With a new theory about the mystery is the puzzle finally reconstructed? (New Part 3)
What happened at Newlands Corner during the night of December 3–4, 1926? Agatha Christie’s car was found on the edge of a quarry, without its famous owner, vanished in the Surrey County. Misleading, false appearance, likelihood, with a new theory is the puzzle finally being reconstructed?
At 6:20 a.m. on Saturday, December 4, 1926, a certain McAllister helps a woman parked not far from Newlands Corner to restart her car. Is this woman Agatha Christie?
The probability that another woman, matching the description of the famous novelist, would have been in the vicinity of Agatha Christie’s Morris Cowley this morning, on December 4, 1926, seems low.
The reports in the newspapers at the time were inevitably a bit confusing. Biographer Laura Thompson writes* about the witness “This man was first named Ernest Cross, then Edward McAllister”.
And further on she writes “It was (…) almost as if they were two different men, since ‘Cross’ described the car radiator as ‘quite warm’ and square (…) while McAllister said it was stone cold. In every report, it is said that the woman (…) took to the road away from Newlands Corner.”
Nowhere does it appear to be indicated that McAllister noticed the make or model of the car. The man just specifies that it was a four-seater. He says “I saw a motor car with a woman standing at the back of the car.” Is the woman “sitting in the back” or “standing in the back of the car”, implying “watching out for someone”?
Andrew Norman** reports that, according to witness McAllister, the car is parked 300–400 metres from the junction of Trodds Lane and the A25, which is a kind of Y just before the famous tourist highlight of Newlands Corner. The witness stated that the front of the car was placed in the direction of Merrow, a village located east of Guilford. The direction is the one in which he was heading himself, since it is written that he was going to work in Merrow Lane, which is a little further north. McAllister also said that after starting this woman’s car, she drove the car very slowly down the hill (Trodds Lane) to the village of Merrow, away from Newlands Corner.
For Andrew Norman “If it were the abandoned car (the car that in this case would be abandoned after the accident Ed.) the woman had to turn around and climb the hill behind him.”
This scene is strange to say the least. Let’s imagine this woman sitting in her car. It is 6:20 in the morning in December. It is dark and cold. What would have become of her if McAllister hadn’t cycled that morning? Would have she stayed there waiting for another person to pass by? How could she hail another car from inside hers? And if she was standing outside the car in the dark and cold, how long had she been there?
Did Agatha Christie determine her entire accident and disappearance strategy by the presence and will of this McAllister?
In fact, if she had met another person later, the rest of the events would have gone differently. The account of this temporary disappearance at Newlands Corner showed an increase in the number of people wishing to walk around with daybreak.
Risky is an hypothesis scenario by which the novelist would have waited all night in her car in the cold, for the sole purpose of smashing it in the early morning, as discreetly as possible, by running down the other side of the hill. Even if she had previously turned back further into Trodds Lane.
As a result, the novelist’s car was probably crashed on Saturday, December 4 at approximately 5:00–5:30 a.m. The woman seen by the McAllister witness is probably Agatha Christie, but the car that was started is not her beloved Morris Cowley.
After that the direction taken by the mysterious car and its driver is that of Clandon and then presumably London.
Clues from the past
In Agatha Christie’s writings, substitutions, especially characters taking the place of another person, are not unusual. There are also homonymies, such as in The Case of the Missing Lady, a short story first published in the United Kingdom in October 1924 in The Sketch° magazine.
As a reminder, Agatha Christie bought her car, a Morris Cowley, in 1924.
In The Case of the Missing Lady, private detectives Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are looking for Hermione Leigh Gordon, the fiancée of one of their clients, Gabriel Stavansson. They go to the village of Maldon where the missing woman is supposed to be. On the spot, they find no trace of it. Tuppence then realizes that there are two villages of the same name, located in two different counties.
Two months after the publication of The Case of the Missing Lady in December 1924, the queen of crime fiction published another short story in The Grand Magazine. Entitled The Manhood of Edward Robinson, the story tells about a strange car error.
Like Agatha Christie, the hero bought an elegant car, thanks to the £500 he won in a contest. After a few trips, Edward Robinson stops somewhere to admire a landscape a little far from an area of car park.
From the side of the road, he takes a path to the viewpoint, enjoys the scenery, then returns to his car and, without really noticing it, takes a different path. It actually leads a little further, but close to a car identical to his own. Without paying attention, he gets in and drives away. Later dipping his hand into the glove compartment he will discover a diamond necklace and realize that he is driving the wrong car. Fortunately for him, there is also a little note with the necklace.
The London rendezvous
On the morning of Friday, December 3, 1926, after her argument with her husband, who had then left Styles’ house to join his mistress, Agatha Christie decided to take her Morris Cowley and leave for an unknown destination. However, she is back for lunch.
That day, Charlotte Fisher, the novelist’s secretary, governess and confidant, had taken her day off and was in London with her sister. She was supposed to come home late at night.
Before leaving around 10 p.m., Agatha Christie left her a letter in which she asked Charlotte Fisher to cancel a reservation for a weekend planned in Yorkshire and told her that she would let her know where she was going. But the purpose of the letter does not stop there. It is an expression of Agatha Christie’s feelings about her personal situation. The content goes well beyond instructions given to a secretary, such as a letter written to be read by people other than the recipient.
In London, lived a childhood friend of Agatha Christie, Nan Pollock, the sister of James Watts (her sister Madge’s husband). Nan Pollock had remarried a certain George Kon, who was also Archie’s friend*, with whom he played golf **.
