Reviewed by Carl Delprat
On the Blue Train
By Kristel Thornell
Allen & Unwin, Oct 2016, 344pp, ISBN: 9781760293109, RRP $A29.95
As someone who has travelled through everything Agatha Christie has published (my wife once acquired a collection of everything she wrote), this particular novel held great expectations and demanded reading. Just how would the writer deal with that historical event of Agatha’s disappearance? Which at the time shook the British newspaper reading public to the core. Such an undertaking of re-entering the 1920’s and authentically capturing that period is a task in itself. Add to that the discerning eyes of Agatha’s loyal following makes such an undertaking a formidable challenge.
My first impressions with Kristel’s approach was reassuring, this was Agatha Christie homeland territory and as each of the pages were examined then folded I felt at ease. Yes here I was back within that familiar neighbourhood…and there were the carefully inserted signposts awaiting the seasoned reader…those so familiar Army & Navy stores, the A.B.C. tea shops, W.H. Smith, the protocols of class and position, social etiquettes, leather, steam, fabrics, three course meals, sheet-music and floorboards. Yes, I felt comfortable and at home.
Kristel Thornell has roll-played Agatha’s creativity and expression to perfection and delivers an excellent discourse of the famous crime writers’ intercourse with her acquaintances. Flashbacks enrich the pages and regularly remind me of her once read autobiography. The method used was very inventive, for example while partaking a Turkish bath some memories of her childhood are released and I’m overjoyed to find ‘Auntie-Grannie,’ ‘Nursie’ and the ‘Gunman’ unexpectedly arrive. Furthermore that childhood nightmare known to the young Agatha as the ‘Gunman’ continues to make many unwanted appearances throughout this novel.
This atmosphere created by Kristel is so authentic that I (a senior reader) recalled smells and sounds of my past and conversation between characters was so realistic it evoked immediate recalls of alike banters within my grandmother’s circle of friends. Add to all this rushes of assorted images from those popular Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot television plays arriving inside my head confirmed this novel was working. So far so good, and yes now I was hooked.
As for the story line, I soon detected Kristel implementing a Christieian signature technique of first massaging the mind with a leisurely descriptive pace and then…ever-so-gradually increasing the stride with each successive chapter. First hotel staff and then the guests make their stage appearances, each with their own dark secrets and one in particular named Harry becomes her empathetic companion and a counterpoint to Agatha’s distress.
Harry McKenna (an Australian widower and aspiring writer) arrives as a fictional contact for the clandestine fugitive and while Harry laments his departed wife comparable circumstances draw them closer…much closer then either ever imagined. Following the Agatha Christie successful formula Agatha (under the assumed name of Teresa Neele) is systematically introduced to a collection of the hotel guests and staff leaving the curious reader automatically preparing for another who-done-it following an eventual murder.
However, for this occasion within Kristel Thornell’s excellent novel On the Blue Train, it becomes Agatha Christie herself who (after removing her wedding ring and then suddenly disappearing off the map causing a mass police search) becomes the prime suspect. Why she had the need to perform such an elaborate hoax of abandoning her Morris Cowley car then adopting her rival’s name of Teresa Neele before disappearing from sight is described throughout Kristen Thornell’s superb novel. These transcending insights placed throughout the storyline arrive between remembrances, fantasies, and disturbing dreams thus delivering acumen to her motivation.
With the likes of the creative mind this once famous crime writer possessed, nothing less would be expected in such a novel and Kristen performs an excellent fictional portrayal of Agatha’s situation and state of mind. Her husband wants a divorce; she has seen her rival and reacted the only way she can, retorted like a character form her books. Throughout this book I remained overwhelmed with the author’s excellent choice of narrative. I myself have written now a dozen fiction novels and fully appreciate the research and effort Kristen Thornell exhibited. Colloquial expressions of that period fill the pages along with technical details and regional descriptions all verify my assessment and writing of this calibre from someone so young is certainly a rare jewel in the making.
Borrowing selections from a Christie novel titled Mystery of the Blue Train and using a participant named Katherine Grey as her final alias dovetails so well into this story and should delight many devoted Christie fans. This is a story from the ‘old-school’ eloquently presented, superbly delivered and thoroughly researched.
Bravo Kristel. I wonder what Agatha would make of it? Surprised and amused I guess.
About the reviewer: Carl Delprat is a prolific storyteller. His home is the Australian coastal city of Newcastle, New South Wales. Find his books at: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/CarlDelprat