sjhstrangetales

AGATHA CHRISTIE AND THE MYSTERY OF ROOM 411

Posted on: February 24, 2014

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Dame Agatha Christie, the Queen of crime fiction, and one of the most popular authors ever, was a lady who liked puzzles. And in her own life she left us one which endures still, nearly 90 years after it happened. In December 1926 Agatha staged her own disappearance. For nearly 2 weeks she vanished completely off the radar, in spite of a massive nationwide hunt for her. What happened to her during those 2 weeks has been tantalising people ever since. But I discovered recently there is an epilogue to the story.

In 1926 Agatha should have been riding high. Her first book ‘The Mysterious Affair At Styles’ had come out in 1920, and in the following few years she had worked hard, and was rapidly cementing a reputation for herself as a writer of intricate puzzles, often featuring her little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, one of the most likeable characters in crime fiction. Agatha was married to Archie, a good-lookimg charismatic man whom Agatha adored, and they had a little girl, Rosalind. But all wasn’t as rosy as it appeared on the surface. In the space of a few months Agatha suffered two massive personal blows. Firstly, her mother died. Agatha had had an intensely close relationship with her mother, and she felt the loss keenly. At around the same time Agatha found that her beloved Archie had been seeing another woman, his secretary, Nancy Neele, and he wanted a divorce so that he could marry her.

Both events were calamitous. She was losing the two people she loved most. In her autobiography Agatha hinted at a massive nervous breakdown, to the extent that when she went to sign a cheque one day she couldn’t even remember her own name. Some have been sceptical of this, but I’m not so sure. Extreme stress can cause such momentary glitches, can it cause someone to develop total amnesia though? I’ll leave that one to the doctors and psychologists to work out. Anyway, one chilly December night, whilst Archie was away at a country house party, Agatha packed a few belongings and drove off in her car. It was found abandoned in the early hours of the morning at the sinisterly-named Silent Pool*, at Newlands Corner in Surrey. There was no sign of Agatha. A massive police hunt was launched for the popular writer, and the case seized the public imagination.

For 10 days the press and the public were obsessed with Agatha’s whereabouts. There were sightings of a confused-looking woman ordering breakfast at a London railway station, but other than that the trail seemed to be completely cold. And then, there came reports of a woman who looked remarkably like Agatha, who was staying at a comfortable hotel in Harrogate, a spa town where people went to take the waters and iron out health problems. This lady had curiously signed in as Mrs Teresa Neele, and gave her home address as Cape Town, South Africa.

The police accompanied Archie Christie to Harrogate, and arranged for him to sit in one of the public rooms where Agatha would be sure to see him when she came down. When she appeared Agatha greeted her husband as “my dear brother”. She claimed to have no memory of who she was, or how she came to be at the hotel. Now that she had been found alive and well, the public turned on Agatha, citing the many hours of wasted police time and public expense that had been spent looking for her, whilst all the time she had been enjoying herself singing with a band and playing billiards at a hotel.

Agatha fled to her sister’s house in Cheshire, and flatly refused to ever talk about the Disappearance ever again. For the rest of her long life (she died in 1976, at the age of 86), she was wary about giving interviews, and only then on condition that the Disappearance was never mentioned. She was said to even have a mortal fear of appearing on the TV show ‘This Is Your Life’, because it was bound to be mentioned.

Archie and Agatha had a go at repairing their marriage, but it was a lost cause. They divorced. Archie married Nancy Neele, and they remained married until Nancy’s death in the 1950s. Agatha took herself off travelling, and met Max Mallowan, an archaeologist. They married, and stayed married until Agatha’s death. Agatha often accompanied Max on his archaeological digs in the Middle East, and the settings became a great inspiration for her work.

During a stay in room 411 at the Pera Palas Hotel, in Istanbul, in 1934 she wrote the celebrated ‘Murder On The Orient Express’, one of her most famous books. But that isn’t all room 411 is famous for. In the late 1970s a film was made about the Disappearance, based on a novel by Kathleen Tynan, called simply ‘Agatha’. The film is enjoyable, but mostly for Vanessa Redgrave’s performance as Agatha, and Timothy Dalton as Archie. The plot = less said the better.

Big motion pictures like their publicity gimmicks, and in 1979 the studio hired a medium, Tamara Rand, to stage a seance in Room 411. On 7 March journalists and hotel employees crammed into the room. Tamara meanwhile communicated with them via a phone link-up from the United States. Rand said she had a vision of Agatha arriving at the hotel, of her walking into the room and hiding a key under the floorboards. She said that the key would open Agatha’s diary, and that it contained the truth about the 1926 Disappearance.

To everyone’s excitement the key was indeed found under the floorboards, but the studio couldn’t agree to a price with the hotel for taking it out of Turkey. As far as I know, the key is still there at the hotel, and the mystery to Room 411 still remains unsolved.

* there is a ghostly legend attached to the Silent Pool. The story goes that many centuries ago a woodsman had two children, a boy and a girl, both renowned for their good looks. One day a wealthy traveller passing through the area saw a young woman – the woodsman’s daughter – bathing in the lake. Still on his horse, he stood on the girl’s clothes and ordered her to come out of the lake. The girl swam deeper into the waters, and called out for her brother to come to her rescue. The stranger rode off. The girl though had swum out of her depth. Her brother tried to rescue her, but they drowned together. The grief-stricken woodsman found a feather caught in a nearby tree, which had come from the wealthy stranger’s hat. He took the feather into town, and discovered that the hat belonged to Prince John, who was standing in for his brother King Richard I (known as the Lionheart), who was away abroad fighting the Crusades. John would of course eventually become the notorious King John, one of the most detested kings in English history (so much so that no other king since has been called John). Legend has it that the woodsman had his revenge by soliciting the sympathies of the local barons, who banded together to force John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. And the ghost? It is the young girl who drowned. She is still said to haunt the sinister Silent Pool.

John meanwhile was an inept king. He was so hopeless in fact that he even managed to lose the Crown Jewels in the Wash. When he died it was put out that it was caused by gorging on lampreys, a sort of eel or jawless fish. Though some have put forward that he may have been murdered by a mysterious monk. John was so unpopular that that could have been quite likely.

Agatha’s house ‘Styles’, which she and Archie were living in at the time of her disappearance, was also reputed to be very unlucky. A woman had been murdered in the grounds during World War One, and it seemed to generate an aura of unhappiness. Agatha had brought the house when her books became successful, and she named it after the house in her first book, ‘The Mysterious Affair At Styles’. Perhaps naming the gloomy pile after a murder location, albeit a fictional one, didn’t help to lighten it’s reputation.

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