The Disappearance of Agatha

I've been on a bit of an Agatha Christie binge lately, helped along by Masterpiece Theater and their fabulous renderings of some of the best Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries. Although she wrote more than just the Poirot and Marple series - did you know she wrote romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott? - Christie will always be known as the Queen of Mystery. She's also the most-read novelist of all time. We know so much about her as a novelist, but little is ever discussed about her personal life.

Of course this wasn't always the case. In 1926, the Queen of Mystery made headlines around the world when she herself disappeared. It was a Friday, December 23, when Agatha Christie kissed her daughter goodnight and left her home in Berkshire around 9:45 pm and drove away without explanation. Her abandoned car was later found near Guildford but without a trace of the author to be found. No clues. No ransom note. No sign of foul play. 

Christie was enjoying the soaring heights of success. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was her newest novel and was enjoying exceptional sales. As the days passed with no sign of the author, the country began to fear the worst. Police mobilized 15,000 volunteers to search the local area, including a local lake called the Silent Pool which Christie had used in one of her novels for a character's death. Suspicion also turned toward Christie's dashing WWI Airman husband, Colonel Archibald Christie (police even tapped his phone); suspicions perhaps not too unfounded, as it turned out.

For eleven days England feared the worst. Then, inexplicably, Christie was discovered safe and sound at a spa in Harrogate, signed in under the name of Theresa Neele (if you're keeping track of clues, this is one is important). If you're wondering what the hell? you're not alone. So was everyone else. Word on the street was that Christie was suffering from temporary amnesia, but really, no one was really talking, especially Christie herself.

What we do know:

1. The good Colonel Archibald was indeed playing hokey-pokey on the side. He had found himself a mistress by the name of Nancy Neele (ahem, note the name) and was, in fact, spending the very weekend of the disappearance cooped up in a love-nest with his mistress. Prior to Christie's disappearance that night, the Colonel had informed Agatha that despite twelve years of marriage and a child together, he had fallen in love with the good Ms. Neele and wanted a divorce.

2. Earlier in the year, Christie's mother, with whom she was quite close, had passed away. It had fallen to Christie to deal with the post-death arrangements as well as the closing up of her childhood home. Christie's husband, the Colonel, being otherwise occupied (see #1).

3. Christie wrote several confusing (or misdirecting?) letters just prior to her disappearance. One was to the local police constable stating that she feared for her life. Another was to her brother-in-law (Colonel Archie's brother) telling him she would be leaving on a spa vacation shortly. Indeed she would.

4. While the country was expecting the worst and all resources mobilized, Agatha placed an advertisement in the London Times stating that Mrs Theresea Neele was looking to get in touch with relatives and they could find her at the spa in Harrogate. It wasn't until her fellow guests at the spa began note the similarities between "Theresa Neele" and the missing Agatha Christie that the whole thing blew up. Colonel Christie drove down to the spa, scooped her up and that was that.

5. England was, needless to say, absolutely furious. Most people believed that the entire thing either was a staged publicity stunt set up by Christie's publisher to up the sales of her book, despite doctor's statements to the contrary or a personal vendetta by Christie herself to punish her wayward husband. The wasted resources and - most likely - the disappointment over a possible national tragedy turning into a simple spa visit inspired righteous indignation as only the English can produce. 

6. The official word from the Christie camp seemed to claim temporary amnesia brought on by stress, although incident was swept under the rug as quickly as possible and never officially spoken of by the author herself ever again. She and the Colonel never lived together again and their divorce became final in 1928. How she put her life back together is another story altogether.

The disappearance of Agatha Christie remained one of the most gossiped-about events of the early part of the 20th century. But for me, it is only a glimpse into what must have been one of the most excruciatingly painful periods of Christie's life. The death of her mother; a husband who was obviously crappy even before he requested a divorce. This was 1926 when the Colonel would have every right, despite his philandering and downright crappiness, to expect to obtain full custody of their daughter. While her writing may have been a success, her personal life was completely disintegrating. 

So did Christie suffer from temporary amnesia? Frankly, it's none of my business. I'm simply thankful that she made it through that period of her life and went on to find stability, happiness, and a typewriter. Because if she hadn't, the world would be a lesser place.

Oh, and one last thing. In 2013, a very valuable silver cigarette case came up for auction in London. It was fondly inscribed to a certain man from Mr. and Mrs. Christie in 1926. The man in question happened to be the person who blew the whistle on Agatha at Harrogate Spa all those years ago, alerting authorities as to where their missing author really was. Make of that what you will, super-sleuths.

Welcome to the Detection Club

I recently finished reading the new William Morrow edition of Agatha Christie's classic mystery novel After the Funeral. It goes without saying that there really cannot be too many editions of the Queen of Mystery's books and this particular Poirot whodunit remains one of her more satisfying efforts. After turning the last page, once again failing to name the culprit before the big reveal (yes, I used a detective's log and no it didn't work), I flipped back to the introduction I had skipped over in my haste to begin the story. (I have a horrible habit of skipping introductions. I don't want to hear what someone else thinks of a book before I even begin reading reading it. Spoilers lurk everywhere in introductions. It is a minefield to be avoided at all costs.)

