The Mystery of the Disappearing Agatha
By Loretta Proctor
‘Truth’ I observed, laying aside the ‘Daily Newsmonger’ is stranger than fiction!’
The remark was not perhaps an original one. It appeared to incense my friend. Tilting his egg-shaped head on one side, the little man carefully flicked and imaginary speck of dust from his carefully creased trousers and observed, ‘How profound! What a thinker is my friend Hastings!’
From: The King of Clubs
The mysterious affair at Styles
Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. What more exciting and mysterious drama, then, than the actual real-life disappearance of Agatha Christie, that great crime novelist, at 9:45 p.m. on the evening of 3 December 1926? Her car had been noticed the next morning, its headlamps probing the half-light of a rising dawn, perched on the edge of a chalk pit by Water Lane, near a little village named Aldbury in Surrey. A couple of early risers had passed the car by without much speculation, obviously bent on their own business and lacking curiosity. So it was not till Frederick Dore, a local car mechanic, spotted the abandoned car some time after 8.00 a.m. on 4 December that the police were notified and called to the scene.
The brakes were off, the gear was in neutral position, and it was evident that the car had been pushed down the hill by someone. Inside the car was a case with women’s clothing and a fur coat that had been left in the car despite the extreme cold temperature of the previous night. All deeply suspicious indeed. Agatha Christie’s husband, Colonel Archibald Christie, had been away for the weekend with friends, including a young lady, Nancy Neele, who was undoubtedly his mistress. Colonel Christie was called back to his home, Styles, to answer questions about the sudden disappearance of his wife. None too pleased to be dragged away he insisted that he had not seen his wife since Friday morning before leaving for work. On arriving at Styles, he discovered a letter left by Agatha on the hall table, full of accusations, anger and insinuations. Colonel Christie knew full well tht this was her way of trying to implicate him and revenge herself for his faithlessness and the fact that their marriage was breaking up, so he burnt the incriminating letter and told the secretary not to mention it to a soul.
A chart cast for the actual time of her leaving Styles on the 3rd December has Leo rising with Neptune conjunct the Ascendant, squaring the Moon, Mercury and Saturn in Scorpio in the fourth house. Her sudden leave-taking from home in her car, after kissing her sleeping child goodbye and placing Peter, the dog, whom she normally took with her everywhere, on the front mat, was secretive, strange, dramatic enough to make the servants sense something wrong. Then, it was as though she faded into a mysterious Neptunian fog. In a letter that she left for her secretary, she said ‘my head is bursting, I cannot stay in this house.’ Jupiter in Aquarius also squares the Moon in Scorpio in the fourth house and Mars in Taurus in the ninth house. This, added to the Neptunian transits, makes for a situation in which one is ready to burst, with a great desire to run away and be freed from intolerable pain and anguish.
A vengeful Venus
‘Yes, affection may turn to hate under the stimulus of jealousy…she would want an outcry…a scandal.’
- Hercule Poirot to Hastings: The Cornish Mystery
Agatha Christie was already a highly successful novelist: we have only to look at the Moon-Jupiter-Pluto-Neptune grand trine in her chart. The Pluto-Neptune conjunction in Gemini conjoins her Midheaven and is in her tenth house of fame and career. So, not much guessing what she would be famous for! Yet her chart also shows a very vulnerable Saturn conjunct her Ascendant in Virgo, which squared the Pluto-Neptune duo and the Gemini Midheaven, making her fame quite a restriction and a burden upon her. At the time of her disappearance she had been through a great deal of personal pain and loss, for her beloved mother had died shortly before the publication of one of her most famous books, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. With astonishing lack of sensitivity her husband, that dashing flying hero of the First World War, announced that he now loved Nancy Neele. All the abandonment and painful separation anxiety around that Saturn-Neptune-Pluto in her chart and in her life must have unhinged her ever-sensitive nervous system (she was a double Virgo, Gemini MC, and her Mercury ruler virtually unaspected except for a trine to the Lunar North Node in the tenth, another indication of her fate as a writer being ‘written’).
Agatha’s disappearance created an immense public reaction, far greater than anything she might have had expected herself. She was an intensely shy person as most Virgo people are, especially a double Virgo with Saturn on the Ascendant, plus a very secretive and in-drawn Venus in Scorpio. This Venus is a vengeful one, and the Moon-Mercury-Saturn in Scorpio aspects on the night she planned her dramatic journey surely fuelled this need to revenge herself. Her natal chart is that of an airy, highly logical, rational person. But Venus in Scorpio was her Achilles heel and her dark, inner secret. Archie was to feel the full weight of this obsessive love. He stood in danger of having his love affair revealed to the world, his business in ruins, his social standing in tatters, while losing the woman he now loved into the bargain. What sweet revenge for Agatha…better than cutting up ties any day!
