Andrew Wilson’s first novel featuring Agatha Christie, A Talent for Murder (2017), met with positive reviews but seemed rather more Highsmithian than detection in concept (perhaps unsurprising, as Wilson has written a biography of Patricia Highsmith) and so I passed it over. And then John Norris — patron saint of the obscure, the forgotten, and the damned-near impossible-to-find — posted this rave review of the follow-up, A Different Kind of Evil (2018), and definitely caught my interest.
Set during a trip to Tenerife that Christie very much did make in the February of 1927, a couple of months after being found ‘with amnesia’ in Harrogate, this repurposes her motives in going to be much more than mere rest and recuperation. While her young daughter Rosalind and secretary Carlo accompany her very much under this impression, Agatha has in fact been recruited by an arm of British Intelligence to investigate a mysterious death on the island. And, of course, shenanigans ensue.
In many regards the book has a lot to recommend it, though I’d stop short of outright praise and instead suggest that it’s…fine. Wilson has a brisk and easy style (some alarmingly clunky sentences aside), and he’s clearly penning this as much in homage as a novel of crime and detection. I’d advise up front that it’s very much not in the style of Agatha Christie’s own plots — Wilson never claims that it is, so I’m not faulting him on this, I’d just like to preclude any questions around construction, clewing, or resolution from that perspective: this is far looser and less satisfactory than most of what came out with Christie’s name on it, and there’s never any suggestion that Wilson is trying to write in the Christie idiom.
Indeed, one of the things that commends it the most is how unlike Christie this is in general structure. The first six chapters find us ship-bound and will, via a suicide Agatha happens to be on hand to witness, introduce most of the characters who play any meaningful part in what is to come, and then we hit Tenerife and everyone loosely interacts for the remainder of the narrative, introducing plot threads that are dropped by the handful come the end. Christie would reverse this: starting off with a loosely-associated group who end up more and more entwined with the past deeds that come back to claim one or more of their number. Here, the shared experience of murder is very different. When people die in Wilson’s book, everyone goes “Well, how ghastly!” and simply doesn’t invite the deceased’s significant other to dinner any more.
Character-wise, we’re very much in a two-hander: Agatha herself is still reeling from the combined events of discovering her husband’s infidelity and the plot of the first novel, hinted at in enough detail here that you could probably work it out if you were so inclined. Her reflections on these dual shocks — “a nasty blood stain that could never be rubbed clean” — are among the book’s strongest passages. She dwells on the nature of trust and happiness, on her feelings and faults as a mother, and while they help communicate a reserve and humanity to this fictional Agatha which will add to the plot not one iota, they nevertheless give a compelling portrait of a woman in a real state of flux, having been deposed from a life she had previously assumed secure. Precisely how true to life this is I have no idea, but a great strength of this is that you believe it fully enough for it not to matter (seriously, remove all this and call the protagonist Hayley Johnson and you’ve got a thrilling new heroine).
These covers give a distinct “It’s set on a boat” vibe, eh?
The second character, and source of the overwhelming majority of the problems the novel faces, is Gerard Grenville, resident of Tenerife, practitioner in all manner of rumoured Dark Arts, and — I’d apologise, but we’re all adults here and have read a few of this type of book — the reddest herring who ever herringed. The novel is so reliant on Grenville to be the source of just about everything it requires, the absolute failure of it to convince you of his guilt in any way, shape, or form leaves a gigantic hole in the middle of the narrative that it’s unfortunately impossible to even edge around. Nothing about Grenville works, and Wilson probably started to suspect this himself, because literally every single thread concerning him is not so much dropped as…I don’t even know what the correct verb would be. Imagine spilling a while bottle of milk over the floor, and then failing to acknowledge it, so that it steadily curdles and stinks the place up. It goes through that sickly-sweet ‘on the turn’ phase, into the flat mould phase, and through the eye-watering era of fetid and foul fumes clogging your nose and ears and mouth no matter in what corner of the house or garden you choose to hide. But never at any point do you or anyone who comes to visit mention the words “milk”, “floor”, “smell” or “clean up”. That’s what happens here with Grenville.
