THE PROBLEM OF 1926: When Authors Become Characters

“I coulda been a contender . . . “

How many times have you asked yourself, “Why did Brad choose not to be famous?” Don’t worry – I get this all the time, but the answer is simple: had I chosen a life of celebrity, it wouldn’t have been long before the books and movies about my life appeared and the skeletons came pouring out of my closet. And you know what? It’s nobody’s business that in the first grade I hid that vaccination notice from my parents, that I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was thirty, or that I once threw a hacky sack at a student. (He threw it first. And I missed.)

The truth is, most of us are not plagued by scandal and therefore not worthy of fame. That sounds pretty cynical, Bradley, I hear you say! Plenty of folks have gained fame without a whiff of dirty laundry. What about Arnold Cohen, the inventor of the modern American bidet? No scandal there. Or Elbridge Gerry who piled up several milestones in his seventy years. He signed the Declaration of Independence. He invented gerrymandering. He messed up the XYZ Affair by mishandling negotiations with the French. He was the second U.S. vice president (under James Monroe) to die in office . . . 

Whoa! Why is there no book about Elbridge Gerry???

Agatha Christie didn’t want any books to be written about her. She had written a short memoir about her travels with Max in 1946 and considered that sufficient self-revelation. Anything else people wanted to know could be gleaned from her fiction, as far as she was concerned. By the time she was sixty, however, the requests to approve a biography of her life were pouring in, and after multiple refusals she set out to write a series of short memoirs that, like Come Tell Me How You Live, would allow Christie to control the narrative about what was revealed and how it was told. 

It didn’t work out that way. Christie wrote and wrote . . . and wrote . . . for fifteen years, and then she set her pen down and looked at what she had wrought. This was certainly longer than any other of her works, and it possibly pleased her for allowing her to dwell on (and romanticize) certain delights – her childhood, her mother, her travels – and for what it kept the curtain firmly drawn upon. She wrote a forward and an epilogue to provide some sort of context, and then she hid it all away. And it stayed hidden until nearly two years after her death, when it was published, with a certain amount of editing, as Agatha Christie: An Autobiography.

People are divided on this book. It oozes charm and frustrations on every page. It’s no surprise that Christie knew how to tell a story, and there are anecdotes galore that, I suppose, reveal something of the “inner woman” but mostly succeed at chronicling a fairly unorthodox Victorian upbringing and a mostly light-hearted and fairly modest assessment of a life well-lived by a successful author. 

I find the book infuriating for what it doesn’t tell. I want to make myself clear here: I’m frankly not interested in scandal but in the writer’s process. As we learned from John Curran, Christie had a process, and it was as charming and sometimes muddled as the Autobiography. It was also evidently none of our business, as least in Christie’s eyes. Maybe she herself found it uninteresting because she also never spoke about it except in the most general terms during her life. Maybe if she had allowed an outside biographer into her life, they could have focused on the creation of Poirot and Miss Marple, on the different books and plays and how they came about and what they meant and so on and so forth. 

But she couldn’t do that, could she? Because such plans would have hit a snag. Let’s call it The Problem of 1926. 

We all have crazy years. Hell, I think we all just shared a crazy year! But 1926 was a rough year for Agatha. It wasn’t all bad: she published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the book that would send her professional life in a whole new direction. But her personal life became a shambles, first with the death of her mother and then with her husband Archie’s abandonment of his wife at her lowest point. I think it’s safe to say that, viewed especially through a modern lens, it’s impossible to see this situation and find any sympathy for Archie. He was uncomfortable with his wife’s fame and with her grief, and he disapproved of her weight gain. He had found someone, pretty and complacent and as fond of golf as he was, and he wanted to make a change without fuss. Agatha’s emotional distress at his declaration of intent to divorce, her ardent pleas that, for the sake of their child, he should try to make their marriage work – all of this only served to annoy and then infuriate him. He stayed for a little while, and then things turned ugly, setting the stage for what some would call the biggest mystery of Agatha Christie’s life, The Problem of 1926.

