As well as being a novel about what may have happened to renowned English author Agatha Christie during the 11 days in which she disappeared in December 1926, On The Blue Train by Vogel Literary Award winner Kristel Thornell, is a novel about love relationships.
What makes these deep relationships work and what can make them untangle.
In this sense, this sensitively written and thoroughly researched work endeavours to explain what led to the breakdown of Agatha Christie’s first marriage, and her mysterious disappearance.
Agatha Christie herself never spoke of the 11 days in which she disappeared, not even in her autobiography.
Many theories have put forward as to why she did it: everything from it being a publicity stunt to further her (at that stage) fledgling career as a writer, to a more serious medical explanation; a form of amnesia where someone goes somewhere for a period of time but has no recollection of it.
Indeed the undisputed Queen of Crime’s disappearance may be her biggest mystery, and one that she herself was unable to solve.
Christie disappeared shortly after her first husband, Colonel Archie Christie, announced he was in love with golfer Nancy Neele and wanted a divorce.
Agatha and Archie had a young daughter called Rosalind, and Agatha apparently did her best to dissuade her husband from leaving her.
Little is mentioned of Rosalind in this work, except a few pages where Teresa laments that “mother and daughter were too unlike for their love to be altogether natural.”
There seems to be a real sadness that her daughter is closer to her husband.
Checking into a hotel under a pseudonym that used the surname of the woman her husband had fallen in love with, Teresa Neele, Agatha Christie became a resident of the Harrogate Hydro Hotel for 11 days as searches of up to 1000 men were mounted to look for her.
Stories about her disappearance appeared in the newspapers almost daily and even made the front page of The New York Times, but amazingly, none of the hotel guests recognized her.
In this novel Agatha enjoys the freedom on anonymity by going shopping with other hotel guests, visiting baths and generally enjoying herself.
It is believed a musician in the band at the hotel eventually recognized her and reported her to police.
In this account of what might have happened during those 11 days, Agatha is befriended by a young single man called Harry who quickly becomes enamoured with her.
They are both going through heartbreak: his wife left him recently. The story hinges on their unfolding relationship. As they become friends they share their grief, uncertain as to how their relationship should proceed.
Harry realizes early on that ‘Teresa’ is the missing novelist the newspapers have been reporting missing, and Thornell creates wonderful tension as he wonders whether to let on. What will Teresa do if she realizes he knows her secret?
When asked if the book is historical fiction, Thornell commented: “I see it as a fictional imagining of an episode from the life of an historical figure …the man my protagonist makes friends with is ‘purely’ fiction. Little is known about her interactions with people during those days.”
That said, Thornell undertook extensive research for this project. She credits Agatha Christie’s autobiography as a source, as well as books that have been written on Agatha Christie by Janet Morgan and Laura Thompson, a book extensively edited by Mathew Prichard and materials from the Christie archive at the University of Exeter.
Here are the things in the novel that we know definitely happened:
•Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days, from 3 – 14 December 1926.
•During this time she stayed at Swan Hydro, now the Old Swan Hotel, in Harrogate in England
•Agatha’s husband, Colonel Archie Christie, fell in love with Nancy Neele.
•Agatha checked into a hotel under the name of Teresa Neele, using the surname of the woman her husband had fallen in love with.
•She had a real-life infatuation with an Australian, Frick Bell, when she was in Queensland in 1922.
•A large search for Agatha Christie was mounted by police and the newspapers ran stories on her disappearance daily.
Thornell’s insight into human nature is every bit as astute as the Queen of Crime herself.
There is great attention to detail and nuance in this carefully considered work, which I would personally classify as an historical fiction literary novel.
Harry’s first impressions of Agatha (Teresa) are very perceptive: “Teresa Neele was alone and apparently reclusive, and maybe wilted…she was singular in a way he couldn’t identify…he couldn’t let go of the impression that she was suffering, or endangered.
It quickened his heart.
“He noticed below her coat the green jumper and grey skirt she’d worn on three consecutive days. Surely, he reflected again, given her evident social standing, a sign that something was astray.”
But Teresa explains it easily, saying she left the bulk of her luggage with dear friends in Torquay as she isn’t sure how long she’ll be staying in Harrogate. “I decided it would be simpler for the time being to just buy a few things here,” she says.
Teresa uses her considerable imagination and intelligence to deflect questions from fellow travellers; a woman travelling alone in the 1920s would have been quite unusual. She invents a husband and child who have both passed away, knowing full well that etiquette of the day would have forbidden further questioning.
Although it’s difficult to imagine someone like Agatha Christie having writer’s block, a recurring theme of the book is ‘Teresa’s’ angst at wanting to write a letter to her husband but not knowing what to write. (The illusion of being Mrs Neele is unbroken as she refers to her husband as ‘Mr Neele’).
“She sat down at the writing table to see whether she could dispatch the postponed letter to Mr Neele. A quick note might be sufficient.
