The Who2 Blog

Book Review: ‘Duchess of Death’

“2 billion copies sold worldwide.

Affairs, betrayal, and heartbreak.

Novels translated into 105 languages.

A bizarre 11-day disappearance in 1926 that has never been explained.”

Bom-bommm!  So reads the breathless back cover of Duchess of Death, the nifty new biography of Agatha Christie by Richard Hack.

It’s the “bizarre 11-day disappearance” which interests us most. That’s the event which landed Christie beside Amelia Earhart in one of our oldest loops: Disappearing Acts.

The basic facts have always been known: Christie drove off from her home late one December night in 1926, shortly after her husband Archie announced that he wanted a divorce. (He had fallen in love with a family friend named Nancy Neele.) The next morning Christie’s car was found by country folk, next to a bog, abandoned, her driver’s license on the front seat, all of it looking very much like misadventure if not foul play. Christie herself was nowhere to be found.

The tabloids got wind of the story — famous mystery author is missing! — and soon the vanished Mrs. Christie was the talk of the British Isles as police dragged a lake, brought in dogs, and generally behaved like characters in an Agatha Christie novel.

They found nothing until 11 days later when Christie was spotted, bizarrely, registered under the name of Teresa Neele (zing!) in the Harrogate Hydropathic Hotel in Yorkshire. Her husband arrived and, chased by paparazzi, the Christies retreated to their home at Abney Hall and closed the gates.

The Christies wouldn’t talk, beyond a few vague statements about Agatha suffering from memory loss. Everyone else was left to wonder and speculate about mental distress, amnesia, marriage trouble, or whatever else seemed to fit the facts.

Agatha Christie refused to discuss her disappearance, at least publicly, for the rest of her life. Even in her autobiography, Hack notes, Christie ignored the whole incident. She “waved it away like one would a pesky mosquito: ‘The next year of my life is one I hate recalling… There is no need to dwell on it,’ she wrote.”

Thus was born the Eternal Mystery of Agatha Christie. It’s hard to know whether Christie kept the secret all those years out of genuine pain, a desire to jab her ex-husband, or an inbred sense of drama. The old storyteller knew a good hook when she saw one.

Eternal the mystery may be, but Hack has a full explanation for it. He tracks Christie pretty much step by step from the time she drove off to the time she was spotted by employees of the Harrogate spa.

It turns out that Christie actually tried to alert her husband to her whereabouts from the start. The night she disappeared she seems to have ditched her car, caught a train to London, and then mailed a letter to her brother-in-law there, asking him to tell Archie where he could find her. As Hack tells it, Christie thought that Archie would see the error of his ways and come rushing to Harrogate.

Only one problem: the brother-in-law promptly lost the letter. And Archie, had he received the message, was in no mood to chase after a wife he was planning to divorce.

By the time this all dawned on Christie, she was at the center of a national missing persons case. So, shifting tactics, she used her sudden notoriety to make sure all England got the point that her husband had been fooling around (“Teresa Neele” indeed) while at the same time smartly keeping a mysterious silence. She and Archie were divorced the next year.

The incident is only one part of Duchess of Death. The book is full of good meaty detail on Christie’s life and works — and on her younger second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, whom she met at a dig in Iraq.

Christie robbed the cradle:

On the marriage license, Agatha gave her age as thirty-seven, instead of forty; Max gave his age as thirty-one, rather than twenty-six. The age on Agatha’s passport was aso changed to agree with the document, and remained incorrect for the rest of her life.

Hack is also full of hearty respect for Christie’s amazing capacity to crank out the books — the “sausage machine,” she called it with some exasperation when pressed by publishers to keep ’em coming.

Hack has the final tally:

Thirty-three years after her death, all of her books remain in print — eighty-four novels and compilations of short stories, six additional novels written as Mary Westmacott, her two autobiographies, and three books of poetry. She wrote 157 short stories and had her name over the title of nineteen plays.

And, of course, those two billion copies sold.

Despite all that, Christie herself seems to have slipped out of the public consciousness, becoming a reliable old brand name like Ivory soap or Campbell’s Soup (and without an Andy Warhol portrait to jazz her up). Duchess of Death does a nice job of bringing Christie back.

Now if only Mr. Hack would tackle the Earhart case.

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