Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks


I’ve already expressed my enthusiasm for John Curran’s analysis of Agatha Christie’s plotting notebooks. One of the many insights that fascinated me is the way in which Christie played around with ideas, sometimes for years, before coming up with an approach to a story that satisfied her.

Something that Christie’s critics foolishly overlook when they dismiss her as a ‘cosy’ writer whose characters were ‘cardboard cut-outs’ is her determination to experiment, and to push the boundaries of the whodunit. Her originality of approach is one of the explanations for her enormous success. Curran rightly points out, for instance, that relatively few of her novels are set in the cosy English villages with which she is so often associated. Her range of settings was remarkable.

One of her most interesting ideas was to set a murder mystery in Ancient Egypt. Death Comes as the End is in some ways a flawed book, although I do like it. I was intrigued to learn from Curran that Christie toyed with a number of different possible culprits.

But most intriguing of all is the revelation that Christie toyed with having a modern day story running in parallel to the ancient one. Shades of Possession or The French Lieutenant’s Woman – but this is not a concept that (so far as I know) has ever been adopted in a murder mystery. It’s a great idea, and someone really ought to give it a crack, even though Christie didn’t. I’m almost tempted myself….

12 comments:

harriet said...

I've never written a murder mystery though I've always wished I could. But I did once start one, and it was going to be exactly what you describe -- two different time-frames, murders in both, the connection between the two being essential to the solution of both. It was a great idea but I never carried it out!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

You should give it a go, Martin! I'd love reading the results.

I had no idea that Christie percolated her ideas for so long. But she really was a master.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - You are absolutely right that part of Christie's genius was that she experiemented in lots of different ways. One of them was different settings (in several of her novels, the setting's the Middle East; in a few of them France, etc.). Another was different kinds of motives. She also used several different scenarios for the actual murder.

As far as a modern-day story running parallel to an ancient one, you may be interested in Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear's Anasazi series. That's a trilogy that focuses on the modern story of an archeological dig in the U.S. Sonoran desert, as well as the parallel story of the ancient people who lived there. In the modern story, an archeologist and a forensic anthropologist excavate several sites where they find the remains of people who've died violently. In the ancient story, a war chief tries to find out what happened to those people. I found the series fascinating.

Lewis said...

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse just about falls within what you are describing. There is a strong element of mystery to what is a time slip adventure with parallel lives running in the past and the present.

Eric said...

Unlike Mary, who has probably read every Christie twice, I am still dipping into her novels and every time I read one I am struck by how it is totally unlike the stereotype set forth by her detractors. Perhaps eventually I will find that dreadful book they must all be talking about, but not yet.

Martin Edwards said...

Harriet - wow, great minds, as well as great ideas!
Elizabeth - I'm tempted, believe me...
Margot - thanks for the tip. You've also reminded me that, in a way, my friend Kate Ellis's books adopt the parallel stories concept - I should have mentioned them in my post
Lewis, thanks. I've heard that Labyrinth is pretty good, do you agree?
Eric - very true. There are a few poor ones (e.g. Postern of Fate) but most of her harshest critics haven't done her the courtesy of reading her with care.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Go on!

The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

Don't be tempted just do it. Good ideas are hard to come by so don't just let this one go.
All the very best.

vegetableduck said...

The Curran book simultaneously seems to be getting rather "meh" reviews from the newspapers and enthusiastic reviews from regular readers. I suspect this reflects newspaper critics' general view that plotting is somehow beneath consideration in a writer. How could Curran have wasted so much time, they seem to be thinking, on such a mundane matter as Christie's plotting?

Of course, from my perspective, and no doubt yours, it's very interesting. Plotting is a very important matter in a detective novel! When I was writing about some of the Humdrum authors, particularly Street, I found that writing with clarity about the murder plots was no easy thing. It helped make me appreciate how challenging writing one down must be in the first instance!

I'd exchange a good many middle-tier straight novelists for a good plotter of mysteries!

Lewis said...

Labyrinth is not a whodunnit as such but it is a compelling, well-written read with plenty of suspense and historical interest.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments.
Next time I write a non-series book, I might just try the parallel mystery concept...
Curt, I agree that opinion is divided (and one writer friend of mine to whom I raved about the Notebooks wasn't interested, because she doesn't plot in advance.) But I think it's a fantastic book.

Elaine said...

I have just read and reviewed the Notebooks over on Random and I found them totally fascinating. I get very cross with critics who are derogatory about Dame Agatha - considering some of the dross that is called detective fiction which is published today, I am amazed gthey have the nerve.

Out of all her work, I have always thought that Five Little Pigs was one of her very, if not the, best book she wrote. I have read it numerous time and each time am struck afresh with its brilliance, ingenuity and deep knowledge of human frailties. Great stuff.