Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Review: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

In December 1926, mystery novelist Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days. The entire country of Britain was searching for her, worried that she had harmed herself or become a victim of foul play like so many characters in her own books. Then she reappeared quite far from home, at a hotel, registered under the name of her husband's mistress, and claiming amnesia. She never really spoke of this disappearance, where she was the whole time and exactly why she took off. This gap in her story has left it open for authors to interpret and imagine their own reasons behind it all. The Mystery of Mrs. Christie is Marie Benedict's version of Christie's motivations and the secrets surrounding Christie, her husband, and their marriage.

It is no small feat to take an historical figure, about whom much is known, who has even written an autobiography or two--I highly recommend Come, Tell Me How You Live, which details Christie's writing life not at all, but who has one gigantic, unanswered mystery at the center of her life and to make that mystery the fascinating, unsubstantiated focus of a novel but Benedict pulls it off. Alternating between the past, when Agatha meets her husband Archie and the present, when she has disappeared and is directing Archie on a quest she has designed, the novel gives the reader the background into a whirlwind love affair and marriage that perhaps inevitably went wrong and into the psyche of the woman who remains the best selling novelist of all time. Benedict has gotten the period details down pat, although occasionally they read as info dumps rather than organic pieces of the story. Her Agatha grows from the giddy young woman who met Archie to an intelligent, determined author who can't and won't fit into the box her husband wants to place her in. Given the characterization of Archie here, it's a wonder she didn't disappear earlier.

Although this is an historical fiction, it fittingly reads a bit like a mystery itself as the reader works towards the reveal at the end. And that ending is worthy of Christie herself. The story is a page turner as the forces that shaped Christie personally and as an author play out on the page. There are some spoilers for several of Christie's mysteries in here so readers who haven't yet read her novels might want to beware. The majority of the book, which is separated into two parts, is focused on Christie's life before her disappearance, the unhappiness and loneliness, the anger and the sorrow of a life so different than the one she once envisioned, and the disappearance itself. The second, quite brief part reveals the story and motivation behind the missing 11 days, how she and Archie will play it out for the world, and how she will move on for the future. Benedict has written a captivating and plausible story to account for Christie's missing days while also drawing the picture of an almost Machiavellian woman scorned, a woman far smarter than her husband, one who has finally seized control of her life and found herself. An interesting read for sure.

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