In 1977, I was 10 years old and on holiday with my parents in an uninspiring (and no doubt rain-soaked) coastal town in North Wales. We were walking down the high street when we passed a bookshop. Something in the window caught my eye and I stopped, refusing to move a step further.
As I stared at the book on display—the posthumously published autobiography of Agatha Christie—I became possessed by a sense of longing that took me by surprise.
At that point I don’t think I had read any Christie, but my grandmother was an avid fan, and as a precocious aspiring writer, I wanted to know all about the Queen of Crime, particularly the secrets of her success (she is still the bestselling novelist of all time).
My parents dragged me away from the shop, refusing to purchase the book for me—they thought it was too “grown-up”—yet my interest in Christie only increased, and I soon devoured book after book. At 12, when my English teacher asked his students to write an extended piece of fiction, I handed in a 46-page story entitled “The German Mystery,” which I still have. From its opening lines it’s not hard to spot the source of my inspiration:
“Dr Bessner’s frail hand reached inside the ebony box and took out a white cyanide pill. He placed it in his dry mouth and swallowed with a loud gulp. There was a small whimper, his body jumped and fell back in his black leather car seat, gave a last gasp and he was dead.”
Throughout my teenage and adult life I kept returning to Christie’s books, especially when I was writing the biographies of dark subjects such as Patricia Highsmith, Sylvia Plath and Alexander McQueen. Yet it wasn’t until I moved to Devon, the location of Christie’s Greenway estate (now operated by the National Trust and open to the public), that I started to think about writing a novel about her.
I had always been fascinated by the 11 days in December 1926 when Christie disappeared—she abandoned her car in Surrey, leaving behind her fur coat and driving license. The police suspected that she might have been murdered by her husband, Archie, who wanted to leave her for his mistress, Nancy Neele. The search for clues involved 15,000 volunteers, airplanes and sniffer dogs, and the sensational story even made the front page of the New York Times. Christie—who was discovered at a hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, after checking in under the name Mrs. Neele—always maintained that she had been suffering from amnesia, but there were many elements of that claim that simply did not add up. My imagination started to work, and using police and newspaper reports as a framework, I came up with a crime story, an alternative history about why she disappeared.
We meet Christie when she is at her most vulnerable: Her mother had died earlier in 1926, her writing is not going well, and she has just discovered that her husband wants to leave her for another woman. In London to visit her literary agent, she is waiting for a tube when she feels someone push her into the path of the oncoming train. At the last minute, a doctor pulls her back to safety but the medic, Dr. Patrick Kurs, turns out to be a blackmailer with a sadistic streak.
At the end of the first chapter Kurs outlines his sinister plan: He wants Christie to kill on his behalf. “You, Mrs. Christie, are going to commit a murder,” he says to her. “But before then, you are going to disappear.” We know she disappeared in real life, but the question my novel poses is this: Christie wrote about murder, but would she—could she—ever commit one herself?
Andrew Wilson is a British journalist and the author of four biographies (including the award-winning Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith), several other nonfiction books and a novel, The Lying Tongue. A Talent for Murder, Wilson’s fictional take on the real-life 1926 disappearance of Agatha Christie, will be released in the U.S. on July 11.