A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson review – Agatha Christie in peril

The queen of crime is the central character in this audacious mystery, which reinvents the story of her mysterious disappearance with thrilling results

The biographer of Patricia Highsmith, Sylvia Plath and Alexander McQueen, Andrew Wilson has written fiction before, but A Talent for Murder is an entirely different kind of beast. You may perhaps have read those books in which Jane Austen is a detective, or the Brontës come back as ghosts: fan fiction in which a writer’s enthusiasm for their literary hero leads them towards a reimagining of the hero’s life. James Joyce, secret agent, etc. There are of course some fine examples of the genre: Drood (2009) by Dan Simmons, featuring Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and a number of novels by Matthew Pearl, who specialises in this kind of thing. But no one to date, to my knowledge, has successfully cast the queen of crime herself as the lead character in a crime novel – until now, that is.

Thank God A Talent for Murder is good, because Wilson is certainly playing for high stakes. Agatha Christie was working as a pharmacist in 1920 when she was challenged by her sister, Madge, to come up with a detective story, which she duly did, featuring a 5ft4in retired Belgian police officer – and she remains the bestselling novelist of all time. The only writer to have created two great recurring detective characters, Poirot and Jane Marple, she was also the only woman ever to have had three plays running simultaneously in the West End. Making Christie the hero of your novel is a bit like making Shakespeare the main character in your play: it’s either very brave or utterly foolhardy.

Wilson is clearly up for the challenge. Most daringly, there is a strong puzzle element in his book, as there is in much of Christie’s work (though the crime writer Michael Dibdin claimed that her plots were “all basically the same” and Raymond Chandler famously remarked that a Poirot mystery was “guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop” as “only a half-wit could guess it”). There are multiple unexpected twists, and at least one entirely unexpected murder. But these are only the most obviously pleasing aspects of the novel. Most impressive of all is the subtly shifting point of view, which moves from one centre of consciousness to another, involving the reader entirely in the plot; a trick one suspects Wilson may have picked up not from Christie but from Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels.

As for the story: Wilson’s book begins in 1926, with Christie’s realisation that her husband, Archie, is having an affair with a younger woman, which fans will already know is what prompted her notorious flight to Harrogate, where she holed up in a hotel under an assumed name. Even now her disappearance remains shrouded in mystery – no one knows quite what happened or why. And this is all Wilson needs for his own act of invention. In his account, Christie meets a doctor, Patrick Kurs – an “utter sadist” – who is obsessed with the doctor character James Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Kurs has a diabolical theory: “I am quite convinced that, had you not had the outlet of your books, books that are full of murder, poisonings, betrayals of the worst kind, you yourself may even have been tempted to commit a heinous crime.”

I won’t spoil the book by revealing any more, but suffice it to say that the plot relies on Christie’s superior knowledge of poisons. Meanwhile, superintendent William Kenward, deputy chief constable – a real plod of a plod – and the cynical reporter Jim Sykes manage to get things entirely wrong.

What Wilson gets exactly right is that very peculiar shade of darkness in Christie, which is neither pitch-black nor eerie, but rather hard and shiny. Her father died when she was just 11, she was a volunteer nurse during the first world war, and it wasn’t long after her mother’s death that Archie announced he was having his affair. Wilson captures the way in which a fundamental aspect of her novels derives from this unique set of experiences: the knowledge that people are never quite what they seem; that they are unreliable, and subject to disappear and to disappoint. He makes Christie alive to her own horrible imaginings.

At the end of the novel, Christie ends up owing a favour to a man working for a shady Whitehall “department” who has befriended her; she is about to set off on a second adventure. Christie enthusiasts will know that her second marriage – to Max Mallowan, professor of western Asiatic archaeology at the University of London – took her around the world on digs, providing her with all sorts of interesting insights and experiences which informed many of her novels, including the much-loved Death on the Nile (1937). I spy a series in which Christie becomes a kind of loaf-haired Bond. Absurd. Audacious. Thrilling.

• Ian Sansom’s latest County Guides mystery is Essex Poison (4th Estate). A Talent for Murder is published by Simon & Schuster. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only.


Ian Sansom

The GuardianTramp

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