How does he know what Agatha is thinking when they first meet? What’s the significance of the tarot cards she draws in his presence, and how honest is he about which card it was anyway? Does he really believe she has psychic powers, or is that some sort of chicanery? What’s with the Bond villain-level obsession with poisonous plants? At the three-quarter mark, when his true nature is revealed, why in the hell does the other person involved then behave absolutely as if nothing is amiss, despite telling Agatha to perform actions which lead to the discovery? Precisely what were his intentions the morning after Agatha stays over at his house, when Carlo comes to Agatha’s rescue? And why, given how weirdly Agatha behaved — the contents of that drinking glass, for one thing — does Grenville give no indication that anything in her behaviour struck him as unusual? All these question and more will remain thoroughly unaddressed, as if the book never asked them in the first place. Because there’s a murder to solve, so let’s rush onto that…!
Er, yes. About that. The book gives so much time to ancillary matter — I’ll get to those in a minute — that the solution to the murder is…I don’t want to say ‘laughable’, but I did laugh. And not in a happy way. Not least because in summing it up, and linking together the maybe three or four clues there are to connect it all together, Agatha jumps in feet-first with an assertion that there is absolutely no justification behind…and is of course completely on the money. And then the guilty parties start freaking out and monologuing and betraying each other and it’s just awful and waaaaay too complex and waaaaay too minor to justify such an elaborate and staggeringly under-thought series of actions. The action, shall we say, undertaken by Agatha to start of this denouement is one of the few moments of invention in the entire book, but the way it plays out even manages to undo that…though I retain a huge admiration for what Wilson almost had me believing. And the solution he wants you to swallow at the end of all this is very simply not the dish he has put in the preparation to cook.
I see — I really do — that it is in many ways a reference to an aspect of Christie’s own works that would become, let’s say, more and more refined and sly and brilliantly used as her writing developed up to the mid-1950s, but the book does not function on that level of metacognition that allows you to crowbar in a key plot point this hard purely so that it can be said to have had enough impact on the young novelist to the extent that it would become an all-consuming fascination that she’d then spend 30 years trying to come to terms with through her fiction. At one point, Agatha is asked a polite question about the kinds of trees she climbed as a child, and reflects that the asker “didn’t give a fig for the answer” and there’s no way that’s meant to be a joke. That’s the level we’re typically operating at here, which is a roundabout way of saying that the plotting is bad. Very bad.
Wow, I am going on.
“Yeah, you are a bit, to be honest.”
But here’s the thing: the final 20 or so pages of the UK hardcover edition are the opening salvo of the next book in this series, Death in a Desert Land (2019), and even though I didn’t read them here, I will more than likely check out the book when it’s published. See, because those ancillary matters — including the excellent handling of a distinct social taboo for the era in which this is set, the gorgeously sniffy and stuck up Mr. Winniatt and his theories on fiction, the non-intrusive way Christie’s own writing is discussed, and the self-aware glee of a detective novelist solving a ‘real life’ murder — are actually rather marvellous. When he’s not trying too hard with foreground, Wilson is an effective and engaging writer with a tidy eye for scene-setting and the ability to conjure atmosphere and the complexities of human arrogance and frailty with real piquancy. And there’s one piece of clewing — the Handwriting Clue, let’s call it — which shows genuine insight and promise; I mean, it’s as convoluted as all hell, only stumbled upon by a serendipity so serendipitous that even Serendipity herself is a little sceptical, and resolved with a convenience that has me suspecting Agatha will win fourteen consecutive lotteries at some point, but the idea behind it is absolutely superb. I don’t merely offer this up as lenitive at the end of a rousting, I feel no need to atone for any of the foregoing; it’s complicated to leave this novel as a disappointing narrative with so much promise around the edges, but the promise is undeniably there.
So I’m not sorry I read this, and should you decide to pick it up you’ll find it a very swift and easy couple of hours, but I am sorry that I can’t echo John’s own enthusiasm from above. I can only hope that next year finds me more kindly disposed towards Death in a Desert Land, because I’d love to see that richness and success in the background brough forward into the light. Mr. Wilson, I’ll see you in 2019.
As a complete aside — and in no way a comment on the book itself — I borrowed this from my local library, and seemingly every eight or ten pages I would be met with a confetti of biscuit crumbs or similar (definitely a single oat in one instance) which, one presumes, were left there by the previous patron of said fine establishment (it might be a weird publisher’s strategy, of course, but I doubt it…). What’s wrong with some people? Who eats biscuits while leaning over a book?