Book review: The Christie Affair

Anna Galbraith 13 January 2022

A fresh take on Agatha Christie's perplexing disappearance is the focus of this gripping novel 

On Friday, December 3, 1926, the English crime writer Agatha Christie vanished from her home in Berkshire under the kind of bizarre circumstances you might expect to read in one of her novels.

The facts did not present much hope for a happy outcome: her car was found abandoned, driverless and submerged in bushes several miles from her home, the headlights left on and a suitcase and coat left in the back seat.

Close to the scene of the apparent accident was a natural spring known as the Silent Pool, where two young children were reputed to have died.

At this time in her career Christie was already a household name, and more than a thousand policemen were assigned to search for the missing author, along with hundreds of eager civilians. For the first time, aeroplanes were also involved in the hunt, and the story was headline news and tabloid fodder across the country.

Like any good mystery plot, Christie’s own disappearance had its own fair share of shady characters—namely, her husband, Archibald “Archie” Christie and his secretary (and mistress) Nancy Neale, who was just 25 at the time of the disappearance.

The reason for Agatha’s vanishing act has been hotly contested over the years. Suggestions ranged from a nervous breakdown brought on by the death of her mother and embarrassment of her husband’s affair, to a cynical publicity stunt to promote her upcoming book.

Despite being found safe and well residing in the ​​Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate after an 11-day search, the author never disclosed what had happened to her, and was diagnosed with amnesia and a possible concussion in the aftermath. Thus, the author’s greatest mystery plot is one we are unlikely to ever truly solve.

A collection of Agatha Christie novels

Fertile ground, then, for Nina de Gramont, whose book The Christie Affair offers up a remarkably plausible suggestion for what might have compelled Christie to take such drastic action, and the circumstances that led to her eventual discovery.

Our narrator is the fictional Nan O’Dea, Archie’s young mistress, whose past is full of secret tragedy, and whose motive for entangling herself with the Christies runs far deeper than any fleeting passion or a chance at scaling the social ladder.

Like any good unreliable narrator, Nan confesses that her account of Agatha’s days in hiding are speculative, but “as reliable an account as you can ever hope to receive”.

After all, she asks, “Don’t you know about events which pertain to you, but which you didn’t witness? Don’t you find yourself, sometimes, recounting them?” The trick, she reminds us, is to weave together what we know, what we’ve been told, and what we imagine—not unlike a detective piecing together a crime.

The result is a plot which jumps between the “present” days of the missing person investigation in 1926, and Nan’s own history—from her tough East End upbringing, her escape to the Irish countryside, and the heartbreak she endures in the aftermath of the Great War.

Over the course of the novel, we come to understand Nan’s purpose in setting her sights on the enigmatic novelist and her husband, and even rooting for our unlikely heroine as she sets out on her quest for justice.

Along the way, we are met with a series of unexpected twists and turns that Christie herself would be proud of, and a string of extraordinary cameos from some of the most prolific figures of the day.

Remarkably, Nina de Gramont did not need to delve into the imaginary world for these tidbits—the then Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks did put pressure on police to find the writer, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle really did seek the help of a clairvoyant to find Agatha using one of her gloves as a guide.

The real triumph of the novel is that it not only satisfies readers with a plausible and engaging theory of what might have happened during those 11 days, but also offers up a fascinating study of two complex women and their unlikely kinship, as Nan’s dark secret is unravelled.

There are no scarlet women or saintly wives to be found here—simply two remarkable individuals (and unlikely allies) navigating the tragedies of life in post-war England, with a healthy dose of whodunnit thrown in.

The novel is Mantle’s lead title for 2022, and film rights have already been sold to Miramax—an indication of Nina de Gramont’s masterful plotting, which is sure to translate beautifully to the screen.

As the January nights continue to close in early, and the grey skies show no sign of clearing just yet, there’s no better time to hunker down with this cosy murder mystery which packs a surprising emotional punch.

The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont is published on January 20 by Mantle, £16.99

Read more: My Britain: Harrogate

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