Book Review: The Agathas by Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson
It has been a banner year for books riffing off of the still unexplained disappearance of Agatha Christie almost a century ago. Between Nina de Gramont’s exquisite historical mystery The Christie Affair and this modern-day young adult adaptation, there’s such a wealth of recent writing taking inspiration from Mystery’s Grand Dame herself to produce twisty, tricky tales that she would have been proud to serve as muse for.
Acclaimed YA authors Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson team up to write a book that, more than just being about solving a shocking crime, also celebrates the power of friendship. Our first viewpoint character is the perfect, polished Alice Ogilvie, the young heiress who went inexplicably missing for almost a week, and whose return to Castle Cove High School finds her something of a social pariah. Shortly before she disappeared, her boyfriend Steve Anderson broke up with her and started dating her best friend Brooke Donovan. After she returns and proves unwilling to provide either explanation or apology, all her popular friends turn their backs on her. No one wants to reward with attention, much less affection, what they see as a desperate stunt to punish Brooke and Steve.
Our other viewpoint character is Iris Adams, a quiet, bookish girl from the poorer side of town. When the school counselor tells her about a tutoring opportunity that will put a significant amount of money in her pocket, she quickly accepts. Sure, she knows about Alice’s reputation, but she needs the money, which she’ll get whether Alice’s grades improve via her efforts or not. Besides, she’s already braced for Alice to be as snobby and entitled as the rest of the rich kids at school.
The girls turn out to be not as different from each other as they’d imagined. They’re thrown even closer together, however, when they realize that they were the last people to see Brooke at a popular kids’ party right before she disappears. When Alice goes to the police detective in charge of Brooke’s missing persons case with her concerns, he tries to brush both her and Brooke off as attention-seeking kids. But Alice’s love of mystery novels won’t let her back down:
I stay put. I am going to say what I came here to say if it’s literally the last thing I do. Miss Marple wouldn’t take this crap, and neither will I. Miss Marple is a badass older woman in Agatha Christie’s books who isn’t a detective or a cop or anything, and a lot of people dismiss her for those reasons. But she never lets that dissuade her from finding the truth; she’s extremely intelligent and understands how human beings tick.
“Brooke wouldn’t do that.” I give him my best Alice Ogilvie stare. “She did not run away. Look, at first I thought maybe she was copying me, too. I mean, she clearly is into doing whatever I do these days. But, like you said, no one has heard from her. Doesn’t that strike you as even a little weird?”
With the police reluctant to investigate, Alice recruits an already concerned Iris to help her find Brooke. They succeed… leading to murder charges being brought against Steve for Brooke’s death. Alice is aghast: Steve might not be her favorite person any longer but she knows that he would never have hurt Brooke. She’s determined to clear his name, and hers in the process. Steve’s lawyer frankly admits to the girls that she’s planning to use every tool in her arsenal to free her client, even if it means swinging the court of public opinion against his supposedly jealous ex-girlfriend.
There are enough twists and turns in this terrific mystery to fill an entire season of Veronica Mars, which this novel clearly admires almost as much as it does Dame Christie’s canon. There’s a suspenseful set of reveals near the end that really keeps you guessing as to whether you’ve correctly identified the killer. Mystery aside, this is also a really wonderful examination of friendship, as Alice and Iris bond and fall apart and come together again over the secret wounds and fears each girl harbors. This is all depicted in witty writing and dialog that feels entirely natural to our 21st-century characters, especially to our two protagonists, as in this scene where Iris and Alice make detecting plans:
“Here,” [Alice] says, and tosses something into my lap. “Use this. I was thinking we might need to, you know, keep things on the down low.”
“Is this a burner?” I ask her.
“Yes,” she says, sipping her drink. “I picked some up when I was getting our investigation supplies this afternoon.”
“I feel so official now,” I say. “Like a real detective. I just need a drinking problem and a broken marriage and I’m all set.”
It’s rare for a novel written in this way, with alternating viewpoints written each by a different author, to feel so cohesive and naturalistic. Ms. Glasgow and Ms. Lawson’s partnership here is excellent, really bringing to life each sympathetic character and making readers like myself root for their friendship even more than for their ability to bring a killer to justice. I do hope this wildly entertaining book marks the start of a series. The Agathas feels as if the authors caught lightning in a bottle: a whip smart, empathetic novel of two girls inspired by Agatha Christie to be more and better than they ever thought they could be before.