Andrew Norman writes, “What close relationship did Agatha have with Nan Kon, who was almost two years his senior and whom she had known since childhood? Very close according to Agatha.”
After the difficult beginnings at the wheel of her Morris Cowley in 1924, Agatha Christie had since then travelled the English countryside on many occasions and knew how to drive with great ease in the streets of London. She also drove her husband’s car, a higher-end model, a Delage. “The Delage has given us both a lot of pleasure. I loved driving it, (…)” she says in her biography.
On the morning of Friday, the novelist could go to London to get a second car from her friend Nan for the following night and agree with her, and probably also with Charlotte Fisher, on the parking place for a substitution. She offers them the opportunity to participate to one of her riddles. Nan’s husband had left home that night. The car change orchestrated by Agatha Christie will take place near Newlands Corner. It was not possible to talk about this project through a telephone call.
Why Newlands Corner? Because this high and famous place was close to the famous and legendary pond of Silent Pool and Agatha Christie saw them both regularly, visiting her mother-in-law in Dorking. She knew them.
Judith, Nan Kon’s daughter, was ten years old at the time of the disappearance. According to biographer Laura Thompson, at the end of her life, Judith let some indications filter through. Laura Thompson writes* “On the morning of Friday the 3rd, she (Agatha Christie Ed.) went to London to visit Nan and discuss the plan, before returning to Styles for lunch.”
One can just as easily imagine that the heroine of this enigma, unsolved since 1926, solicited the help of her brother-in-law Campbell Christie that night and that the letter that was posted on Saturday morning, the 4th, was just a decoy only sent to him to give a change. Like in detective novels, isn’t Campbell Christie the least talked about character? In addition, he destroyed the letter posted in London after the Newlands Corner episode, to keep only the envelope with him.
The Newlands Corner mystery solved ?
Throwing an automobile at Newlands Corner from top hill in the middle of the night, freewheeling, seems difficult to achieve, hazardous, and unlikely. The idea of a descent behind the wheel, with the bumps, the limited lighting of the lamps, the risk to the tires, is more like a stunt for a movie. However, the car found was not badly damaged and its owner did not suffer the slightest physical injury.
What do we hear on the night of December 3–4, 1926, in the vicinity of Newlands Corner? Answer : silence of the English countryside in the winter already present. A silence that can be broken by the cry of a night bird or the barking of a dog on a remote farm. Or by a noisy car from the 1920s driving on the A25 at around midnight on the top of the hill. Laura Thompson* reports that a witness “also referred to a gypsy woman, (…) who said she heard a car moving around midnight on the top of Newlands Corner.”
On the evening of Friday, December 3 at around 9:45pm to 10pm, Agatha Christie travels to London or a planned location in South West London to meet the person who agreed to drive the second car and drive it ahead to Newlands Corner. The actors reach the main junction of Clandon and take the A25 towards Newlands Corner (Shere Road). Around, or probably before midnight the two cars arrived at the top of the hill, which caused an unusual noise on this freezing night.
The second car is parked in Trodds Lane, the front placed towards the village of Merrow. Agatha Christie then takes the other person back to London. They arrive around 1:00 in the morning. She can rest for a few hours, before leaving for Newlands Corner again.
Around 5:30 am, Agatha Christie arrives back in Newlands Corner. This time she continues to Albury. After about 1.3 km, she turns right, just before Silent Pool. Right into Water Lane, which at that time was a dirt path, and which, for the part along the quarry, still seems to be so nowadays. Then she drives to where her car was found. She directs it on her left towards a bush. Or she directs on her right if she preferred to turn further right onto the A248, and go a little further right into Water Lane.
Now, the distance to the second car is about 1.2 km. The path she takes to reach Newlands Corner on foot is uphill. Agatha Christie takes her briefcase with her but prefers to leave her fur coat in the Morris Cowley to be lighter and be able to move better around when walking.
Back at the top of Newlands Corner Hill, she turns left into Trodds Lane. She knows the second car is nearby. She saw it, approached it and finally sat in the back to rest for a while from her nocturnal adventure.
At 6:20 a.m., Edward McAllister restarts a car whose engine, too cold, could not be restarted by Agatha Christie. The novelist then moved away to Clandon and then to London, to return the car to its owner.
With this theory, the answer to the question “What would Agatha Christie have become if McAllister hadn’t stopped by at that time on her bike?” is obviously that she would have stayed in Trodds Lane waiting for another person to pass by. The time of his departure to London becomes relatively less important. Who could, on this side of the hill, establish a link between this woman whose car broke down towards Merrow and an abandoned Morris Cowley near Albury whose existence he is unaware of? The opposite is even more unlikely.
The possibility that the woman who broke down in Trodds Lane is not the novelist would only result in postponing the place where Agatha Christie joined the second car.
In any case, the hypothesis of a second car relegates the time of the “accident” to the background of history. Regardless of the time of day, the most important thing is that the protagonists have agreed on it.
Photo: Poster of a missing person from 9 December 1926. Released by the Berkshire County Police, in which Agatha Christie lived at the time of her disappearance.
* Laura Thompson — Agatha Christie An English Mystery — Google Books
** Andrew Norman — The Disappearing Novelist — Google Books
This is a Feb 21 edited version of a previously published article in French on sofb.fr then May 15, 2019 in English as a Part 4 on Medium.com, then edited 08/12/20.