Agatha herself could bemoan the intense speculation that surrounded her eleven-day disappearance that December. Before she was located at the Harrogate spa, the question was whether or not she was still alive. If alive, had she orchestrated her own disappearance or had she been abducted? If dead, was it suicide or murder?

Afterwards, the questions kept coming – was this a case of temporary amnesia or a publicity stunt? Had Agatha left out of fear of Archie or out of a desire for revenge? – and the answers were withheld . . . forever. For the rest of her life, Christie had a good run of circumventing that pivotal event; she sidestepped it completely in her Autobiography, upsetting a lot of readers, I’m sure. Ultimately, the disappearance adds allure to the life of a mystery author. If it hadn’t happened, would she still be history’s most successful crime writer?  I think that has more to do with talent, marketing and a constant presence on modern screens than on what happened for eleven days in December, ninety-five years ago. But, as the great philosopher Curly said to Larry and Moe, “Well . . . it couldn’t hoit!” 

Agatha’s car, abandoned by the Silent Pool, a favored spot for . . . suicide

The Christie family certainly did not set out to make capital of The Problem of 1926. The first time somebody tried to officially chronicle the situation after Christie’s death – and that would be journalist Kathleen Tynan, who set about to write a documentary for the BBC in 1979 – they fought the project. Instead of a documentary, the family was forced to endure a high-profile, star-studded film, Agatha, which proffered an ingenious if unlikely theory of what had sent Christie to that spa in Harrogate. 

Thus, the floodgates of nosy opinion were opened, but not much trickled out for many years. Several recent projects have tackled The Problem of 1926, and in doing so, have given us multiple chances to view Christie through the lens of a semi-fictional character in some other author’s work. In 2017, Andrew Wilson began a series of novels featuring Christie as both author and sleuth with A Talent for Murder. I have not read this book, but I imagine more went on during his version of the eleven days than taking the waters and playing billiards.

The following year, producers Emily and Tom Dalton commissioned a new script to answer the questions posed by The Problem of 1926. Agatha and the Truth of Murder is a total fantasy, suggesting that Christie skipped the spa entirely to devote her energies to finding  the killer of Florence Nightingale Shore, the (actual) goddaughter of her famous namesake, who was (yes, it really happened) murdered on a train. While the case was never solved, our fictional author/heroine/sleuth is successful, although a lot of blood is shed before she gathers the suspects together and reveals The Truth of Murder!!!!!!!. Along the way, there are many references to Christie plots and characters, and the whole thing is resolved in a satisfactory manner. I enjoyed the film and even wrote about it here. And now the Daltons have released two sequels, which finally crossed the ocean and appeared on my local PBS station. 

Both these films also have an historical context, one chronicling Agatha’s first meeting with her future second husband at the excavation of Ur and the other surrounding her decision during the 1940 blitz to write the last Hercule Poirot novel. And – wouldn’t you know? – during both of these pivotal moments, Agatha had to solve a series of baffling and bloody murders. 

More about these two films later. First, let us delve into the latest effort to solve The Problem of 1926.

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Marie Benedict writes novels of historical fiction with a specific purpose: “I love nothing more than to excavate an important, complex woman from history and bring her into the light of the present day or we can finally perceive the breath of her contributions as well as the insights she brings to modern-day issues.” Previous works have delved into the wives of Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill, Andrew Carnegie’s maid, and the sultry actress-turned-scientist Hedy Lamarr. In tackling Agatha Christie as her latest subject, Benedict admits that she was intimidated by Christie’s fame but that she felt compelled to write about the author after looking into The Problem of 1926: 

. . . when I started to research the circumstances in history around her 1926 disappearance, I had the uncanny sense that it played a key role in her journey to becoming the most successful writer in the world, and I felt compelled to explore that idea. One of the questions I like to explore in each of my books is how a woman at the story’s core transformed into the person who made such an extraordinary bequest, one that continues into modern times.

