“Unlike [her husband], Agatha always wanted to know about your past. If you didn’t care to reveal it, she’d create something of her own and convince herself it was true.”
There’s something indulgent about novels that feature novelists. In the same way that Hollywood likes to reward films about filmmaking, we book lovers tend to have a bit of a soft spot for books about books. Mrs March by Virginia Feito and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell are two recent titles that have brilliantly explored this theme. Mrs March, inspired in-part by Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, is a literary thriller that delves into the mind of an author’s wife; she has become wildly paranoid, sure that her husband is writing about her. Of course, the irony is that she is being written about — in the book we happen to be reading. Hamnet imagines the life of Agnes, William Shakespeare’s wife, and the death of their son. It’s so vividly painful at times that reading it feels like spying on their grief.
When I heard about The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont, I knew I had to pick it up. It falls into the books-about-novelists category and, like Hamnet, is inspired by actual events. In 1926 novelist Agatha Christie, creator of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, went missing for eleven days. A mystery about a mystery writer is too good a plot to ignore, and in fact there have been a few novels over the years that have sought to explain just where Agatha went during that time.
“I’ve sometimes thought Agatha invented Hercule Poirot as an antidote to Archie [her husband]. There was never an emotional cue Poirot missed, nor a wayward emotion for which he didn’t feel sympathy. Poirot could absorb and assess a person’s sadness, then forgive it. Whereas Archie simply wanted to say cheer up and have the order followed.”
If you’re hoping to read a book that details exactly what Agatha Christie got up to during those eleven days, from her own point of view, you’re going to be disappointed. That’s not really what this novel is. However, if you’re interested in reading a novel written from the point of view of a woman that Agatha Christie’s husband was having an affair with, a woman who herself wanted to be a writer, and who was interested in storytelling, you’re in for a treat. The Christie Affair manages to keep Agatha Christie herself mysterious, whilst presenting us with a nesting-doll set of stories, and it has a lot of fun with the mystery genre at the same time.
Nan isn’t sure if she loves Agatha’s husband, even though he’s pledged to leave his wife for her. However, she’s made a great effort to understand Agatha; she’s read all her books, which is more than can be said for Archie. Nan feels that she and Agatha are somewhat linked because they’re both interested in discovering why someone may have the urge to murder another person. In later life, Nan sits down to write a book about her experiences — The Christie Affair; after all, she’s always wanted to be a writer. She brazenly writes scenes that she never witnessed, guesses how people felt and acted, and in some instances rewrites her own memories to soothe herself (and then admits this to us). “What do you want from me?” the novel seems to ask us, tongue in cheek; “you weren’t there, either.” Nan is very present in an authorial way, which is a fun, meta touch.
The way Nan narrates this book is influenced by a lot of Agatha Christie novels — scenes on trains, and in hotels, mistaken identities, and fake accents. There’s also a mystery within a mystery. Not only has Agatha Christie gone missing but someone has been murdered, and it just so happens that a Poirot-like character is around to help solve the crime. Much of the book also explores Nan’s past, in Ireland, where she experienced horrific things. This particular section of the book seemed at odds with the rest at first but, don’t worry, it all comes together beautifully. In many ways, The Christie Affair reminded me of Atonement by Ian McEwan — love, war, and the rewriting of the self. With a cameo appearance from Arthur Conan Doyle, The Christie Affair asks us to consider what makes a good story, how we want to feel when we reach the end and what an author needs to do to make us feel that way.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written ten books for children and adults, the latest of which is The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.
Photographs by Jen Campbell.