The facts of the 10-day disappearance of the best-selling novelist of all time are inscrutable and fascinating. They beg for a novel as shocking and bamboozling as any written by Agatha Christie. Unfortunately, A Talent for Murder, the work of British novelist and biographer Andrew Wilson, isn’t quite it.
There is, however, much to appreciate, beginning with his inventive explanation for Agatha Christie’s temporary departure from her usual life. To recap the facts: between 4 and 14 December 1926, Agatha checked into a hotel in Harrogate as Mrs Teresa Neele, was seen dancing to ‘Yes! We Have No Bananas’, told a fellow guest that she had lost a baby daughter, and was eventually outed by a chambermaid, prompting the arrival at the hotel of her husband Archie, who Agatha introduced to another guest as her brother.
The official explanation was amnesia, and Agatha did not mention the episode in her autobiography. After the Christies divorced in 1928, Arthur married Nancy Neele.
Wilson conjures a befitting backstory, explaining the disappearance with a combination of blackmail and psychopathy. The fictional Agatha, in the early phase of her writing career and with the highly regarded The Murder of Roger Ackroyd under her belt, is miserable over the infidelity of Archie, with whom she shares a daughter.
A stranger at a train station, who introduces himself as Patrick Kurs, a GP from Rickmansworth, offers information about Archie and another woman, Nancy Neele. Kurs doesn’t want money but something more sinister – for Mrs Christie to orchestrate her own disappearance for the purpose of murdering his wife, Flora, whose Catholicism forbids her from granting him a divorce. Kurs is as cunning and wicked as a comic-book villain, laying out his encyclopaedic case to a speechless Agatha with a delectation that stops just short of moustache-twirling: “You may think you have a mind for murder, Mrs Christie, but you will soon find that you are not the only one.”
Why should she comply? If she doesn’t, the ugly story of her marriage will land in the press, and Agatha has lately become a public figure. Besides which, there is the appeal of even temporarily leaving her husband, “a supremely selfish being [who] hated feeling guilty just as much as he hated the thought of not being happy.”
The worst man present, Kurs, is Wilson’s invention, but Superintendent William Kenward of Surrey Police was the real investigator who entered the case with the discovery of Agatha’s abandoned car and succumbed to professional miscalculation. Similarly, the fate of young Una Crowe, portrayed by Wilson as a plucky amateur journalist, is a matter of (troublingly patchy) historical record.
A Talent for Murder opens on a heightened, anguished note and never settles: Agatha is at first distracted by an amorphous notion of danger and then overwhelmed by its reality. Every chapter offers a fresh peril, but there is a fly in the ointment of a major plot point: if Wilson adequately explained how a death could be faked and the requirements of an autopsy still satisfied, it escaped me.
Perhaps the novel’s best lesson is that women have come a long way since the Jazz Age. In piecing together the mystery of Agatha’s disappearance, Una Crowe calls herself a “complete novice, a beginner. Really very much a nobody.” If the women of A Talent for Murder have anything in common, it’s a propensity to underestimate themselves and cede far too much power to mediocre men.
Every week Stephanie reviews the Book of the Week.
As the Coast book reviewer, Stephanie Jones shares her thoughts each week on the latest releases.
Stephanie has a BA (Hons) in history and English literature, and a background in journalism, magazine publishing, public relations and corporate and consumer communications.
Stephanie is a contributor to the New Zealand Book Council’s ‘Talking Books’ podcast series (listen here), and a member of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel. She can be found on Twitter @ParsingThePage.