Wednesday, July 12, 2017

NEW STUFF: A Talent for Murder - Andrew Wilson

A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson
Atria Books/Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-5001-4506-3
310 pp. $26
Publication date: July 11, 2017

Back in 1978 I remember reading (and later seeing the movie) Agatha by Kathleen Tynan. This was the first attempt by an novelist to concoct a reason for Agatha Christie’s mysterious two week disappearance in December 1926, following an argument with her husband about his affair with a young woman. Christie's strange relocation to a spa at Harrowgate (where she was registered under the same last name as her husband’s lover) was attributed to amnesia and depression. But before she was found the press dreamed up wild stories ranging from an elaborate publicity stunt to help sell her books to kidnapping to possible murder. Tynan’s story reduced the mystery to a preposterous revenge plot completely out of character for the real Agatha Christie. Now Andrew Wilson, biographer of Patricia Highsmith and many others, has tried his hand at spinning his own thriller to explain the same period when the Grand Dame of Mysterydom vanished for several days in A Talent for Murder (2017). Having completed extensive biographical and literary research Wilson’s story is more in keeping with Christie’s personality and temperament but it is nonetheless just as implausible. Knowing that he was first interested in the life and writing of Highsmith ought to prepare you for what is clearly a crime novel inspired by both women’s books.

Wilson has fashioned an odd story of grief, depression and murder by proxy. Like Highsmith’s first novel Strangers on a Train he has created his own version of Charles Bruno in the person of Patrick Kurs, a megalomaniac physician who is tired of his invalid wife and wants her gone. He manipulates Agatha into carrying out the murder of his wife by threatening her with exposure of her husband’s affair which he knows far too much about. Agatha is just beginning to enjoy success as a bestselling writer thanks to the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and any publicity of her philandering husband would be scandalous to her personal life and detrimental to her professional life.

Kurs has read …Ackroyd, of course, and commends Agatha for the tour de force novel. He cannot stop talking about it and how he greatly admires the character Dr. Sheppard, who he feels is one of Mrs. Christie’s greatest creations. In fact, he regards the fictional doctor “something of a hero” much to Agatha’s horror. Even more horrifying is Kurs' additional threat of doing harm to Agatha’s young daughter Rosamund if the novelist does not follow Dr. Kurs’ implicit instructions on how to do in his wife.

A parallel story follows when Agatha meets Una Crowe and her friend John Davison. Una aspires to become a reporter and will have ample opportunity to do so when Mrs. Christie suddenly goes missing. Sensational newspaper headlines spur on Una who is determined to beat the pros at their own game and reveal the truth herself. Her amateur sleuthing uncovers Archie Christie’s affair which leads her to Nancy Neele, the mistress, and eventually to the office of Nancy’s confidante, her private physician Dr. Patrick Kurs.

Wilson has done an admirable job of incorporating Christie’s biography into A Talent for Murder. However, there is an unfortunate avalanche of this information within the first two chapters that almost ruins the crime plot before it has a chance to even start. Wilson has chosen to emphasize the recent death of Christie’s mother and he allows Agatha to spend much of her time wallowing in nostalgia and reminiscing about her childhood. This is how she is coping with her grief, but coupled with the knowledge that her husband is cheating on her and planning to leave her Agatha’s emotional life and state of mind are always at the near breaking point.

In the parallel story of Una Crowe there is also the shadow of a recent family death. We learn just as much about Una’s interior life as we do Agatha’s. The idea that fragile women both dealing with overpowering grief are channeling their energies into writing and sleuthing is an interesting one. While Una is determined to solve the riddle of the missing mystery writer, Mrs. Christie is determined to outwit Dr. Kurs in his bizarre murder plot and expose him at his own game. Each woman is doing her best to live up to the memory of her lost relative as well as finding a way back to herself and the real world. The juxtaposition of these two stories and their eventual intersection and overlap are the most successful aspects of this often gripping book.

