From its typical plots to the sophistication of its settings and characters, the entire murder mystery genre owes a tremendous debt to Agatha Christie. The prolific author and playwright is best known for the adventures of detectives Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, and her most popular tales like Death On The Nile and Murder On The Orient Express have received multiple film adaptations.
Unlike many great artists, she was recognized for her suspenseful novels in her time and saw some impressive commercial success. However, the strange and sad story of her disappearance illustrated that this didn't mean she felt like she was on top of the world.
The height of her fame
According to the U.K.'s National Archives, Agatha Christie was on a career-high by December 1926. She had just published her sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and introduced the world to Hercule Poirot two years prior.
And as The Guardian reported, her agent was clamoring for a follow-up to her latest novel, and she had just signed a new contract with publisher William Collins.
A run of good fortune
On top of these successes, The Guardian reported that Christie had also received a £500 advance for serial rights to a previous novel, The Man In The Brown Suit.
With that money, she bought a Morris Cowley car. And before long, it would be in all the newspapers for an unexpected reason.
Reasons not to be happy
She and her husband Archibald had also recently moved into a 12-bedroom estate they named Styles in Berkshire, England's Sunningdale village.
However, this home's opulence and size made it feel isolating and dispiriting for Christie, as her husband was often absent after they moved there. And as she would learn that year, Christie's marriage was in worse shape than she thought.
Archibald's secret revealed
According to the National Archives, the issues in their marriage had come to a head when Archibald confessed to Christie that he had been having an affair with a younger woman named Nancy Neele.
And he apparently felt strongly enough about his relationship with his mistress that he asked Christie for a divorce in August.
Making matters worse
While these tensions mounted, The Guardian reported that Christie was also stricken by grief in the wake of her beloved mother's passing.
And if she sought any help from Archibald in weathering this personal storm, she quickly discovered that he was less than sympathetic about this tragedy. He didn't even attend her mother's funeral.
She reached her limit
The National Archives outlined Christie's many marriage issues were the likely subject of an intense argument between her and Archibald that saw him leave Styles on December 3, 1926, to spend the weekend with friends.
The New York Times reported Christie kissed her daughter good night the following evening before she left the house carrying only an attaché case.
A sudden disappearance
Two days later, her car was discovered dangling over a chalk pit with its front wheels hanging over the edge. Given her notoriety, the story of her disappearance made international headlines.
The New York Times reported, "The car evidently had run away, and only a thick hedge growth prevented it from plunging into the pit."
A simple answer
After three days of searching, police paused their investigation after receiving a message from Christie's brother-in-law telling them she had sent him a letter.
The New York Times reported that this letter told the brother-in-law her whereabouts and that she had sought "rest and treatment" at a health spa in Yorkshire.
Police weren't satisfied
But while this letter seemed to settle the case, something about it seemed to bother police enough that they actually expanded their search.
They even brought one of Christie's dogs to the scene where her car was discovered in an attempt to track her scent. However, this failed as the dog apparently just "whined pitifully."
A morbid theory
As they searched a nearby pond with the ominous reputation as "The Silent Pond," police started to believe they were investigating a self-harm case.
Not helping that theory was a statement Christie reportedly made to her friend after she revealed that the dark loneliness and sordid reputation of Styles as a haunted house was getting to her. She said, "If I do not leave Sunningdale soon, Sunningdale will be the end of me."
The leads dry up
A week after her disappearance, the only further clues to Christie's fate were letters she had written Archibald, her brother-in-law, and her secretary.
However, the New York Times reported that both the brother-in-law and Archibald burned their letters, with Archibald outright refusing to reveal what Christie had written. As for the secretary's letter, it only contained ordinary scheduling details.
Police get desperate
With no clues to go on, police then asked members of the public to aid in their search. And given what a phenomenon Christie's disappearance had become, they eventually found that between 10,000 and 15,000 people were willing to lend a helping hand.
And they were assisted by enough dogs to populate a kennel, as "six trained bloodhounds, a crate load of Airedale terriers, many retrievers and Alsatian police dogs, and even the services of common mongrels" were enlisted in the search.
The tales get bigger in the telling
As the search continued, police and citizens alike started to develop some colorful theories. According to The New York Times, one instance saw police speculate that she had fled to London while disguised as a man.
A group of spiritualists also met at the chalk pit and held a seance that apparently led them to believe Christie had been murdered. They were wrong.
Archibald didn't help matters
The Guardian reported Archibald only added fuel to these fires of speculation by suggesting in an interview with The Daily Mail that Christie had intentionally disappeared. But while he had tried to frame this as an overt investment in her work, the interview only drew more suspicion to him as the cause for her disappearance.
He reportedly said, "It is absolutely untrue to suggest that there was anything in the nature of a row or a tiff between my wife and myself on Friday morning."
