Personal tragedy or publicity stunt? This is the question that has run circles around Agatha Christie’s fans since December 3, 1926, when Christie disappeared from her home after a fight with her husband, Archie. He had informed her that he wanted a divorce in order to marry his mistress, Nancy Neele, and when Agatha refused, he stormed out to be with Nancy. Christie got in her car and drove off. The car was discovered abandoned on the side of the road, setting off a nationwide hunt involving thousands of police, journalists and volunteers. The disappearance was reported in newspapers all over the world.
Christie was discovered eleven days later at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel, registered as a South African tourist named Theresa Neele. The official story is that depression over her fractured marriage created a state of temporary amnesia. For the rest of her life, she neither commented about it nor offered an explanation for what had happened. The mystery surrounding the mystery writer remained just that. It couldn’t have worked out better for Christie if she had planned it.
Of course, that is what many people believe she did – perhaps to make Archie worry and/or suffer (he didn’t do much of either; instead, he hung out with Nancy Neele), perhaps to capitalize on the sensational publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I find it a bit difficult to believe Christie would put her young daughter through this trial to boost sales, but you never know what success will drive a person to do . . .
This material has been gone over ad infinitum, in articles and books and, most notably in film. Kathleen Tynan wrote a haunting screenplay that was filmed by Michael Apted in 1979. Agatha starred none other than Vanessa Redgrave in the title role, and I thought she filled the author’s troubled heels perfectly here. So did the handsome Timothy Dalton as Archie. It has been a long time since I saw the film, and I can’t remember if Dustin Hoffman seemed out of place as an American journalist tracking Christie down to the spa and falling in love with her. But it sure seems like a whack-a-doo idea now. I don’t remember any chemistry between the two actors; at least, I can rest assured that Christie ultimately chose Max Mallowan as her second husband over a fictional menschof a journalist.
Agathawas more drama than mystery, but Tynan’s explanation of the author’s motives for disappearing struck an appropriately Christie-like note, with misdirection and reversal all playing their part in the denouement. And now, we have another film that takes place during Christie’s eleven-day disappearance. On the one hand, Agatha and the Truth of Murder, a British-made TV-movie now available on Netflix, doesn’t strive for realistic explanations at all. Like the growing multitude of mystery novels now appearing with Christie as the protagonist, this one is pure murder mystery, billing itself as an “alternative history drama.” On the other hand, it’s not a bad murder mystery at all, and it offers enough parallels to Christie’s work to qualify as a charming Easter egg for her fans.
The film opens with a scene that might remind you of 4:50 From Paddington. A middle-aged woman sits on a train, looking out the window. Instead of seeing a murder committed in the train rushing past, however, this woman is brutally murdered before our eyes by a mysterious man sharing her compartment. The victim, Florence Nightingale Shore, is a true-life character. She was the goddaughter of Florence Nightingale herself, and a successful and caring nurse in her own right. Her killer was never captured.
We know that Agatha Christie, like Dorothy Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, heck, every one of those Detection Club stalwarts found inspiration for their writing in true life murders (have you not read Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder? Do you not listen to Caroline Crampton’s marvelous podcast Shedunnit?), so it’s a nice note that screenwriter Tom Dalton uses Shore’s murder as the stepping off point for his story.
We progress to a scene that is almost too cute for this film, but I’m willing to cut Dalton a little slack for art’s sake. We find young Agatha Christie (a charming Ruth Bradley) on a golf course, talking to none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (hey, it’s Roose Bolton from GoT!!!) We know that these two knew – or at least knew about– each other: Christie grew up reading Doyle and based the Poirot/Hastings relationship on Holmes and Watson, while Doyle was known to have assisted police in trying to find the missing author (using, of all things, a psychic). Here, Doyle is a curmudgeon who demands that in order to earn his advice, she must play golf with him. It’s 1926, and Christie’s adored husband, a devout golfer, has informed her he is in love with his golfing partner, Nancy Neele, so you can imagine how Christie feels about the game. However, she grabs a club and proceeds to confess to Doyle that her writing is suffering. People are guessing the endings to her books, and she is struggling to find a plot for the next one.
