Reading Agatha Christie’s secret notebooks

Originally posted on the Maine Crime Writers blog, on March 2, 2012

I’ve been reading Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran. This fascinating book, which won the Agatha Award for best non-fiction in 2011 and was nominated for an Edgar, contains the first detailed analysis of the seventy-three notebooks Dame Agatha left behind.

It’s an interesting and instructive read for a writer. For one thing, the notebooks are not dated and the writing in them is not sequential. Curran calls Christie’s use of the notebooks “utterly random,” in the sense that she usually had about a half dozen going at once and would grab the one that was nearest at hand, find a blank page (even if it was one between two filled pages) and begin to write. She wrote in them back to front, then front to back, and in the war years when paper was rationed, sideways. And while publication dates can be guideposts for some of the pages, notes for books, stories and plays never written or completed are impossible to date.

In addition, during Christie’s most prolific years (roughly 1930-1950), Curran describes her handwriting as “almost indecipherable.” As she grew older, she seems to have attempted to slow down and she may be one of the few people whose handwriting improved with age.

Curran writes that Christie, “thrived mentally on chaos, it stimulated her more than neat order; rigidity stifled her creative process.” I think there is a certain aspect to fiction writing where the exercise is imposing order on a world of chaos and possibility. Nonetheless, Christie’s “process” (which she refused to see or label as such) sort of blows my mind.

What is in the notebooks: Lots of sketched ideas and lists of possibilities. Ideas may be things like, “dangerous drugs stolen from car,” “Old lady in train variant—girl is with her—later is offered a job in the village—takes it.” Some of these ideas turn up in several notebooks covering years, as she works them and reworks them, trying to find the right angle, the right mystery and the right way to tell the story. Some pages have lists that appear to be a brainstorming of story ideas.

Other lists are her way of working out plots, “Miss S going to dentist,…H.P in waiting room—shoe buckle—loose—annoys him.” In some cases, she’ll rework these lists over and over again, looking for the twist, the sequence, the clues. As someone who was just moaning that I never start with the ending or the twist, seeing these lists from the foremost mistress of plot was heartening.

And all of this is mixed in with lists of Christmas gifts to buy, things to take to her summer home in Devon and notes about books her publishers had asked her to blurb. In other words, with daily life.

What you don’t see in the notebooks: detailed character back stories and bios, author “interviews” with a character, etc. The greatest criticisms of Christie are usually about her lack of characterization. In fact, she relies on our own prejudices about certain types of characters to help fool us.

Curran attributes Christie’s popularity to four characteristics. Readability, the “ability to make readers continue from the top to the bottom of the page and then turn that page,” Plotting, Fairness, and Productivity. Her prodigious output includes detective novels, non-crime novels, short stories, plays for the theatre and for radio and the creation of not one but two famous detectives.

I’ve always been a Christie lover, and always will be. I recently re-read several Marples, and was thrilled to find not only do they stand up, they draw a fascinating portrait of a certain type of English life as it evolves through 20th century. When my friend Julie Hennrikus wrote her masters thesis on Christie at Harvard, she wondered if she should include an introduction justifying her choice of subject. Her advisor said, “No one who is read more than forty years after their death has to be justified.”

Curran recently published a second volume from the notebooks called Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, which analyzes the way Christie challenged and changed the conventions of mystery novels. I look forward to reading it.

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