Following Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks (2009), which scrutinized the early stages of some two-dozen novels by the legendary mystery novelist, Christie expert Curran returns to exhume and analyze selected entries from her 73 notebooks dealing with dozens of other novels and stories.
“Selected” is the key word, since the material presented is by no means exhaustive, and often thematically rearranged into categories like “Unused Ideas, 1-4” and “Agatha Christie and Poison.” Curran’s shaping editorial hand is inevitable because the notebooks are so chaotic. Christie, whose meticulously plotted detective stories present her as a master of logic and detail, could scatter undated entries on a given novel across several different notebooks, and her handwriting presented distinct challenges to her editor. Her preference for tight plotting, a deceptive but generous use of clues, a limited array of stock characters and a neutral, highly serviceable dialogue and descriptive prose are too well-known to be further illuminated here, but Curran produces some welcome surprises. His selection reprints a hitherto unpublished courtroom climax to The Mysterious Affair at Styles, an earlier version of “The Red Signal” and an alternate version of “The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife.” He describes a never-staged dramatization of The Secret of Chimneys, reveals the two quite different motives for murder in the British and American editions of Three Act Tragedy and notes that Christie intended to publish Sleeping Murder under the title Cover Her Face until P.D. James anticipated her in the long interval between Sleeping Murder’s composition and its publication. Curran’s single most important general revelation is Christie’s fondness for playing with unpromisingly skeletal ideas until they turned into the high concepts for which she is best remembered.
Not a book to read in one sitting, but one to love: a sumptuous buffet for fans who wish the Queen of Crime had lived forever.