The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont – Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance in a whole new fictional light

The Christie Affair by Nina De Gramont

This book must have one of the most memorable blurb lines ever: “In 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days. Only I know the truth of his disappearance…I’m her husband’s mistress”. Everyone with any knowledge of Agatha Christie’s life will know something about her famous absence and huge search following her husband Archie’s announcement that he wanted a divorce. Much has been written about this event, and it has been the subject of speculative television programmes (including a memorable Doctor Who episode!). In this well written novel Nan O’Dea, the woman Archie claimed to be in love with, tells her story in a narrative that makes extensive use of flashback to her earlier life and its challenges. As she describes other times and places she is not always the omnipresent narrator as there are passages which she did not witness, people she never met. There are many twists and turns in this fictional account of a pre Second World War media event, a lot of drama and some loss. Sometimes the focus changes very abruptly, and the chapter headings describe the following as “The Disappearance” to indicate that these are pages set within the eleven days rather than earlier. This is an engaging novel which really caught my interest, with its detailed swings in subject and style, and proved very difficult to put down.

Possibly the greatest achievement of this novel is the collection of characters whose reality leaps from the page. From Nan herself to a disillusioned police officer, Teddy, the Christie’s daughter to a mysterious young Irish man, each have their part to play in a story coloured by an all too recent World War. Agatha is perhaps shown in a different light, not in herself the focus of all of the novel, but at the centre of much of the action. Her mysterious disappearance shakes Archie to his core, as he alternates between the bereft husband in tears to the chief suspect for murder. He emerges as a somewhat weak character in terms of his decisions, far from the dashing pilot that he had earlier seemed. He definitely does not have the answers, in common with virtually every other character in the book. The somewhat harrowing descriptions of a young woman’s life in Ireland dominate a significant part of the novel, and go some way to overshadow the other events, including murder. There are also some powerful descriptions of settings as the disappearance of at least Agatha seems to be partly explained in terms of places, a hotel, a hideaway for more than one person. There are also some themes discussed that are cleverly inserted in the narrative, including religious practice and belief, damage done to individuals and the implication of living secret lives.

This book is not a whodunnit in the Christie tradition, a thriller or even a book totally focused on a notorious disappearance. It is a cleverly constructed novel with great depth, and is the product of a lot of research not only into Agatha but also what happened to many young women in the early part of the twentieth century. It comments in an interesting way on the motivation for actions by various characters, and the confusion that can result for other people. At least two men reflect the obvious and more subtle damage done by War, while women are differently damaged. I found this a fascinating character driven novel which swerves from the obvious and in doing so reveals deep secrets in a successful manner. I recommend this book as more than just another Agatha Christie based novel, an enjoyable picture of lives under stress.