The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict
Originally published in 2021.
In December 1926, Agatha Christie goes missing. Investigators find her empty car on the edge of a deep, gloomy lake, the only clues some tire tracks nearby and a fur coat left in the car – strange for a frigid night. Her husband and daughter have no knowledge of her whereabouts, and England unleashes an unprecedented manhunt to find the up-and-coming mystery author. Eleven days later, she reappears, just as mysteriously as she disappeared, claiming amnesia and providing no explanations for her time away.
The puzzle of those missing eleven days has persisted[…] What is real, and what is mystery? What role did her unfaithful husband play and what was he not telling investigators?
I suspect that the first time I learned about the strange disappearance of Agatha Christie was in connection with the other great interest of my adult life, the British science fiction show Doctor Who. Several seasons into the revived run of the show there was an episode, The Unicorn and the Wasp, that was centered upon the mystery of the author’s disappearance. I saw and recall enjoying the story well enough but I can’t say I gave much more thought to the real life events that inspired it.
Then a couple of years ago I became conscious that interest in that case seemed to be on the rise. I started stumbling onto articles rehashing the circumstances of the disappearance, podcast episodes, chapters in non-fiction works about the evolution of detective fiction and in various books I read about Christie’s work. What really hit me though was the sudden appearance of fictional treatments of the story such as Andrew Wilson’s A Talent for Murder, this novel and, earlier this year, Nina de Gramont’s The Christie Affair. None offer as colorful an explanation for the disappearance as The Unicorn and the Wasp, but that there are so many takes on the events suggests that the public awareness of and interest in this strange event continues to grow.
I should probably say at this point that I have little personal interest in the case itself. I certainly believe that the events of an author’s life are often reflected in their work and it can be interesting to muse on how and why that happens, but I don’t regard this case as anywhere near as mysterious as I am clearly meant to. The reason for Christie’s actions has always seemed pretty clear to me, even if we are never going to have the satisfaction of anything approaching a confirmation from the author themselves. Christie avoids the topic in her autobiography and with all those involved now long since deceased, it’s hard to imagine that the matter will ever be closed to everyone’s total satisfaction.
My own reading of the events of those eleven days is pretty close to exactly the one presented by Benedict in this fictionalized account of the disappearance. For the sake of not spoiling those who wish to read and enjoy this book I will avoid stating what that is but I think that reflects that the author is quite thorough in their discussion of the facts of the case. While some aspects of the story are given more prominence than others, I felt that Benedict fits their story around the facts rather than altering them to make their story more dramatic.
The intrigue comes through the contrast they draw between events in the past, as presented in the chapters titled ‘The Manuscript’, a first person account of the Christies’ courtship and marriage told by Agatha, and those set during the eleven day search which follow Archie and are presented in a third-person present tense. The decision to alternate chapters between these two time periods and styles is largely effective. Even if the reader comes to this book with no prior knowledge of Christie’s life, they will quickly detect that the state of that relationship has changed quite significantly and much of the novel focuses on exploring the reasons why that change occurred. It doesn’t build tension as most who approach this will be aware that Agatha lived and wrote for decades after these events, but it does add to the intrigue building about the state of that central relationship.
As a character study into the power dynamics between a husband and wife it can be quite effective, though the conclusions it reaches are unlikely to surprise. Among the factors Benedict explores are the effects of World War I, the birth of a child, and the difficulty in balancing professional and personal obligations. I was not surprised by the identification and treatment of those themes which are generally handled quite thoughtfully.
Yet the discussion feels somewhat incomplete because the story focuses so tightly on this narrow, dramatic window of Christie’s life. Some questions feel unanswered: Could Archie and Agatha have ever been happy? Were their problems unique or representative of wider problems faced in relationships during this period? If so, why was Agatha’s relationship with Max so much more successful?
Some of the more colorful aspects of the case are present but minimalized. The celebrities involved in the search, Sayers and Doyle, are given little more than a name check while the choice to follow Archie rather than the investigators means that our focus is on the building resentment and fear he exhibits. This can be interesting on a character level but it also means that after a while that thread of the novel feels rather static as we wait to move to the story’s denouement.
That short final section of the novel is the most interesting portion of the novel by quite some way. It is in those last few chapters that Agatha’s voice and character is most clearly conveyed and where we see the conflict properly play out. Once again there are few surprises here, at least for this reader, but I think the direct way that Benedict lays out her characters’ positions and feelings is effective and does pay off the main plotline quite nicely. The ending may feel a little abrupt and, as I suggested earlier, the reader may have some outstanding questions but it does feel like a tidy resolution to the themes the author has been developing throughout the book.
In spite of how it may initially appear to those unfamiliar with the story, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie presents no crime to the reader. Well, apart from the unforgivable one of the author unnecessarily spoiling the solution to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Still, as a character study of one of the giants of our favorite genre it can be interesting enough, though I am unconvinced that it adds significantly to our understanding of her personality, nor that of Archie. Others, particularly those less familiar with the story, may disagree however and find Benedict’s explanation of the mystery persuasive enough to make this a rewarding read.
The Verdict: Benedict’s work does a good job of capturing much of the detail of the investigation and does present a pretty solid interpretation of events, though I would suggest it adds little new to the story. Still, it does develop its themes well and those new to the tale may well be interested in how events unfold.