Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks:
Fifty Years of History in the Making

by John Curran

Harper, 2011. ISBN 978-0-061-98837-0.
Reviewed by Laura Strathman Hulka
Posted on 04/21/2011

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: Creative Life

Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks is most definitely a scholarly work. But don't be afraid to dive into it, for it is the ultimate insider's look at Dame Agatha's approach to writing her mysteries. In fact, it is a wonderfully personal glimpse of the way Christie's marvelous mind worked.

Curran is the longtime literary adviser to Agatha Christie's estate. He organized and numbered Christie's noebooks and shares what he learned about her work and life: plot lines, character formation, research, and even the odd household reminder.

To set the stage—imagine you have been invited to Greenway, the family manse, by Matthew Prichard, Christie's grandson. (Greenway was donated to the National Trust while his parents were still living. Now, upon their deaths, National Trust is ready to take over and begin to restore the property. ) Matthew takes you on the grand tour; past mementos of the legacy of stories from Christie, including such wonders as the dinner-gong, a brass-bound chest, and family portraits stretching down the hall, many of them used as fodder for the wondrous imagination that spawned over 50 years of beautifully crafted classic mysteries.

Suddenly, in a small, cluttered, inconspicuous room, your eye is taken by a bottom shelf filled with notebooks—over 70 of them. Old-fashioned exercise copybooks, filled with the observations that Agatha Christie used to feed her ever-evolving curiosity and fuel the what-ifs that became her vast body of work. You squat on the floor, unmindful of the dust and busyness elsewhere in the house, for you have found a doorway into Christie's mind and imagination. You are hooked, and thus on the road to four years of exploration and cataloging the notebooks. That is how John Curran felt, and he in turn invites us as the readers to take the journey with him.

This book is a recommended read for those who are fans of classic mystery and Dame Agatha Christie. Curran discusses not only the copybooks and their helter-skelter contents, but the end products, and how each story comes to fruition. Photocopies of some of the notebooks' pages are provided; analyses, based on the notebooks; and many of Christie's book notes, explained, are included. The process is great fun to delve into. You will see how Greenway and other personal locales become a piece of a Poirot or Miss Marple tale. And you will learn about the personal skills and quirks that come from Christie's life. For example, did you know that "she used poison more than any other murder method and more than any of her contemporaries, resorting to firearms infrequently"?

The notebooks are ongoing conversations that Dame Agatha had with herself. She not only discusses murder methods, names of her characters and plot lines, but she reprimands herself for not covering vital points, or missing a great place to insert a clue. And every once in a while, there is an endearing insertion of a more personal nature—how many are coming to dinner, something that needs to be purchased at the shops, or a reminder of someone's birthday. Be warned though, Curran gives some spoilers as he explains and dissects the notebooks and the creations that came from them. To off-set that tendency to spoilers, the reader is also treated to two never before published Christie stories. What a joy that is!

Next to Christie's autobiography, this book will take its place on my bookshelf as a reminder that at the turn of the last century a woman with an original, dynamic and creative mind was born, and the genre of mysteries will never be the same. Thank goodness!

Mystery readers and Christie fans will especially enjoy this book; more general readers might look for a Christie biography instead.

John Curran, a lifelong Christie fan, lives in Dublin. He acted as a consultant to the National Trust during the restoration of Greenway House, Dame Agatha's Devon home. John has been working with her grandson, Mathew Prichard, to establish the Agatha Christie Archive, and is currently writing a doctoral thesis on Agatha Christie at Trinity College, Dublin. 2011 Edgar Allan Poe Awards have just been announced by Mystery Writers of America and Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks has been nominated in the Best Critical/Biographical Category. He has also been nominated for the Agatha, awarded annually at the Malice Domestic convention. Visit his website.

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