“I think the intellectual puzzle of Agatha Christie’s stories is fascinating onto itself. You know, she doesn’t play any games or tricks. It’s not like supernatural beings come in and fix everything in the end. The answers are all there, but you have to be able to figure them out.” Author Marie Benedict talks with NPT host J.T. Ellison about her novel The Mystery of Mrs. Christie on NPT’s A Word on Words.
Marie Benedict is New York Times bestselling author and a lawyer with more than ten years’ experience as a litigator at two of the country’s premier law firms, who found her calling unearthing the hidden historical stories of women. Her mission is to excavate from the past the most important, complex and fascinating women of history and bring them into the light of present-day where we can finally perceive the breadth of their contributions as well as the insights they bring to modern day issues.
J.T. Ellison: Marie, hi, I am so excited to have you here today.
Marie Benedict: I am so excited to be here with you.
Ellison: I wish it was in person, but I’m so glad that we’re able to make this work virtually. Where are you coming from today?
Benedict: I am in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where we have about six inches of snow, which I’m guessing it’s not quite happening in your neck of the woods, huh?
Ellison: No. We had a little snow earlier this week and we’re supposed to have some next week. So you and I have something in common––the Pittsburgh area. My dad’s from Coraopolis and all my family’s still up there and everything.
Benedict: That is literally right across the bridge. Well, literally everything in Pittsburgh is right across the bridge, but I live in Sewickley, which is a little historic town, which is literally right across the bridge from Coraopolis. That’s so exciting. Do you ever go back?
Ellison: We do. We haven’t been in awhile, but we have family reunions and stuff up there and my cousin actually just bought the family house and is living there. She’s really cool. She’s a historian and a genealogist.
Benedict: I’m loving that. My family has been here for generations as well. So I don’t know how many generations you’ve been here, but my family has been here since the late 1800s. They were Irish immigrants. So we are just like literally steeped in Pittsburgh history.
Ellison: That’s awesome. Let’s talk about The Mystery of Mrs. Christie. I love this book. The second I saw it, I had one of those artistic moments of––darn it––because I love this story. I love the idea of, of taking it and fictionalizing it because Agatha Christie went missing and most people don’t know that.
Benedict: I almost felt like the mystery around her disappearance was an invitation for me to go digging and reconstruct this little piece of history, which you’re right. Most people don’t know that about her. They have that image of her as she was later in life, the perfect silver-haired English matron, but wow. Her origin story is so different. And then that led into this, this really crazy disappearance.
Ellison: Tell us about the book.
Benedict: o the book really does deeply explore the disappearance itself, but it really–– because I have a theme in all of my books. I’m on a mission to excavate really important women from the past and share their legacies. Now Agatha Christie of course, is a little bit different than most of the women I read about because she’s famous. I mean, she’s hugely well-known even for people who don’t read mysteries. But I’ve always been a crazy Agatha Christie fan, so she’s always been on my list of women I wanted to write about. And when I dug into the past doing what I normally do, which is excavating these women’s origin stories, for lack of a better word, I think of them as superheroes.
And I want to find out how they came to be this particular way and leave this legacy. And I found that she was this adventuresome, gregarious young woman who had a series of, we’ll call them difficulties, when she was in her thirties. She was a mystery novelist on the rise. She was, as I mentioned earlier, a young mother, a wife of a World War I pilot hero. She wasn’t the famous Agatha Christie we think of today. And she went missing in these unbelievably mysterious circumstances that seem torn from the pages of one of her own novels, and then 11 days later, she resurfaced with no explanation other than she had amnesia. And there’s really never been a resolution to that. She never spoke about it for the rest of her life. The authorities never really came up with a fixed answer to her disappearance.
And that dark shadow around what really happened felt like an invitation for me to go in. But because she’s literally the queen of mystery, I felt compelled to write it in a mysterious format, and explore some of the same themes that she had been writing about right before she disappeared. Without giving too much away, she wrote The Murder of Roger Ackroyd right before her disappearance, the quintessential unreliable narrator story. And so the book is structured with alternating chapters going from her, really her recounting in the first person, her story, alternating with her husband recounting the 11 days of her disappearance. And then the stories coalesce as we learn as readers what I think happened.
