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Stranger than fiction: the life of Agatha Christie

PUBLISHED: 17:39 03 October 2018

Liz Grand as Agatha Christie in Where is Mrs Christie?, at the Cut Arts Centre as part of the Halesworth Arts Festival.
Picture: Chris Jaeger/Worcester Rep

Liz Grand as Agatha Christie in Where is Mrs Christie?, at the Cut Arts Centre as part of the Halesworth Arts Festival. Picture: Chris Jaeger/Worcester Rep

Archant

She is known as the Queen of Crime and wrote an incredible 66 detective novels but in many ways the greatest mystery Agatha Christie ever created was a real-life one in which she was the central character.

Agatha Christie shunned publicity after her mysterious disappearance.
Picture: PAAgatha Christie shunned publicity after her mysterious disappearance. Picture: PA

In 1926 she went missing - presumed dead by many, perhaps murdered by her then husband - sparking one of the biggest and most extensive police hunts in history.

Her crashed car was discovered abandoned in Surrey and eleven days later she was recognised by someone in a luxury hotel in Harrogate, claiming she was suffering from amnesia and remembered nothing. Neither the press nor the police believed her, but she stuck to the story for the rest of her life.

The episode in many ways came to define her, causing this already shy woman to retreat further from public scrutiny so that she refused to allow her publishers to give publicity parties or print a current photograph of her in her books. She granted fewer than 10 interviews in her lifetime and then only to people who were certain never to ask about her private life or disappearance.

Did Agatha Christie lie and if so why? Was it a publicity stunt or was there a darker secret to her disappearance?

These are the questions actor Liz Grand will attempt to answer in her one-woman show, Where is Mrs Christie?, coming to the Cut Arts Centre, Halesworth on Thursday October 18, as part of the town’s annual arts festival.

Writer Chris Jaeger’s script is not so much ‘whodunnit’ as ‘whydunnit’, casting Christie as narrator, defendant and defence counsel and examining every aspect of her life and roles as author, mother, daughter, wife and celebrity.

“There’s lots of evidence that her story about amnesia wasn’t correct but she just carried on with the deception anyway,” says Liz. “For instance, it appears she didn’t go straight to the hotel in Harrogate as she spent time in London with a friend and she’d written a letter to her brother-in-law to tell him she was going to Yorkshire. She left a bit of a trail of evidence.”

At the heart of the Christie mystery, it seems, was Agatha’s relationship with her then husband Archie, who was having an affair and was treated as a suspect in her disappearance.

“Her motive was probably that she was trying to cause Archie a bit of trouble,” says Liz. “I don’t think she had any idea of how much trouble she was going to cause. They had a volatile relationship and were not ideally suited. He was having an affair and had told her he wanted a divorce. I think she was just trying to get him back on side but the mystery writer in her took over.”

Even in 1926, when media coverage wasn’t on the 24-hour touch-of-a-button cycle it is now, the story was a sensation.

“I think why the press turned against her was that while she might not have been able to foresee what would happen, when it became obvious it was getting out of control, she did nothing about it.

“Her reputation as a crime writer went into the stratosphere afterwards but as a person it affected her for the rest of her life. She became very reclusive and rarely talked to the press.”

Agatha and Archie divorced soon afterwards. He married his mistress and she married Egyptologist Max Mallowan, with whom she was much better suited.

“She was probably quite an arrogant person too and quite selfish in a lot of ways but also very insecure. In those days, in her social circle, for a man to have an affair was not particularly unusual but for a man to want to leave his wife was and divorce was almost unheard of. There would have been a feeling that if a man wanted a divorce, there must be something wrong with his wife. That affected her hugely.”

For all that, Liz hopes her audiences feel sympathy for her Christie and her situation, even if they don’t sympathise with her actions.

Agatha went on to revisit the theme surrounding her own disappearance in fiction, in Towards Zero, where someone is framed for murder as revenge.

“She was an absolutely fascinating woman in many ways,” says Liz. “She is someone who everyone has heard of and thinks they know because of her books and Poirot and Miss Marple, but actually they know very little about her at all.”

:: Where is Mrs Christie?, a play about Agatha’s lost 11 days, is at the Cut Arts Centre at 7.30pm on October 18 as part of Halesworth Arts Festival, which runs from October 13 to 28. The line-up also includes the Sacconi String Quartet, Ronnie Scott’s All-stars, poet Roger McGough and a unique James Bond night as well as a special exhibition of original works by Edward Lear, who was a fine landscape and wildlife painter as well as the author of nonsense poems (notably the Owl & the Pussycat). Several of his works have been loaned for the exhibition, which is presented in conjunction with the World Land Trust.

For tickets and information visit www.halesworthartsfestival.org.uk or call 01986 874264.

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