It has been quite a while since I have read this book, so I thought given the upcoming release of John’s much anticipated title, The Hooded Gunman, this month, it would be a great one to re-read.
John’s book, far from being a dry regurgitation of the contents of Agatha Christie’s notebooks, commences with a novelistic touch. We the reader get to vicariously experience John’s tour of Christie’s home, Greenway and that moment when he first encountered her notebooks. From the outside they may have seemed inconsequential or nothing out of the ordinary, but as John’s book goes on to show, they actually contain a wealth of information about the stories Christie wrote. For instance, did you know…
- … that Death on the Nile was originally to have featured Miss Marple, rather than Hercule Poirot?
- … that And Then There Were None was initially to have far more suspects than the 10 it went on to have?
- … that one unused idea in the notebooks was a plot line involving Hercule Poirot re-growing his moustache?
- … that Mitzi was regarded as real possibility for the role of murderer in A Murder is Announced?
- … that there was an earlier short story version of Dumb Witness, entitled ‘The Incident of the Dog’s Ball’?*
- … that the short story, ‘The Capture of Cerberus,’ (found in The Labours of Hercules), is actually a massively re-written version of the story originally submitted to The Strand, which was rejected and therefore never printed?*
*Both of these previously unseen versions are included in John’s book.
The earlier chapters of John’s book consider the notebooks as artefacts and how Christie used them. For example the notebooks, although numbered, do not follow the chronology of the books Christie published, with notes for later titles slotted in between notes for earlier works and very often in the middle of planning a the book, other minutiae of Christie’s life would be recorded such as to do lists, bridge scores or gift ideas for family members. In some ways it is a little galling that for big hit titles such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) or Murder on the Orient Express (1934) there are not any notes or planning. The quantity of notes for a given title varies, sometimes being nothing more than a character list or a “neat” copy of what were presumably rougher earlier jottings. Much credit should be given to John for his skill in deciphering the notebooks, not just in terms of being able to read Christie’s handwriting, (which ironically becomes more readable over time), but also in being able to identify the stories being referred to in the often laconic notes. Equally over 73 notebooks only 77 dates are mentioned, many incomplete. It took John over 6 months to convert the handwritten notes into easy to read text and the final catalogue and index of the notebooks ran to 17 pages! So definitely hats off to John for accomplishing this considerable task!
The book then examines the notebooks as a way of exploring Christie’s own writing processes. Christie herself said, ‘the disappointing truth is that I haven’t much method’ and the notebooks themselves show that plotting was something she had to work at, ‘thinking and worrying […] out the development of’ her stories. Though John qualifies that view with his opinion that she had an ‘innate’ ability when it came to plotting, as well as having a highly readable prose style. This ‘worrying’ process is much more evident in the later notebooks, whilst for some of her earlier stories the notebooks seem to be more like ‘succinct outlines,’ and John does suggest that the ‘worrying’ for certain titles may have taken place outside of the notebooks. He also makes an intriguing point when he suggests that Christie ‘thrived mentally on chaos, it stimulated her more than near order; rigidity stifled her creative process.’ Given his passion for Christie’s books it is not surprising how well John manages to identify similarities between different novels and short stories, as well as pointing out earlier plot devices which are recycled in later tales. John equally does a brilliant job at teasing out what the notebooks say about Christie and in particular how they show the self-referential way she addressed herself when working on a plot.
Other chapters in this book look at a variety of Christie’s short stories, novels and plays in thematic groups. Such themes include books which involve…
- And Then There Were None: Ellery Queen had been working on a similar plot line but had to abandon it as Christie had got in there first. Somewhat glad she did, given my lack of enthusiasm for Queen.
- Five Little Pigs: It took 60 pages of notes until her plans show the story we finally get. Before this point there were a wide range of alternative possibilities, such as a shooting rather than poison.
- Crooked House: Collins had wanted her to change the ending. Thankfully that didn’t happen, as that is an ending which never leaves you.
- A Pocket Full of Rye and They Do It With Mirrors: The plotting for these two titles is intertwined in early stages, before being separated. This section is one of the many in the book which show how a basic premise can be developed into such a vast array of different storylines.
- Hickory Dickory Dock: One idea which was rejected was Hercule Poirot being on a train and girl gets him to go stealing with her. Can’t quite see that idea working myself…
… Murder Aboard
- Death in the Clouds: The list of passenger belongings from which Poirot derives a really important clue is not actually included in notes. As you progress through the book it is tantalising to see which ideas made it into the notebooks and which ones, despite being in the published versions, did not.
- Death on the Nile: The original cast list has some names which eventually ended up in Appointment with Death. But my favourite point about this book is that Salome Otterbourne’s was originally called Mrs Pooper.
- 4:50 from Paddington: Despite the ending of the book being quite open ended as to who Lucy will marry, it seems in the notebooks that Christie envisaged Cedric as her spouse. Interestingly in both the BBC and ITV versions a different male character is chosen.
… Murder in Retrospect
- Death Comes as the End: Christie did consider the idea of having a modern day narrative parallel the Ancient Egyptian scenes. Now that is definitely an idea I wish she had pursued…
- Sleeping Murder: With this title John, using the notebooks, argues convincingly that this story was not written during WW2, as commonly believed, but at a later date.
This chapter also has a section which includes the alternative titles some of Christie’s novels may have ended up with, such as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas originally being referred to as Blood Feast in the notebooks, whilst Hallowe’en Party, could have ended up being called Easeful Death. Perhaps the most apt alternative title was for N or M?, which was Second Innings.
… Murder Abroad
- A Caribbean Mystery: This was one of the highlights of the chapter for me, as it was really interesting to see how different the story could have been, with victim and killer becoming quite interchangeable in the planning stages. At one point the killer was to be a woman suffering from polio.
… Murder by Quotation
- The Pale Horse: This is another story Christie considered sticking Miss Marple in, with the possibility of her being a great aunt to Mark Easterbrook.
- Endless Night: A book she surprisingly wrote in only 6 weeks. It is this title which John thinks is ‘Agatha Christie’s final triumph [… and] ‘the greatest achievement of her last 20 years.’ Not that this opinion gives John rose tinted spectacles as he goes on to pick up on a number of problems with the plotting, problems arguably influenced by editorial pressures from her publisher.
All in all, Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks is truly a tour de force, which lends itself to being read in different ways. This is a marvellous resource for tracing the development of many of Christie’s titles, from a stray remark to a fully fleshed out plot and characters. These notebooks also reveal Christie’s fecund imagination and the way she could envisage so many possibilities for one idea. For Christie fans this is a must read and one which really needs re-reading several times, so packed it is with insight and useful information.