On the fourth of December a letter arrived at the offices of Agatha’s brother-in-law that proved she was still alive at that point, and Archie knew instinctively that she was perfectly well and probably enjoying the scandal she was creating around him. When as astrologers we note that Jupiter was in Aquarius in the fifth house and squaring Venus in her natal chart and on the cusp of the Descendant of the chart for her disappearance, again in Aquarius and squaring Saturn, we too get the sense that it gave quite an enjoyable sense of power and freedom to someone who up to that point had felt powerless. Agatha put her wits and her genius into creating mysteries, and this was her true power as we see from that Pluto-Neptune on the Midheaven. And indeed this particular Christie drama was talked about everywhere, even in the States; everyone was gripped by this real life mystery, as good as anything Agatha’s fertile imagination could have devised! Even clairvoyants were ringing to help, and police and public never left the unhappy Archie alone. Arthur Conan Doyle gave her glove to a medium, who could find nothing about her. The medium, Horace Leaf, reported that the woman called Agath was alive and well, half dazed, half purposeful. She would be heard of by the next Wednesday. His predictions were pretty close.
The following Sunday, two bandsmen reported that they had seen a woman answering Agatha’s description in a hotel they had played in in Harrogate, a spa town in Yorkshire. Intriguingly, Agatha had taken the pseudonym of Mrs Teresa Neele, as if trying to assume the identity of Archie’s mistress in some way. She later used this surname for an Inspector in one of her Miss Marple novels. In a way, she seemed almost purposely to leave clues here and there which as in all good detective novels would lead to her whereabouts in the end. Archie went to the hotel with the police and sat in the foyer behind a newspaper in best melodramatic style, while the Press shivered outside in the cold night air. An atmosphere of unbearable tension was tangible as all awaited the appearance of ‘Mrs. Neele’ from her room upstairs. As the unwitting Agatha came sweeping down the staircase in a smart, new, salmon-coloured georgette evening dress it seemed obvious to everyone in the know that she was perfectly cheerful, enjoying her adventure, totally cool, calm and collected! After indicating to the Superintendent that this was indeed his wife, Archie made himself known, and although Agatha said nothing she accepted without any trouble his invitation to go to dinner. She gave the police the dubious explanation that she had left home in great confusion and had temporarily lost her memory, which had now come back to her. I suspect she might have worked out a better excuse for one of her books, but it was a story that she was never to deviate from all her life and she never made any mention of the disappearance in her memoirs. But there is no doubt that her nerves were in a very overwrought state on the night she left home, and modern research does now indicate that there are forms of amnesia that are like a kind of somnambulism. She may well have acted coolly and logically yet with some part of her mind switched off in order to escape the unbearable pressures she had been under.
Unfortunately this strange and unpleasant incident, a matter that should have been totally private between husband and wife, created the same sort of intense curiosity and feeding frenzy amongst the journalists then as film stars and public figures complain about nowadays. No one really believed the amnesia excuse; she lost many friends, and was to suffer the rest of her life from the fact that people would always recall this ten-day incident in her life more than they did her best novels! But as we have already seen, truth is infinitely more interesting and gripping than fiction and Agatha Christie was after all the queen of invention as well as crime!
Hercule Poirot and Miss Marples
‘Here is menace and murder and sudden death In these phials of green and blue!’
- Poem: In a dispensary 1924
Agatha Christie’s splendid powers of deduction and observation were rivalled only by those of Hercule Poirot himself. Yet her characters can at times tend to be slightly unreal by the standards of today’s fiction. The art of fleshing out character was not her forte; her stories use puzzles and mysteries to challenge the mind. Agatha is essentially an airy type, like her Poirot, but her Venus in Scorpio created all sort of scary unconscious undercurrents.
All her life she was haunted by strange dreams and nightmares. One of these was the gun man, an evil figure with haunting eyes who seemed connected with her beloved mother. Sensitive and highly imaginative, Agatha picked up the repressed frustration and shadowy, unexpressed darkness in her merry, vivid, charming mother (Pluto-Neptune conjunct Midheaven) and used it in her dreams, her writings, her fascination with mystery and the occult. In her titles, where the lawyer-turned-writer Erle Stanley Gardner always used the abstract and masculine word ‘case’, Agatha tended to use the more feminine term ‘mystery’. It is as if life was always a mystery to shy, secretive Agatha and she was always trying to solve it through her two inner characters, the figure of the foreign, clever, fastidious Hercule Poirot, a very Virgo-Libra type and the equally clever, gentle and kindly Virgo-Aquarian spinster, that lady of the parish, Miss Jane Marples.
The Poirot series starring David Suchet and the Miss Marples series with Joan Hickson are considered by fans to be the definitive portraits of Agatha’s most famous detectives.
The first Poirot mystery was screened on 8 January 1989 at 9:00 p.m. GMT on ITV and the Miss Marples series began on 26 December 1984 at 9:00 p.m. GMT on the BBC. Taking London as the place, we find that both these charts have Virgo rising; vehicles, therefore, for portraying the acute mental powers of Virgoan Agatha Christie!