“But no development, apparently, on that front. No co-operative phrases to be had… the very touch of the pen against her hand was irksome. Hateful. Would she have been able to get something out on a typewriter? …what she could, should, do was go out to buy more clothes.”
Ideas for a new book swirl around in her head, but she can’t get that down on paper either.
Something about a woman on a train who gets killed. In real life, we know that Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train was published in 1928, two years after her disappearance.
Among other things, Teresa and Harry go for long walks, and on one of them she reveals her detailed knowledge of poisons – strychnine, mercury bichloride, opium, morphine and laudanum – explaining that she once worked in dispensary, (Agatha Christie worked in a dispensary during Word World I and it was here that she developed her knowledge of poisons), and scarring poor Harry, who worries she may be planning to harm herself).
Beautiful descriptive writing make the story come alive, with passages such as one where Teresa does her best to shake off her pervading feeling of sadness, which is “like the darkness of an alleyway that may have a certain shady allure but into which, after a hesitation, you would not venture.”
The senses come alive with passages describing her surroundings: “Wood smoke and the opalescent silver and cream flecks of slate wood tiles. Clean, pristine cold. Light so fleecy it might have been filtered by cloud, when in fact the sky was quite clear. Even the houses had a plush look, as if it were actually some stiff velvet or moss.”
The days go past, and Teresa tries to resolve what she should do. She seems to be in a cozy bubble, a timeless state, not worrying about the future or where she is or what she should be doing.
Thornell has created a floating sense of denial as Teresa fills her days. She keeps her thoughts to the surface and only towards the end of the 11 days does she allow herself to think about the other woman.
Her thoughts stray to ‘Shy Thing’, a man called Frick Bell, whom Agatha met in real life when she visited Australia.
She realises what she felt for him was something that was missing her in marriage, but tries not to let it worry her. His interest in her makes her feel as though “he’d have climbed into her mind with a lamp, if he could have done, to investigate the dimmer regions of her character.”
In an effort to make sense of her feelings, she comes up with an extraordinarily insightful way of describing what she was experienced:
“If you were to consider the mind as a train, you might say she had simply sat for a while in a different compartment to the one she normally occupied as a wife. Such adjustments happened more easily when one was away from home. They were natural and perhaps necessary for successful travel.
To contentedly inhabit new surrounds, one had perforce to turn away from certain habits, preferences, affections, and so on. She was a good traveller, predisposed.
“In the compartment in which she traversed an afternoon storm with Shy Thing it was disclosed to her that she had been missing something. Badly. For it was still possible, at thirty, to feel altogether alive in the company of a man, for her dreaming heart and her skin to lean together.
The smallest gesture between two people could still have a bite that seemed part animal, part mythical. She was shocked to have nearly forgotten that.
“In her marriage, yes, there had been a certain lack. She must have known. She knew that she and her husband had been awkward together at times…that there was an increasing irritation or chafing, causing stray comments to curdle tension, leaving tenderness sporadic….her husband had also felt a lack, of course.”
Kristel Thornell describes her depiction of Agatha and her husband’s lack of intimacy as “a creative response to what her autobiography and the two biographies I worked with seem to imply…both biographers give the impression that Agatha had become less confident of her physical attractiveness.”
Tension builds to an almost fever pitch as Harry confronts Teresa about her identity. What does the future hold of each of them?
She feels entrapped and is unsure how to proceed. But denial protects her: “It wouldn’t take him (her husband) long to come for her, halt raving with worry and remorse and remembered love.”
But the days go by, and he does not come.
Thornell borrows some of the real-life details as to what happened when Teresa’s husband eventually does come to get her. The hotel is swarming with police and reporters, and Agatha, wearing double-stranded pearls for further reinforcement appears.
Her walk is “that of a reinstated monarch,” and she gives a “little gallant toss of the head” as she steps in the taxi that will take her away.
This wonderful book is a testament to Thornell’s innate writing ability.
She is faithful to the lovely language of the day, with phrases such as “he was elderly and moustachioed” creating a wonderful evocation of yesteryear.
Her ability to create tension and mystery in cozy surrounds – just as Agatha Christie did herself in all 66 crime novels – is tantalizing and addictive.
And even more importantly, Thornell captures Agatha Christie’s amazing sense of humility. In real life, apparently no one was more surprised than Agatha Christie herself when she became famous.
Yet she was an incredible writer: the Guinness Book of Records list her as the best-selling novelist of all time, with some 2 billion copies of her books sold.
Agatha Christie would be proud.
Meldi Arkinstall, Spotlight Stories, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
** Postnote: Agatha Christie later married archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan. They remained happily married until her death in 1976. She accompanied Sir Mallowan on many digs in Egypt, and this led to a number of her books being set there.
*** The character of Miss Marple first appeared as a character in Agatha Christie’s novels in 1930, four years after her disappearance.