Friday, August 19, 2011

2,550: Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks by John Curran

I haven’t read any Agatha Christie for some years now.  As a child, I used to love them, especially Poirot (I was never a Marple fan) and must have read most of her non-Marple books.  As an adult, however, without quite succumbing to the snide criticism that a lot of people seem to have for Christie, I haven’t until recently felt the urge to reacquaint myself with her.

John Curran, on the other hand, is a massive fan of Dame Agatha.  Indeed, he is described as an Agatha Christie scholar (yes, apparently they do exist).  And so, according to Curran himself, he came to make the acquaintance of Matthew Pritchard, Christie’s grandson and, on a visit to Greenway, Christie’s country home in Devon, he discovers, tucked away in a locked room, Christie’s notebooks, 73 of them to be precise, filled with her jottings and ideas.  Hence the title of his books, Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.  Only, there’s a snag.  You see, they weren’t really secret at all.  In fact, both of Christie’s biographers, Laura Thompson and Janet Morgan, had already had full access to them and had analysed them in their own books on the Queen of Crime.

I suppose it’s a minor quibble really and, to be fair to Mr Curran, it doesn’t really detract from what he has set out to do, which is no less than an exhaustive, scholarly analysis of the notebooks and an attempt to link them to Christie’s final, prodigious output.

Before discussing the book proper, I should give you a couple of warnings.  This is not a book for non-Christie fans.  Indeed, it may not even be a book for casual Christie readers.  Curran brings the full panoply of scholarly technique to bear and digs down to a level of minutiae that is likely only to appeal to the Christie hardcore.  Secondly, the book assumes a fairly in-depth knowledge of her oeuvre from the reader.  If you have only a passing acquaintance or a vague memory of them like me, much of Curran’s work will pass over your head.  Finally, the corollary of this is that the book is crammed with spoilers including the identity of virtually every Christie murderer.  In defence of Curran, he does highlight at the beginning of each chapter the books he discusses in that chapter.

Assuming that I haven’t put you off already, there is much of interest to the dedicated Christie fan.  Curran quickly makes it clear that Dame Agatha could not be accused of being a methodical worker.  The chronology of the notebooks bears little resemblance to the chronology of her bibliography and notes on different books are jumbled up together.  One gets the distinct impression that she had an incredibly fertile mind that threw off ideas left, right and centre in an almost random fashion.  One of Curran’s strengths is the way in which he has managed to draw some order out of the apparent chaos of the notebooks.

He does this by organising his chapters by theme (nursery rhymes, modes of travel, murders overseas).  This allows him to explore relevant parts of the notebooks in a systematic manner, although it does lead to a certain amount of repetition and means that it is difficult to get an organic sense of Christie’s workings.

Curran also manages to tease out some themes that run through Christie’s novels and short stories.  If one were playing “Christie Cluedo”, it would be a fairly safe bet to plump for the doctor having committed the murder with poison.  Christie’s favourite settings were also of the English village or country house mould, notwithstanding books like Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express.  Family dynamics were also issues in which Christie had a great interest and Curran writes informatively on how this is reflected in her books.

Another fascinating insight that Curran gives us is the lack of certainty that Christie had when starting a manuscript.  She was perfectly capable of changing murderer, victim and even detective halfway through the writing process as can be seen from her notes.  One bit of trivia that might be of interest is that Miss Marple was originally meant to have been the detective in Death on the Nile before a change of heart gave the assignment to Poirot.

If Curran has hyped up the alleged “secret” nature of the notebooks, he partially redeems himself by including two previously unpublished Poirot short stories in the book.  The first, entitled The Capture of Cerberus was originally intended to form part of Poirot’s Labours of Hercules, originally published in Strand magazine in 1939 and 1940.  It’s an odd story, featuring a thinly disguised Adolf Hitler and an unusually virile Poirot (he drinks vodka with a Russian countess and scales a high wall).  Deemed unsuitable by Strand, an alternative version was eventually published by Collins in the book edition.  As I say, it is an odd story and, although an interesting curiosity, not a classic by any stretch.

The Incident of the Dog’s Ball, on the other hand, remained unpublished due to its similarity to the novel, Dumb Witness.  Frankly, it’s not very good and I can see why it hadn’t seen the light of day until Curran got hold of it.  It does, however, highlight one of Christie’s habits, that of recycling plot devices throughout her output.

In conclusion, if you are a Christie fan, there is enough of interest here to make it a worthwhile, if slightly heavy read.  It’s probably best taken in small doses and maybe alongside a reading of the books he is discussing.  Although I am not sure I will bother with the second volume, which is due out in the near future, it has piqued my interest in Christie sufficiently that I have set myself the target of reading (or re-reading) all of her crime stories in chronological order both to see whether I still enjoy them and to put context to Curran’s commentary.


Nan said...

A long time ago, I used to read the New York Times Book Review in the Sunday edition. Very often I would find the review to be just enough about a book - that I didn't need to read the whole book after reading the review. And this is just how I feel after reading this excellent post. You've told me enough about the book to show me I don't need to read it. I am not a snide critic. I pretty much think she was remarkable, one of a kind, etc. But this book has more information than I need. I think it's great he wrote it. I think it is a terrific scholarly work, but not for me. I have a couple titles you might enjoy which are more low-brow and which offer a fun accompaniment to her books. One is The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie and the other is Agatha Christie: A Reader's Companion. Also, if you are interested, there's an ongoing Agatha Christie Reading Challenge going on. More info here:

KarenSi said...

Thanks for that. I haven't read that many of Christie's books but have read enough to know that I love them and have started reading them in order. I love Poirot too and I'm not much of a Miss Marple fan (although I am sure I will read the rest of those one day). I will probably pick up this book but will leave off reading it until I've read more Christie.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

This sounds like an interesting book to delve into once I have a couple of Agatha Christie titles under my belt. :)

KarenSi said...


I've sent you a wee email to let you know you won my birthday giveaway. Email me you address and the Jane Eyre book will be sent right out to you.

Falaise said...

Nan - Thanks or the suggestions and the link for the Agatha Christie Carnival.

Darlyn - Good idea. It's definitely not something to read if you aren't already familiar with a lot of her books.

Karen - I've replied to your email. Thank you so much. I've never read Jane Eyre so this will definitely be the carrot to get me to do so.