I had high hopes for this book. Andrew Wilson wrote an excellent biography of Patricia Highsmith, and I looked forward to seeing his research and writing skills applied to this ambitious projects which sought to feature Dame Agatha Christie as the protagonist in her very own mystery: the mystery of her disappearance for 11 days in December 1926.
A Talent for Murder starts out with Agatha standing on the platform in a London Underground station, contemplating the impending breakdown of her marriage and her husband’s affair with a younger woman.
Wherever I turned my head I thought I saw her, a woman people described as striking, beautiful even.
That would never have been my choice of words.
Of course, when I looked again across the glove counter or perfume display it was never her, just another dark-haired woman trying to make the best of herself. But each of these imagined glimpses left a piece of scar tissue across my heart. I told myself to stop thinking of her – I would simply pretend the situation did not exist – but then I caught sight of another pale-faced brunette and the dull ache in my chest would flare up again and leave me feeling nauseous.
Suddenly, she feels disorientated and anxious, and cannot shake the feeling that someone is trying to push her onto the rails.
It is a great start to the book. Not only does Wilson create the very atmosphere of a crowded tube platform, but he also starts the story by recreating a scene from Christie’s own story The Man in the Brown Suit. And while I read this part with the knowledge of how the scene develops in Christie’s book it added some anticipation to see how Wilson would handle the scene.
As it turn out, he chose to make alterations and introduce a character that would have been more at home in Strangers on a Train (by Highsmith). I thought the idea of introducing a sociopath from Highsmith’s world into the world of Agatha Christie was fun, exciting and somewhat of a geeky dream as it would allow to play around with a bit of a face-off between the seriously messed up minds of Highsmith’s imagination and the mostly proper and twee characters of Christie’s creation.
Seriously, I loved that idea. And I really liked the way that Wilson made the effort to emulate Christie’s dialogues and give the book a real 1920s feel to it.
This is no mean feat. So many authors fail at this.
And, yet, A Talent for Murder did not manage to impress me. The plot that followed the initial scenes in London were contrivances that somewhat ignored Christie’s own character and thus were just too unbelievable. The idea that Christie, even in her unravelling state of mind, could be blackmailed into committing a crime of the sort proposed in this book, was just too unrealistic. And I mean really too unrealistic. Agatha may have plumbed the depths of human villainy in her novels, but it is a fundamental mistake to presume that an author who can dream up a plot is also capable of living it.
Anyway, from this point on, the plot developed in ways which made very little sense, with characters acting ways that were inconsistent and showed that maybe the author had either rushed through some of the decisions or tried just a little too hard to shoe-horn real life events in Dame Agatha’s biography into the life of the fictional characters – and let me say that I believe some of them were anachronistic.
Now, if a reader is able to disconnect the real Agatha from this book, or does not know or care much about the real Agatha, this book would probably work a treat. I mean, there really are some great ideas in this, that is, if the reader can also ignore some of the silly plot decisions. However, I was not able to do this. If the book proposes to be based on the real Agatha, then I find it difficult not to compare the proposed character with the real one. Maybe I’m just too much of a fan. I take the same issue with pastiches and fan-fiction based on other favourite characters – real and fictional – of mine.
I shared an example of one of the silly plot decisions in an earlier update, and it is not just that I could not make sense of the scene, the idea that the fictional Agatha would seemingly lack basic knowledge about chemistry and pharmacy also seemed to show some sloppiness on the part of the author. As most of us readers will know – and I suppose readers pick up A Talent for Murder because they already have some knowledge of Agatha Christie’s life and work – the real Agatha had a working knowledge of chemistry and poisons which she acquired when training with a pharmacists in her youth. It therefore just makes no sense that she would conjure up a plot with another character that slipped up a detail such as where to get the ingredients to make saline solution.
There were just a few too many moments like this in the book, and after a while this became jarring enough for me that it could no longer be compensated for with Wilson great writing style.
So, what I have concluded from my venture into this new series is the following:
1. I now know who’d win in a fight between Highsmith’s and Christie’s fictional characters, and
2. Fiction based on my favourite crime writers is something I really should not seek out. Wilson’s book, the first in a series, is not the first to try this and it is not the first of similar premises that I have tried to read. A Talent for Murder follows in the steps of Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer which features Pat Highsmith and Nicola Upson’s series, which is loosely based on the life and character of Josephine Tey.
I have not tried Jill Patterson-Walsh’s books, yet, but chances are I should give them a miss.