This novel by Kristel Thornell, who won the Vogel award with her first book, was inspired by the true-life story of how Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days in 1926. Her car was found at the edge of a quarry, its hood up and lights on. Inside the police found her fur coat, her old driver’s license, and a bag of clothes. There was no sign of Agatha Christie herself. Murder was suspected, and thousands of police and volunteers combed the countryside, looking for her body. Eventually she was found staying at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, booked in under the same surname as her husband’s mistress.
I’ve long been interested in this story myself and have on my bookshelf an earlier novel inspired by the same incident entitled Agatha: A Novel of Mystery, by Kathleen Tynan, which I read years ago. I also have nearly every book Agatha Christie ever wrote, including her autobiography (in which there is no mention of her Harrogate adventure.)
So I was really looking forward to On the Blue Train.
My feelings on finishing the book are mixed. I think I was hoping for a book that brought Agatha to life, giving insights into her character and her creative processes, as well as illuminating the impulse which led her to run away from her life. Agatha Christie’s books are clever, witty, and very carefully constructed, and I had always imagined her as being acerbically funny and acutely observant. I was also, of course, interested in the relationship between her and her husband, who was at the time suspected of being her murderer. Was that her intention? Was she punishing him?
The heroine of Kristin Thornell’s book is something quite different. Clearly unhappy, she drifts around, buying herself new clothes and eating rather a lot of cake. She falls into company with another drifter, a man named Harry, and they remember past failed love affairs and contemplate the possibility of running away together. The pace of the book is slow and dreamy with little sense of tension or drama; and the heroine seems quiet, timid, and indecisive, which is not how I imagine her at all.
On reflection, I probably would have liked On the Blue Train better if I was not so familiar with Agatha Christie’s own voice. Compare this:
I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.
(Agatha’s own words)
She sat and then stretched out, her head by the base of a tree, the coat like a silky languorous animal she was entwined with. She was also entwined with the possibility of death.
That nacreous eye, watching over her. If she chose to, she could stare into it again, drift towards the magnet of a watery end. The end would come about by her own hand. In her own hand she would write a carnal full stop.
(Kristel Thornell writing from Agatha’s point-of-view in On The Blue Train, page 295)
The two voices are so very different. I cannot imagine Agatha Christie describing a moonlit pool as a ‘nacreous eye’, or – a little earlier on the same page – ‘on a dim arboreal path she was taken by an imperious desire to lie down.’
So, as an act of ventriloquism, On The Blue Train does not succeed for me.
It is, nonetheless, a slow, melancholy, and beautiful meditation on failed love.