Blur­ring fact and fic­tion

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t re­mains Agatha Christie’s big­gest un­solved mys­tery. The year was 1926, and the “Queen of Crime” had just pub­lished one of her finest de­tec­tive nov­els, The Mur­der of Roger Ack­royd. With her star seem­ingly in the as­cen­dant, she aban­doned her car at an English beauty spot and van­ished, prompt­ing a global search for the best-sell­ing nov­el­ist of all time.

What hap­pened dur­ing the 10 days be­fore she resur­faced, hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres north? No­body re­ally knows.

“She’s a crime writer who disappeared from her own crime scene, and that’s just tan­ta­lis­ing,” says avowed Agatha Christie fan An­drew Wil­son, whose lat­est novel, A Ta­lent for Mur­der, fo­cuses on this no­to­ri­ous real-life mys­tery. “Peo­ple have al­ways come up with bizarre the­o­ries, although I’ve never re­ally be­lieved the am­ne­sia story the fam­ily told.” As Wil­son be­gan to delve into news­pa­per and po­lice re­ports from the time, he re­alised they did not give the whole pic­ture.

“So my imag­i­na­tion started to work,” he says, “and I won­dered what might hap­pen if I in­vented an al­ter­na­tive story to ex­plain some of her more bizarre be­hav­iour”.

Rather than spec­u­late, Wil­son cre­ates a grip­ping story which sits neatly along­side one of Christie’s own crime dra­mas, as a “sadis­tic” doc­tor takes ad­van­tage of Christie’s frag­ile state of mind to black­mail her into com­mit­ting a “heinous crime”. Mean­while, a po­lice­man sus­pects Christie’s hus­band of foul play, and a well-mean­ing jour­nal­ist is caught up in the plot.

Wil­son is also a lit­er­ary bi­og­ra­pher of some note – he has writ­ten books on psy­cho­log­i­cal-thriller writer Pa­tri­cia High­smith and Sylvia Plath – and says he wanted to use some of the tech­niques of a biography, but also “in­vent, en­rich and ex­plore”.

So there is a com­mit­ment both to the known facts and the world the real Agatha Christie lived in, but they work as con­duits to the fic­tional story and Christie’s trou­bled mind­set.

“It was quite a chal­lenge to write from Agatha Christie’s point of view, but for more mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties it was im­por­tant that the char­ac­ters were psy­cho­log­i­cally real and deep,” he says.

“In my dreams, it’s an Agatha Christie novel writ­ten by Pa­tri­cia High­smith.”

In this process of fic­tional en­rich­ment, a clearer pic­ture does be­gin to form of the real Agatha Christie. Although her seem­ingly fluffy nov­els, and the film and tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tions re­main im­mensely pop­u­lar, there was a dark­ness at the heart of her work: her fa­ther died

Iwhen she was 11, she saw the hor­rors of the First World War first-hand and her hus­band was hav­ing an af­fair and asked for a di­vorce shortly be­fore her dis­ap­pear­ance. “She pre­sented her­self as a po­lite, upper-class lady to the world, but it was a dis­guise,” says Wil­son. “Be­neath that there was some­thing much more com­plex and in­ter­est­ing go­ing on; there’s this per­cep­tion of her as a cosy fig­ure – a bit like her own Miss Marple – but she had a sharp brain and cyn­i­cal view of hu­man na­ture.”

No sur­prise, then, that even the fic­tional Miss Marple ex­pected the ab­so­lute worst of peo­ple.

“Ab­so­lutely,” he says. “To write the in­cred­i­bly dark plots of Crooked House or And Then There Were None makes Christie much more in­ter­est­ing than the per­cep­tion of her sto­ries be­ing some kind of Cluedo game where you have to solve puz­zles. That’s al­ways fas­ci­nated me.”

Fas­ci­nat­ing enough, in fact, for A Ta­lent for Mur­der to be the first of a series Wil­son has planned out. There’s a won­der­ful de­noue­ment in which Christie agrees to tell all to a shad­owy gov­ern­ment agency in re­turn for help­ing them solve a “rather queer case” in the Ca­nary Is­lands. So is Wil­son’s Agatha Christie about to be­come a de­tec­tive? Or even bet­ter, a spy?

In the best tra­di­tions of crime writ­ing, Wil­son will not give any­thing away. But he does ad­mit that he’s had a lot of fun with the sec­ond book, sim­ply be­cause Christie has so much to give.

“She had a vivid life – for ex­am­ple, she trav­elled to south­ern Iraq her­self on the Bagh­dad Ex­press, an ex­tra­or­di­nary thing for a woman to do in 1928,” he says. “So there’s a rich­ness there that I wanted to ex­plore some more. It’s been nice to de­pict her younger and more vi­brant.”

This is why it is un­likely that even the most tra­di­tional of Agatha Christie fans will be upset by Wil­son’s char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion in A Ta­lent for Mur­der: it comes from his pure and gen­uine fond­ness for her work.

“I was quite wary of writ­ing A Ta­lent for Mur­der, as I didn’t want to of­fend,” he says. “She’s a much-loved au­thor. But ev­ery Christie fan who’s read it so far seems to love it, and I think they re­alise it’s writ­ten with em­pa­thy and re­spect.

“I mean, I think I’m part of their com­mu­nity – I’ve al­ways been a huge fan. You know the first novel I ever wrote, when I was 12? An Agatha Christie pas­tiche.” An­drew Wil­son Si­mon & Schuster UK Dh71, from Ama­zon.com

(Si­mon & Schuster) is out now

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