Kristel Thornell’s On the Blue Train is a novelisation of the eleven days in 1926 when, in a mystery worthy of Poirot, Agatha Christie disappeared. The novel opens with Agatha outside Harrods. She is confused and cannot enter the store, unable to “even recall what she needed to purchase”. A lady brushes past, “all polish and ease”, and Agatha catches her name, “Teresa”. She follows the “magnetic” lady into Harrods and trails her discreetly, “trying some of her gestures, which were wonderfully collected and free of anxiety”. When Agatha finally conducts her business and is asked for a delivery address, she hesitates before replying, “The Harrogate Hydro”, remembering an advertisement she has seen. But when asked for a name, Agatha responds firmly, “Teresa Neele”, assuming the magnetic lady’s first name and the surname of her estranged husband’s lover.
Agatha is now Teresa, one of the guests “taking a cure” at the Harrogate spa town hotel. She is befriended by the elderly Mr and Mrs Jackman, who sympathise with Teresa’s story of having lost her husband and baby daughter. Teresa also meets Harry McKenna, an Australian widower of a similar age to her, whose wife’s inheritance has left him wealthy, but lonely.
Before reviewing On the Blue Train, I had not read an Agatha Christie. I am familiar with her mysteries however, and Thornell’s book felt like it had all the ingredients: a famous person, a disappearance, a grand hotel, well-heeled guests. Thornell wrote in a formal style, which reflected the era and may have been reminiscent of Christie’s writing.
Thus, I put the book aside and read The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), the Poirot novel which Christie was writing when she disappeared. Christie struggled with this book, before and after her disappearance. In her self-titled autobiography (Collins 1977), she confessed: “I have always hated The Mystery of the Blue Train. It sold just as well as my last book had done. So I had to content myself with that – though I cannot say I have ever been proud of it.”
Christie’s “hated” novel is populated by well-to-do protagonists. But as Kate Evans observed in her BooksPlus interview with Thornell in 2016 (ABC Radio National 23-10-2016), it’s “almost entirely plot-driven”, with “little interior life”, whereas On the Blue Train is “literary and interior”. Thornell revealed she had tried to capture the “comforting atmosphere and flow” of Christie’s detective genre but in a setting where the “mystery was entirely an internal one”.
I returned to Thornell’s novel and soon became immersed emotionally in her well crafted storyline and characters. Away from Harrogate, thousands join the search for Christie, and newspapers publish her photo on their front pages. Meanwhile, with each passing day of seclusion, Teresa’s health and confidence slowly recover, buoyed by the curative effects of the spa town and by her growing friendship with Harry.
Christie makes no mention of Harrogate in her autobiography. In the opening of the chapter on 1926, she merely comments, “The next year of my life is one I hate recalling.” And in closing the chapter, “After illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”
As Christie never addressed this episode, it has been left to novelists to blend fact with fiction and imagine an explanation. Thornell has done so beautifully with On the Blue Train. Although I knew the outcome for Christie, as the novel neared the end of her final days at Harrogate, I willed Teresa to choose a different path. Allowing the reader to suspend disbelief is the gift of a good book.
Robert Fairhead is a middle-aged dad and dog owner. He is an editor and writer at TallAndTrue.com and blogs on RobertFairhead.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tallandtrue.