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Michael Dirda reviews 'Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks' by John Curran

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, April 8, 2010

AGATHA CHRISTIE'S SECRET NOTEBOOKS

Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making

By John Curran

Harper. 492 pp. $25.99

Rest easy: No solutions to any of Agatha Christie's whodunits will be revealed in this review. However, that is not true of John Curran's new book, a must-have for any ardent fan of Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot.

In these nearly 500 pages, Curran -- the literary adviser to the Christie estate -- has deciphered, categorized and interpreted Christie's notes and doodles for some of the most admired mysteries of all time, including "And Then There Were None," "The ABC Murders," "A Murder Is Announced" and dozens of others. Alas, only occasional jottings survive for two of the most famous Christies, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and "Murder on the Orient Express."

Besides the use of his "little gray cells," the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot always advocated "order and method" in solving a crime. That wasn't his creator's approach to writing a mystery. For the most part, Christie worked out her ideas in cheap school-exercise books -- the attractive endpapers here show the faded covers of a dozen of them. As Christie says in her autobiography, she would pick up a notebook at random and jot down an idea or outline a plot twist. Elements used in a single novel might thus be scattered through several notebooks, or material about three or four different mysteries might be touched on in just one notebook. The one labeled No. 35, for instance, contains 75 pages devoted to "Five Little Pigs" (U.S. title: "Murder in Retrospect"), 75 pages about "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe," eight pages about "N or M?," four pages about "The Body in the Library" and 25 pages of general ideas.

In fact, Christie's notebooks are only partly work-related. She also used them to scribble down shopping lists and telephone numbers or to remind herself of a hair-dressing appointment. But turn a page and suddenly you will find "Nitro benzene -- point is -- it sinks to bottom of glass -- woman takes sip from it -- then gives it to husband." As Curran remarks, "The plotting of the latest Poirot novel can be interrupted by a poem written for [daughter] Rosalind's birthday; a page headed, optimistically, 'Things to do' is sandwiched between the latest Marple and an unfinished stage play."

For "Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks" Curran has extracted all the literary material from this archive and arranged it thematically. Thus one chapter is devoted to the various murders based on children's nursery rhymes (e.g., "A Pocketful of Rye"), another on those geared to holidays (e.g., "Death on the Nile"). Curran transcribes the often enigmatic notes, then interprets them, drawing on his seemingly perfect recall for all of Christie's oeuvre.

For instance, here are the first inklings of "Hickory Dickory Dock": "Things have disappeared -- a rather stupid girl 'Cilly' (for Celia or Cecelia) -- very enamoured of dour student -- going in for psychiatry -- he doesn't notice her. Valerie, a clever girl puts her up to stealing. 'He'll notice you through silly things or rather -- one really good thing.' " This all seems rather vague and unpromising, until the next scribble, when Christie starts to settle on her subterfuge: "Stealing -- things keep disappearing -- really just one thing needed others camouflage."

That phrase -- "just one thing needed others camouflage" -- should always be borne in mind when reading Christie. It's one of her favorite plot devices, as is her consummate ability to manipulate and misdirect the reader's suspicions. Anyone -- man, woman or even child -- might be the killer, and Christie makes sure that virtually all her major characters possess compelling motives for murder. Still, she'll fool you almost every time.

What is surprising, though, is how often Christie herself remained undecided about who should commit a particular murder. In one outline, for "Mrs. McGinty's Dead," she developed seven different scenarios before settling on the one used. While Christie's prose may be, admittedly, plain and somewhat colorless, her inventiveness remains utterly dazzling. For instance, when adapting her books as stage plays, she would often rejigger them and change the identity of the villain. The dramatic and film versions of "And Then There Were None" provide a happier ending than the much darker one in the novel itself.


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