Since I was two thirds of the way through this book, I decided to finish this first, before starting my next fiction read. I need a bit of recovery time from Postern of Fate after all… (though it has been surprising to hear that there are fans of that book). Given how much I enjoyed Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks (2009), earlier this month, it made sense to move on to the follow up title, which is an equally addictive read. You say to yourself, you’ll just read a few more pages or until the end of the chapter, but it always ends up being more than that.
The introduction to this book provides a concise yet still evocative recap of the notebooks; John’s first encounter with them for instance, as well as their value as artefacts. This is helpful for those (surely few, now?), people who have not read John’s earlier book and also a useful aid for those who have; reminding them of interesting details and getting them in zone, as it were, for delving into the notebooks once more. To allay any anxieties, this book is not a rehash of the first, with the introduction specifically mentioning the fact that it explores novels and short stories not examined in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. It also lures the reader in with other goodies such as ‘an ‘unknown’ stage script,’ Christie’s ‘reading lists, her own account of the creation of Hercule Poirot, a fascinating letter to The Times,’ and also ‘a new version of a Miss Marple short story,’ as well as ‘the original denouement of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and her notes for a final unwritten novel.’ Aren’t we spoilt?
After that we dive straight into a thematic chapter examining Christie’s novels in light of the various rules people wrote for writing detective fiction, in particular Edgar Allan Poe, (not that he wrote any rules, but the stories he created produced tropes which could be considered ‘unwritten ground rules,’) Ronald Knox and S. S. Van Dine. John asserts that:
‘while in many ways observing the so-called ‘rules,’ and consolidating the image of a safe, cosy and comforting type of fiction, Agatha Christie also constantly challenged those ‘rules’ and, by regularly and mischievously tweaking, bending, and breaking them, subverted the expectations of her readers and critics. She was both the mould creator and the mould breaker…’
John then goes to look at these different rules/tropes and discusses, in reference to specific stories, how Christie interacted with them and in what ways she ‘expand[ed] and experiment[ed] with them.’ I did also love, firstly, how John refers to Van Dine’s books as ‘semi-animated Cluedo’ and secondly it still makes me chuckle, (in horror), that Christie had to complain to her publishers when they were designing a dustjacket for The Labours of Hercules, as they were planning on having a picture of ‘Poirot going naked to the bath.’ I did have to read that sentence twice and then go back and double check that that was what it said, I was in that much disbelief! Seems like modern TV adaptations have missed a trick… Curran also leaves us with some fighting talk when he writes:
‘It is somewhat ironic that while the compilers of both lists are largely forgotten nowadays, the writer who managed to break most of their carefully considered Rules remains the best-selling and most popular writer in history.’
The book then enters a set structure. There are 6 chapters which work chronologically, looking at her work within each decade, going from the 1920s into the 70s. Here are some highlights from these sections:
- Curran examines various devices she experimented with in her early novels and stories, which she would become famous for in later novels.
- Witness for the Prosecution, whilst I knew it started out as a short story, before becoming a play and then film, I never realised the story it came from, was written so early, in 1925 and called ‘Traitor Hands.’
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles is also explored in depth, in particular the passage in which Poirot delivers the solution from the witness box. This passage never made it into the final novel and was exchanged for a scene where he gathers the suspects in the drawing room instead.
- The Secret of Chimneys, was Christie’s first stage adaptation. Though unfortunately it was cancelled at the last minute and substituted with a play written by someone else. John goes into the differences between the novel and the play.
- This chapter comments on the sheer quantity and quality of Christie’s output, before honing in on The Murder at the Vicarage, which interestingly had its’ roots in a Harlequin short story. As always John weaves into his comments on the text, links to other stories, many of which are not ones I had considered before. It’s at these moments I wish I had the brain capacity to remember the Christie canon in such detail as John.
- John continues his fighting talk by pronouncing that ‘Miss Marple is the most famous, and arguably the most able, of the elderly female detectives.’ Most famous I will take, but I would interested to know, if anyone had different contenders for the most able elderly female detective. Mrs Bradley maybe?
