The Christie Affair
Mystery writer Agatha Christie was a legend in her own time. When she became the center of her own mystery – disappearing in December of 1926 after her husband Archie requested a divorce – she made worldwide headlines. Christie was eventually found eleven days later, hiding out in a hotel and using the surname of her husband’s mistress – and eventually granted Archie his divorce and married a second time. That information anyone can Google. But how did the mistress in this situation feel? That’s the subject Nina de Gramont fictionalizes in The Christie Affair, which disappoints in spite of its strong narrative voice.
De Gramont centers her story on Nan O’Dea, a fictional counterpart for Nancy Neele, the also-married woman who was Archie’s mistress. Nan is an Irish girl determined to rise from her poor roots and enter the high society world of the Christies for secret and ulterior motives. She rapidly learns that in spite of Archie’s vows, the upper crust will lie inflexibly to get what it wants, so she’d better make her own inroad. Left to wonder what Agatha is up to over the days of her disappearance, Nan simultaneously wanders the backroads of her own past while plotting to secure her position in Archie’s life for mysterious reasons. Meanwhile, people turn up dead at the hotel where Nan is staying. Where is Agatha, and what of Nan’s own romantic foibles?
The problem with The Christie Affair is that De Gramont thinks her audience will be compelled enough by Nan to enjoy her as an omniscient narrator making presumptive statements about Christie’s actions during the disappearance, having Nan explain that she knows what happened because the people concerned later informed her of it, which is already a wobbly narrative conceit. But because of this choice we never get Christie’s point of view on her own life, and that is irritating. Much time is spent on Nan’s backstory, which involves an unplanned pregnancy and a man whom she loves but won’t marry her, first due to the flu epidemic and then to fight in the First War – which naturally results in a trip to penance in a Magdalene laundry for poor Nan, and eventual separation from their daughter. All of this feels well-researched, and we feel pity for the young woman, and understand why she’d go to great pains to get close to Archie. The Nan flashbacks are the best part of the novel and the most strongly realized portion of it, but one is left wondering why De Gramont didn’t make it a part of a fresh, non-Christie-based novel. Nan makes such self-motivated choices in the end that it’s hard to care about her, and about the version of Christie we see through Nan’s eyes, who, high pitched and hysterical and unsympathetic, feels just as worthless.
There is also a problem with the way De Gramont fictionalizes Nan and inserts her into the place where Neele stood, and she adds a story choice which is really almost obscene, to the point where I was glad to learn Christie’s real-life daughter (for whom an equivalent character exists) was not alive to read it. And if you’re going to go to the trouble of inserting your character into a real triangle, why provide the same end result for her and your other protagonists as the one that happened in real life? Was De Gramont afraid that Neele’s estate would sue?
The Christie Affair isn’t worth any sort of jurisprudential intervention, but it’s nothing to write home about. And yet Nan’s narrative voice is strong, and the research is, too. If this had just been a story about an Irish girl marrying into British aristocracy to get money and power enough to get her daughter back in the mid-1920s I would give the book a much higher grade, but the Christie connection hinders instead of helps the narrative.
Note: this book contains on-page sexual abuse, child abuse, death and animal death when a beloved dog is blown up. Yes, really.
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Lisa Fernandes is a writer, reviewer and recapper who lives somewhere on the East Coast. Formerly employed by Firefox.org and Next Projection, she also currently contributes to Women Write About Comics. Read her blog at http://thatbouviergirl.blogspot.com/, follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thatbouviergirl or contribute to her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/MissyvsEvilDead or her Ko-Fi at ko-fi.com/missmelbouvier