By Ekta R. Garg
January 19, 2018
Release date: May 18, 2017
Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it! / 3.5 stars
In December of 1926, the best-selling mystery author of all time disappeared for about 11 days. Servants in Agatha Christie’s home saw her go upstairs to kiss her only daughter good night. No one knows when she slipped out of the house, but the fact remains she did. The fact that she drove away from her house in her own car was also realized and agreed upon later by those close to her and the case.
The question is, what happened next?
British author Andrew Wilson (a self-proclaimed avid fan of Christie’s work) tries to answer that question within the framework of the known facts in his newest novel, A Talent for Murder. The end pieces of that framework start with Christie’s disappearance and conclude with her being found less than two weeks later at a spa hotel hundreds of kilometers north of her home. How did she get there, when her car was found abandoned not long after she was reported missing?
More importantly, why did she go?
Biographers and Agatha Christie experts alike concluded that she suffered temporary but total amnesia brought on by her mother’s recent death and the discovery that her husband cheated on her. Her estate has always maintained the same answer: amnesia or a fugue state. Some people accused her of trying to punish her unfaithful husband. Others say she did it for publicity, although she may not have needed it. She’d already achieved writing success and was writing a new book when she disappeared.
Wilson posits a different scenario by taking into account what Christie wrote about in her books: murder.
A Talent for Murder opens with Agatha agonizing over her recent discovery of the infidelity of her husband, Archie. He’s been carrying on with Nancy Neele, a member of their social circle. The information rubs salt into the wound torn open by her mother’s death.
In her troubled state of mind, she finds it difficult to maintain any objectivity when she’s contacted by general practitioner Dr. Patrick Kurs who threatens to hurt her family’s reputation and do bodily harm to her daughter. Agatha assumes Kurs wants money, but he demands something more difficult: he wants Agatha to murder his wife, Flora, so he can take over Flora’s large estate. She tries to protest, but Kurs makes it a simple case of blackmail.
Agatha balks but caves to Kurs’ demands. He states that in order for her to carry out the murder so that no one is suspected, she must disappear from her home and allow herself to be taken to a hotel where she is to await instructions and the timeline for the murder. Despite her abhorrence of Kurs, she agrees. She slips out of her home on a cold December night after writing a series of vague letters, as per Kurs’ directives, to some of the people closest to her.
Her disappearance causes an international sensation, and Superintendent William Kenward launches an investigation that skews toward Archie Christie. Kenward has been on the police force enough years to know that in most disappearance cases, someone close to the victim is usually to blame. After learning of Archie’s relationship with Nancy Neele, Kenward becomes more convinced that the mystery writer has met a fate similar to the victims in her novels.
Una Crowe, daughter of British diplomat Sir Eyre Crowe, becomes enamored with Agatha’s story. Una wants become a writer herself, and on the recommendation of her close friend and British spy, John Davison, she starts to do some amateur sleuthing into Agatha’s disappearance. As she starts to poke around and ask questions, it whets her appetite for the life of a journalist.
Author Wilson brings all of these players together and blends fact with fiction—Superintendent William Kenward was, indeed, the one to lead the investigation, but Una Crowe (while a real person) seemingly had no connection to Agatha Christie. In effect, the entire book is Wilson playing that favorite game of writers, “What if…?”
The plot may feel a little too convenient in some places—after all, why, really, does Kurs need Agatha to disappear to commit a murder? Why not force her into it as soon as possible and just let her take the blame while he walks away with his wife’s money? Also, during her time at the spa hotel, Agatha is free to move around. She goes shopping and interacts with several people. Despite the fact that she uses an assumed name (a throwback to the facts when she was found at the hotel using a different name,) Agatha does nothing else to disguise herself. It’s a little bit of a stretch, then, that a woman as smart and insightful as her is content to just sit and wring her hands for more than a week until Kurs gives her the go ahead.
Wilson writes the Agatha portions of the story in first person, so readers get constant reminders that the main reason why she’s subjecting herself to Kurs’ awful plan is because of her own fragile psychological state. The choice of point of view is a smart one. Readers may be asked to stretch plausibility for a little bit, but Wilson writes Agatha as a sympathetic character. It’s hard not to agree with what she does within the confines of the story world Wilson builds.
Other fans of Christie’s work may disagree with Wilson’s conclusions, but for once it’s refreshing to see someone famous portrayed as a person in charge of their own decisions. Whether those decisions are good or bad is another discussion, but at least in Wilson’s world Agatha isn’t suffering from drug problems or even the amnestic state her estate and other biographers claim. She’s a person forced into a hard situation and does what she can to get out of it.
For those reasons, I recommend that Andrew Wilson’s A Talent for Murder Borders on Bookmarking it!