This particular introduction was written by Sophie Hannah, the author who was chosen to pen the upcoming "Agatha Christie Mystery" The Monogram Murders. (If you harbor doubts about anyone else - regardless of talent - writing as Agatha Christie allow me to assure you that you're not alone. But that is a discussion for another day.) In her introduction Hannah muses that the kind of mysteries Christie wrote, "the ones with the high-concept, seemingly-impossible-yet-possible solutions, the ones that take your breath away," would not curry favor with contemporary readers whose "expectations of novels have changed." She notes that during Christie's time, readers simply expected an exciting story, while today's readers expect more realism. In some sub-genres, of course, this is true. She never explicitly says so (and I wondered if she knew it herself), but she is simply describing what is known as the different Schools of Mystery.

Agatha Christie belonged to what is known as The Golden Age of the British Detective Novel which flourished between the 1920s and the 1930s (also called Puzzle-Plots). Cleverness was the name of the game and outwitting the reader was the goal. Grisly violence, social or political commentary, and descriptive sex was all off limits because it was untidy and couldn't be resolved with a return to nice, neat British social order by the end. Our cousins across the pond do love things nice and tidy...little wonder I harbor such an affinity for them. 

Agatha Christie
And who can blame the public for making these novels bestsellers? The 1920s saw Europe in tatters. World War I had just ended and everyone was still questioning the death, the carnage. For what? Order - not just social order - had been destroyed. The Lost Generation was groping it's way through the arts.  Fascism was rising across the Continent. The average reader lacked an anchor...stability. The British detective novels were, if not quite solvable for the average reader, predictable in format. They provided a safe feeling that order would be restored by the end of the novel.

In 1928 a group of authors gathered together to form a club (a club which is still, by the way, still in existence today). They called it the Detection Club. The first President was C.K. Chesterton. Founding members: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Miles Burton/John Rhode, Father Ronald Knox, and Freeman Wills Croft. Members of the club agreed to rigidly adhere to the following ten rules as established by Knox:

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman may figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

1932 Detection Club Dinner
If the rules and format of a British Detective Novel from the Golden Age sound vaguely familiar to modern day readers, it might be because you still see their offspring in what we now refer to as cosy mysteries. I find it fascinating that the name of the sub-genre reflects the comfort that the original genre produced in it's audiences. I don't believe that to be coincidence.

The Puzzle-Plots that Agatha Christie wrote were only one of many Schools of Mystery that have made an appearance since Edgar Allan Poe first ushered in what would become an irresistible genre of reading. From hard-boiled detective fiction to locked-room mysteries; from police procedurals to psychological thrillers, the mystery genre has a variety of schools that are all worthy of study. I'm not entirely certain that they completely evolved from reader demands, but rather were simply a reflection of the times. While Sophie Hannah contends that modern day readers find Christie's plots not "plausible" enough to find commercial success, I would argue that the fact that William Morrow is publishing brand-new editions of Christie's novels refutes that argument entirely. 

Sunday Webcomics

So last week I was featured The Oatmeal, which is a stand-alone type comic. Another another form of webcomic - and this type might look more familiar to you in the guise of a graphic novel - is a dramatic series that has a long, continuing story with a recurring set of characters and a fully-formed plot line.

Needless to say, this type of webcomic has it's roots in the comic books days of old when superheros would take an entire comic book to defeat the nefarious evil-doers threatening to destroy mankind. If you look very close, the old comic books would actually run in a series themselves (hence why they were numbered) to tell the long story. In the case of webcomics they are usually serialized, appearing once per week on average (the website will tell you how often and what day they publish and of course you can subscribe to their feed). Once a story is complete, it is usually left archived for new readers to discover and/or available for purchase in graphic novel format.

One of the better examples of a webcomic with a long running storyline is FREAKANGELS, which appeared weekly between 2008 and 2011 to wild popular acclaim. A post-apocalyptic story written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Paul Duffield, FreakAngels ended it's run at 864 pages. Oh yes, you read right. 864 pages. And it's all still available and new fans are (binge) reading it every day.

Based off John Wyndham's 1957 science fiction novel The Midwich Cuckoos (later turned into the movie The Village of the Damned), FreakAngels imagines what might have happened if the creepy children featured in the original novel survived and lived to see a world destroyed by apocalyptic flooding.  

Recipient of the 2010 and 2012 "Favourite Web-Based Comic" Eagle Award, FreakAngels carried some serious clout in the world of webcomics and is worth checking out if you have any interest in apocalyptic fiction or in seeing where the bar has been set in the past.

So get comfy. Check it out.


I shouldn't have to tell you what this means. Stainless Steel Droppings. See you there.