Ellison: So how much of the story is true for verifiable fact and where do you as an artist come in and expound on some of the ideas and slide information in that’s your interpretation of it?
Benedict: I mean, that’s such a good question. It’s tricky, and it’s different from every book, and it’s sometimes different for every chapter. I would say if you take the two storylines in this book, Agatha’s own story, from her childhood in this idyllic Devon town, you know, to becoming a debutante and meeting her husband and having him sweep her off her feet, that story, there are different parameters around what I’m fictionalizing. You know, I drew very heavily on her autobiography, which if you’re an Agatha Christie fan, I highly recommend, it’s fantastic. But of course, Agatha is her own unreliable narrator because in her own autobiography, she not once mentioned her disappearance. So you have to take her recounting of her history with a grain of salt, and verify things.
So it’s an example of what’s fact and fiction in that storyline, from her autobiography and other sources. I know the day she met her husband, it was on the dance floor at a ball. I know the circumstances around what happened, but do I know exactly what he said to her on that dance floor that so captivated her that she would be swept off her feet by this man, somebody who wasn’t part of her social circle? So not the done thing at the time. We don’t know what he said to her.
You know, the research has the architecture of the story, but even with a famous woman, there’s always details we’re not going to know. And that’s where the fiction comes in. It’s a little different with the story of her disappearance told through–– I shouldn’t say the story of her disappearance, the story of the search for her––told from the perspective of her husband, we don’t really have anything in his writing. We don’t know a tremendous amount about him personally, other than sort of very general biographical details, but we know a tremendous amount about her disappearance and this search for her, because it was a media circus, the likes of which really hadn’t been seen iIn England at that time.
The story spread around the world. Everybody was concerned about this young woman. She was in her thirties, a mystery novelist. It was just captivating. Hundreds of journalists and press folks were camped out in and around their home, her car. Her car was actually found on the top of the steep hill that led to a deep lake, really mysterious circumstances. People were camped out there.
So I actually had very different material to work with for the disappearance. I had tons of newspaper accounts, articles, statements, official governmental statements, those things to reconstruct the story. But I had to imagine his perspective because he never, aside from a really ill-fated interview, which he gave during her disappearance, he didn’t really talk about it and he was his own worst enemy throughout it.
A lot of his interior thoughts were very much invention. And of course, as I mentioned, I was playing with that notion of an unreliable narrator in both of those stories. So without giving away too much, that was another layer to it. What to tell, what not to tell, what to misconstrue, what to leave just as is. And that’s how it works with most of my books, you know, the research guides you, but then it always leaves, black holes for you to fill in.
Ellison: That’s so much fun. I loved how we get to see her building some of her books while, I mean, what better than to read a book about a writer writing her books and starting her career? And that moment of, Oh my gosh, I just made enough money to feed my family. Right? And, you know, I think it’s interesting that the husband––we see this a lot too, the pushback and resistance of a husband when the wife is suddenly the breadwinner. And especially in that day and age… I mean, that obviously caused some friction between them.
Benedict: Yeah. I mean, she was really caught in the crosshairs there. Right? You know, I think for better, probably for worse, it’s a very modern issue still, that conflict between the societal message she was getting––from her mother in particular, but other people in her society––that a woman’s focus should be her marriage. Her husband should come above all else, even her children. If you’re going to work and your husband allows you to work, it’s going to be on the down low. It can’t interfere with your wifely, motherly, societal duties. And in reality, ambition was a dirty word, right? It was something to hide. Not something to celebrate. Agatha had this passion to write, and yet she really called upon it at a time when her family needed it.
You know, when her husband returned from the war, he was really struggling to find his footing. I think looking back on it, he probably had some form of PTSD, which they didn’t talk about, didn’t even know about back then, but he was struggling even to find the right job and her first few books didn’t, I mean, she wasn’t Agatha Christie as she is now. We think of her now, but she was on the rise and her money was really helpful for establishing them, for paying for the basics. And I don’t think he liked that.
