Book Review: A Talent for Murder

A Talent for Murderby Andrew WilsonAtria Books, 2017The melodramatic mystery novel-worthy crux of Andrew Wilson's new book A Talent for Murder isn't fictional at all. In the winter of 1926, the famous novelist Agatha Christie disappeared for ten days, sparking an enormous multi-pronged search throughout England. Scotland Yard was deployed in force, the public was urged to keep their eyes wide open, dogs were sent to poke their noses into tea parlors. Eventually Christie was found, living in a hotel and registered under “Nancy Neele,” the name of the lover she'd recently discovered her husband Archie had been seeing in secret for quite some time.Speculation abounded, of course, and the fact that Christie herself was scrupulously tight-lipped about the whole bizarre incident only served to multiply the amateur guesswork. The main theory – bolstered by Christie – revolved around some kind of amnesia, the mere mention of which is guaranteed to attract novelists like a dunked leg of lamb attracts swarming piranha.Wilson is the latest of these, and A Talent for Murder is both a pastiche and a speculation: in Wilson's imagining, the successful young novelist is in London to visit her agent when she feels a pressure on her back while she's standing on a train platform and is then instantly snatched from falling by a mysterious man named Patrick Kurs, who, once he has her in a private conversation, immediately makes the kind of proposition that every self-respecting Christie fan will be expecting: he tells her that he'll refrain from publicizing the details of her husband's infidelity if she'll do him a small favor first – he wants her to commit a murder for him.There follows a smart, slickly-done novel in which Wilson imbues his heroine with a talent she didn't possess in real life – improvisational quick thinking – and sets her in a fairly complicated duel of wits with the plans of Patrick Kurs. Wilson knows the facts of his gimmick intimately and sometimes subtly slips them into the plot. When his Agatha Christie is cleaning out a house after her mother's death, for example, she herself rather heavy-handedly foreshadows the uncertainties of her later famous disappearance:

What with the ten- or eleven-hour days, the boxes full of family mementos, the moth-eaten clothes, the piles of Grannie's dresses, and the crowd of memories from my childhood that threatened to transport me back to the past, I must have lost my senses for a moment. I had been asked to write a check and I had signed not my own name but that of Blanche Amory, a character from a Thackeray novel. What had come over me? Was the same thing happening to me now? Was I losing touch with reality?

In a real sense, that heavy-handedness is built into A Talent for Murder, which will serve as both a warning and an enticement, because when Wilson pastiches Christie's own style, he does a very, very good job – which means he's faithfully reproducing her weaknesses right alongside her strengths. Even die-hard Christie fans will grudgingly admit those weaknesses; her prose can be flat, cheap, and manipulative, and many of her plots are purely ridiculous howlers (the train-station starting point of A Talent for Murder looks directly at this, since Christie's train-related novels, however beloved, are unfailingly her silliest). Wilson is a faithful acolyte of the Grand Dame, and there are plenty of passages that show this with a clarity readers will either find endearing or appalling, depending on their own acolyte status:

“I could not shake off the sense that any moment something awful would happen.”“Now, just a few things you should know about Mrs. Christie.”“Oh yes,” said Una, her mood brightening.“I suppose I may as well tell you the whole story, start at the beginning, just as a novelist would.”Una went to take out her notebook from her handbag, but Kurs gestured for her to put it away. “Best if you don't write this down. This is just background information, so you know what's what.”“I see,” said Una.“I've been following Mrs. Christie's career for a while, but my interest peaked on the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I take it you've read the book.”“Of course. I adored it.”

A Talent for Murder also shares a key element in common with Agatha Christie's most popular books: there is no trace of suspense, nor can there be, because the reader knows the sleuth is in no danger. Miss Marple does not risk being bludgeoned to death by the local baronet, no matter how much she might deserve it; Hercule Poirot will not be fatally poisoned at the book's climax, regardless of how many readers are hoping for it. Even more true in Wilson's case, since we know his protagonist not only isn't going to be caught and charged with murder but also that she's going to show up in a hotel lobby in ten days without so much as a chipped fingernail. So in this as in so many other ways, Christie fans will feel right at home in the fictional world Wilson has created. It's a comfortably enjoyable world, but here's hoping Wilson never returns to it. Agatha Christie Investigates is just about the last thing the mystery genre needs; let the poor woman get back to writing.