Thursday, September 28, 2017

Q&A with Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson is the author of the new novel A Talent for Murder, which features Agatha Christie as the main character. His other books include Mad Girl's Love Song and Beautiful Shadow, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Washington Post. He lives in London.

Q: What made you decide to write this novel featuring Agatha Christie as the main character?

A: I had always been fascinated by Christie's real-life  disappearance in December 1926, when she went missing for 11 days.  She left her home in Berkshire and drove to Surrey, where she abandoned her car.

The next day the police found the vehicle which contained her driving license and fur coat, but there was no sign of Agatha. There was a huge hunt for her,  involving 15,000 volunteers, bloodhounds, aeroplanes. Her husband was the prime suspect - the police suspected him of killing Agatha so he could marry his mistress.  

Agatha turned up in Harrogate, claiming to have suffered from an episode of amnesia. Agatha very rarely talked about it and missed it out entirely from her autobiography.

I started to wonder … what if there was more to the disappearance than the official line that she had suffered from amnesia? What if someone was trying to manipulate her like a character in a novel? What is someone wanted to use her skills at plotting and she was forced to carry about a murder on their behalf? 

Q: What type of research did you need to do to write the novel, and was there anything that you found out that particularly surprised you?

A: I looked at contemporary newspapers reports of the case - Christie’s disappearance dominated the media and was on the front page of all the papers. It even made it across the Atlantic and was featured in The New York Times.

I also looked at witness statements, given by people who saw Agatha in the hotel. And I consulted various biographies of Christie too.

I had a card index on which I wrote down all the “facts” of the case - what we know for certain Agatha was doing on any day during that 11-day period. And then into this “black hole” - the things we didn’t know - I injected a crime story. 

One of the things that surprised me the most was the fact that fake news existed then just as it does now. Some unscrupulous journalists invented stories - a couple of reporters persuaded a barmaid to go with them to an abandoned cabin in some woods in Surrey near the site of the disappearance.

They scattered some talcum powder down on the ground and asked the barmaid to stand in it. They took a photograph and the next day  the image appeared in a paper next to the headline, “Is this footprint that of Mrs. Christie?” 

Q: How much did you try to recapture Christie's own writing and plotting style as you worked on the book?

A: I didn’t want the novel to be a pastiche or a parody and it had to be enjoyable for a 21st century reader. So it’s probably darker than many of Christie’s novels, with a greater depth of psychology too.

I’ve also been influenced by Patricia Highsmith - she was the subject of my first biography, Beautiful Shadow - so I hope I’ve combined some elements from Highsmith with Agatha’s genius for plotting.

Q: What's your own favorite Agatha Christie mystery, and have you always been a fan of her books?

A: They change over time but my favourites include The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Death on the Nile, A Pocket Full of Rye and Sleeping Murder.

Yes, I’ve always been a fan, and she was the bridge between childhood books and more adult literature. I first read her when I was 11 and when I was 12 my English teacher asked each of us in his class to submit a piece of extended writing. A few weeks later I handed in a 46-page story (which I sill have) called A German Mystery, which was very clearly influenced by Christie.

Q: What are you working on now? 

The second  novel in the series, A Different Kind of Evil, is out in spring of 2018. It’s set in Tenerife, where Agatha travelled to in early 1927. She is sent there to investigate the discovery of a partly-mummified body of a British government agent which is found in a cave. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The book has been optioned for TV by the production company Origin (the people behind Death Comes to Pemberley, The Sense of an Ending, The Crimson Petal and the White). 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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