Poirot was based on the Belgian refugees that Agatha met during World War One while serving in a hospital in Devon. She worked here as an assistant in the dispensary and drew on this hospital training for information about poisons and other medical matters (a nice mixture of Scorpio and Virgo: Agatha was fond of poisons as a means of death!) Poirot was supposed to be a retired Belgian police officer who spent his far from uneventful retirement solving cases almost intuitively. He was the original lateral thinker who flies in the face of orthodox reasoning and deduction. With his Virgoan ability to spot the minutest detail, sniff the scents, and note the subtle rather than the obvious, he is a brilliant Virgoan creation. Although he does not have the typical Virgoan modesty, for he is highly aware of his abilities and doesn’t mind saying so, he will often take the back seat and allow someone less capable to take the credit. His delight is in the mystery and puzzle for its own sake.
The pilot chart shows a strong Sun-Neptune, Saturn and Uranus in Capricorn with trines to Jupiter in Taurus. This Jupiter conjoins Suchet’s own natal Sun in Taurus…obviously a lucky part for him to play! He makes Poirot a sensible, calm, practical, reliable figure rather than the flashy, brilliant and dominating character that Peter Ustinov, who has Sun in Aries and Moon in Leo, made of it. One feels that small, Taurean David Suchet with his own strong emphasis in Libra is closer to the image Agatha had in mind. He is refined and elegant with a down-to-earth, detached, affectionate and charming manner, more akin to Agatha’s own natal Moon, Mercury and Uranus in Libra.
The series were beautifully researched, with delightful costumes and period houses and furnishings that were decidedly nostalgic. The use of ‘glass shots’ created scenes that would have been costly to film. For instance, a scene set in Istanbul had a ship in a harbour shot though glass on which were painted all the mosques and minarets of Istanbul to create the desired three-dimensional effect!
Some tea and a dead body, Vicar?Miss Marples made her debut in The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930. Miss Marples was another unusual creation at the time, as women investigators and puzzle solvers were pretty thin on the ground. But Agatha Christie liked to use a plucky heroine in her novels and often has a Libran duo, a man and woman team solving crimes together. However, Miss Marples is of a different calibre even by today’s standards. Not a flashy, glamorous person in a leather suit, full of karate kicks and toting guns. She is a dear, innocent-looking, little old lady who apparently enjoys a quiet life gardening, watching birds, and generally keeping an observant and detached eye on the ‘respectable’ neighbouring village folk of St Mary’s Mead—a forerunner of that infamous county of Midsomer where murder and family mayhem are the stuff of life…sorry, death. It is all very Middle England with tea at the vicarage; what the Americans call ‘cosy’ crime. Miss Marples’ ability to persistently and quietly confound the clever, patronising policemen with her simple observations and deductions is wonderful to behold. We have another Sun-Neptune conjunction in this pilot chart, but this time in Capricorn. Jupiter is also in this sign while Saturn and Pluto are in Scorpio. Another down-to-earth character, Miss Marples is not easily deflected or moved from her desire to ferret out the mystery any more than Hercule Poirot is. Interestingly, both these series also have the Moon in Aquarius. In Miss Marples’ pilot chart this Moon conjoins Venus, adding a touch of the feminine quality to her detached and observant nature. In the chart of Poirot, this Moon conjoins Mercury, the epitome of the famous ‘little grey cells’!
Joan Hickson, who played this part when in her seventies herself, has her natal Moon at the same degree as the pilot chart Moon for the Miss Marples series. This part brought her late fame, as she had been treading the boards as a well-known character actress for years. She was given an O.B.E by the Queen for this role, said to be an enormous favourite with the Royal Family. Joan died aged 92 years on 17 October1998. Her matter-of-fact rendering of dear Miss Marples will never be forgotten.
Coming full circle
The first book in which Agatha introduces Poirot is The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which as we know was the name of the home she shared with her first husband, Colonel Archibald Christie. This book was rejected several times before at last being published and going on to form the basis of many, many more books with the Belgian detective, his moustache, his cheerful, flirtatious but rather bemused friend Captain Hastings and all their amazing adventures in crime solving. However, like all crime writers, Agatha eventually tired of her creation and ran out of steam, and thus Poirot returns to Styles Court for his last case. He is now sick and enfeebled and calls on his faithful friend Captain Hastings to help him solve five apparently unconnected murders. There appears to be some kind of link between them, a person whom Poirot calls ‘X’. But before he can solve the cases, Poirot dies and Hastings is left to solve the murders himself. Inevitably these great genius puzzle solvers such as Poirot, Sherlock Holmes and other famous detectives of the era tend to have strange doubles, shadow figures such as Watson and Hastings, who act as detached narrators, observers and recorders of their own greatness. It takes the death of the more ‘ego-conscious’ figure to allow these shadowy but supportive figures to come into their own. The trend nowadays is to give the sidekick a more definite character, more intelligence, and a role other than as a mere foil for the other man’s greatness. The main detective is allowed to be more human and to experience moments of stupidity or failure. A more balanced effect in all. But maybe not so dramatic.
Perhaps the mysterious ‘X’, whom Poirot and Agatha Christie wanted so much to track down but failed to conquer is after all the common denominator we all know. In other words, Death itself.
Agatha Christie and the Missing Eleven Days by Peter Owen Jared Cade London 1998.
Agatha Christie: A Biography by Janet Morgan. Harper Collins. 1997.