Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Agatha's Greatest Mystery Happened Here

Last week was an exciting one for those who love the “traditional” mystery. First of all, it was announced that Dame Agatha Christie’s English holiday home, Greenway, is now open to the public. Secondly, nominations were announced for the “Agatha” awards, which are given to best traditional mysteries. G.M. Malliet’s Death of a Cozy Writer and my Paper, Scissors, Death are both up for Best First Novel.
Dame Agatha Christie is universally recognized as the Queen of the Mystery, and the foremost writer of “traditional” mysteries, sometimes called “cozies.” (Although some take umbrage at that moniker.) The “traditional” mystery adheres to these criteria:

* It shuns gratuitous violence and sex.
* The protagonist is an amateur sleuth.
* The setting is a village or a tightly knit community.
* The story should be “fair play,” which means readers have a fighting chance of figuring out “whodunit.”

This last point seems rather odd when you consider that in real life the greatest mystery of Dame Agatha’s life was never solved, and obviously did NOT adhere to standards of fair play.
On December 3, 1926, Archie Christie quarreled with his wife Agatha in their home Scotswood, on Devenish Avenue in Sunningdale, Berkshire. He announced to her that he wanted a divorce and that he planned to spend the weekend with his lover. That same evening Agatha herself mysteriously disappeared for eleven days. She left behind a note that said she planned to go to Yorkshire BUT her fur coat and driving license were found by a “gypsy boy” at the edge of a quarry. The local police were convinced the great writer had been murdered. A public manhunt ensued. Ponds were dragged and the countryside was scoured. The press was flooded with “sightings” of the great author.

Eventually, Dame Agatha was discovered to have checked into The Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, under the name of Archie’s mistress, Mrs. Teresa Neele. There she had spent the past twelve days taking tea and getting beauty treatments. (And apparently purposefully or at least willfully avoiding reading the papers!)
Various stories have been suggested as explanations for the grand lady’s odd behavior. None are satisfactory. But anyone whose husband announces he has a mistress, he wants a divorce and he's off to spend the weekend with his doxie should probably be cut the proverbial slack, don’t you think?
So now, Greenway—the place where Dame Agatha spent many happy days--is open to the public. But Scotswood—the place where Dame Agatha acted out her own mystery-- is for sale. It has been turned into an apartment building. Scotswood is located about a block or so from Sainsbury. That’s the store I visited twice weekly to buy groceries during the year I lived in Sunningdale.
Yes, Dame Agatha (or her ghost) was my neighbor.


Keith Raffel said...

A fun movie with Vanessa Redgrave, Dustin Hoffman, and Timothy Dalton was made about Dame Agatha's disappearance. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078736/

G.M. Malliet said...

I thought it had to be unintentional that the Agathas were announced on the same day Greenway opened to the public, but I loved the coincidence. I plan to visit Greenway this summer and will have many, many photos for the blog if so.

In Agatha's autobiography, she never really touches on what happened during her disappearance (nor, of course, was this very private woman obligated to tell us all). But her husband's timing of his demand for a divorce seems to have contributed to sending her into a fugue state...she had just finished burying her mother and closing up her childhood home by herself. If there was a little conscious revenge in her use of Teresa Neele's name to register at the hotel...well, as Joanna indicates, who would blame her for that?

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Thanks for the link, Keith.

G.M., her family supported the idea she had temporary amnesia, but let's face it--she did go where she said she was going, and still somehow she managed to set up good old Archie so he was thought to be her murderer. (Takes a bit of the glow off the weekend boffing his girlfriend, eh?) And in a way, Archie did murder her, I'm sure, because I bet he killed off a big hunk of her self-esteem.

Interesting enough, Teresa Neele's name would probably have been "lost" to history had Dame Agatha not fictionalized the woman in her alias.

jbstanley said...

Love this place! Let's all go in on it together. We could have such an awesome writer's retreat!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Hey, the exchange rate is awesome and so are the airfares to the UK. Even the hotel rooms in London are now reasonable.

Jess Lourey said...

Very mysterious and exciting post, Joanna! I've heard that story but not told so well.

So, why were you in Sunningdale? When was this? Were you a fan of Christie then?

You're so cosmopolitan!

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I've always loved this "mystery" about Dame Agatha. The only thing that would be better than using the mistress' name would be sending the bill for all her beauty treatments to her husband.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Jess, I lived in Sunningdale from 2001-2002, twelve months. I've been back about six times. I was always a Christie fan, but I never knew about Scotswood until this week. Believe it or not, that house has NO markers, at least not visible from the street, and no one ever said anything about its history. I decided to write about the opening of Greenway, and I knew Christie had left from Sunningdale, so I googled around, and when I saw the real estate advert for the house with the address, I nearly fell off my chair. I had to check out a map to be sure I wasn't dreaming. I distinctly recall having to almost get up on the curb there by the house because it's a half-a-block from a car dealership and the street was burgeoning with cars and I couldn't get through!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Sue Ann, remind me never to cross you, okay? What divine justice that would have been, socking old Teresa Neele with the bill!

G.M. Malliet said...

I wish someone would move to protect this house. They demolished Ashfield, where Agatha was born, which is *really* a crime. Worse, they put up a not-very-attractive housing development in its place.

canada mystery series said...

I've always loved this "mystery".I've heard that story.We could have such an awesome writer's retreat.. :)

Rusty Warner said...

Sorry to disappoint, but I'm afraid this article is a bit inaccurate. I am fortunate enough to live in one of the 7 flats at Scotswood, which is indeed a beautiful property. Agatha Christie lived here in the 1920s in 1 of the 4 flats of that time. Her mother lived in one of the other flats. However, the Christie's moved from Scotswood when they bought Styles, which is the house around the corner from the car dealership and close by the grocery store, which is Waitrose (not Sainsbury's). The house was not called Styles until after they bought it, as they named it for her first successful book. It was from Styles that Agatha disappeared to Harrogate. I believe Styles is also now a collection of flats instead of a single house. Scotswood itself now has 2 flats for sale, and the house has not been a single residence since 1919.

Rusty Warner said...

Oh, and the picture is definitely Scotswood, which is where I live. We are about 1 mile from the station in Sunningdale. Styles is much closer to both the station and Sunningdale Golf Club, and the house is built in a similar style with red brick, white stucco and black timber, though I couldn't find a picture. Any further queries, please feel free to write to rusty.warner@live.co.uk.

Anonymous said...

Rusty, thanks for your information about the difference between Scotswood and Styles. I'm interested in the exact address of Styles. Is it Charters Road? And what is the house number? Hope to hear.

Peter Erdbrink

Anonymous said...

Visit or stay at the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, which is an absolute delight. This is where Agatha stayed when she left her home after her husband broke the news of his affair. It is also where some of the scenes from the film, referred to by Keith, were also shot. Harrogate is also a great place to visit. The museum here mentions Agatha also. As an 'English' site, why are there so many Americanisms in these posts. We live in England, keep the English language English, unless the posts are from Americans. Agatha would be horrified by these Americanisms particularly when used by English people. Thanks