Tuesday, 6 June 2017
A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson
[Agatha Christie arrives at a hotel in Harrogate]
I walked through a covered portico and up towards the desk.
“Good evening, ma’am,” said the lady.
Next to her I felt very shabby and poorly dressed. I still wore the grey skirt, green jumper, and dark grey cardigan that I had on from the day before, as Kurs had given me no opportunity to buy any new garments. He had, however, given me a small attache case that had once belonged to his wife. Everything else, he said, could be purchased in Harrogate.
[She goes out to buy clothes, and finds a helpful shop assistant]
[The assistant said:] “Now, I’ve spotted a couple of other things, too, a rather gay dress with a pattern – don’t worry, it’s not too gaudy – a flower silk crepe dress, a lovely coat with a fur trim, and a nice salmon-pink evening gown. Should I bring them over?”
When I first saw the rather futuristic design – all red triangles, yellow squares and black oblongs I wanted to send the assistant away with it. But I was persuaded to try it on.
commentary: Maybe I just don’t get on with fictional sleuths based on real-life characters. In this case, the real-life character is the most famous crime writer of them all, Agatha Christie.
Several people I know really like this book, and it is certainly easy to read, well-written and entertaining. It sets out to use a crime plot as an explanation for the legendary disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926: it is not in any way a suggestion as to what actually happened – it is a story built on the framework of the known facts. It involves Christie in a dark and complex murder attempt, and leaves her at the end [spoiler: still alive] with the prospect of more investigations to come.
Wilson is obviously very knowledgeable about Christie, and many elements in the book are taken from her autobiography. He has also taken the known facts about her disappearance and tried to include as many as possible in his story.
An evil doctor has got hold of information about Christie, her husband and his mistress, and threatens her with exposure if she doesn’t do what he says. He gets more and more bonkers throughout the book – this is one element that was quite enjoyable in fact: if you’re going to be a villain you might as well be an outrageous one. But none of the plot makes sense. Nor does Christie’s reaction to it – dreading scandal is one thing, but agreeing to commit a murder to keep him quiet doesn’t add up. The two moral dilemmas don’t balance.
There is a story (which as far as I know has never been verified) that while staying in a Harrogate hotel under a false name, Christie danced and sang in the hotel ballroom very enthusiastically. This was reported at the time, but it was hearsay. Wilson incorporates it into his book: Christie has been forced to dance the Charleston, on her own, by an evil blackmailing villain who claims to be secretly watching her, and who says he will harm Christie’s daughter if she doesn’t undertake the dance in full view of a roomful of people.
I keep coming back to this scene in my head. When I first read it I wondered if this was some kind of joke or parody – as a plot device, as an event, it is completely ludicrous. Does it sound remotely real, or possible, to you? The description of the dance goes on and on. My mind was boggling.
Meanwhile, clever old Agatha (book character) is coming up with a scheme to get herself out of her difficult situation: she is going to pretend she has done the murder, but not actually do it. It is Shakespearean, and not in a good way, and here the story completely falls apart. It’s all very tense and scary, but it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever: and the worst thing about the plan is not even that it utilizes a special kind of poison unknown to anyone, very unreal-sounding, and undetectable. The issue is that it doesn’t solve the problem, it isn’t going to satisfy the doctor, it will be uncovered within a very short time, and leaves him completely available still to cause his scandal, harm Christie and her loved ones etc etc. It has no reality. If you are going to invent something out of nothing, why not invent something that actually sorts out the problem you are dealing with? A time machine, an early smartphone, a magic spell.
I kept wondering how the fictional Christie was paying for everything (without being tracked of course) – this is something Wilson might have tried to explain, but doesn’t.
There is a subplot featuring a young woman who is trying to track Christie. This again is based on a real person, and seems to me to be bordering on the tasteless. Christie might (might) be considered fair game, but this woman was not in the public eye: could he not just have invented someone to fill the role? To use her in the book seems unnecessary and rather horrible.
Wilson is not claiming to have solved a problem or to be offering anything new about Christie: he has just tried to incorporate as many real details as possible into a bizarre plot. I don’t really understand the point.
The photographs of Agatha Christie above are used with the kind permission of the Christie Archive Trust.
There are a huge number of entries on Agatha Christie on the blog (she is by far the most represented author) – you can find a list by clicking on the tab with her name on at the top of this page, or start investigating them via the label below at the end of the post.