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What happened to Agatha Christie in 1926? A new novel explores her curious disappearance.

‘The Christie Affair’ by Nina de Gramont is an ingenious suspense novel that concocts an elaborate backstory about the 11 days the writer was AWOL

(St. Martin’s Press)

There’s only one “cold case” story in the entire Agatha Christie canon, and it’s the one Christie herself lived, not wrote. The mystery of Christie’s 11-day disappearance in 1926 is rivaled only by the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa’s far-more-permanent disappearance in 1975 as the most famous “cold case” in modern times.

Here’s a quick rundown of the details: On the winter evening of Dec. 3, 1926, Christie got into her car — a little green Morris Cowley that she’d bought with earnings from her early novels — and drove off from her house in the suburbs near London. She left behind her sleeping 7-year-old daughter, Rosalind, in the care of the maid. She also left her beloved little terrier, Peter, who habitually lay down beside her as she wrote. Christie was wearing a fur coat and hat and carried only an attache case. She may or may not have made a stop at the nearby village of Godalming to peer into the ground-floor windows of the house where her husband, Archie Christie, was a guest for the weekend. That morning, Archie had told Agatha that he wanted a divorce to marry his mistress, Nancy Neele, who was also a weekend guest at that house.

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At 8 a.m. the next morning, Christie’s car was discovered nose down in a ditch near a body of water ominously called “the Silent Pool.” Her fur coat was in the car. For more than a week until she was discovered, ensconced in the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, on Dec. 13, Agatha Christie, the “Lady Novelist” as some newspapers referred to her, was the object of one of the biggest missing-person searches in British history: police, bloodhounds, an army of volunteer searchers, fellow mystery novelists Dorothy L. Sayers and Arthur Conan Doyle, and even Archie Christie and the intrepid little Peter all joined in the search.

Because the mystery of Christie’s disappearance has never been solved (Dame Agatha died in 1976 and never said a word, not even in her autobiography about that painful episode in her life), generations of amateur sleuths — critics, biographers, filmmakers and novelists — have tried to crack the case. Motives for Christie’s disappearance range from the cynical (she was a publicity hound who wanted to boost sales of her books) to the medical (she was in a “fugue state” caused by a concussion when her car crashed) to the compassionate (Christie was suicidal over the end of her marriage, especially since that blow followed quickly after the death of her cherished mother).

Personally, I favor the theory offered by Christie biographer Gillian Gill. In her slim and penetrating 1990 biography simply titled “Agatha Christie,” Gill observes that Christie registered at that Harrogate spa under the alias “Teresa Neele.” In so doing, Gill says, Christie cleverly found a way to publicize the last name of her husband’s mistress at a time when discretion dictated that her existence be kept private. A shy person, Christie, like her novels, was easy to underestimate. That was always a mistake.

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In “The Christie Affair,” an ingenious new psychological suspense novel that concocts an elaborate backstory behind Christie’s disappearance, Nina de Gramont reminds readers of “the other woman” in the story and suggests that it also would be a mistake to underestimate her. This Nancy Neele — here called “Nan O’Dea” — is powered by rage and grief and matches wits with the Queen of Crime herself, not only to possess Archie, but to achieve a greater end that few readers will anticipate. And, here’s the neatest narrative trick of all: As Christie characteristically did, de Gramont hides the solution to the mystery of “The Christie Affair” in plain sight.

Nan is our chief narrator, and in de Gramont’s novel she shucks off the role as Archie’s passive mistress. Instead, this Nan revels in her own agency, coolly confessing that she staked out Archie for a long time and engineered the affair. The novel is structured in sections that alternate between the days and hours leading up to Agatha’s disappearance and Nan’s early life in London and Ireland. As the tale gets underway, an omniscient narrator also enters to describe Agatha’s adventures during that fateful night of Dec. 3 and the days that follow.

The opening scene — dated Dec. 2, 1926 — alerts readers to the fact that, although this novel features Agatha Christie as a character, we’re not in classic Christie-land. Here’s Nan describing how she and Archie were almost caught in the act of canoodling in his office minutes before Agatha walks in:

“Archie kissed me. He tasted like pipe smoke. … Tonight he would be going home to his wife. If the course I’d planned so carefully was to continue, it was best to send him to her thinking of me. A sponge soaked in quinine sulfate — procured by my married younger sister — stood guard inside me, protecting against pregnancy.”

Whoa! While passion fueled many a murder in Christie’s universe, sex itself was never mentioned. But, in “The Christie Affair,” both Nan and, eventually, Agatha herself avail themselves of the new erotic freedoms of the 1920s.

That’s just one of the many ways in which de Gramont fleshes out the scant official history of that time in Christie’s life. “The Christie Affair” is richly imagined; inventive and, occasionally, poignant; and about as true-to-life as Christie’s own tales of quaint villages with their staggering murder rates. But when fabrications are this marvelous, why demand realism?

Maureen Corrigan is the author/narrator of the 2021 Audible Original book “The Mysterious Case of Agatha Christie” and the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”

The Christie Affair

By Nina De Gramont

St. Martin’s. 320 pp. $27.99

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