- The plot device of the phrase, ‘why didn’t they ask Evans?’ is one Christie mulled over for quite some time and John shows how she tried to insert into other stories, such as The Sittaford Mystery, before finally giving it a book of its own.
- Lord Edgware Dies ‘began life in Rhodes in the autumn of 1931 and was completed on an archaeological dig at Nineveh on a table bought for £10 at a bazaar in Mosul […] a skeleton found in a grave mound on the site was christened Lord Edgware in honour of the book.’ It’s details like these which really help bring Christie’s writing process to life.
- Whilst many fans might know that the American version of Three Act Tragedy has a different motive for the killings, in comparison to the UK edition, John intelligently explores the idea of which came first.
- War work still left Christie time to write in the evenings because she ‘had no other things to do’ and interestingly she worked simultaneously on N or M? and The Body in the Library. As to the first of these titles, at one-point Christie had wondered whether to set the final chapter ‘in a bomb shelter where Tommy and Tuppence find themselves after their flat has been bombed.’
- John’s sleuthing skills also unearth evidence which suggests that Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case was being planned, on and off, earlier than the Blitz, as she was already working on corrections by the 1940s.
- They Came to Baghdad was not a big hit with the first reader at Collins, who wrote: ‘It is difficult to believe that Mrs Christie regards this as more than a joke’ and goes on to say that it is ‘far-fetched and puerile… not worthy of Mrs Christie.’ Though to end on a positive they do say ‘it is eminently readable… its sheer vitality and humour and the delightful… Victoria Jones carry it through.’
- Christie had over 100 pages of note for They Came to Baghdad, and ‘the amount of repetition in those notes,’ leads John to suggest that this book gave Christie ‘more trouble than other, more densely plotted whodunits.’ It is interesting to note though, that she had considered putting not only Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in this book, but even Mrs Oliver and her brother! At this juncture Christie was also toying with the idea of a woman about to commit suicide, an idea which of course is developed in Destination Unknown. Destination Unknown, in John’s opinion, is said to be ‘the weakest book of the 1950s.’ I have to admit it’s not a favourite, though I know of readers who really enjoy the character of Hilary. However, this title does demonstrate John’s entertaining writing style, with its notes of dry humour: ‘despite a promising opening the novel ambles along to a destination that is more unbelievable than unknown…’
- Readers at Collins felt Cat Among the Pigeons, was ‘more saleable than Ordeal by Innocence.’ Go figure… Cat Among the Pigeons was also a story Christie considered putting Miss Marple in. John points out it might have been more plausible for Miss Marple to have known a pupil at the school, than for a schoolgirl to go to Poirot, but that Miss Marple might not have been so ‘adept with the international segment.’
- This chapter reminded me of the creative, shall we say, 1965 adaptation of And Then There Were None, which ‘transposed from an island off the coast of Devon to an Austrian ski resort (but filmed in Dublin!)’.
- This chapter also begins to touch upon the changes within Christie’s writing process, including her greater reliance on using a Dictaphone and how this affected the amount of and the type of notes she made in her notebooks.
- ‘The plot for The Clocks goes back a lot further’ than supposed, well I supposed at any rate, as ‘in late 1949 Agatha Christie set a competition for which she wrote the opening of a short story that competitors were asked to complete. It concerned a typist, Nancy, arriving at a house and letting herself in to the front room. There she finds a collection of clocks, a dead man and a blind woman.’ This short story was entitled ‘The Clock Stops’.
- Third Girl gains the epitaph of being ‘the weakest book of the 1960s.’
- It’s interesting to see how Christie would toy with a title, even for decades, as she tried to fit it to a certain story and develop a story around it. More impressive is the way John spots such things in the first place, given how illegible Christie’s writing could be at times.
- Postern of Fate, unsurprisingly, gets the inverted accolade of being ‘the poorest book of’ Christie’s career, though even John admits that ‘the curiosity that is Passenger to Frankfurt,’ is another very close contender.
- In this chapter, with quite a few dud titles, John comments on the phenomena Christie had become and how even her poorest of titles still sold well, simply because they had her name on the cover. After all Passenger to Frankfurt ‘went straight into the best-seller lists and remained there for over six months.’
