How did Agatha Christie, an otherwise unremarkable woman, with no formal education, and no family background in writing produce the biggest-selling books in history? How was this self-effacing woman able to set a standard in detective fiction that has never been surpassed, or indeed, equalled? Alone of her crime-writing contemporaries how was she able to turn a simple and formulaic entertainment into an international pastime for, seemingly, all time?
In both her own books – and via my Agatha Christie’s Complete Secret Notebooks, with a section on her ‘Unused Ideas’ – we can see how her store of ideas seems to have been inexhaustible; it was, in all likelihood, the envy of her fellow-writers. Throughout her life she was able to rattle off plot ideas and devices with enviable ease. And she could adopt and adapt an earlier idea in such a well-disguised fashion as to render it unrecognisable.
We do know where she got some of her characters and backgrounds. Poirot was given the nationality, Belgian, of WWI refugees arriving in 1916 Torquay and Miss Marple shared some characteristics with Christie’s grandmother. The Boyntons in Appointment with Death were inspired by fellow-passengers on a Nile cruise; Major Belcher, Archie’s boss with whom they travelled on a round-the-world trade mission in 1922, became Sir Eustace in The Man in the Brown Suit; a colleague from her dispensing days inspired a character, forty years later, in The Pale Horse. And personal experience often provided a setting: the geography of Burgh Island, off the Devon coast, appears unchanged in Evil under the Sun; the swimming-pool of the actor Francis L. Sullivan (a West End Poirot) provided the murder scene in The Hollow; her own home and garden at Greenway is the setting for Dead Man’s Folly and Five Little Pigs. The Orient Express, an archaeological dig, a sea voyage, a Caribbean holiday – all these personally-experienced backgrounds were put to good (or should that be bad?) use over a half-century of writing. We even know the origins of some plots: the device underlying Lord Edgware Dies was stimulated by a performance by the American actress Ruth Draper; The Mysterious Mr. Quin was inspired by the Harlequin figures from her childhood home; The Mousetrap had its origins in a tragic true-life crime; and Death Comes as the End was written at the instigation of a archaeologist colleague of her husband Max Mallowan. Her knowledge of poisons from her WWI dispensing experience provided her with many plot ideas, well-loved children’s nursery rhymes lent themselves to sinister interpretations and a love throughout her life of crosswords and bridge no doubt stimulated her ‘little grey cells’.
As the guest of Agatha Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, I spent my first weekend in Greenway House in November 2004. I explored every corner of the house and at the bottom of an upstairs cupboard, stored in an unimpressive cardboard box, were the Notebooks of Agatha Christie. At first I read them as Christie’s most ardent fan but the more I studied them the more I realised that this glimpse into the plotting process of the world’s best-selling writer should be shared with her millions of readers.
There are 73 Notebooks and they cover the entire span of Christie’s writing life from The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) at the start of her career, to Sleeping Murder (1976), published in the year in which she died. And there are also notes for the novel she was planning for 1977. All but six of her novels – most of them from the 1920s – are discussed within the (roughly) 7,000 pages of the Notebooks and when it is remembered that the earliest Notebook dates back almost a century, this is remarkable good fortune.
My first task was to impose order on their creative chaos, so I transcribed every page of every Notebook and, when completed, I had 73 Word documents, one for each Notebook. This process took almost a year and, frequently through that period, I reminded myself that only an ardent fan would have persevered with the frequently illegible handwriting and lack of order. I then ‘cut and pasted’ the 73 documents into documents corresponding to every Christie title – novel, short story, play – and what remained were notes for incomplete, unpublished or never-developed works; these I labelled ‘Unused Ideas’. At times I felt like Hercule Poirot piecing together, from scattered fragments – some large, some small – the originals of the most famous body of detective fiction in the world.
In Agatha Christie’s Complete Secret Notebooks I speculate about her continuing appeal and offer possible reasons: readability, plotting, fairness and productivity. And I still believe that they are of paramount importance in explaining her worldwide and enduring popularity. But I would add another factor and this may be the most important of all – simplicity. Although at first glance an Agatha Christie murder mystery may seem complicated, her last-chapter explanation always shows the underlying answer to be straightforward. When one simple fact is grasped, all the other pieces of the puzzle click neatly into place. But these simple facts of everyday life that provided many of her ingenious ideas and which Agatha Christie turned into an annual bestseller are observable to all. Everybody knows that…
…some names can be male or female, that nicknames and diminutives can be misleading, or that foreign names often use foreign alphabets…
…that the best place to hide a murder is in a series of murders, or immediately after a natural death, or after an earlier ‘rehearsal’ murder…
…that alibis no longer exist if Body A is identified as Body B and vice versa, or if a live body pretends to be a dead body, or if a killer is not acting alone…
…that narrators are not always reliable, that policemen and children are not always innocent and that ‘foreigners’ are not necessarily guilty…
…that mirrors reverse images, that suicide can be disguised as murder and that sometimes the most obvious person is the villain after all…
None of these facts depend on expert knowledge or an expensive education; they are all self-evident truths known to everyone. And it is on foundations such as these that, for over half-a-century, Agatha Christie built her clever structures of misdirection. Readers happily acknowledged her superiority and were content to let her fool them over and over in her annual Christie for Christmas. As her publishers put it in 1939 on the blurb for Murder is Easy: ‘Surely you won’t let Agatha Christie fool you again. That would be again, wouldn’t it?’ Almost 80 years later they are still saying it.
(c) John Curran
This article first appeared in The Irish Times.
About Agatha Christie’s Complete Secret Notebooks:
Agatha Christie’s Complete Secret Notebooks brings together for the first time Secret Notebooks and Murder in the Making, two volumes that explore the fascinating contents of her 73 notebooks. This includes illustrations, deleted extracts, unused ideas, two unpublished Poirot stories and a lost Miss Marple.
When Agatha Christie died in 1976, aged 85, she had become the world’s most popular author. With sales of more than two billion copies worldwide in more than 100 countries, she had achieved the impossible – more than one book every year since the 1920s, every one a bestseller.
So prolific was Agatha Christie’s output – 66 crime novels, 20 plays, 6 romance books under a pseudonym and over 150 short stories – it was often claimed that she had a photographic memory. Was this true? Or did she resort over those 55 years to more mundane methods of working out her ingenious crimes?
Following the death of Agatha’s daughter, Rosalind, at the end of 2004, a remarkable secret was revealed. Unearthed among her affairs at the family home of Greenway were Agatha Christie’s private notebooks, 73 handwritten volumes of notes, lists and drafts outlining all her plans for her many books, plays and stories. Buried in this treasure trove, all in her unmistakable handwriting, are revelations and details that will fascinate anyone who has ever read or watched an Agatha Christie story.
Christie archivist and expert John Curran leads the reader through the six decades of Agatha Christie’s writing career, unearthing some remarkable clues to her success and a number of never-before-published excerpts and stories from her archives. This book features Agatha’s original ending of her very first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, painstakingly transcribed from her notebooks. It also includes a number of short stories from the archives reproduced in full, including the unpublished The Man Who Knew, How I Created Hercule Poirot, and an early draft for a Miss Marple story, The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife.
Order your copy online here.