The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
“A rare talent and an elusive one.”
In December of 1926, Agatha Christie, well on her way to becoming the world’s bestselling novelist, disappeared for 11 days, an episode so thick with oddity and misdirection, it seems nearly a tale spun by the author herself. A sensation in England at the time (yet left unmentioned by Christie in her autobiography), the incident has long prompted speculation, particularly given its bizarre dénouement: Christie turned up safe and sound at a luxury hotel registered under the name of her husband’s lover. Was it a publicity stunt, an attempt at shaming her straying husband, an authentic emotional breakdown, or something else entirely? Marie Benedict’s neatly arranged, earnestly imagined The Mystery of Mrs. Christie offers an interpretation Dame Agatha might have endorsed, a page-turning hybrid of historical fiction and literary thriller.
Through brief, alternating chapters, we get a first-person account of Christie’s life from the evening in 1912 when her eventual husband, war-pilot Archie, falls hard for her at a dance, all the way through to the inscrutable 11 days. Christie fans will know the particulars well: the hasty marriage, the literary rivalry with an older sister, her work as a nurse during WWI (where, helpfully for a budding mystery writer, she became familiar with the operations of various poisons), and an interest in detective novels that led her to attempt one herself.
When she finally landed a book contract in 1920 and began churning out the novels that would bring her worldwide fame, her marriage was in decline. By late-1926, despite Christie’s arduous—perhaps too arduous—efforts to bolster her husband’s fragile ego, Archie was demanding a divorce so that he might marry another woman.
The intervening sequence of chapters, told essentially from Archie’s vantage point, walks the reader through the days after Christie went missing. Agatha, in a quasi-clue dropped at story’s outset, has left a letter for Archie he finds confounding; that it exists also lets the reader know Agatha has arranged her own disappearance, though to what end is impossible to say. Archie finds himself in something of a mousetrap, constrained by the “instructions” Agatha has left him. He resorts to dissembling throughout the ensuing investigation, an ongoing scramble that makes him appear guiltier by the day and compounds his own sense that Agatha has arranged matters as punishment for his straying.
The chapters that center on Archie and the unfolding investigation are surprisingly devoid of traditional suspense; it’s clear that Agatha has constructed a game, and so we know that the “clues” found by the investigators, such as they are, are mostly inconsequential.
The deeper mystery, and the one Bennett has her eye on, resides with Agatha’s motivations. We see Archie’s career stall and Agatha’s ascend, and we watch Agatha gamely and then pathetically sacrifice elements of herself—including her relationship with her daughter—to appease Archie. When Archie falls out of love with her, the narrative Agatha shapes takes on the shadings of a quiet, domestic thriller. Her own heart and the puzzle-making leanings of her craft take center stage. “I was an unreliable narrator of my own life,” she tells us, “with only the vaguest sense of myself.”
Christie emerges as a deeply conflicted personality in Bennett’s rendering. Even after countless humiliations at Archie’s hands—and even while weaving a web for him—she remains apparently preoccupied with not distressing him, with soothing his self-image. It’s a difficult balancing act for Bennett: depicting actual events, foremost Agatha’s disappearance, while imagining the entire context as a sort of living work of fiction arranged by Christie herself. It gives Agatha a strained dual aspect: aggrieved yet doting wife paired with shrewd, even conniving, manipulator.
We are to believe that much of what Christie revealed of herself publicly was but another well-constructed fiction, a collection of clues and details compellingly ordered. “(W)e are all unreliable narrators of our own lives, crafting stories about ourselves that omit unsavory truths and highlight our invented identities.” Fair enough, and almost certainly true. What is harder to see, though, through the prism of Christie’s machinations in The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, is the source of the novelist’s literary gift. If her bizarre disappearance is intended in some measure as offering impetus or explanation for her tremendous appeal as a writer, we grasp for the connection and are dismayed to find little beyond clever scheming. “I am gifted in the complex plotting of mysteries,” Agatha informs us at one point. A rare talent and an elusive one.