Where was Agatha Christie, why was she gone?

April 25, 1999|By Laura Lippman | By Laura Lippman,Sun Staff

"Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days," by Jared Cade. Dufour Editions. 258 pages. $39.95.

For one of the most influential mystery writers of all time, Agatha Christie came off as something of a rank amateur when she authored her own 11-day disappearance in 1926. She talked too much, she gave conflicting explanations. Even then, the press was scornful of the official explanation -- amnesia -- and cynical enough to suggest it was all a publicity stunt for the writer who had just published her sixth novel, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd."

Now one does not need to be a fan of the so-called "cozy" genre that owes so much to Christie to recognize the importance of Christie's work. (Edmund Wilson be damned, anyone who cares about crime fiction has to care who killed Roger Ackroyd.) But I can't muster the same interest in her disappearance, even as I recognize the hard work and passion that have gone into "Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days."

Cade appears to be a diligent researcher -- his work would have benefitted from footnotes, or at least a few more citations in the text -- but he makes an error early in the book from which he never quite recovers. In advancing his theory that Christie faked her disappearance to punish her philandering husband, Archie, Cade tells us that he has "managed to trace a number of people with first-hand knowledge of the disappearance."

But there are, by Cade's account, only two people who have true first-hand knowledge of Christie's plot: the author, who died in 1973, when Cade was 11, and her sister-in-law, Nan Watts, who died in 1960. Yes, Cade has interviewed police officers and journalists who were part of the whole circus. He also won the confidence of Nan's daughter and her husband, who knew Christie. But the sum of these parts never quite adds up to the stunning total that Cade promises.

Still, Cade is convincing: I now believe that Christie had no intention of setting off a national panic when she disappeared, that she wanted only to exact revenge on Archie, who had hurt her badly by taking a mistress and demanding a divorce. I am less clear on why she doesn't emerge from hiding after reading about the large-scale searches for her across the countryside, but I don't much care.

That apathy is the book's central problem. Cade is least persuasive when he tries to make the case that this episode is important. For Christie scholars -- and there is no shortage of them -- "Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days" is the kind of extended footnote that might well delight, with its attention to detail and Cade's analysis of how Christie wove bits of her own story into her subsequent fictions.

But for the rest of us, the tale is most notable for its revelation that Christie, in her fling as a miscreant, made just the kind of mistakes that Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple would have seen through in an instant. Amnesia and the emergence of a second personality? Oh, please.

Laura Lippman, a Baltimore Sun reporter for 10 years, writes about the fictional Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan. The third book in the series, "Butchers Hill," has been nominated for the Agatha for Best Novel of 1998 and also is a finalist for the Edgar Allan Poe Award given by the Mystery Writers of America.

Pub Date: 04/25/99

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