Review published on March 23, 2017.
On the evening of 3 December 1926, Agatha Christie left her home in Sunningdale, Berkshire, and disappeared. Her car, containing an expired driving licence and a suitcase of clothes, was found abandoned some miles away. She had been troubled lately by both the death of her mother and the breakup of her marriage, although those who knew her considered the disappearance to be totally out of character. Early novels such as The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had made Christie famous and there was considerable public outcry when news of her disappearance broke. Fearing that she had been murdered, the police organised a massive manhunt, but Christie was not found until eleven days later. She was unharmed and had been staying at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate (where she had registered under the surname of her husband’s mistress) for the duration of her absence.
While Agatha Christie’s disappearance was officially attributed to a mental breakdown brought on by conditions of extreme emotional stress, the fact that Christie herself refused to discuss the matter publicly led to numerous alternative theories being offered. Perhaps because of her reputation for plotting intricate crimes, some suspected that she intended to frame her husband and/or his mistress for her murder, although others thought she had actually intended to kill herself. A more cynical interpretation of the incident held that Christie’s disappearance was a devious attempt to generate publicity for her most recent novel. Although the full truth behind Agatha Christie’s disappearance is unlikely to be discovered, the incident has firmly captured the attention of both conspiracy theorists and mystery lovers alike from 1926 to the present day, and with A Talent for Murder, Andrew Wilson offers his interpretation of events.
Distressed and disorientated by the discovery of her husband Archie’s affair, Agatha Christie is trying to occupy herself in London when an incident on the Underground embroils her in a mystery as twisted and devious as any the Queen of Crime could craft. She encounters Doctor Patrick Kurs, who makes a proposition that both disgusts and intrigues her. Being a great admirer of her talent for homicide (in the literary sense), Kurs wants Christie to commit a murder and he is prepared to use blackmail and violence to compel her cooperation. Christie certainly has the knowledge and the skill to kill, but can she use her little grey cells to escape the clutches of Kurs? First, she will have to disappear from life as she knows it…
A Talent for Murder is told partly from the point of view of Agatha Christie herself and partly in the third person. The Christie sections are particularly compelling, as she struggles against fear, depression and anger in an effort to battle wills with Doctor Kurs. She has to keep him happy by coming up with a viable murder plot, while dealing with her own emotional baggage and ensuring that no one recognises her. Andrew Wilson has crafted a believable character and internal dialogue for Christie; even though she is more emotional and unsure of herself in this book than her own writing would imply, it makes sense in the context of the story and offers a logical state of mind in relation to her real-life disappearance. Her intelligence and insight into the criminal brain are brought to the forefront as she reluctantly helps Kurs to formulate the perfect murder, all the while plotting to free herself from the hold he has over her.
Doctor Kurs makes a great villain, albeit one who is arguably too sadistic to feature in one of Christie’s own novels. There is a real sense of malevolence about him, as well as an almost preternatural ability to manipulate and intimidate. He causes Christie to ponder on the nature of morality and criminality in a way that the more ordinary criminal would not. The other supporting characters (some based on real people, others wholly fictional) are also very well drawn. John Davison and Una Crowe generally provide some of the lighter moments of the story, although they both throw themselves into investigating Agatha Christie’s disappearance in different ways and for different reasons. It is also very interesting and somewhat amusing to follow the investigation of Superintendent William Kenward as he attempts to unravel the mystery behind the novelist’s disappearance, with his suspicions firmly focused on murder and Archie Christie.
In addition to the actual story, there is much for the Agatha Christie fan to enjoy in A Talent for Murder. Several of her books are referenced; Christie bemoans the cobbled-together nature of The Big Four and worries about how her writer’s block is delaying work on The Mystery of the Blue Train, while The Murder of Roger Ackroyd holds particular significance for Doctor Kurs. There is something about John Davison and Una Crowe that is very reminiscent of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, while the exploits of Superintendent Kenward are perhaps supposed to have influenced Christie’s later portrayal of various ineffectual police officers. Her dealings with Doctor Kurs also cause Christie to consider the psychology of crime and criminals in much the same way that Hercule Poirot does when he is bringing villains to justice.
A Talent for Murder is a darkly twisting tale of murder and manipulation. It is certainly far removed from many of Agatha Christie’s more cosy offerings, although it provides a good explanation of what might have drawn Christie to crime and mysteries, as well as highlighting her intelligence and gift for plotting. With A Talent for Murder, Andrew Wilson has crafted a great tribute to Agatha Christie and a plausible (from the point of view of a dedicated mystery buff anyway) albeit rather action-packed explanation for her disappearance.
Erin Britton 4/4
A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson
Simon & Schuster UK 9781471148217 hbk May 2017
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