Written by Andrew Wilson — It will soon be 100 years since Agatha Christie wrote her first crime novel, and her popularity remains undiminished around the world and indeed here on Crime Fiction Lover. We have reviewed one of her perennial favourites And Then There Were None, compiled a quiz about her work, and even presented a graphic novel based upon her life. But a book in which Agatha Christie is potentially a murderer? That is a new development for us!
It’s a well known fact that on the night of 3 December 1926, the much-loved English crime writer Agatha Christie went missing. Despite a nationwide search and much media furore, she was only found 11 days later at a hotel in Harrogate – The Swan, now home to an annual crime writing festival. The official explanation at the time was that she had suffered a nervous breakdown, coupled with temporary amnesia. The incident was not viewed at all kindly, with many condemning it as a publicity stunt. Christie herself never again mentioned those missing days in interviews or in her autobiography, but the generally accepted present-day theory is that she suffered from a fugue state, brought about by depression following her mother’s death and her husband’s infidelity, as well as overwork.
Andrew Wilson offers a very different version of events in this plausible but entirely fictional book, which marks the start of a series featuring Agatha Christie in the lead role. Wilson, better known for his biographies of Patricia Highsmith and Sylvia Plath, brings his customary love of detailed research and intellectual rigour to the novel. Yet he manages to infuse it with imagination, suspense and wit. This is no dry recital of facts, but an entertaining speculation based on real possibilities and great personal fondness for Agatha Christie’s work.
The story here goes that Agatha Christie is the victim of a diabolical plot invented by a certain Dr Kurs. The doctor wants to get rid of his wife, and is blackmailing Agatha to poison her, so that the evil deed cannot be traced back to him. Not only is he threatening to reveal the scandal of Agatha’s husband’s adultery, but he is also menacing the life of Christie’s beloved only child Rosalind. He has meticulously planned out Christie’s disappearance and gives her instructions along the way. Christie fears for the safety of her family and appears to go along with the plan, but she is deeply conflicted psychologically and comes up with a fiendish little plan of her own.
Unfortunately, this is not merely a civilised game of chess and there are real people who get hurt and even murdered in this elaborate charade. The story is therefore much darker than one might expect with a real-life character centre stage, whose biography is well-known to us. The first surprise upon reading this novel is that it isn’t the cosy little puzzle like a Golden Age story. Instead it focuses on psychological turmoil and the profound sadness of a marital breakdown. The second surprise is to see Agatha Christie as a young, attractive and active woman, since most pictures show her as a corpulent middle-aged matron in tweed.
Andrew Wilson is a keen Agatha Christie fan and there are little tributes to the Grand Dame of crime fiction scattered throughout the book, which you will have great fun in recognising. One of the ladies staying at the Harrogate hotel could be a role model for Miss Marple, the character Christie created shortly afterwards. The intrepid wannabe reporter Una Crowe has some similarities with another amateur detective, Tuppence Beresford. Christie’s familiarity with poisons provides a key plot point. In real life, although she had some basic apothecary training during World War I, her real expertise came a little later, when she worked in a pharmacy at University College London during World War II.
Books with real-life protagonists don’t always work, but they can be irresistible to fans. While Agatha Christie is not quite the blank canvas that Josephine Tey is for Nicola Upson, this promises to be the start of an entertaining series.
The Kindle version of this book is only 99p as we publish this review, so grab it while it’s hot. If you like the idea of a crime author becoming a character in crime fiction, check out these five books where famous writers are the detectives.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 4 Stars