- The notebooks also interestingly evidence how Christie sailed close to the wind on her writing deadlines, as with Nemesis, she had only written the first half of the book 3 months before the submission date. John also continues his examination of how the notebook content was changing as Christie got older, with their being less imaginative consideration of alternative ideas and more of a concentration on remembering key point or phrases.
- I did find it entertaining to read about how diplomatic Christie’s editors were when writing to her about Postern of Fate, saying they ‘enjoyed your latest novel very much.’ Though ‘further correspondence and phone calls were needed to rectify ‘certain discrepancies’ – whether references to the war refer to the First or Second World War, exactly who killed Isaac, and the splitting of some long chapters into shorter ones.’ Yes it is the middle item in that list which is the most worrying, though weirdly not that surprising!
At the end of these chapters John has a final section where he shares a number of ideas from the notebooks which were never used. For instance, she pondered writing a story called The Cluedo Case, which sounded like a lot of fun and there is even mention of a story revolving around a Hellenic cruise, involving a death via electrocution during a lecture on a cruise ship. Reunion dinners also figure in two story ideas, including one entitled Mousetrap 2, though this is not a sequel to the famous play. Death at the British Museum was another idea Christie played around with but never went on to use. However perhaps the most intriguing unused idea is The Experiment, a story which was to look at the effect killing has on your mind. The clarity and coherence of the notes is surprising, given that they came after Postern of Fate, though John speculates as to whether Christie would have been able to have developed it satisfactorily, writing that it was her ‘powers of development, and not her powers of imagination, that were waning.’
Slotted in between these chronological chapters there are further thematic chapters, on topics such as…
- This section looks at the various lists and comments she made about which titles were her favourites. Non-series titles often dominate, with Poirot not getting as much of a mention as he would probably have liked.
- This chapter finishes off with the first publication of the short story, ‘The Man Who Knew.’ John then compares this story with ‘its later incarnation as ‘The Red Signal,’ which he felt was a better tale.
How I Created Hercule Poirot
- In this chapter we get to read an article Christie wrote for the Daily Mail, in 1938, about her most famous creation. An article which has only been reprinted once before in the Agatha Christie Centenary Celebration (1990).
- Christie is quite open in sharing her difficult relationship with Poirot, commenting on times of ‘coolness between us,’ and even goes as far as talking about times ‘when I have rebelled bitterly against being yoked to him for life.’
- Christie treats Poirot as someone she can interact with and often voices his opinions on matters, such as his best and worst cases.
Miss Marple and ‘The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife’
- The main focus of this chapter is the aforementioned new version of a Miss Marple short story, which is also included in full. This second version was found among Christie’s papers and despite never being used, is arguably the better story, according John, who as always makes a very strong case to back up his claim.
Agatha Christie and Poison
- John includes some of the excerpts Christie made in her notebooks on poisons and their effects on the human body, noting how Christie’s interest in researching the topic continued through her writing career.
The Dark Lady…
- This chapter includes the letter Agatha Christie wrote to The Times, about the then recent news that Shakespeare scholar, A. L. Rowse, had identified the name of the famous dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Christie seems to have accepted the “discovery,” and in fact her letter received a number of responses including one which ‘took Dame Agatha to task for accepting ‘interesting conjectures as irrefutable proof’ and reminding her that Hercule Poirot would not have made the same mistake.’ Ouch!
Agatha Christie’s Booklists
- Christie often included lists in her notebooks of titles by other authors. On one occasion we have a list of titles which she explicitly says are one she read and liked, but the other lists are not so definite in their purpose, though John postulates that due to dating in some places they might be to-be-read lists. Some of the names included are names you would expect to see such as Sayers and Marsh, but Christie seems to have had quite wide reading tastes, including titles from George Simenon and American noir, as well as Wessel Smitter’s American car industry themed, F O B Detroit. Her non-crime reads, especially from her childhood also filter into her later novels such as Postern of Fate.
So, another brilliant book by John Curran! Writing a sequel is never easy, with that pressure to uncover new ground, yet John deftly rises to the challenge, providing readers with an informative, but entertaining book which provides engrossing breadth and depth on one of our favourite mystery authors.