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REVIEW: 'The Christie Affair: A Novel'

Agatha Christie / Twitter
• March 27, 2022 4:59 am

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"Love can be a very frightening thing," one character says after a crime of passion in Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile. Detective Hercule Poirot agrees: "That is why most great love stories are tragedies."

Christie knew whereof she wrote. In 1926—the same year her beloved mother died—her husband, Archie Christie, told her he had fallen in love with another woman and asked for a divorce. Agatha, by then a known author but no literary superstar, reacted like a suspect in one of her books: She disappeared.

Newspapers documented every detail of the mysterious disappearance of a mystery writer. Politicians brought up the case in Parliament. Even the home secretary got involved. Eleven days later Christie was found at a hotel miles away. She gave no public explanation for the disappearance and did not mention the incident in her 1977 autobiography. Archie and Agatha received the divorce decree in 1928.

Solutions for the Christie mystery abound. A well-received 1979 film featured Vanessa Redgrave as Christie opposite Dustin Hoffman as a (fictional) reporter who saves her from suicide. Even Doctor Who got into the act, offering the theory that a run-in with a gigantic alien wasp caused Christie to lose her memory.

Nina de Gramont is the latest writer to adapt the story to fiction—or so her book's synopsis says. In reality, The Christie Affair has as little to do with the Christie affair as Doctor Who‘s extraterrestrial Hymenoptera do. De Gramont’s narrator is Archie's mistress, here called "Nan O'Dea," and her story, not Christie's, is the focus. She drives the plot, she is the most developed character (Archie, by contrast, is so stock that he could be in a Midsomer Murders episode), and she recounts long passages about her life that do not relate to Christie's disappearance.

One gets the odd impression that—despite the title and premise—de Gramont doesn't much like Agatha Christie. Reading The Great Gatsby, Nan says, "This … was the kind of book I would write if I were an author. Not detective stories." While a character does not always speak for her author, de Gramont also doesn't seem to know Christie's books that well.

Christie "wasn't interested in romances," Nan pronounces, "she placed them in her books because that was the fashion. She especially disliked romance in detective novels. It was a distraction."

That statement is true of some of Christie's mystery-writing contemporaries; a reader isn't going to find much romance in early Ellery Queen or vintage S.S. Van Dine. But it's just plain false for Christie, whose mysteries are full of romances, and who, under a pseudonym, wrote romance novels. Two of her best-reviewed mysteries, Death on the Nile and Five Little Pigs, turn on love affairs, with detailed characterizations that belie the much-repeated view that Christie wrote nothing but cold mystery puzzles, little more than essays in logic.

Christie's books have never deserved that "cold puzzle" label, which is usually claimed by people who haven't read the books. De Gramont, alas, seems uncritically to repeat that view of Christie—and of "Golden Age" (roughly 1920s to 1950s) mysteries in general. True, de Gramont names some of her characters after Christie's, and her attempted mystery plot—which comes off for much of the book as tangential—pays tribute to a Christie book.

But that's exactly the point: The Christie references come off as cutesy, even cloying, as if de Gramont's entire Christie knowledge is based on riffling through Peril at End House and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and picking out names.

De Gramont's book has so little to do with the Christie disappearance, in fact, that I kept wondering why she chose this premise. I usually have no problem with fiction that uses a real-life incident as a springboard, but when the real-life incident doesn't matter to the fiction I have to wonder why the author bothered.

The only reason I can think of is that Christie's name still sells. The Christie Affair does not need to be about Agatha Christie or any mystery writer. What matters is Nan's story—growing up in Ireland, finding love at a young age, facing abuse at a convent for unwed mothers. I was genuinely interested in Nan's story, which seems to spark de Gramont's imagination and inspire her best phrases.

But then de Gramont feels the need to return to the mystery suggested by her title. De Gramont is no F. Scott Fitzgerald, but if she wanted to write "literary" fiction I wonder why she didn't. Almost all of the writers whose blurbs for The Christie Affair appear on the back cover do not write mystery fiction. Most write historical literary fiction, and that is what The Christie Affair should have been.

Uniting the mystery story and the literary novel, as de Gramont tries to do here, is hard. The writer at once has to provide the characterization and thematic depth of the novel and trick the reader while providing the reader with enough clues to figure out the trick. But it can be done. And one of the first authors to do it was Agatha Christie, perhaps inspired by her volunteer work in both world wars, her genuine interest in humanity, and her personal heartbreak.

That personal heartbreak also probably explains the real-life mystery of Agatha Christie. She was already reeling from her mother's death when Archie sprang his divorce announcement on her. Is it any wonder she "disappeared" from the world she knew, from the husband she loved who didn't love her?

In the end, though, heartbreak seems to have taught the real Agatha Christie a better lesson than it did the fictional Nan O'Dea. After Christie depicts the frights of love in Death on the Nile, she ends with a different pair of lovers, who believe that "it is not the past that matters but the future."

As Hercule Poirot might say: Exactement.

The Christie Affair: A Novel
by Nina de Gramont
St. Martin’s Press, 320 pp., $27.99

Published under: Book reviews