I find the first part of this problem hard to believe. First of all, at this moment in time, Christie would have written only six books, the latest being her blockbuster, Roger Ackroyd. There’s no way she could be worried that everyone was catching on to this one! Of the other five novels, two were domestic plots, each with a surprise twist, and the other three were thrillers. The Secret Adversary and The Man in the Brown Suit both contain a super-criminal mastermind, and while the identity of each isn’t at all difficult to guess, that’s not really the point of either. And The Secret of Chimneys is not a murder mystery but a pure extravaganza. So what’s with the writers’ block? Clearly, the matter is personal, not professional, for we know that Christie struggled with her writing before, during and after the divorce: the two novels which follow Ackroyd– The Mystery of the Blue Train and The Big Four– are arguably the worst novels she wrote until she grew old.
As we see in the next couple of scenes, Agatha is in the throes of domestic strife, and she can barely hold it together for her adorable Rosalind, let alone craft a new novel. What she needs is a distraction.
Enter Mabel Rogers (Pippa Haywood), the real-life partner of Florence Nightingale Shore, who wants Christie to investigate the six-years-past unsolved murder of her beloved. (Does it remind you of Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd from A Murder Is Announced?) Yes, it’s stretching it to ask a writer of mysteries to become a sleuth herself, and even the fictional Agatha has the good sense to turn Mabel down. But then comes December 3, 1926: Agatha and Archie have their fight, Archie storms out to be with Nancy, and Agatha drives off to . . . Mabel’s flat, to offer her services.
Mabel’s investigation over the past six years has yielded a motley assortment of suspects. There’s Randolph, Florence’s greedy cousin, who inherited her trust fund; Daphne Miller, a young, pretty nurse who worked with Florence and nearly killed a patient, after which Florence got her fired; Zaki Hanachi, an impoverished foreigner who had gotten into Florence’s good graces; Travis Pickford, a boxer/thief, who had originally been suspected of the crime and then exonerated. And what about the other passenger in Florence’s carriage? Mabel says a man in the brown suit got on the train, but a heavier man disembarked.
Agatha contacts these folks, pretends she is a solicitor named Mary Westmacott (!), and invites them down to Florence’s house as potential heirs to a mysterious benefactor’s estate. She also includes Mrs. Pamela Rose, whom Florence had been traveling down to visit on the day she was attacked. Florence had tended to Mrs. Rose’s son, who had died of critical wounds he received on the battlefield. Mrs. Rose brings her younger son, Franklin, and nurse Daphne brings her avaricious father.
That’s eight people who knew Florence was traveling down on the train. Eight suspects gathered in a country mansion with the most famous mystery author of all time trying to figure out which of them killed Florence before they start making connections and discover the real reason they are there. And to keep the clock ticking faster, the newspapers are full of the revelation that mystery author Agatha Christie has been missing for 48 hours. Before long, a member of the house party is brutally murdered, and the police are summoned. Agatha now has to play a part with the authorities as well, hoping Inspector Dicks, fresh off what he considers a fruitless chase for a publicity-seeking writer, recognizes her.
The movie goes far in the opposite direction of drama and realism that Agatha established. This is a romp, pure and simple, and a happily effective one. The Christie adaptations by Sarah Phelps may make for more riveting (and uncomfortable) drama, and one could dismiss this as a sort of Hallmark Movie Presents-style ultra-cozy version of Christie. But with its assortment of Easter eggs for her fans, a well-hidden motive, and a climax that brings to mind – in an inverted way – one of Christie’s classics, Agatha and the Truth of Murder turns out to be well worth the time invested. It’s no surprise to say that in the end, Agatha solves the crime and her writers’ block. How unfortunate that this resulted in Blue Train. But you can’t have everything. By 1929, Christie would be in the throes of a new romance, one that would last a lifetime, and chugging away again on her books, which rose to the apex of mystery fiction for over two decades.
And she hated golf! My kind of woman!