I won’t reveal entirely what she came up with, but it’s impossible to talk in any depth about the book that resulted from Benedict’s research without some spoilers, of her book and one of Christie’s most famous, so if you are at all concerned, you should skip to the next section. 

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie is something of a misnomer. It is barely a mystery, although it is written like one (actually, like a very particular mystery novel and not the one you might expect) and it does “solve” what happened in December of 1926 by choosing one of the options that I listed earlier and expanding upon it. I think it’s safe to say that it’s more a book for fans of novels about famous women than Christie fans. We know everything that Benedict has to say here and more, and nothing new or especially insightful comes out of this. 

What we do get is a novel divided into two narratives that are presented in alternate chapters. The first, titled “The Manuscript,” purports to be a first person account by Agatha Christie of her life with Archie, from the October night in 1912 when she met this dashing soldier at a neighbor’s ball and allowed him to tear up her dance card to the morning of December 3, 1926, when Archie stormed violently out of the breakfast room, intent on leaving his wife forever. This narrative is pretty much a “greatest hits” account of Christie’s life, most of which you can find in greater detail in her Autobiography (except for the Archie stuff, which is barely present in Christie’s words). In addition to their cute meeting, we get the parental objections to Christie choosing Archie over a safer, more suitable choice, the birth of Rosalind and the world tour, where Christie becomes the first female surfer. We get glimpses into her professional life, first as a WWI nurse and dispenser of poisons (where she meets the egomaniacal medical man who keeps a lump of curare in his pocket in order to feel the power of life and death in his hands); then her bet with Madge that leads to writing her first novel; then the second and third and fourth and fifth, all the way to the career-changing The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Even though this narrative proceeds chronologically, and we are treated to a version of Agatha’s inner torment as professional success is outweighed by Archie’s increasing coldness toward her, by little Rosalind’s seeming to side with her father, and by her fruitless attempts to right the wayward ship of her private life by working harder and giving her family more money and more houses and playing golf every weekend with Archie and abandoning her daughter for a year to travel with him . . . even though we get all of this, there’s a numbing sameness to each chapter. Events proceed, but Agatha remains gripped by this emotional malaise. She repeats over and over in her head her mother’s advice: “. . . a wife’s duty is to be with her husband, because her husband must come first, even before her children. If a wife leaves her husband alone for too long, she will lose him.“ 

I get what Benedict’s doing here. She has built a career writing about women who faced similar advice and had to figure out how to challenge or overcome it in order to get on with their lives and achieve the greatness for which they were destined. In the story of Agatha Christie, however, this bad advice, repeated ad nauseum in nearly every chapter, is also a tactic – a “clew,” if you will – as to what’s really going on here. 

The second narrative is told in the third person but basically resides in the head of Archie Christie as he lives through the eleven days of Christie’s disappearance. It is also shaped in cursory fashion as a mystery, for even though we all know that Agatha survived the disappearance, constant allusions are made to Archie’s secrets, and especially to a mysterious letter he found on the first day, read and destroyed. Even as the police circle in and hone on Archie as the most likely suspect, something about that letter holds him in its thrall and forces him to live out this nightmare.

The fact that the “nightmare” isn’t so much about Agatha’s disappearance as it is about its disruption of Archie’s routine and the imposition on his sense of decorum and need for privacy unearths the most telling solution of this novel: Archie was a dick. He pretty much keeps his head out of the fray as the search for his wife intensifies. Unfortunately for us, this means that each chapter of Archie’s narrative has the same numbing sameness as Agatha’s, just with different content. We experience endless scenes of the police and the servants inspiring moments of increasing paranoia in the mind of the lord of the house. We get tender thoughts of Nancy contrasted to furious thoughts about Agatha. 

