John Curran on Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making
Today I welcome John Curran, author of the award winning Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks.
John Curran's lifelong interest in crime fiction came to fruition when he departed from his career as a civil servant to write Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks. The long-time literary advisor to the Christie estate and an expert on her life and work, he has acted as a consultant in the restoration of Greenway House, Agatha Christie's home, and is currently writing a Ph.D. thesis on "Agatha Christie and The Golden Age of Detective Fiction" at Trinity College Dublin. Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making is now out in the U.S. from HarperCollins.
JOHN CURRAN: Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making
When I was half-way through writing Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, I knew that I had a problem. The original decision – and contract! - was to produce a 500-page book but as I transcribed more and more of the Notebooks I realised that a mere 500 pages would not be enough to discuss properly the genesis of Christie’s classic novels. The solution? Write a second book. And so Murder in the Making was conceived.
In the Secret Notebooks book I had devised the idea of arranging the books thematically in order to bring together titles from various eras of Christie’s writing life and to avoid discussing all the weaker and less-well known books – mainly from the early and late years – in the same chapter. But when I came to Murder in the Making and examined the titles for inclusion – over twenty of them - I knew that the thematic approach would not work; the remaining novels would not fall conveniently into themes. Having considered various options – alphabetical, by detective, by category – I finally settled on a chronological approach as being the most logical. This also gave me the opportunity to consider the development of Christie as a detective novelist. And so, from the very first she book wrote, The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920, to the very last, Postern of Fate in 1973 I trace the arc of Christie’s phenomenal career both as novelist and dramatist. I look at how her fiction challenged the ‘rules’ of the genre and I provide some more personal glimpses of the woman behind the world’s best-selling fiction; and for readers who think that they have read everything that she wrote I include a few surprises...
The most welcome surprise for her devoted fans will undoubtedly be the ‘missing’ chapter from The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Agatha Christie’s literary career begins with this first book, which, although published in 1920, took five years to reach the bookshelves. I consider the genesis of the book, placing in context the hitherto unseen and unpublished courtroom scene from the first draft which had been removed and replaced. In near-illegible pencilled handwriting in Notebook 37 this chapter (mentioned briefly by Dame Agatha in her Autobiography) is a fascinating, but very different, forerunner of the type of scene which features as the denouement of so many cases – the gathering of the suspects and the revelation of the murderer. Instead of the usual drawing-room setting this early version has Poirot present his explanation from the witness box during the trial of John Cavendish. Not surprisingly John Lane, the publisher of Styles, asked for its removal – such a procedure would not be permissible - and in so doing he unwittingly influenced the ‘revelation scene’ of the following half-century of Christie’s fiction. In complete contrast to this I also discuss the notes for her last, and, sadly, unwritten novel. A few pages of fascinating and surprising notes show that right to the very end of her life her creativity remained. These notes indicate a novel unlike anything she had previously written. An idea for a very dark crime novel - not a detective novel – complete with a glorious twist bubbled away in her mind in late1973. Alas, it was not be...
Miss Marple is represented in a variant draft of the 1942 short story ‘The Case of the Caretaker’. I found this longer and more convincing version buried among Christie’s papers and although the reason behind its lifelong burial remains obscure I feel that this short story (which later inspired one of her greatest novels, Endless Night) deserves resurrection! And the more personal Christie is portrayed with a consideration of her lifelong interest in Shakespeare as shown by her Letter to The Times in 1973 as well as a discussion of her reading interests as shown by some of the lists of books that are scattered throughout the Notebooks. Her wide-ranging tastes are reflected in these records of book titles embracing fiction – both general and crime – and history, biography, art, science and music.
The supernatural was a feature – although not a dominant one – throughout Christie’s writing life. Undertones and overtones of the paranormal coloured some of her detective novels – Dumb Witness, The Sittaford Mystery, The Pale Horse – and the 1934 short story collection The Hound of Death explored this concept more thoroughly. So when I came across a very short short story among her papers I realised that it was the forerunner of one of the best of this type to come from her typewriter. ‘The Man Who Knew’ is an early, though complete, version of the 1924 short ‘The Red Signal’. Both versions differ only in length with ‘The Red Signal’ adding only extra characters and deeper characterisation. The deception carried out on the reader is the same in both but the later version shows more experience in the use of the ambiguous phrase to misdirect the reader.
The other ‘behind-the-scenes’ glimpse is the article that Christie wrote in 1937 to herald the newspaper serialisation of Appointment with Death (where it was to be called A Death with Death). ‘How I created Hercule Poirot’ first appeared in January 1938 and in it, Christie discusses in general the origins of her most famous creation and, more specifically, the factors that made Appointment with Death one of his more fascinating cases. But for students of Christie the most interesting aspect of the article is the fact that it appears in Notebook 21 with a minimum of deletions and crossings-out. I leave these deletions in place and readers will be able to see how these 1400 words were produced so easily and fluently. Perhaps the fact that ‘cut and paste’ and ‘copy and paste’ did not exist focussed the mind!
There is one further aspect of Murder in the Making that I would like to address. Because in this volume I cover more of the later novels than I did in Secret Notebooks, my appraisals of these had to be more negative than many earlier titles. Nobody could argue, for instance, that Postern of Fate in 1973 is in the same league as, for instance, Death on the Nile from almost forty years earlier; or that Passenger to Frankfurt in 1970 stands comparison with And Then There Were None from 1939. I hope that I persuade the reader that although the later novels were not as clever as the earlier ones, it was not the ideas behind the books but the development of these ideas that faltered. Even her weakest titles – and I consider Postern of Fate and Passenger to Frankfurt to be her two weakest titles – have at their heart clever ideas. But the development of these ideas into puzzling and entertaining plots is not as inventive as the Christie of yesteryear; there are fewer variations produced on a plot idea, there is less mystification and misdirection, and the ability to produce a stunning last-minute surprise is missing. But after a lifetime of entertainment with the output of the Queen of Crime I assure you that I am assessing and not complaining!