The Hollow

Agatha Christie's play The Hollow is a classic whodunit - a man finds himself trapped in a house with his wife, his mistress and a bitter ex-mistress. But few are aware that her own history was the stuff of her novels and plays, including a difficult marriage and a mysterious disappearance.

Feature by Yasmin Sulaiman | 17 Mar 2006
Agatha Christie always claimed that writing plays was "much more fun" than writing books, although her stage success has never matched the sales of her novels. Here is a writer who holds two formidable records: she is the author of the world's longest running play, The Mousetrap, which opened in 1952 and still shows no sign of closing, and her books are outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible. Born in Torquay in 1890, her writing career spanned over 50 years, witnessing both World Wars, over which time she wrote a total of 79 books and more than 12 plays.

Despite her vast contribution to the stage, The Mousetrap has always overshadowed Christie's other theatrical works. 2006 sees the resurrection of The Hollow, first performed in 1951, by the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, recently formed with the specific intention of reviving Christie's plays in regional theatres across the UK. The story is typical Agatha: a group of friends meet for a weekend holiday in the countryside, and Jon Cristow finds himself trapped in a house with his wife, his mistress and a bitter ex-mistress. Soon – surprise, surprise – someone is murdered. The story might sound tried and tested, and therefore distinctly unappealing; but rarely are Christie's mysteries tiresome. They combine conventional whodunit action with an absorbing lyrical style, her prose capturing both the glamour and bleakness of early twentieth century Britain.

But Agatha's success rate might have more to do with her personal life than previously imagined. In 1926, she disappeared under mysterious circumstances; by this time, she was already a well-established novelist, and her seventh novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was on the best-seller list. So, naturally, her sudden disappearance caused a national uproar in the press. A 15,000 strong search team failed to find her, but she was eventually located at a health spa in Yorkshire after a patient recognised her and notified the police.

It is an anticlimactic resolution, but the circumstances surrounding Christie's departure read almost exactly like one of her mysteries. That year, her mother had died and her husband, Archibald Christie, had just announced he was leaving her to marry Nancy Neale, a woman with whom he'd been conducting an open, indiscreet affair. Agatha had become depressed and nervous, and had written several muddled letters before vanishing: in one to the local police chief, she claimed to fear for her life, but in another to her brother-in-law she simply announced a holiday to Yorkshire, where she was eventually found. On the day of her disappearance she declared she was going for a drive and failed to return, the police only finding her car the next morning, abandoned several miles away from her Berkshire residence.

To this day it is unclear whether she was faking her own suicide, suffering from amnesia or constructing an elaborate publicity stunt. It has also been suggested that she was perhaps trying to frame her unfaithful husband for her murder: when he arrived at the health spa to identify her, Agatha simply exclaimed, "Fancy, my brother has just arrived!" Her vanishing act didn't change the fate of their marriage, though: the two were divorced in 1928, and she later married the archaeologist Max Mallowan, with whom she remained until her actual death in 1976. For the rest of her life she declined to comment on her disappearance, and would only grant interviews on the condition that she would not be questioned on the incident or her personal life in general.

However, her autobiography includes a small, oblique reference to the event: "I cranked and cranked and nothing happened. Finally, I burst into tears. That worried me. Crying because a car wouldn't start. Many years later, someone going through a period of unhappiness said to me, 'You know, I don't know what is the matter with me. I cry for nothing at all. The other day the laundry did not come and I cried. And the next day the car wouldn't start…' Something stirred in me then, and I said, 'I think you had better be careful; it is probably the beginning of a nervous breakdown.'" The allusion is slight but clear enough, helping to shed some important light on the greatest mystery in the life of the greatest mystery writer ever.

The Hollow finishes its run at King's Theatre, Edinburgh on March 4.