Book Review: ‘A Talent for Murder’ by Andrew Wilson

Today, I have the pleasure of reviewing Andrew Wilson’s new novel, A Talent for Murder (Atria Books).

As a crime genre enthusiast and avid fan of Dame Agatha Christie (“The Queen of Mystery”), the premise was simply irresistible: the author’s infamous eleve-day disappearance in December of 1926—a real-life unsolved mystery—reimagined through the lens of fiction. An ingenious concept, indeed—and one ripe for the telling, given that Christie never spoke of the incident herself and also neglected to include it in her autobiography.

As the story opens, Christie—a rising star in the literary world thanks to the success of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd—is suffering a personal crisis that threatens her professional livelihood. Already in despair over the recent death of her mother, she is further conflicted by the knowledge that her husband, Archibald (“Archie”), has been having an affair with a younger woman and wants a divorce. These stressors have left her with a hopeless case of writer’s block even as her publisher anticipates the delivery of her next novel. Few options seem palatable, and then the inevitable desperation comes.

A Talent For Murder

As in real life, Wilson’s Christie kisses her seven-year-old daughter, Rosalind, goodbye on the evening of December 3rd and then disappears from her Berkshire home in a Morris Cowley. The car is found abandoned the next morning at Newlands Corner near Guildford but there is no trace of its driver. A massive search ensues, drawing in the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers, but scant evidence is found; rather, speculation and innuendo ensue. Popular theories about Christie’s vanishing act range from murder to suicide to publicity stunt.

When Christie reappeared on December 14, those closest to her would claim that she had complete amnesia. No better explanation would ever come.

In A Talent for Murder, Wilson—a veteran biographer and novelist—provides a backstory that necessitates just such a proclamation (and one that Christie herself would likely laud). As a bereaved Christie is waiting to board a train, she is thrust violently forward toward the tracks—and then, just as suddenly, pulled back from the brink of almost certain tragedy. Her tormentor/savior is one Dr. Patrick Curs, who is intimately aware of Christie’s current circumstances—and who plans to use them to his own advantage.

Curs, too, is trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who won’t grant him a divorce. Well versed in Christie’s mind for murder, he enlists the novelist to plot his wife’s demise—and uses the dual threats of scandal (Archie’s infidelity) and violence (Rosalind’s safety) to ensure her complicity. Despite a complete lack of desire to cause harm to anybody, let alone an unsuspecting housewife, Christie is nevertheless at a loss for acceptable alternatives. Fortunately, her expertise in one specialized area affords her a prospective advantage over her blackmailer. But can she actually pull off an outstanding feat of misdirection or will she become the very kind of person she despises?

Meanwhile, Christie’s disappearance has become front-page news. In addition to law enforcement’s investigation into her whereabouts (led by the overzealous Superintendent William Kenward, who would surely exasperate Poirot), young Una Crowe—herself struggling to come to terms with the loss of a parent—launches an unsanctioned inquiry. Encouraged by the enigmatic Davison, who hopes her newfound journalistic aspirations will break the spell of grief, the intrepid reporter-in-the-making’s intuition proves to be largely on point. But the closer she gets to the truth, the more of a liability she becomes.

Andrew Wilson seamlessly melds fact with fiction, and the result is a stunner of a novel that reads like a true crime caper. He intersperses fantastical flourishes with tidbits of Christie’s biography and oeuvre, ultimately achieving a style markedly reminiscent of the grand dame’s yet still very much his own. With characters both cunning and compassionate (including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a certain spinster with sparkling blue eyes), a multitude of murderous means and motives (featuring Christie’s own proclivities), and a denouement that’s equally provocative and poetic, A Talent for Murder is an absorbing page-turner that celebrates Agatha Christie’s legacy even as it establishes one of its own.

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