The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict
r/suggestmeabook: I want to read a solution to the historical mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance.
Movie rating: PG
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
WWI and Interwar Period
From the publisher: In December 1926, Agatha Christie goes missing. Investigators find her empty car on the edge of a deep, gloomy pond, the only clues some tire tracks nearby and a fur coat left in the car—strange for a frigid night. Her World War I veteran husband and her daughter have no knowledge of her whereabouts, and England unleashes an unprecedented manhunt to find the up-and-coming mystery author.
David Suchet, who played Hercule Poirot for 25 years, presciently expressed how I feel about this book in the 2014 documentary The Mystery of Agatha Christie:
When I first heard about Marie Benedict’s The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, I immediately flashed back to a different documentary, which I cannot now find. I couldn’t remember any of the details except that Agatha Christie had disappeared for a short period of time, and that it had never satisfactorily been explained. This wonderful novel gives the explanation I craved; whether it is truly the reason why is irrelevant, because it’s great storytelling. (And much better than the Doctor Who version, although I enjoyed it at the time.)(Warning: Possible spoilers.)
The first section of the book is split between past and the present of 1926, with the past being first person from Agatha Christie, and the present being a third person close from her husband’s POV. The technique works very well, with the past informing the present. Although the chapters from the past have the title “Manuscript” on each, it wasn’t until I reached the second part of the book that I realized those sections were supposed to be from a manuscript written by Christie.
In truth, the only time I felt like myself was when I was writing. No matter how I tried to anticipate his needs, I couldn’t please Archie, and all the qualities he used to admire—my spontaneity, my love of drama and adventure, and my desire to discuss feelings and events with him—now irritated him.Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
Both Agatha and Archie are well drawn, although it’s not entirely clear exactly how WWI changed Archie’s personality. It’s implied that he suffers from PTSD, not exactly a reach for a man who served in combat (as evidenced by the award of the Distinguished Service Order in 1918). PTSD can cause longterm personality changes, but I would have liked a little more explicit discussion of that process. Perhaps any overt mention was omitted to avoid making him sympathetic; he isn’t very.
Archie walks alone, of course. It wouldn’t be seemly for him to link hands with these regular folks, not in his current predicament.Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
One of the factors that comes between them, it seems, is the difference in class. Agatha went to finishing school in France and is well-schooled in the etiquette of the upper class. It’s not exactly clear what Archie’s status is, but he is shown to flagrantly violate the established norms early on in the relationship. What is crystal clear that Agatha’s mother thinks Archie is a terrible match for Agatha.
No matter what happened in the future, I didn’t want her disliking Archie any more than she already did. And nothing had more significance to Mummy than a man acting like a gentleman and a woman acting her part as a lady in turn.Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
The other characters in the story are also memorable. Agatha’s mother, the investigator Kenward, their daughter Rosalind, Agatha’s sister Madge, and Rosalind’s nanny (and Agatha’s part time secretary) Charlotte each contribute to the story line and are easy to imagine. The interaction of Agatha with all of these characters, and her husband, as well as the lingering remembrance of financial woes when her father died, move Agatha inexorably to being the author of legend.
Madge exhaled cigarette smoke as she reclined on the sofa even further, ever assuming the pose of the confident older sister and first daughter.Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
A couple of themes in the book that I quite liked were that of what are the duties of a wife and the role of the unreliable narrator. The first was a well considered review of what women were taught for a good deal of Anglo-American history, as enunciated by Agatha’s mother, which basically were to ensure that you caught and kept a man to keep your status. The arc of Agatha’s view on this advice is captivating, and I could hear echoes of what I was told by my grandmother and mother in what she was told; indeed, some women are still given the same kind of advice even today.
A wife’s duty is to be with her husband, because her husband must come first, even before her children. If a wife leaves her husband alone for too long, she will lose him.Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
The saddest application of marital advice was to Agatha’s relationship to her daughter, Rosalind. Archie’s fear of being displaced and her mother’s admonitions to always defer to her husband’s wishes lead Agatha to distance herself from Rosalind in her babyhood. That decision seems tragic for them both.
Perhaps this was mankind’s fate—to learn that none of our paths were as straight as we believed they would be.Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
The unreliable narrator was a lovely touch, as it referenced Christie’s groundbreaking use of the same in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which arguably was what propelled her into the front ranks of her field. The observation that we are unreliable narrators of our own stories has a double application: it’s simply an interesting idea about our personal blindspots and also a commentary on the story itself.
As I reread it for a final time, it occurred to me that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives, crafting stories about ourselves that omit unsavory truths and highlight our invented identities.Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
Marie Benedict has created a marvelous solution to an enduring mystery that even Agatha herself would have appreciated (if she hadn’t been so set on keeping it secret).