted to be charming and lighthearted in an effort to make Styles—and me—appealing to him.
I worked on my new book, The Mystery of the Blue Train, at a feverish pace. My publisher, Collins, was desperate for a new Hercule Poirot book and wielded my contract as the means to insist. The recently released The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had not only been critically well received but had sold well, and they hoped to ride that success with an immediate follow-up publication, along with the release of a collection of short Hercule Poirot stories that I’d serialized in magazine and newspaper publications. But every time I sat down at my typewriter, my mind clouded with emotion, and even the internal pressure to produce out of financial necessity should my marriage implode didn’t clear my thoughts. More than anything, more even than Mummy’s comforting and sage presence, I wished for more time.
Archie and I stared at each other across the breakfast table. How ordinary the room looked, I thought for a surreal second, for such an extraordinary morning. The sunlight filtered through the curtain, dappling the tablecloth with an attractive pattern. The table gleamed with Mummy’s sweet rosebud china, and a perfect semicircle of toasted bread spread across the silver serving tray. Tiny puffs of steam rose from our teacups, and a jar of ruby-red jam sat at the center of it all. It could be any regular morning in any regular home of any regular family. But it wasn’t.
“Please,” I begged, “please don’t do this. Let’s talk about it this weekend, after dinner tonight. I made a reservation for us at a lovely inn in Yorkshire where we can discuss the future in privacy.”
“There is no sense begging, Agatha. It only makes you appear less attractive than you already are, and that doesn’t help your cause. I will not be joining you in Yorkshire this weekend. I will be spending the weekend with the Jameses,” Archie answered, his tone firm and his posture erect such that his suit had not a single crease. He spoke as dismissively as he did when responding to Rosalind’s endless requests for a pony.
“And Nancy will be there as well, I’m guessing? She’s good friends with Madge James, isn’t she?” I asked, and although it was certainly true, I immediately regretted my words. Archie’s face darkened with anger, and I knew I wouldn’t win him back like that. “Please listen, Archie.” I reached for his hand, but he pulled it away and stepped backward. I proceeded with my case, although I could hear Charlotte’s voice in my head, cautioning me against pleading. She believed it only brought out a cruel streak in him, and she’d implored me not to beg him after she witnessed an unpleasant altercation. “You promised me three months. Three months of reconciliation before deciding. But we barely saw you. You just need more time, that’s all—Christmas at Abney Hall, a New Year’s trip to Portugal with our neighborhood friends, the full three months that we discussed.”
“I don’t need any more time to make my decision, and I do not want to keep up this charade any longer. I am finished.” His voice didn’t waver, and neither did his gaze. Had he practiced this composure in the mirror? I wondered.
“How can you say you’re finished with our family when you haven’t even tried?” I asked, my voice cracking.
He didn’t bother to answer my question. Instead, he repeated the hateful words he had first uttered back in Ashfield. “I want a divorce.”
“I don’t want a divorce, Archie. I want our family and our marriage back.” The tears came, and I began to sob. “Rosalind loves you. I still love you. When you were fighting in the Great War, you used to write that you’d do anything to keep me. How has it come to this?”
“Agatha, I will be meeting with a lawyer to begin the divorce proceedings. My marriage to Nancy will happen as soon as the divorce is finalized.” He sounded as if he were conducting a business meeting for Austral Limited, not ending his marriage and ruining his family.
For the very first time, rage instead of desperation took hold of me. How dare he? How could he talk of marriage to Nancy in the same breath as he spoke of our divorce? By God, I thought, if he wants this shameful divorce, I will get what I want as well. I will make him give me the very thing he wants to protect. Otherwise, it will be the undoing of me.
Pulling a handkerchief from the pocket of my silk dressing gown, I dabbed at my eyes and nose in an effort to compose myself. “I will only agree to a divorce if you name Nancy Neele as your adulteress and the reason for the dissolution of our marriage.” I kept my tone as unruffled and businesslike as he’d been all morning, repressing the fury kindling within me.
With this statement, his carefully assembled countenance of calm and determination cracked. His eyes widened in disbelief at my request, and in that moment, I knew that I had struck him in his very core, a heart that I thought he no longer had. “I will not name Nancy in the divorce. Under no circumstances.”
How dare he refuse me? Who did he think he was to deny me this request? My incredulity and my volume rose alongside my anger. “Can you really believe that I would agree to a divorce in which the reason isn’t explicitly articulated? So everyone would fill in that gap with me as the cause? They’ll think I was an unreasonable wife. Or that I was the unfaithful one! Imagine what Rosalind would think one day.” I straightened my dressing gown and robe, tucked a curl behind my ear, and very slowly and very distinctly said, “I want Nancy Neele named as the reason for our divorce. Or I will not grant you one.”
His eyes narrowed, and he walked toward me for the first time that morning. “Nancy is the woman I love, and I plan on marrying her. I will not besmirch her name.”
I laughed, not caring for the first time in months how loud or unladylike my guffaw sounded. Because in that moment, I did not care about his opinion of me. “That’s rich, Archie. You won’t besmirch the reputation of your mistress, but you find it perfectly acceptable to betray your wife and drag her name through the mud?” I stared at him right in the eyes. “No Nancy, no divorce.”
A menacing expression, familiar from our trip to Guéthary, appeared on his face. He grabbed my shoulders—as if he wanted to shake his sense into me—and as I pulled away, my hand swung across the breakfast table, sending Mummy’s rosebud teapot crashing to the floor and me along with it. When I tried to stand up, he pushed me back down, grinding my leg into a shard of shattered china. The next thing I remembered was the sound of his footsteps storming out of the dining room and out of Styles. I felt the vibration of those footsteps across the floor, followed in quick succession by the rapid clip of Charlotte’s no-nonsense step and Rosalind’s patter.
Rosalind shrieked at the sight of me on the floor amid the broken china as Charlotte raced to my side. As she kneeled down to help me up, she asked, “Mrs. Christie, are you quite all right?”
“It’s nothing, Carlo.” I tried to muster up a smile. “Clumsy, that’s all.”
“You’re not clumsy, Mama,” Rosalind’s high-pitched voice chirped. “You and Papa were having a row. We heard it.”
“It was nothing to concern yourself with, Rosalind,” I said as I struggled to my feet with Charlotte’s aid. “It’s nothing to do with you. Not to worry.”
“Oh, I know that, Mama,” she answered, all confidence and assurance. “After all, Papa likes me, but he doesn’t much like you.”