And I think as she was finding her voice and finding her place, she’s coming up against a lot of resistance from him, from other people in society, even her mother, who celebrates her success. It’s like, it’s okay, dear, because you’re still putting the perfect dinner on the table at the right time. You know, that’s really what’s important. And while it’s obviously a stretch in this situation, not quite aligned with modern day, that women really struggle with those responsibilities between others and self, career and home, the pandemic has really laid waste to a lot of women’s careers. It’s really [been] thrown into bold relief, the fact that those issues still prevail in our society.
Ellison: Yeah, they do. They absolutely do. What do you think it is about Agatha Christie that we find so appealing? Why is she one of the world’s most well-known and bestselling authors?
Benedict: You know, I’ve thought a lot about that. But while I was writing this book before that, because I’ve been a fan since middle school, and yet her books still speak to me in different ways. And I think that’s really a couple of things. I think first, just the intellectual puzzle of her stories is fascinating unto itself. You know, she doesn’t play any games or tricks. It’s not like supernatural beings come in and fix everything in the end. The answers are all there, but you have to be able to figure them out. And sometimes it’s really that challenge prevails and the tricks and twists of her stories are really still enticing. But I think there’s something about the way in which she has these perfectly little ordered societies. You know, it’s usually an English village, not always, or a train or the Orient Express, where things are supposed to go a certain way. You know, what that little society is supposed to look like. And yet something has happened which has made it disordered.
And the detective comes in––Ms. Marple, Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence, there’s several––and they restore order and justice in the world. And then everything returns to a level of security and safety. I think that’s part of it. I think that there’s something…there’s a puzzle, there’s something mysterious happening, and yet in the end all will be right in the world. And I think that’s reassuring to readers that even though each situation, the setting, the factors are different, there’s something very satisfying about that. It’s interesting. You know, during my virtual book tour for this book, I’ve spoken to a lot of bookstores and I’ve heard time and again that the Christie books are selling like hotcakes during the pandemic. And I think something about that security, safety, familiarity, reassurance is very heartening in this particular time.
But I think too, what I’m seeing, especially with some of the new adaptations of her books and my own rereading of them, going back into these stories, they’re actually much more textured and nuanced than you think on first reading. The way I read Murder on the Orient Express when I was in middle school is still one of my favorite books on rereading. So I’ve re-read a lot of her books as part of this project. I see fresh, new, different things in there. And there’s something about them. Some of those more sophisticated, nuanced themes are coming out and they’re really becoming an important thread of the newer adaptations as so that’s my own personal, not professional opinion as to why her books continue to appeal to us all these decades later.
Ellison: It’s totally true. What’s your favorite of all?
Benedict: I mean, am I allowed to have a couple? Because it’s tough. For writing this book, I went back and read all the books. [I read] her first seven books really closely because I was looking for bits and pieces of her. You know, whether we admit it or not, there are threads of ourselves, at least in my books, things I’m interested in, ideas that are rattling around in my mind. And doing that, I discovered what I didn’t discover. I reaffirmed an old favorite, which is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, that quintessential, unreliable narrator story told from the perspective of the murderer, happens from the perspective of the village doctor and at the end, it’s so masterful, you actually have to go back and reread it because you have to figure out how she did it. Like as a writer, how did she manage it?
But I found one that I had never read before, which is really a sentimental favorite. It’s called The Man in the Brown Suit. Most people have never heard of it. It’s one of her early ventures and it’s less one of her classic mysteries and more of an adventure. And what I loved about it personally is it really captures Agatha as she was before the disappearance.
The heroine is this young, energetic, adventuresome young woman who trots off on this around-the-world escape to find a murderer and a stolen gem and all this stuff. And she had this around-the-world journey that she went on with her husband, which is very much in the book. And so you get to see the scenes through her eyes. And for me, it was absolutely instrumental in understanding the young Agatha, who she really was back then.
But just from my personal favorites, I would have to say Murder on the Orient Express. Everybody loves that one, but for my favorite Hercule Poirot, it’s just so good. The setting that the murder, you probably have read it, but it’s so clever. I just love it. And for Ms. Marple, I would say A Murder is Announced. [An] invitation goes out to the people of her little town to come witness a murder, and everyone thinks it’s like a murder mystery party, but it’s not. And it’s just great. It’s really good. And I found another new one, that I actually wrote about, it’s called N or M, it’s one of her only spy thrillers. It was written during World War II. It features Tommy and Tuppence who are a detective duo, spy duo really, that are seen in other books. Not that frequently, but it’s them during World War II, wanting to participate in the war, being marginalized.
