image.png

Lawyer and best-selling novelist Marie Benedict writes about unknown women’s stories and their voices from the past. She uncovers important, but unfamiliar, historical women and brings them into the light of modern day where their contemporary contributions and issues can be explored. She began with “The Other Einstein,” the story of Einstein’s first wife, a physicist who made significant contributions to his theories and continued with books about other accomplished women. Benedict’s latest novel is “The Mystery of Mrs. Christie,” which details the mystery writer’s infamous 11-day disappearance in December 1926. The fact-based, fiction-laced book is reminiscent of thrillers like “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train,” as well as a nod to the classic whodunits that channel Agatha Christie’s talent for writing unsolvable mysteries filled with puzzles, red herrings and dubious narrators.

Agatha Christie is reputed to be the third-bestselling author of all time – surpassed only by Shakespeare and the Bible. She wrote mystery novels without having a formal education and is called the “Queen of Crime.” She is the top-selling mystery writer of all time – with over two billion books sold – and was given the title of “Dame” by Order of the British Crown in 1971.

On Dec. 3, 1926, she became the center of an intriguing missing person’s case, when she kissed her 7-year-old daughter, Rosalind, goodnight, then disappeared for over two weeks without a clue. (She turned up in a Yorkshire spa, safe but minus – she said – her memory.) The police found her abandoned car and it stirred up an extensive hunt. Thousands of civilians combed the British countryside in search of her. Sherlock Holmes’ creator Arthur Conan Doyle even brought in an occultist to help. Agatha’s philandering husband, Col. Archibald Christie, was suspected of murdering her. It was a case perfect for Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.

In the novel, Benedict speculates on what could have happened during those unexplained days. Many other books and movies have tried fictionalizing this stretch of time, most notably the 1979 film “Agatha” with Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman, but Benedict’s clear thinking and thorough research stand out. She skillfully suggests that Agatha’s private tragedy was the result of the celebrated author’s success.

The novel opens with a letter Agatha left for Archie before her disappearance. “Freeing myself of the shackles of your judgment and your malfeasance will be a delightful result of your duplicity, a result you never intended,” she writes. Two story lines unfold from this point with alternating chapters giving both spouses’ perspectives. Those titled “The Manuscript” are in Agatha’s voice and shows her jovial personality. Her story starts in 1912 on the day she meets the dashing, quirky and mysterious Col. Archibald Christie at a dance. She notes that she “could not have written a more perfect man.” Defying her family’s expectations, Agatha rushes into marriage with Archie rather than her intended, the steadfast yet boring Reggie Lucy. The chapters titled “After the Disappearance” center on a jittery Archie (told in third person) as he joins the missing persons investigation in which he is the prime suspect: “Overnight, he is transformed from handsome war hero in an idyllic marriage to suspicious catalyst for his wife’s flight.”

Benedict beautifully ratchets up the tension of Archie’s suspected involvement; we know he wants a divorce and plans to announce his engagement to his mistress, Nancy Steele. Even the Christie’s daughter begins to suspect her father of foul play.

Benedict radiates as a suspense writer, paying homage to Agatha’s novels with winding motives and deftly described actions. Her powerful characterizations and prose take readers back to the early 1900s. News reports and timelines from the era fit smoothly into Agatha’s observations of the joy and pain that permeated her world. After the Christies divorced in 1928, Agatha went on to happily marry Sir Max Mallowan, an archaeologist, whom she was with for 46 years. She loved trekking with him to out-of-the-ordinary locations that sometimes became backgrounds in her books. Mallowan wrote in his memoirs, “Few men know what it is to live in harmony beside an imaginative, creative mind which inspires life with zest.”

The ending to “The Mystery of Mrs. Christie” is ingenious, and a perfect conclusion to the vagueness of Agatha’s disappearance revealing her uniquely perceptive soul. Benedict has brought to life the most plausible explanation for why Agatha went missing, but we’ll probably never know for certain since she took the secret to her grave. The book is not so much a mystery, but more a character study of a brilliant writer and the man who didn’t deserve her.

– Please visit www.coastalillustrated.com to read the column in its entirety.