Perhaps the most endearing moments we get are the scenes between Archie and Rosalind, who had a strong bond all their lives, and the heartfelt desire father seems to possess to protect his daughter from the madness ensuing outside their home. But this is not enough to excuse even a momentary forgiveness of Archie’s actions. Benedict shows no sympathy for Archie, and I don’t blame her. He deserves none for the way he handled himself. He was The Problem of 1926, and whatever happened during those eleven days, the truth is that Agatha eventually emerged a stronger and, I would imagine, happier woman without him. But Agatha was also big on decorum and privacy, and it’s hard to imagine that Benedict’s “solution” to what happened could have been the real one. Ultimately, I don’t think she provides insight into who Agatha really was so much as who Marie Benedict wishes Agatha had been. 

In the brief second part of the book, set in the spa and told by Agatha, we learn the truth of her disappearance, or at least Benedict’s version of it. I had pretty much accepted that The Mystery of Mrs. Christie was, in fact, not a mystery, when Benedict played her trump card and the whole thing fell into place: a novel told in two narratives, one a wife’s diary of events and the other her husband’s increasing sufferings as he becomes the focus of suspicion after she disappears? Well, I’ll be a gone girl! Benedict had ripped off Gillian Flynn. 

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The mystery of all those Agatha and . . . films is why they couldn’t settle on one actress to play the part. Agatha in The Truth of Murder looks like this – 

Frankly, I don’t see why Archie would be such a beast about this Agatha’s looks. Clearly, this was more a matter of professional jealousy. Then we have Agatha and the Curse of Ishtar, which finds our heroine newly divorced in 1928, looking like this – 

Well, she is two years older . . .

-and at a loss for what to do, both creatively and personally. As a writer, she longs to set aside classic crimes and write something more realistic. She’s savvy enough to know that mixing romance with detective won’t sit with fans of Poirot, but she is determined to branch out and tells her publishers that if they want the next book about the Belgian, they will have to publish another kind of book. The publishers give her two months to produce this book (which, if we’re trying to align the film with real life, would be Giants Bread, published in 1930.)

Agatha is also lonely as she tells her new friends Katharine and Leonard Woolley who have gathered at her home for the weekend. Katharine suggests that she is missing sex, but Agatha insists she wants romance. On a whim, the Woolleys invite Agatha to search for romance by visiting them at their archaeological dig at Ur, and then they proceed to go to bed and have the noisiest sex imaginable. Feeling desperate for inspiration, Agatha does journey to Ur, where she meets a young archaologist named Max Mallowan, who looks like this – 

Yup . . . . . . . . that’s Max . . . . . . . . . . .

and has just been shot in the head. She rushes him into town to a hospital, and thus her life is about to be changed forever.

Okay, let’s break down what we have so far: 

Agatha’s state of mind at the start of the movie seems consistent with real life; the Woolleys do not. Here, Katharine Woolley is oversexed, but there seems to be considerable evidence that she abhorred sex, was frigid, or simply did not engage with her husband. Considering she was the model upon which Christie based Louise Leidner, the victim of Murder in Mesopotamia, and considering the ludicrous state of affairs at the end of that title, and you can almost find an explanation if Woolley/Leidner is undersexed. Here, though, the Woolleys serve as comic relief, with Woolley going into extreme hysterics at each death (including that of her despised pet monkey) and the couple engaging in orgasmic paroxysm in their suite conveniently located next door to Agatha. 

Speaking of sex . . . take another look at that picture of “Max.” Yeah, let’s call him “Max.” It’s true that at their meeting, Christie was thirty-eight and Max twenty-four. Watching these two interact, especially when they shut themselves into the storage room for some steamy jiggery pokery, one can’t help – even if the idea of Agatha as horny seductress seems odd – but think, “you go, girl!” 

