Room 411 by Barbara Nadel

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Just back from İstanbul where I’ve been taking part in a documentary about Agatha Christie (more about this later but it will be screened on ITV1 in March next year). The İstanbul part of the documentary covered that part of Agatha’s life after her divorce from her first husband, Archie, when she went off alone to the Middle East to meet up with friends working on an archaeological dig in Iraq. On her way she passed through İstanbul, a place she would visit often after her marriage to her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930.

After that first visit, when Agatha stayed at a hotel called the Tokatlian (now sadly no more) she and Max always stayed at the Pera Palas Hotel in their favourite room, 411. I’ve stayed in 411 myself. The Pera Palas generously let me have the room last year when I was researching for the next İkmen book, ‘Deadline’ which will be out in January 2013. Inspired in part by Agatha Christie and her style of murder mystery ‘Deadline’ is a book which teams old world glamour with harsh new world realities – with Çetin İkmen right in the middle of it all.

But to return to Agatha and room 411… In 1979, three years after Agatha’s death, the Hollywood film studio, Warner Brothers decided to make a film about her famous eleven day disappearance in 1926. This was when in the wake of her mother’s death and the discovery of her husband Archie’s infidelity Agatha went missing for eleven days, eventually to be found in Harrogate using the name of her husband’s mistress. What she did in those eleven days and whether or not she was aware of what she was doing or not have been issues that people have speculated about for decades. Agatha herself never once alluded to that time. This, as can be imagined, made the task of producing a movie about this incident somewhat difficult. And so, in light of this paucity of information, Warner Brothers called in one of America’s most famous Mediums, Tamara Rand, to make ‘contact’ with Agatha on the ‘other side’.

And Agatha was very forthcoming when Rand ‘called’ her. Apparently the secret of her disappearance resided under the floorboards of Room 411 at the Pera Palas Hotel, İstanbul. Warner executives went immediately to İstanbul and watched with bated breath as the floorboards of 411 were lifted. A large rather rusty key was found which however, officially belonged to the Pera Palas hotel. The then manager of the hotel said that if Warners wanted to buy it, they could do so for $2,000.


So the Warner executives returned to the States and consulted with Rand again who told them that Agatha had told her that unless the key was put into her (Rand’s) hands no-one would ever know what had happened back in Harrogate in 1926. The executives thought hard. However back in İstanbul events took an unexpected turn when the Pera Palas staff went on strike. Furthermore it was a strike that lasted for over a year during which time Warners made their film (starring Vanessa Redgrave as Agatha) anyway making up what they could not know. Two million dollars passed the manager of the Pera Palas by and the key to this day languishes in the depths of an İstanbul bank vault. It is a story I have always felt was a suitably mysterious post-script to Agatha Christie’s life.

Reliving those times now it also struck me how bizarre it was that a vast company like Warner Brothers lent so much credence to the word of a woman who claimed to talk to the dead. I mean I know we all call Hollywood La La Land but even so…

But then were they behaving so oddly? On my way back home from Heathrow Airport I listened to a group of very excited women talking about an upcoming ‘psychic night’ they were going to attend at their local pub. He (the Medium) was apparently ‘spot on every time’. They weren’t taking the piss either, they meant it. This talking to the dead stuff is popular. Next time you’re watching TV have a flick through a selection of some of the more distant and obscure channels and you’ll see what I mean. Millions or so it seems, want the dead to provide answers they are very desperately seeking and while I won’t make any sort of judgement about that in itself, it does worry me that very often money changes hands during these transactions.

As for Agatha’s key? Well no-one has ever found out whether it was in fact hers or not. Maybe one day someone will. But I doubt very much whether that person will be a spirit Medium. Or will it?

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