At long last, she was found
On December 15, Christie's location had finally been revealed as she was discovered at the Harrogate Hydro resort and health spa nine days after her disappearance.
In other words, if police had followed up on the letter in which she said she was at a Yorkshire spa, they would have found her significantly earlier because that's where Harrogate Hydro was located.
A surprise development
After she was found, Archibald told reporters, "She does not know who she is … she has suffered from the most complete loss of memory."
But while Christie's husband had lied about the argument they had before her disappearance, this part was true, and Christie would later describe herself as experiencing a fugue state after her car had crashed at the edge of the chalk pit.
She had remembered enough
In a detail that was likely embarrassing for Archibald, Christie had assumed the identity of "Teresa Neele" from South Africa when she checked into Harrogate Hydro. But while she had remembered the surname of her husband's mistress, she didn't seem to realize she was Christie during her stay.
According to The Guardian, she even read about her own disappearance during her stay and apparently found herself an elusive and uninteresting woman.
She enjoyed her stay
But regardless of who she thought she was, Christie reportedly enjoyed her stay at Harrogate Hydro and occupied her time with dancing, billiards, reading, and the company of a series of new friends she had made.
As she would later say, "As Mrs. Neele, I was very happy and contented."
A massive spectacle
But while it's unclear how much Christie remembered about her life when she reunited with Archibald, the negative association persisted because she reportedly greeted him with a "stony stare" when he picked her up at Harrogate Hydro.
When the couple was making their journey homeward at King's Cross Station in London, a crowd of hundreds gathered to try and catch a glimpse of them, it's hard to overstate what a cultural sensation Christie's disappearance was at the time.
What really happened
Although outlandish theories abounded for why Christie had disappeared, her later statements about the night she sped away from Styles confirmed the police's first, sad hunch.
The Guardian quoted her as saying, "I just wanted my life to end. All that night, I drove aimlessly about … In my mind, there was the vague idea of ending everything."
A close call
By the time she came to the chalk pit, she was essentially driving down familiar roads on autopilot.
Christie continued, "When I reached a point in the road which I thought was near the quarry I had seen in the afternoon, I turned the car off the road down the hill towards it. I left the wheel and let the car run. The car struck something with a jerk and pulled up suddenly. I was flung against the steering wheel, and my head hit something."
A request from the police
According to the National Archives, police approached Archibald after the mystery had been solved to request a monetary contribution. Since a task force had been assigned to search for his wife for days on end, their efforts had come at a significant cost.
However, Archibald refused them, saying that their operation "was entirely a police matter."
A sudden change
This brush with her mortality marked a sudden change in Christie. She said, "Up to this moment, I was Mrs Christie."
While that can refer to the fact that she adopted the identity of Teresa Neele soon after this incident, the events that followed suggested that this close call with the chalk pit marked an even more fundamental change in her life.
A delayed response
And while it took some time for the results of that change to be seen, they would become public about 15 months after Christie was found.
And according to The New York Times, that's because Christie sued Archibald for a divorce by March 17, 1928. It would be the start of a new chapter in her life.
Ultimately, they both wanted it
By that point, it was clear that Christie felt the need to make some major changes in what had become an unhappy life with Archibald in a house that disturbed her.
And as The New York Times reported, Archibald didn't contest the divorce. Considering he was the one who expressed his intention to part ways in the first place, his response wasn't exactly surprising.
An expected next step
It's also hard to imagine that anyone familiar with their relationship would be surprised by how things transpired in Archibald's love life after this divorce was finalized.
In other words, he would eventually get married to Nancy Neele. It's worth noting that Archibald's affair wasn't public knowledge at the time of Christie's disappearance.
Christie moved on as well
According to The New York Times, Christie would also remarry about two years after her divorce.
This time, it was to an archaeologist named Max Mallowan, who led significant digs throughout the Middle East. And throughout the decade that followed, Christie would find a marked difference between this relationship and the one she shared with Archibald.
Their marriage was built to last
While she often found herself stuck at Styles while Archibald was out, Christie regularly accompanied Mallowan on digs in Syria and Iraq.
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Christie found Mallowan's work intellectually stimulating and also found that the remote locations this work required would provide a much-need break from the pressures of her fame.
Her personal and professional life improved
As Christie grew more intimately familiar with archaeology, she started to incorporate it into her work. This was most famously expressed in the accurate way Hercule Poirot would compare his investigation to an archaeological excavation in Death On The Nile.
This marriage also appeared to leave her significantly happier than when she was with Archibald, as she stayed with Mallowan until her death in 1976.
She was just getting started
As an author, Christie was just as prolific and popular as she had been before, and according to the National Archives, she would publish at least 60 more novels and a vibrant collection of short stories before her passing.
Today, her legacy is iron-clad, and she remains the most popular author to write in the English language, having sold over a billion copies of her books.