“Tell me more about this Miss Marple . . . . . . . . “

The downside of making the Woolleys figures of fun is that it seriously reduces the suspect list, even if the filmmakers had no intention of making murderers out of these real life folk. Most of the other suspects die, but even if you added ten others, the killer’s identity practically screams itself from the rooftops. It’s a pleasant way to spend ninety minutes, especially for the chance to see Agatha and Max like this – 

before they turned into this – 

Max Mallowan and his wife, Agatha Christie, in 1933. Mallowan was an archaeologist who began his apprenticeship in field archaeology with Leonard Wooley at Ur, then went on to make excavations for the British Museum at Arpachiyah near Nineveh. Agatha Christie was the English novelist and playwright, famed for characters such as Hercule Poirot.

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Max is only mentioned in passing in the third film, Agatha and the Midnight Murders. We jump twelve years to 1940, and London is in the middle of the Blitz. Mrs. Christie is in the thick of it, in constant physical danger and in the midst of a professional crisis that was, unfortunately for her, all too real. Between the Inland Revenue and America’s refusal to pay her royalties until she gets her financial act together, the most successful mystery writer in the world is desperate for money. So desperate that she writes a book where she kills off Hercule Poirot and decides to sell the manuscript to . . . well, honestly, I can’t be sure of who the guy is. He’s Asian, and he’s a fan, and maybe he’s in publishing or a crook or a businessman or . . . God, I honestly don’t know. 

The sad truth about this film is that it is a bloody mess. I mean that literally – people are stabbed in the eye, bleed out from gun wounds, and convulse from poison – and literature-ly, or whatever the word is that means “What were the screenwriters thinking???”

Part of the problem is that I honestly didn’t know who most of these characters were who were trapped in a hotel basement with Christie during an air raid. There’s the Asian guy who for some reason has the right to buy and publish one of Christie’s novels and who shows up with his beautiful translator and some weirdly accented bodyguard that they hired; there’s the young man whose name I know is Travis Pickford only because I looked it up on Wikipedia, who seems to have some sort of relationship to Christie that causes an emotional connection between them and who she has hired to be her bodyguard during this transaction; there’s a pair of lady tourists who are seriously underdeveloped as characters and then given a big ol’ secret; there’s the couple – he, older, looking like Kelsey Grammer, also with secrets, and she perhaps . . . his girlfriend? an escort??  Then there’s the bartender in the hotel lobby and a guy who might be his boss but speaks Italian and seems to be a gangster . . . 

Seriously, it’s the most garbled group of “suspects” I’ve ever seen. The clearest of them all is the young female constable who shows up at the sound of the air raid sirens and forces everyone into the basement. She’s clearly got problems.

Midnight Murders has a fake ending that happens waaaay too early and which I didn’t buy for a second. The real killer was clear to me from the first murder, and I’d like to say that’s due to my own cleverness (and it was pretty obvious where the poison came from!). So I wasn’t worried when another person seemed to confess and get shot down. Instead, I waited patiently until the real killer confessed and revealed a truly stupid motive for the carnage they had wrought. 

Oh, and in this movie, Agatha looked like this – 

Agatha Christie, Hot Fifty

The real Mrs. Christie, who would have been fifty during the events of this film and had struggled with her weight, might have been flattered at the physical casting – and then she would have either sued any contemporary producer who tried to make this tripe or she would have asked for enough money to be paid under the table in order to alleviate her troubles with the Inland Revenue Service. 

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And there you have it: one book and three films that want you to believe that they offer insight into the “real” Agatha Christie, at the same time as they cast her at the center of a series of mysteries that don’t may have varying degrees of cleverness but don’t come close to giving us what the author herself provided.  At the end of each film, a notice appears informing us that the Christie Estate and business did not give permission for these films, and I can only imagine how the notoriously private Christie would have felt about them. “Read my stories,” she might have said. “Read my poems. Read the Westmacotts. Read the memoirs if you must. That’s all you need to know.”

Let us respect her privacy by drawing the curtain on Christie the character and focusing our attentions on Christie’s characters. 

More about that soon.