BOOK CLUB: ‘The Christie Affair’ is a twisty, tragic mystery that Agatha Christie herself would devour

Abigail Celoria, Culture Editor

The Seahawk’s February book club pick “The Christie Affair” is a mystery that will keep you pushing off work for one more page. If you are an Agatha Christie fan, this is the perfect novel for you. Besides the famous author playing a titular role in the plot, the web Nina de Gramont spins in this fictionalized account of Christie’s disappearance is something Christie herself would applaud.

A professor with UNCW’s own creative writing program, de Gramont makes her fourth appearance in the world of fiction with “The Christie Affair.” Reese Witherspoon announced it as her book club’s pick of the month the same day as its official release on Feb. 1, aligning with the club’s centrality on female protagonists in literature. It currently stands as number nine on the New York Times’ best seller list of hardcover fiction after three weeks on the list. Only a month since its release, it has become an instant bestseller, an exciting prospect for any author.

“The Christie Affair” is set during the time of Agatha Christie’s infamous disappearance in December of 1926. Despite its biographical appearance, though, the book is a fictionalized account told from the perspective of Christie’s husband Archie’s mistress, Nan O’Dea. Its events span from two days before the disappearance to Agatha’s discovery a week later. Nan’s backstory is interwoven into the narrative, giving readers what at first seems like a sympathetic glance into the mistress’ humble origins. However, as the present and past collide, it seems that her connection to the Christie family runs deeper than the affair.

De Gramont pieces together a mystery so subtle that readers may not even see it coming. The approach she takes—jumping between the book’s present in Agatha’s disappearance and Nan’s tragic past—allows the plot to unfold without clear expectation. While certain details in the opening chapter give striking hints, readers are likely to forget them until their return as the book’s grounded opening sweeps them in a seemingly different direction.

De Gramont makes an artful choice by beginning in both Agatha’s and Nan’s ordinary worlds. For Agatha, the prospect of losing her husband is the most pressing matter, bringing a realistic tension to her surface relationship with Nan. For Nan, beginning her past’s narrative with her childhood visits to Ireland gives readers an innocent, whimsical impression of her character. Her relationship with Finbarr, a young Irish boy, seems to suggest a future payoff with multiple potential outcomes. This technique allows the opening to retain its tension but avoid the pitfall of early reveals. The reader assumes all is well for the moment, settling into a realistic yet slightly messy world before evil rears its head.

The Christie Affair is a novel written by UNCW creative writing professor Nina de Gramot. It is the September pick for Reese’s Book Club. (Macmillan Books)

The mystery begins to reveal itself after this establishing point with Agatha’s disappearance. While expected in the premise, its reasons go unknown for some time as the reader remains grounded in Nan’s point of view. This continues to propel interest until the real heart of the story—Nan’s tragic past—takes hold as World War I begins, separating her and Finbarr and causing a tragedy in her family that affects her choices later on. By the time we discover why Agatha stole away, the connection between the disappearance and Nan’s past materializes when Agatha is discovered with Finbarr.

This is the first “wow” moment, with many to follow as the two timelines further intersect. Nan’s vacation at the Bellefort Hotel puts her into contact with both Agatha, Finbarr and an inspector tasked with finding Agatha, as well as another seemingly irrelevant mystery. While inspector, Frank Chilton, attempts to investigate the “double death,” it seems to be a sad lovers’ tale more than anything. The reader does not have reason to suspect much more.

However, with the offhand reveal of information in the present plotline, the reader realizes this is the true mystery. Nan’s past and present intersect in this moment and finally delivers the payoff as to why no one ever discovers why Agatha disappeared. The seemingly unconnected details transform into an entanglement before the eye, a true testament to de Gramont’s strength as a writer. Few will be able to step away from “The Christie Affair” without surprise.

Nan’s character, though unfeeling toward Archie for reasons unknown at first, gains complete sympathy by the end. Her inner contrast with Agatha, a woman that to her seems born to receive blessings, is initially enough of a reason for the reader to establish some understanding with her. However, as her past reveals itself bit by bit, the true reason for the affair surfaces. Nan is a woman on a mission, with more tragic motivations than initially suspected. The reader comes to understand her way of thinking completely by the end, even excusing it as her motives morally trump her actions.

The most surprising part about her character is not necessarily what is learned of her by the end—the lengths she will go to right the wrongs done to her and those she loves—but the fact that, along with Agatha, the reader feels complete justification for what she does. She is a bit of an unreliable narrator, which she herself states toward the beginning of the book as she recounts things she was not actually there for. This fact, though, is a strength to the novel. The reader is grounded completely in what Nan knows, her point of view. As events unfold, we see them through her lens. It not only gives greater insight into her character as time goes on but gets us to sympathize with her. By the book’s end, we agree with Agatha—we want to keep her secret.

Nan’s mystery is solved, but the few that keep this knowledge find no sense in revealing Nan to anyone else, neither Archie nor the police. In this way, “The Christie Affair” sets itself apart. It is not about the payoff of the mystery, but the mystery itself, the heart-wrenching discovery. Themes of human nature, love, motherhood and morality give it true substance. These ground us in the emotional underlayer of the plot, making the “The Christie Affair” not just another mystery book.

In the context of most other books, a technically unresolved mystery would be an insufficient ending. Here, it is the most satisfying resolution imaginable. The main characters know what happened, and now the reader. The reason for Agatha’s disappearance is uncovered.

A novel of tragedy, mystery and pure excellence, “The Christie Affair” will have you binge reading before you realize it.