And they actually rise up in this huge, important, spy ring, that is really instrumental to understanding what’s going to happen during World War II. I had the opportunity with Kate Quinn––I don’t know if you know Kate, but she’s a historical fiction author. My world collided with her research and her new book, The Rose Code, which comes out in March. And so we wrote a novella about that and it allowed me to explore Agatha after the disappearance, which was fresh and new as well for me. So I felt like I got to dip into different parts of her life through rereading some of her books.
Ellison: Well, I’ve got to give you a compliment because I picked up The Murder of Roger Ackroyd just for the fun of it, I hadn’t read it in ages. So I picked it up while I was reading yours and setting up this interview, and you really did capture her voice. I mean, the authorial voice definitely is her, in your book. So kudos.
Benedict: It was like the best compliment ever, because I almost had to write this book like, who do I think I am writing a mystery about Christie? You know, I mean, it’s so daunting and overwhelming to write something that’s sort of an homage to her, about her. I don’t know. But thank you. Thank you.
Ellison: It was tricky I bet. So, tell me a little bit about how you choose your extraordinary women to write about how. How do you find them, where do you find them and how do you, I see you’ve got a nice long list. So, tell me a little bit about your process with finding these amazing women.
Benedict: Well, the funny thing about finding them is that I literally find them everywhere. You know, I was a lawyer in an old life and really always loved history and never really thought of myself as a writer. And, but once I committed to that path, I feel like I developed almost like a sense for them. And they’re literally everywhere. You can find a mention of a woman you’ve never heard about on one of those blue plaques on the side of a building. I might be doing research about another book, and suddenly I’m aware of a historical record where I know there are women, but there are none mentioned. That’s pretty common.Lady Clementine, which is a book I wrote about Clementine Churchill, I actually discovered her when I was reading about and researching the book that came before that, which was also about Europe and World War II, called The Only Woman in the Room, which is about Hedy Lamar, the actress, and the work that she did actually to create an invention to help in World War II [that] turned into WiFi.
I’m reading about research in World War II and Winston Churchill is everywhere, but there’s zero mention of his wife or his family. And I know she’s out there, I know that his wife is somewhere. And so I go down the rabbit hole, trying to see what I can find. And she inevitably…these women are much more magnificent than you could ever, ever imagine. So I can find them anywhere. That’s an example of that book on The Other Einstein, which is the first book in this series, which is about Albert Einstein’s first wife, who was a physicist. I found two sentences in a children’s biography about Albert Einstein that I was reading with one of my sons several years ago, and then it mentioned Albert Einstein had a wife, met this woman in his university physics program.
They became scientific partners and ultimately married. And I’m like, what, how did I not know that Albert Einstein’s wife was a physicist? Like, how is that not a thing that people know? So, it’s sort of through that process that I put together, this huge list.
Agatha Christie, as I mentioned, is a little different than a lot of the women because she is known. And that was actually a hurdle I had to overcome in writing about her. I usually prefer to write about women who aren’t known, because I feel like they’re so lost to history. They really deserve to have a chance to have their stories told. But this book, once I learned all this history about Agatha and realized that this book…it’s really not about discovering her legacy. It’s about discovering how it came about.
And so from that perspective, she really did fit. I almost have like a little rubric for the women that I want to write about. They need [to have] left us a legacy that we still benefit from today. In this case, it’s this enormous collection of important mystery novels and beyond. With The Only Woman in the Room it’s WiFi.
So it can be anything from science to literature, to politics, to philanthropy. And then the woman really has to be grappling with issues that I would consider modern day issues. You know, we talked a little bit before about how, [women are] really caught in those crosshairs between responsibilities to family and career. That to me is a very modern issue, less obviously, maybe, but I think still a really modern issue is this issue of the unreliable narrator.
You know, that is a thread I pulled through from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd through the book. I don’t want to give too much away, but the question of who’s the truth teller is really important in the book. t I also think that issue of the unreliable narrator is a very modern issue. You know, we so carefully curate our appearance, our existences through social media, that issue of who is really telling the truth and, and who is really presenting or leading an authentic life is really an important one. And in fact, not to fan girl again, but you actually had a couple of great paragraphs about that in Good Girls Lie. It’s one of the first few paragraphs, which Ash, I think Ash is narrating, and she’s talking about who she really is and how people are, and how social media is utilized to curate that existence.
