Nina de Gramont’s The Christie Affair is a beguiling novel of star-crossed lovers, heartbreak, revenge, and murder—and a brilliant re-imagination of one of the most talked-about unsolved mysteries of the twentieth century.
Every story has its secrets.
Every mystery has its motives.
“A long time ago, in another country, I nearly killed a woman. It’s a particular feeling, the urge to murder. It takes over your body so completely, it’s like a divine force, grabbing hold of your will, your limbs, your psyche. There’s a joy to it. In retrospect, it’s frightening, but I daresay in the moment it feels sweet. The way justice feels sweet.”
The greatest mystery wasn’t Agatha Christie’s disappearance in those eleven infamous days, it’s what she discovered.
London, 1925: In a world of townhomes and tennis matches, socialites and shooting parties, Miss Nan O’Dea became Archie Christie’s mistress, luring him away from his devoted and well-known wife, Agatha Christie.
The question is, why? Why destroy another woman’s marriage, why hatch a plot years in the making, and why murder? How was Nan O’Dea so intricately tied to those eleven mysterious days that Agatha Christie went missing?
Disclaimer: Although I received an Uncorrected Digital Galley of this book from the publisher, the opinions below are my own.
If there was a book I wanted to love, it was this. When Agatha Christie went missing in 1926, she was discovered in the town where I grew up: Harrogate, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England. In the almost 100 years since then, Harrogate has thrived – partly – on the story of Christie’s disappearance. The annual Crime Writing Festival takes place at the hotel where she was found: The Old Swan, formerly known as the Swan Hydropathic Hotel. She never gave an explanation as to how she ended up so far from her home in the south of England, although some theories have been put forward. The Christie Affair sounded – to me – like a novel based on some of that speculation. I was looking forward to reading a book set in 1920’s Harrogate. Did Christie stay in her room, never venturing out, or did she explore the spa town? Would I read of her tasting the waters and visiting the famous Bettys café on Cambridge Crescent? Would she walk past the War Memorial erected in 1923 and pay her respects to the dead?
If that’s a book you want to read, you’ll be as sorely disappointed as I was.
The first thing to notice is that The Christie Affair is written in the voice of Nan O’Dea, Colonel Christie’s mistress. Which would be fine when Nan recounts her past, except she also describes events she doesn’t witness. In some cases, she reports what Archie Christie has told her, but she also describes events and emotions she couldn’t possibly know. Nan believes she’s a reliable narrator but how can she be? She likens herself to one of Agatha’s fictional detectives, putting the puzzle pieces together, but a detective doesn’t put words in people’s mouths. In a court of law, much of what she says would be dismissed as speculation or hearsay. Might this book have been better if it had been written in a broader third person perspective?
This book also falls short when it comes to character names. Agatha and Archie Christie are known by their real names. For some reason, however, other historical people have their names changed. Notably, Nan O’Dea’s real name was Nancy Neele, something most Christie afficionados know. Why was it changed? Was it because of certain actions fictional Nan undertakes during the story? I don’t want to spoil anything, but some of the events described could be charged as defamatory.
On a personal level, I was disappointed by the lack of Harrogate landmarks. No one goes to Bettys (opened in 1919), and no one discusses the sulphur water, or spa treatments, in any great detail. At one point, Nan describes the Harrogate library as “small and cozy.” I always found the Harrogate library, built in 1906, to be rather cavernous.
I wanted to give up on this book more than once, the first time I wasn’t even one-fifth of the way through. But I wanted to see how it would end. When and where would the attempted murder – described in the book’s overview – take place? There’s a stunner of a reveal towards the end, worthy of the first Mrs. Christie herself. I wish this novel had been totally fictional, “inspired by Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance.” Perhaps I wouldn’t have been as disappointed.
One last thing: I read an Uncorrected Digital Galley of The Christie Affair, in which there isn’t an Author’s Note. Is there one in the published copy? I would’ve liked to know why the author wrote in the manner she did. Why do some characters keep their real names? Why was the hotel name changed? Why are some biographical details different to known facts? Was the author able to visit Harrogate or did she have to do her research online due to the pandemic? If I knew the answers to these questions, perhaps my enjoyment of the novel would have improved dramatically.
Publisher: St Martin’s Press (a division of Macmillan Publishers)
Publication Date: 01 February 2022
NINA DE GRAMONT
Nina de Gramont (also known as Marina Gessner) lives in coastal North Carolina with her husband, the writer David Gessner. She teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is almost always in the company of her two dogs, Missy and Isabelle. She’s the author of the acclaimed Meet Me at the River, Every Little Thing in the World, Gossip of the Starlings, The Last September, as well as The Distance from Me to You, which has recently been optioned for a movie.
Much of The Christie Affair takes place at what is now The Old Swan Hotel, in Harrogate, in northern England. The hotel’s history goes back over 200 years, but the reason for its existence is the therapeutic spring water for which the town is known. The first mineral spring was discovered in 1571 by William Slingsby, who noted it possessed similar properties to the water of Spa, Belgium. The town now has approximately 75,000 residents.