Real-life disappearance of Agatha Christie inspired CU Boulder Creative Writing student's New York Times bestselling novel The Christie Affair
In December 1926, six months after the publication of her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd—voted best crime novel of all time by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 2013—Dame Agatha Christie mysteriously disappeared.
The story made front pages on both sides of the Atlantic and inspired a massive search by land, air and sea. The author turned up 11 days later at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, England, registered under the last name of her husband Archie’s lover.
Nearly a century later, the incident remains a mystery; even Christie’s autobiography makes no mention of it. But writers and filmmakers have been filling in the blanks for decades, from the 1979 film Agatha, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman, and “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” an episode of the British science-fiction series Dr. Who.
Nina de Gramont had never even read one of Christie’s novels when she first learned about the disappearance on a true-crime website in 2015. But it immediately struck her as an intriguing foundation for a novel.
“The aspect that gelled in my mind was that she was registered under her husband’s mistress’ name,” says de Gramont, the author of eight novels who started her master’s degree in the University of Colorado Boulder creative-writing program before completing it at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she is now an associate professor. “It sparked me into thinking about the little-explored idea of intimacy between rivals.”
Six years later, it’s fair to say that spark caught fire. De Gramont’s fictionalized exploration of the incident, The Christie Affair, is a New York Times bestseller and was the February 2022 selection of actor Reese Witherspoon’s influential Reese’s Book Club.
De Gramont says the novel is inspired by, rather than based on, Christie’s disappearance.
“It’s in no way a theory, no way a re-enactment,” she says. “It goes off on its own alternate history.”
In de Gramont’s version, an Irish woman named Nan O’Dea insinuates herself into the wealthy lives of Dame Agatha. Nan and Agatha become swiftly, deeply entwined, but soon Nan is trying to lure Archibald away. Rather than excoriate Nan, de Gramont takes readers on an exploration of her complicated, violent past.
“A long time ago in another country, I nearly killed a woman,” Nan confesses in the book’s opening line. “Agatha Christie had a fascination with murder,” she continues a few lines later. “But she was tenderhearted. She never wanted to kill anyone. Not for a moment. Not even me.”
Kirkus Reviews describes the novel as, “Devilishly clever, elegantly composed and structured—simply splendid.” The Wall Street Journal wrote, “In The Christie Affair, Nina de Gramont revisits the story with arguably more artistry and ingenuity than any previous novel.”
Once she had the idea, de Gramont plunged right into writing. She limited her research primarily to the kinds of literature being published in 1926, so she could “do a play on different styles of storytelling.”
“In that regard, it wasn’t that different from the other novels I’ve written. I lean heavily on my imagination,” she says.
At one point, feeling overwhelmed, she set The Christie Affair aside.
“I decided it was too hard. I took a break from it to work on something else,” she says.
But once she finished, everything moved very fast, especially for the often-ponderous pace of book publishing.
After making some changes suggested by her agent Peter Steinberg, de Gramont sent it back to him on a Sunday afternoon. He sent it to top editors at big New York publishing houses the following Monday. They received their first offer on Tuesday. On Wednesday, de Gramont inked a deal with St. Martin’s Press.
St. Martin’s submitted The Christie Affair to Reese’s Book Club for consideration in late 2021.
“When my editor called to tell me it had been chosen, that was a pretty exciting phone call. But it was two months before publication, so we had to keep it top secret,” de Gramont says.
The novel has been optioned for a limited TV series. But de Gramont has been around the business long enough to know that Hollywood is fickle and nothing is guaranteed until you actually see it onscreen.
Amid continuing uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic, de Gramont has been promoting the book on podcasts and through both virtual and in-person events.
“I think a lot of things put in place to accommodate the pandemic are here to stay, including the virtual book tour,” she says. “It’s much less expensive for the publisher, you can bring in authors from out of state and you can have conversations that you might not have otherwise.”
Having finally hit the bestseller lists, de Gramont acknowledges she feels a little pressure about what to write next.
“It’s daunting, for sure. But it’s all a matter of degree. It’s always a terrifying thing to face a blank page and decide what you are going to commit to next,” she says.
For all her hard work, de Gramont emphasizes that luck plays a big part in any writer’s success.
“(Author) Harry Crews says ideas are a writer’s cheapest currency,” she says. “Your idea could be marketable. Then you have to write the book you want to write, tell the story you want to tell, and do the best job you can on it. But it’s always going to be luck, in the end.”