And it just really struck me as, you know, that’s a very modern story. And yet that theme is one that pervades Agatha Christie’s life as well. So it’s one that I really think about a lot as I write, because I’m trying to present these women in as authentic a light as possible and have them try and lead an authentic existence as you know, I’m trying to do. And it’s…all of us are really, I think, muddling through, especially female artists. I mean, that is the challenge, right?
Ellison: It is, 100%. Tell me about your background and how you came to the page?
Benedict: I would say not traditionally, but then many of us probably…I know you’re didn’t enter it traditionally either. I was a lawyer for a long time before I started writing books, but when I think back on my past and how I ended up here, it actually goes all the way back to middle school.
And this is something I do talk about when I give talks to schools, because I think girls, especially, but all people, it’s almost like who you were and what you were passionate about when you were in those middle school years before society came in and told you who and what you should be. I think that’s a really important time. I had this wonderful aunt who, when I was growing up, I was very close with. She was an English professor and a poet, but she was also a nun and she really took me under her wing. I was a crazy voracious reader and she gave me books that nobody else would have picked out for me. And she gave me this one book called The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Ellison: I have it right here on my shelf. Great book.
Benedict: So that book, I mean, it’s totally groundbreaking for its time. We’ve got Guinevere and Morgan. We don’t have Arthur really so much. That book really started me on this path. Reading that book really opened up my eyes to everything, opened my eyes up to the fact that there are all these other voices out there in history, especially women’s voices that are very much a part of the historical narrative, but because women didn’t have a position of power, those stories, those voices, were marginalized or sometimes effectively stamped out. But in order to understand our paths, they’re a huge part of who we are as a people. And so it awakened that in me and I went to college and I became a history major and I don’t know exactly what I thought I was gonna do with it. I thought maybe a professor, archeologist, you know, [I was] figuring it out.
But at that time it was really the first time that women were being actively encouraged to go to law school in a big way. And history majors were very much encouraged to go to law school. I feel like I kinda got swept up in that societal message. I had a lot of friends who were going to law school and because I didn’t exactly know what I was going to do, I allowed myself to get swept up in that. And for better or worse, I was good at it. You know, I ended up in big law firms in New York city for over a decade. And I knew from the start, it wasn’t right. I knew it wasn’t what I was meant to be doing.
I could feel it, but I didn’t know what to do about it. And at the same time I was getting those societal reinforcement messages that––You’re working here? Wow. That’s fantastic. I felt like I should feel lucky instead of searching for another path. It was hard. So I would sneak out from my 20-hour days and take classes at NYU. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do, but I started writing. At that time I just had an idea. I never really wanted to be a writer before that, never. I think I was too scared to really try it. I just secretly worked away on a book for eight years, not telling anybody. And then finally I tried it and I’ve never looked back.
I left being a lawyer, I’ve taken different cuts at writing these kinds of stories, until I landed right where I was supposed to be all along, going all the way back to middle school. I wish I’d listened to that voice earlier, and had that confidence to do it. But at the same time, I think the skills that I learned as a lawyer, sifting through the facts to put together a narrative on behalf of a client, that’s pretty much what I do now. It’s just my client is a historical woman instead of a CEO of a company.
Ellison: I’m going to ask you one more and then we’re going to do a lightning round. How has the pandemic changed your day-to-day life, and your day-to-day writing life?
Benedict: Wow. In so many ways, I mean, in some ways it made me, I think, more determined and more prolific. I know that’s the opposite experiences a lot of writers have had. And I totally understand that. I think it was my way of turning…stopping the doomscrolling and trying to do something, take my mind off it quite honestly. And I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do that in these circumstances. I think too, not being able to travel. I was very used to traveling constantly to give talks or promote a book. So while in some ways I had less time––because my kids were actually home during virtual school, which was challenging––I had more time to just to write, which is really, I love. I do love the touring. I love to talk about these women and connect with readers, but it is also time-consuming.
