Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks.

Reading between the lines.
April 12 2010 7:05 AM

The Mystery of the Messy Notebooks

Why Agatha Christie's method was utterly deranged.

(Continued from Page 1)

The most astonishing thing about the wide net Christie threw out each day is that she also cast it over her murderers. I always assumed she just knew who did it, in the same way that, well, a murderer knows exactly who they want to kill. Certainly, at the end of her books, she always made you feel that the story couldn't have happened any other way. It had only ever seemed otherwise because you couldn't see it. But it turns out that for many of her books, Christie often ran through multiple scenarios for the victim, the method of death, and the identity of the murderer.

Curran finds that even the denouement of Endless Night, in which you innocently follow the narrator until you find in the last few pages that he is the murderer, was one of the later parts of the plot to be sorted out. Christie's greatest talent, or at least the one for which her readers most adore her, lay in knowing exactly what her reader would think and feel, and in subtly exploiting that. Perhaps she understood her readers' experience so well because she forced herself to pass through it, seeing the murder first through their shocked, innocent eyes, and then having to work out who did it. While Curran uses some broad categories to organize his presentation (Agatha Christie at Work, A Holiday for Murder), he is generally reluctant to impose his interpretation. Rather, he gently dusts off these intellectual artifacts and holds them up for viewing. His devotion is moving. Yet he has such intimate knowledge of Christie's entire body of work, I wish he'd given us his a little more of his analysis. He observes that "randomness is her method," and Christie "thrived mentally on chaos," but I'm not sure that explains anything. Of the notebooks, Christie herself said, "Of course, if I had kept all these things neatly and filed and labeled, it would save me a lot of trouble."

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But in this one thing, it seems the Queen of Crime was wrong. Still, if Christie's natural method was to be disorganized, I wish I knew why it troubled her and why she ever thought it could have been different. Why was her prep work so profoundly nonlinear? She distributed thoughts literally all over the place. Is this what it looks like when you wrestle something down that is actually bigger than your own head? Christie's half-dozen active notebooks evoke the modern computer desktop. What would she have made of a Mac, apart from killing someone with it?

There are two previously unpublished stories at the end of the book. Sadly, neither is especially satisfying. They don't sound like Christie so much as imitation Christie. Presumably they were unpublished because she hadn't finished working them over. Maybe because of that, they point us toward Agatha's real secret: She understood that in order to sound like yourself, you have to get up every day and get it all down—the trunk in the hallway, the revolving bookcase on the landing, the old children's books in the library—and then, crucially, you have to edit it as if you are someone else, working through every possibility, before finally settling on the story and telling it as if it had been that way all along. Christie's notebooks show that stories didn't spring forth fully formed from her head and that her famously recognizable writerly voice was entirely constructed. They also show it was no less authentic for that. No one but Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie could have constructed that voice, let alone done it again and again over a long lifetime. It gives one furiously to think, no?

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Christine Kenneally is the author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. Her writings can be found on the blog www.christinekenneally.com.

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