Although Christie was only missing 11 days (she was discovered at a Yorkshire spa), and nearly 100 years have passed without a credible explanation, a cottage industry of conjecture continues to grow. Books have been written and movies have been made including, most recently, the 2018 film, “Agatha and the Truth of Murder,” which speculates she spent those missing days solving a real homicide.
One would think nothing more could be ascertained or imagined about Christie’s disappearance, yet novelist Marie Benedict has just published the intriguing “The Mystery of Mrs. Christie,” a fact-based, fiction-laced novel. It’s an empowering and wonderful tribute to the woman who has sold more than 2 billion books and whose stars, including Poirot and Miss Marple, are still and may always be at the forefront of the mystery genre.
Benedict tells Christie’s story through parallel constructs. In alternating chapters, she serves up “The Manuscript,” Christie’s painful first-person account of her marriage to Col. Archibald (Archie) Christie and the suffocating social norms of the day. Agatha spends her young life learning from her mother how to be subservient to men and to please them at all costs.
Her marriage to the charming Archie craters after a few years as he begins to show his true self: narcissistic, cruel, misogynistic and emotionally abusive. His gaslighting of Agatha, as well as her mother’s constant reminders that Agatha should make him the center of her universe, turns her into a simpering, pathetic woman. In Benedict’s imagination, Agatha wonders, “What had I done wrong this time?” whenever the manipulative Archie says something like, “Do you think I like being here with you? Listening to you drone on about culture, music, silly book ideas, your mother, and your . . . your desperation?” It strains credulity to accept she was reduced to this state, and some readers may strongly object to this portrayal.
In the novel’s second and more intriguing thread, Benedict, in cinematic fashion, takes us inside one of the biggest hunts for a missing person in British history. It’s told, day by day, through the loathsome Archie, and in these chapters, Benedict alludes to secrets Archie is hiding from the police, including his engagement to another woman. Archie’s and Agatha’s stories intertwine as the novel winds down, and all the while, the power in their relationship, most satisfyingly, shifts to Agatha.
“The Mystery of Mrs. Christie” reads like a modern domestic thriller in the vein of “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train.” It’s also a nod to classic whodunits that channels Christie’s talent for writing unsolvable mysteries packed with puzzles, red herrings and, most especially, unreliable narrators. Until the closing chapters, Benedict forces us to ask who is more credible: Agatha or Archie?
Benedict has written compelling biographical fiction about other famous women to great effect. “Lady Clementine” is the story of the ambitious and influential wife of Winston Churchill. “The Only Woman in the Room” is an account of film actress Hedy Lamarr, who few people knew was also a brilliant scientist.
“The Mystery of Mrs. Christie” is a stunning story of yet another woman who seems to have it all, but who, like many, must fight to hold on to what she refers to as her “authentic self.” The ending is ingenious, and it’s possible that Benedict has brought to life the most plausible explanation for why Christie disappeared for 11 days in 1926. We’ll never know.
Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin.
The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
By Marie Benedict
Sourcebooks. 272 pp. $26.99
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