Jul. 6th, 2017

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Seamlessly blending fact and fiction, Andrew Wilson's A Talent for Murder takes Agatha Christie's notorious disappearance in December 1926 and turns it into something rather more sinister.

Struggling with The Mystery of Blue Train and with her marriage to Archie in trouble, Agatha Christie finds herself targeted by a particularly unpleasant and intelligent blackmailer. The man, a keen fan of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, uses the threat of publicity to force Agatha to engineer her own disappearance. He has her drive to Newlands Corner, where he forces her to abandon her car, before arranging for her to travel to Harrogate. Here he plans to have Agatha use her cunning writer's mind to come up with a foolproof way to murder his estranged wife.

Meanwhile, back in Surrey, the disappearance of Agatha Christie has caught the attention of the local police, with Superintendent William Kenward, the Deputy Chief Constable, taking charge of the search. From the first, Kenward comes across as an old school copper sadly out of his depth. He devotes increasing amounts of time and effort to having the surroundings of Newlands Corner and the Silent Pool search, taking the edge off his doubts with nips from the bottle of scotch he keeps in his bottom draw.

Rather more successful is Una Crowe, daughter of the diplomate Sir Eyre Crowe, who takes it into her head to use the Christie Mystery to build a journalistic reputation for herself. Aided somewhat by her great friend John Davison, who is something spooking in the Foreign Office, Crowe throws herself into events, taking to Archie Christie, Nancy Neele, Superintendent Kenward, anyone who has the slightest inking of the case. Unfortunately, her persistance starts to pay off, putting her in terrible danger when she starts to close in on the puppetmaster.

A Talent for Murder pulls off the neat trick of taking a set of lightly sketched historical events and building a full-on psychological mystery out of them.

Wilson's fictional Agatha is an engaging lead, whose detailed knowledge of poisons and ability to plot are highly prized by her blackmailer; as notes on a couple of occasions: there's something slightly odd about someone who seems so outwardly normal but whose mind can imagine one involved murder after another. Una Crowe also comes across well; an ingenious young woman, finally coming out of the depression that has captured her following the death of her father, with a tendency to sail to close to the wind. Her friendship with Davison — Una drops plenty of hints that Davison is gay in an era when it was illegal — is nicely done, with Wilson resisting the temptation to make Davison the Spy a deus ex machina.

Enjoyable stuff and best still, the book ends with an extract from the next novel in the series which presumably follows Agatha Christie as she travels to Las Palmas in January 1927...


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