Unfortunately, the character work is often heavy handed and one gets the feeling that Wilson couldn’t decide between his two crime novelist influences. Several scenes with the stubborn Supt. Kenward who suspects Archie Christie of killing his wife become repetitious in how Christie continually denies all accusations levelled at him increasingly losing his patience and temper with the unimaginative policemen. There are also elements of Christie’s Westamacott novels that threaten to drown the story in domestic soap opera. But then Wilson will insert a delicious scene with ambiguous dialogue and hidden motives straight out of Highsmith that invigorates the narrative.

Andrew Wilson
(photo ©Johnny Ring)
The use of unusual poisons in the plot, however, remind us we are clearly in the world of Agatha Christie. There are several chapters devoted to Agatha’s research into choosing a unique poison with chemical properties that will allow her to thwart Dr. Kurs’ murder plot. The final third of the novel in which Agatha finally meets up with Flora Kurs, their joining forces against the amoral doctor coupled with the story of Una Crowe’s near coup de grace in uncovering the truth about Agatha’s disappearance make for the most exciting parts of this on-again-off-again thriller.

If in the end the novel is less of a whodunit honoring Christie and more homage to Highsmith’s fascination with criminal behavior and the dark recesses of human emotion that is no real fault. The reader unfamiliar with Agatha Christie’s personal life will benefit from Wilson’s intensive research with an ample amount of biographical background that renders her more lifelike and true than Kathleen Tynan’s Agatha. Wilson’s love of Christie’s work and respect for her storytelling and plotting skills are also on grand display. There are some well done Christie-like touches and requisite plot twists that may catch a few readers off guard and perhaps even elicit a gasp or two.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for this, John. I saw this title advertised online and my curiosity was piqued if not exactly at fever pitch, so I thought I'd wait to see what someone else thought of it first. I've never really had any interest in Agatha -- not sure why, possibly it just seems a little...sensation-grabbing to me, I suppose -- but your comments here make me think this is a little more focused and clear in its intent. So, as I say, thanks for a review that addresses most of the problems that I expected to have with this and largely comes away making me feel more positive about its chances!

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    1. The good -- and there is lots of it here -- far outweigh my nitpicking at its faults. Una is a fascinating foil for Agatha. IWilson is merciless with his characters. Be prepared for what m might be some jawdropping surprises. Maybe not a masterpiece, but I'd give it a sold 8 out of 10.

      One complaint I didn't write about: the mix of first person narration (Agatha) and third person narration when focussing on Una or anyone else. The traditional literature student in me balks at this kind of "modernism." Make up your mind, I say! Multiple viewpoints are fine in any novel, but why not use first person for everyone? Or third person for the whole book?

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    2. Hahaha, you remind me of a time when, in my callow youth and still reading living authors, I emailed one to say how much I had enjoyed their book...and to enquire about the use of alternating first- and third-person narration, something I'd not seen before. The reply I got was pretty much "I did it that way because that's the way I wanted to do it" and I remember thinking Yeah, but that doesn't really address the issues, does it?. I'm with you: pick a lane, dude!

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  2. I didn't really get on with this book. I did admire the way he wove in all the details from Christie's own life, and her books, and autobiography. But I had big problems with the plot, which didn't make sense to me at various points. And yes, the long chapters about the wasted investigation down south, and the encounters with Archie Christie, seemed repetitious and pointless, as we all knew there would be no results...

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    1. I sort of wished it had been more of a traditional whodunit. Kurs often came off too cartoonish, like one of Christie's master criminals in her early career. He seemed to be like an occult mesmerist with his easy sway over everyone. Maybe that was also part of Wilson's point -- that Agatha was meeting a man in her real life who was worse than the characters she had created.

      I didn't really buy into Nancy Neele confiding in Kurs about her personal life. Even though I was willing to accept his skill in extorting everyone he meets I found that bit the most outlandish part of the plot. It really seemed way too much like a Highsmith novel much of the time. She's clearly one of his influences.

      Have you read his first novel, one most definitely inspired by Highsmith: The Lying Tongue? Though very derivative and familiar I liked it much more because it focused almost exclusively on two characters. It also deals with writers.

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