Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks

HarperCollins recently published a book by John Curran called Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. Since it deals with the writer’s craft, I though Literature and Latte fans might enjoy this book review. If you’ve read the book or know something about Christie as a writer, feel free to add additional posts.

With over two billion copies of her books in print, writers would do well to study what made Agatha Christie one of the most successful writers in human history. Clues to her success lie in the notebooks she kept, 71 of which have survived, some dating back into the 1920s. Her family graciously gave John Curran permission to study and quote them for this book, along with two short stories that have never been published before: “The Capture of Cereberus” and “The Incident of the Dog’s Ball.”

In her autobiography, Christie mentioned those notebooks when she described how she used ordinary school exercise books to create and perfect her novels:

Here’s a sampling of the ideas I picked up from the book.

FLOW: “Christie’s prose, while no means distinguished, flows easily, the characters are believable and differentiated, and much of each book is told in dialogue” (36)

HARD WORK: “I hope to show, by an examination of her Notebooks, that although this gift for plotting was innate and in profusion, she worked on her ideas, distilling and sharpening and perfecting them.” (37)

FAIRNESS: “Throughout her career Christie specialized in giving her readers the clues necessary to the solution of the crime.” (38)

THINKING & WORRYING: “In February 1955 on the BBC radio program Close-Up, Agatha Christie admitted, when asked about her process of working, that ‘the disappointing truth is that I haven’t much method…. The real work is done in thinking out the development of your story and worrying about it until it comes right. That may take quite a while.’ And this is where her Notebooks, which are not mentioned in the interview, came in. A glance at them shows that this is where she did her ‘thinking and worrying.’” (67)

SKETCHING SCENES: “One system of creation that Christie used during her most prolific period was the listing of a series of scenes, sketching what she wanted each to include and allocating to each individual scene a number or letter.” (83) Once those scenes were listed, she’d work out the proper sequence for them.

OFTEN NO BIG IDEA: “One of the most unexpected element in the Notebooks was, to me, the fact that many of Christie’s best plots did not necessarily spring from a single devastating idea. She considered all possibilities when she plotted and did not confine herself to one idea, no matter how good it may have seemed. In very few cases is the identity of the murderer a given from the start of the plotting.” (99)

A SOUNDING BOARD AND SKETCHPAD: “We now have a clearer idea of Christie’s approach to the construction of her stories. Using the Notebooks as a combination of sounding board and literary sketchpad, she devised and developed; she selected and rejected; she sharpened and polished; she revised and recycled. And I hope to show by a more detailed analysis in the follow chapters, out of this seeming chaos she produced a unique and immortal body of work.” (101)

And to read that more detailed analysis, you’ll need to read this book. Don’t depend on my all too brief summary.

I’ll close with these words, quoted by John Curran and spoken by a Mrs. Ariadne Oliver in Chapter 17 of Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly: