Wednesday, September 22, 2010


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.


Kathye Quick said...

Hi Lois -

Wish I had any idea how to write mysteries. Love to read them and am waiting anxiously for your series.

About your post - we all do strange things over the course of a lifetime, but those -- borderline genius or madness - you're call

Lois Winston said...

Thanks for stopping by, Kathye. The unsolved mystery is always the most compelling. I guess that's why people are fascinated with police cold cases. And because of that fascination, more and more are being solved years later.

Jill McCullough said...

hmm... copycat publicity stunt or cry for help? If the former, I'm glad Dame Agatha chose a hotel spa for her hide out instead of the Mexican desert. If the latter, I just want to give her a hug and offer some suggestions about how to deal with that philandering husband of hers. (Alas, my advice would obviously be too late).

Loved your MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS post too. My favorite was DEATH ON THE NILE. Love those dahabiyyas! ;-)

G.M. Malliet said...

I never understood Archie's behavior - he seems to have left Agatha because she didn't like golf as much as he did. Seriously. But I did understand how his defection sent Agatha off the rails. Like Jill, I'm glad she chose the spa. Good thinking.

Lois - I'm part of the great Agatha roundup over at B&N, too. My day is Sept. 30, and my topic is the "pilgrimage" my husband and I made to various Agatha haunts. Can't wait to read what you've written over there!

Keith Raffel said...

Lois, Of course, that "assumed name" Dame Agatha used was Teresa Neele. And her husband's mistress was Nancy Neele. What was she trying to say?

Lois Winston said...

I understand some people are having trouble finding the B&N post. Here's a direct link:

Thanks for stopping by, Jill!

G.M., I'd definitely go the spa route, too. I'll look forward to your post on the 30th.

Keith, I wonder, too.

G.M. Malliet said...

Keith - I always thought that Agatha's using Nancy's name - almost - was a hoot. Agatha was distraught but I've always thought she knew exactly what she was doing.

Especially when the police started looking at Archie very closely as a suspect.

Carol Grace said...

I knew about Agatha's disappearance, but not about Aimee. What a great story and SO mysterious. Thanks for sharing.

Darrell James said...

I *love* a good mystery! Thanks for sharing, Lois.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I've always been fascinated by that story about Agatha, but knew nothing about the other one. Thanks for sharing!

Lois Winston said...

Thanks, Carol, Darrell and Kathleen! I think I learned about Aimee Semple McPherson from watching a movie years ago, but I'm not even sure about that. As I was reading about Agatha for the B&N celebration, Aimee popped into my head. I suppose reading about Agatha's disappearance, which I'd also known about for years, triggered the other memory.

Keith Raffel said...

Lois, was it the Hallmark TV movie with Faye Dunaway as Aimee? Also with Miss Bette Davis.

Lois Winston said...

That could have been it, Keith.

Patg said...

Hi Lois,
I love all things Agatha, and love almost all her books. The Parker Pynes' are unfortunately not in favor. The ones I think of first are The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Third Girl and Funerals are Fatal. Then there is the glorious Death Comes At The End, set in ancient Egypt. And who could forget Ten Little Indians also called And Then There Were None, but does anyone remember what its very original title was? (not nice)

Thanks for the interesting info about Aimee.
By the way, the last book was Postern Of Faith.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, Lois, especially about Aimee. I also enjoyed your B&N post about Murder on the Orient Express. I LOVED that movie when it came out. Now you've got me wanting to see it again.

Lois Winston said...

Patg, are you going to leave us in suspense? What was the original title?

Pam, I rewatched MOTOE a few weeks ago. It was just as good the second time, even if I did know the ending going in this time around.

gbpackergirl76 said...

I love all things Agatha, and find Aimee Semple MacPherson fascinating after watching American Masters' Sister Aimee. I never thought of comparing their disappearances. Fascinating post! There's an episode of Doctor Who, Season 4, that features Agatha, explains her disappearance, and is very cleverly done!