I know we have the same conversation every time some new contemporary author is compared to Agatha Christie but it’s the kind of thing that bears repeating. Modern readers really underestimate her skills. It seems as though all you need to do these days to be compared to her is either mention her/her books or write a small scale crime thriller. By small scale, I mean not one of these overly dark, psychological thrillers but more of a slow burner that revolves around a domestic or small setting. Here’s the thing: Agatha Christie knew what she was doing. She understood people, she understood motivation, and she understood murder. She had the ability to shock and she knew exactly what her readers wanted. Her books are light on detail and character study because they don’t need it. They do what they set out to do. She wasn’t an indulgent writer because she understood how to craft the perfect whodunnit. She didn’t need gimmicks or excess plot to distract her readers. She hid everything in plain sight. Something writers these days tend to struggle with.
Once again, we’re faced with another female writer being compared to Agatha Christie. I guess it makes sense because, until JK Rowling, the only female authors in literary history were Jane Austen and Agatha Christie. At least in Kate Weinberg’s case, she is working hard to make the connection for herself. Not only is she attempting to write her own Christie mystery but she also throws snippets of literary criticism into the mix. The main character is studying under an amazing professor who is causing a stir by suggesting that, God forbid, Agatha Christie is actually a writer worth reading. I have to admit, it was rather difficult not to roll my eyes at the patronising way that Christie was discussed in the book. Not only is it kind of pretentious but it’s such a cliche of what studying English Literature is like. I admit, I was something of a prick during my studies but this was too much.
Jess Walker went to university in Norfolk because she was desperate to study under the celebrated Dr Lorna Clay. Clay is such a captivating figure in literary circles that the course Jess was desperate to be on is oversubscribed. Instead, she is given a place on Clay’s second course studying the legacy of Agatha Christie. Not only does Jess fall deeper under Lorna’s spell during her first year but she begins reinventing herself. She makes a small group of close friends and manages to leave her small-town life behind. At least until secrets start coming out and betrayals begin to tear everyone apart. When at least one dead body turns up, Jess has to wonder if she really knows anything about the people she is closest to.
I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy The Truants that much because the Agatha Christie connection usually spells trouble. However, the start of the novel is undeniably captivating. I enjoyed hearing about Jess’ exploits in her first year of university. Seeing how her relationships started and how quickly the influence grew really made me want to keep reading. It was something of a slow burner but getting to grips with the group dynamics was great. I didn’t even mind the use of a love triangle to create drama. I’m normally not a fan of that overused trope but it had some potential here. Jess was an interesting narrator and it was great trying to pick apart her narrative. Was she going to be a classic unreliable narrator?
Unfortunately, as the novel went on and on and on and on and on… it became clear that Jess wasn’t as complex as I’d wanted her to be. No, she was just a horrifically naive and self-centred character. She went from being an interesting narrator to being frustratingly shallow. There was no real depth to her and she suddenly became much less realistic. There were so many warning signs that she completely missed almost wilfully. This was meant to be explained away by the lure of the two enigmatic figures in her life, Lorna and Alec, but there was nothing about those two characters that explained the power they had over her.
I think this novel would have been easier to swallow had it not been so bloody long. As it is, The Truants tries to do so much. It’s part novel and part literary analysis. If I were being kind, I’d say that Weinberg merely got a bit carried away with her debut novel. If I were feeling meaner, I’d suggest she was just trying to show off. This lacks the depth and substance of a postmodern novel but it so desperately wants to be that. In the end, it just drags out the inevitable. The length of the novel only makes it more obvious who the killer is. The great thing about Christie is her brevity. She knows that adding too much detail only makes the red herrings more obvious. The more padding a mystery has, the more those important little details stand out. The longer the journey, the more signposts you’ll pass along the way.
Although, it’s almost as if the actual murder of this murder mystery is an afterthought anyway. It turns up really late in the novel and then is kind of pushed aside for lengthy personal dramas. It’s on wonder really that the final reveal is pretty underwhelming. This is a melodrama masquerading as a crime thriller. If you go into this wanting a coming-of-age narrative then you won’t be disappointed. It is full of all the elements that you’d need. A young girl, a major crush on a mysterious figure, trying to find her voice. It’s all there. The problem is that the murder aspect just makes things messier. Something that makes me question the purpose of the novel.
The way that Agatha Christie is referred to in this book made me uncomfortable. On the one hand, she is dismissed for being “cosy crime” and not literary. On the other, she is being praised by the characters. There’s almost a pretentiousness in which Weinberg has her characters interact with the Queen of Crime. As though they know she isn’t literary but that their intelligence will bring something out. Not only does it dismiss the works of one of the most successful British authors ever but it is unnecessary. I feel the same discomfort with the novel as a whole. Weinberg is trying to write a Christie novel but, at the same time, show how much better she is. She tries to turn a classic whodunit into literary fiction. The fact that it doesn’t work only highlights how rare a writer of Christie’s talents really is.