And so I actually had more time just to write and think about who I wanted to explore. But at the same time it’s just been, so…I feel lucky to be doing something that I can do from home. I’ve always done it from home, but I feel like it’s beneficial for people right now, reading and connecting with other readers, whether through book clubs or listening to people talk, I think has really been important for people during this time. And I feel lucky to be part of that. I’m obviously not out in the healthcare community, really helping people, but really helping people stay connected and engaged with the world around them. I think I feel fortunate to be part of that as well. But boy, I’m looking forward to a time when I can travel and you know, I can meet you in person and chat with actual readers. But we have, we have a little ways to go, I think.
Ellison: Yeah. And we’re getting there…next year.
Benedict: We are. I do feel like next year, it’ll be all right.
Ellison: I’m glad to hear that you buckled down because that’s the advice I’ve been trying to give everybody. You know what, it’s out of your control. The thing you can control is what will make you feel better, right? That’s all yourself and your work, the rest of it, you know, just let that go. You can’t do anything about it.
Benedict: Exactly. And I think I wasn’t doing that at first. I was continuously scrolling and fixating over what I could and couldn’t do for my kids or for my extended family. Once I switched that extra anxiety, which is really just anxiety, and tried to channel it into writing it, it was healthier for me. Everybody has a different way of really coping with this. I think for me, that was the best, most productive and really healthiest way to do it.
Ellison: I agree. All right. Let’s do a lightning round. Favorite dessert?
Benedict: Anything chocolate, hopefully with chocolate chips as well.
Ellison: Computers or notebooks?
Ellison: First thing you do in the morning?
Benedict: Put my contacts in because I can’t see a dang thing without them.
Ellison: Favorite book to recommend to your friends?
Benedict: Oh my gosh. There’s 10 million. I mean, I just read three books that I just loved. Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which I just loved. I’m a Margaret Atwood freak. Yaa Gyasi Homegoing. I haven’t read her new one, but I loved Homegoing. And Richard Powers The Overstory, which just completely changed the way I looked at nature.
Ellison: If you are up at two in the morning, what are you most likely doing?
Benedict: I’m embarrassed to admit this, but probably scrolling.
Ellison: I think it’s a very natural thing to be doing.
Benedict: I say every day, it’s a new resolution to put my phone somewhere else, but there it is.
Ellison: Sure. Favorite word?
Ellison: Love it. What’s your least favorite word?
Benedict: I use it all the time, but I hate it when people say “but” after something I’ve asked them to do, usually the kids.
Benedict: I know something I don’t want to hear is coming.
Ellison: Love it. Nobody’s ever said that.
Benedict: I have other words I hate more, but that’s the one I probably hear the most.
Ellison: So tell me, just to wrap up. What is next for you?
Benedict: I have a book coming out June 1st. It’s my first co-written novel. It’s called The Personal Librarian. It’s the story of, we all know J.P. Morgan, the famous financier industrialist in the late 1800s hundreds, early 1900s. He actually built something called the Morgan Library in New York City. It’s now a museum, but it was actually built to house his private collection of rare and priceless manuscripts. He was a book collector among other things. He hired a woman to run it. Her name was Belle da Costa Greene. She became, during the four decades she ran that institution, one of the most powerful people in the art world. But the only way she was able to do that was by hiding her true identity. She was actually African-American. She was fair enough to pass as white, but this was the age of Jim Crow and segregation. And she wouldn’t have even been allowed in the building, let alone run the institution. And she also had to suppress her upbringing.
Her father, Richard Greener, was the first African-American graduate of Harvard. He was an advocate for equality alongside Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. So she was steeped in civil rights and equality, but by the time she was of an age to really take a position in the world, a lot of those ships had sailed and segregation was the law of the land. And so it’s really a close look at this incredible woman. I mean, she was a celebrity in her own time. She knew everybody who was everybody or is anybody. And it’s also a close look at this really important time in American history that’s very often overlooked. Very cool. And it was co-written with an amazing writer Victoria Christopher Murray. She’s like my sister-friend. It was just really a transformative experience for me as a person to write this book at this time.
Ellison: Marie, this has been great. Thank you so much. I’ve absolutely loved it.
Benedict: Thanks so much for having me.