The Mystery of the Messy Notebooks

Why Agatha Christie’s method was utterly deranged.

She was clever, learned, and unflinching when it came to plunging a paper knife into a man’s back or poisoning an old lady with strychnine. Agatha Christie, the author of more than 60 crime novels, six straight novels, more than 140 short stories, 22 plays, and uncounted poems, wrote with matchless poise about death, greed, and, on occasion, truly nasty, motiveless evil. About 20 years ago, I read all of Christie’s crime novels. Today, I would kill for the chance once more to stumble on one of her bodies and then watch suspicion build among plucky women, hearty colonels, athletic expats returned home, and servants who were—how to put this?—really servile.

Christie’s mostly middle- and upper-class British characters were such entertaining individuals, but they were also recognizable types. The Christie trick—pulled off again and again, starting in 1920 and ending only shortly before she died in 1976—was that her types weren’t always predictable in the way you first assumed. You could never guess the murderers until she unveiled them, and then you had that fantastic sensation of surprise and—at the same time—utter inevitability. Ah! It was the doctor who strangled his sister. He seemed so kind, but men in that position do often get a bit strange … Of course! It was the nurse who poisoned the invalid. Yes, you do have to watch out for single women of a certain age. This perfect dissonance—for which there is probably a good long German word—is so universally desired that Dame Agatha Christie sold more than 2 billion books in 45 languages (or, if you believe Wikipedia, 4 billion in 56 languages).

What, then, could be more shocking than to discover that the dame was no lady? Agatha didn’t sit at a pristine desk neatly typing her novels, Chapter 1 followed by Chapter 2, and so on, before donning gloves and descending at 6 p.m. for a sherry. In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran, a Christie expert who has trawled through 73 of the author’s previously unread notebooks, reveals the utter derangement in Christie’s method.

Her less-than-refined writerly day began with finding her notebook, which surely she’d left right there. Then, having found a notebook (not the one she’d used yesterday), and staring in stunned amazement at the illegible chicken scratchings therein, she would finally settle down to jab at elusive characters and oil creaky plots. Most astonishing, Curran discovers that for all her assured skewering of human character in a finished novel, sometimes when Christie started her books, even she didn’t know who the murderer was. Ah! It makes sense—a brilliant mystery writer must first experience the mystery! Or does it?

Curran stumbled on the notebooks while spending a weekend with Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, and his family at Greenway, the family’s holiday home. He quickly became obsessed, spending most of that weekend and then the next four years using the notebooks to trace the development of Christie’s story ideas and map the events and objects of her life onto her art. The notebooks contain thousands of ideas, many dated years before the work they appeared in was finished, few of them consecutive, since she scribbled in whichever was nearest to hand. At any one time, Christie would have half a dozen notebooks going.

Christie’s promiscuous note-taking meant that any one novel or play might be distributed over multiple notebooks and many, many years. Christie used Notebook 3 for at least 17 years and 17 novels. The other notebooks were more or less like this; only five notebooks deal with a single title (three notebooks contain only chemical formulae, the last notebook is blank). There’s some evidence that Christie tried to take charge of the pile, listing the contents at the start of one notebook. For some novels, she tried to impose method on her chaotic practice, assigning letters to scenes and moving them around. But her efforts at organization petered out pretty quickly.

The contents of the notebooks are as multi-dimensional as their Escher-like structure. They include fully worked-out scenes, historical background, lists of character names, rough maps of imaginary places, stage settings, an idle rebus (the numeral three, a crossed-out eye, and a mouse), and plot ideas that will be recognizable to any Christie fan: “Poirot asks to go down to country—finds a house and various fantastic details,” “Saves her life several times,” “Inquire enquire—both in same letter.” What’s more, in between ominous scraps like “Stabbed through eye with hatpin” and “influenza depression virus—Stolen? Cabinet Minister?” are grocery lists: “Newspapers, toilet paper, salt, pepper …” There was no clean line between Christie’s work life and her family life. She created household ledgers, and scribbled notes to self. (“All away weekend—can we go Thursday Nan.”) Even Christie’s second husband, the archeologist Sir Max Mallowan, used her notebooks. He jotted down calculations. Christie’s daughter Rosalind practiced penmanship, and the whole family kept track of their bridge scores alongside notes like, “Possibilities of poison … cyanide in strawberry … coniine—in capsule?”

How on earth did Christie draw her perfectly tensioned structures from this formless mess? Did she manage it because, as the notebooks show, she was initially open to everything and considered the situation from every angle? Evidence of the breadth of Christie’s imagination can also be found in the tantalizing trails she left that never went anywhere. Curran tracks motifs and ideas that crop up again and again over many years but that were never realized in her published books. Imagine what Christie would have done with a legless man, infrared photography, identical and nonidentical twins, and a chambermaid? Curran also carefully excavates ingenious but unused ideas, “Nitro-benzene—point is—it sinks to bottom of glass—woman takes sip from it—then gives it to husband.” He unearths diverse fragments, such as the mercifully killed title, “Fiddle de Death,” the unpublished play Butter from a Lordly Dish, and the otherwise blank page with the excruciatingly unfinished sentence, “A good idea would be …”

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.”

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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