Who hasn’t heard of Agatha Christie, the English the stupendously commercial crime novelist, whose novels have sold over two billion copies (only surpassed by the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare)?
Here I am outside the Old Swan Hotel on a quiet street in Harrogate, Yorkshire and it was Dame Agatha Christie’s hiding place when she mysteriously disappeared for eleven days in a firestorm of publicity.
On Friday 3rd December 1926 the 36-year-old novelist was at Styles her home in Berkshire. Around 9.45pm she went upstairs to kiss her sleeping daughter Rosalind then drove off into the night. For 11 days the media buzzed with conjecture as to where she had gone – and why? She had written her sixth novel and established herself as an effective novelist and money wasn’t an issue as she had been born into a wealthy middle-class family.
The most common theories are that she crashed the car and had suffered some memory loss or she was trying to thwart her husband's plans to spend a weekend with his mistress (at a house near where she abandoned her car.) On the day she disappeared she had quarreled with her husband, a dazzling first World War fighter pilot, and he’d walked out saying he would be spending the weekend with his mistress.
Mystery deepened when her abandoned Morris Cowley car was found down a slope at Newlands Corner near a chalk pit near Guildford. There was no sign of her. She had just abandoned the car with the lights still on and she’d left behind a bag of clothes and an out-of-date driving license.
A thousand police officers and 15,000 volunteers joined in the search for her - some in biplanes in the sky and some with bloodhounds in the countryside. Lakes and streams were dredged. The home secretary William Joynson-Hicks pressurized the police to dig deeper and find her. A £100 reward was put up. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who was interested in the occult, took a discarded glove of Agatha’s to a medium. Novelist Dorothy L Sayers visited the scene of the disappearance (later using it in her novel Unnatural Death.)
All the time Agatha was ensconced here in The Old Swan Hotel (the “Swan Hydropathic” then) in a quiet street away from the centre of Harrogate under the name Mrs Teresa Neele (the surname of her husband's lover). She was living on cash hidden in a belt hidden upon her person. A musician noticed her and the police were summoned. She told them she had lost her memory and two doctors confirmed this. When she wrote her autobiography no mention was made of the mysterious eleven days she’d disappeared. The mystery remained so as Agatha didn’t ever publically talk about this odd episode. She was probably suffering from depression as her mother had died, her husband was no longer in love with her and she was over-worked. A 1979 a slightly far-fetched film called Agatha suggested the novelist was contemplating suicide in a way as to frame her husband’s mistress for murder.
In later years she found happiness with her marriage to a young archaeologist who she met on a trip to Mesopotamia.
As I was taking a few photos I spotted a familiar face on a man walking up to the hotel. Was it the broadcaster and journalist Mark Lawson? Blimey, I’ve watched so many of his “Mark Lawson Talks To…” programmes sat in the dark eating supper before heading up to bed. Being into books and films I’ve also been listening to him on Radio 4’s “Front Row” for about fifteen years.
“Are you Mark Lawson?” I asked rudely, not even prefaced with an “excuse me.”
Yes he was and we had a chat for a few minutes. A crime-writers festival had been held as the hotel that weekend and he was one of the interviewers peppering invited novelists with questions. I peppered him with questions on a bit of a high (couldn’t quite believe it was him.) He was open, friendly and chatty and didn’t mind me taking a photograph.
“Sorry to bug you,” I said after we said goodbye and he was walking away, “You must get it all the time.”
“It’s a pleasure,” he said. It had been for me.
The disappearance was big news…
Pointing to the tent. There’d been a crime-writer’s book festival held that weekend…
As the hotel looked then and now…
Hang on….I recognise that chap…
It was Mark Lawson from the television….