John Curran is, in my opinion, one of the luckiest people in the world. He was granted unprecedented access to the private papers of one of my literary idols: Agatha Christie. In a small room in Greenway House, amid bound manuscripts and signed first editions of Christie’s novels and short stories, he was privileged to read a series of 73 exercise books. While these may have looked ordinary on the outside, on the inside was a treasure trove – handwritten notes detailing the origins of some of history’s most ingenious whodunnits.
Curran’s analysis is by no means exhaustive, but it paints a vivid picture of Ms Christie’s methods including (among others):
- fleshing out the germs of ideas (including demonstrating how aspects of her real life inspired settings and characters in the novels)
- frequent re-naming of characters
- alternative storylines/clues/endings
- an encyclopaedic knowledge of poisons.
In addition to the above, Curran sorts the stories into categories, demonstrating frequent themes that occur in Christie’s work. There are chapters on – for example – murders based on nursery rhymes, murders committed abroad, and re-investigations of cases where the trail has gone ‘cold’, to name a few.
Unfortunately in his discussion of the notes, it was impossible to avoid giving away the endings of several books, however Curran begins each chapter with a list of the stories whose solutions are revealed to allow people to skip them if they wish. I personally found that the on the few occasions where I had not read a story, Curran did not give enough detail to truly ‘spoil’ the ending, but merely made passing reference to the killer. Some solutions were given in more detail, but these were generally for Christie’s better known works, so perhaps the assumption had been made that most readers were familiar with these stories anyway.
As I mentioned several weeks ago in this post, as an aspiring writer I have been greatly encouraged by reading Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, if only because I was surprised to see that one of my literary idols used eerily similar methods of plotting to those I have developed for myself. In that spirit, this book is a must-read, not only for Christie fans, but for aspiring novelists looking for hints on plot development.