September marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of Dame Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime fiction and creator of both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, as well as other memorable characters. Dame Agatha penned a total of 80 novels. According to the Guardian, an estimated billion copies of her books have been sold in English and another billion in 103 other languages. She published her first book, THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES, introducing Hercule Poirot, in 1920 at the age of 30 and her last book, POSTEM OF FATE, in 1973, three years prior to her death. An additional Poirot and Miss Marple, both written 40 years earlier, were published in 1975 and 1976 respectively. Dame Agatha’s play THE MOUSETRAP has been running continuously since it opened at the West End Theatre in London in 1952. Quite a career!
However, as much as I admire Christie as an author, I’m fascinated by an aspect of her life that has kept both professional and amateur sleuths guessing for years. At approximately 9:45pm Friday, December 3, 1926, Agatha Christie kissed her sleeping daughter, then drove off alone in her car. The car was later found abandoned with no sign of Christie. Some believed she’d drowned in a natural spring near the site where her car was found. Others thought the disappearance was a publicity stunt. Some clues pointed in the direction of murder, accusing her unfaithful husband.
Christie was eventually found eleven days after she disappeared, staying at a spa hotel and using an assumed name. Speculation ran the gamut of a head injury from a car accident or that she orchestrated the entire episode to thwart her husband’s plans to spend the weekend with his mistress. In 2006 Andrew Norman, a doctor and Christie biographer, suggested that she was in a fugue state brought about by trauma or depression.
Now here’s the amazing coincidence:
Nearly seven months earlier on May 18, 1926, another celebrity, Aimee Semple McPherson, went for a swim on a California beach and disappeared. McPherson was a Pentecostal evangelist, famous for using modern technology to spread her religious message. The Foursquare Gospel Church she founded is a movement with over two million members worldwide.
McPherson was first assumed drowned. Her mother preached the sermon she was supposed to deliver the evening of her disappearance and told congregants, “Sister is with Jesus.” Upton Sinclair wrote a poem to commemorate the tragedy. Parishioners held round-the-clock seaside vigils. Her disappearance sparked a media frenzy.
A month after she disappeared, her mother received a ransom note demanding a half million dollars and was told if she didn’t pay, Aimee would be sold into white slavery. Her mother thought the note was a hoax and threw it out. Shortly thereafter, Aimee stumbled out of the desert into a Mexican town. She claimed she’d been kidnapped, drugged, and tortured. Somehow she managed to escape her captors and walked for half a day through the desert.
However, Aimee’s story was full of holes. Speculation runs high that Aimee ran off with Kenneth Ormiston, her married lover. Witnesses came forth, claiming to have seen Aimee and Ormiston in Carmel, California during the time she was supposedly being held by kidnappers in Mexico. Other theories suggest she’d gone off to have an abortion or plastic surgery, or like Christie months later, had orchestrated the disappearance as a publicity stunt.
Christie and McPherson were born weeks apart in 1890. Their disappearances occurred months apart. Whether one influenced the other is something we’ll never know. Aimee Semple McPherson died in 1944. Agatha Christie died in 1976, their true life mysteries never solved.
If you’d like to read more about Agatha Christie, the Barnes & Noble Mystery Bookclub is celebrating her birthday all this month with posts by various mystery authors. Today I’m discussing how Murder on the Orient Express played a part in my decision to writer mysteries.