I have got a little behind with reviewing over the Christmas period but as things are nearly back to normal again (back to work on Monday) I am trying to catch up. I didn’t get quite as much reading done over the festive break as I hoped but I have read a couple of largish volumes – of which this is one.
I’ve long been a great lover of the work of Agatha Christie. I first read her in my teens and I guess she was one of those authors who helped me make the transition from Enid Blyton and her ilk to more adult books (along with Tolkien and my mother’s endless supplies of Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy novels!) After all these years I can’t recall which Christie I read first, but it may well have been “Murder on the Orient Express” – possibly stimulated by the 1974 film as I was a great cinemagoer in my teens.
Anyway, I had actually managed to miss the release of this book (and its recent follow-up volume) and so was delighted when OH surprised me with this on my recent birthday. Author John Curran has had unlimited and unprecedented access to Christie’s papers and discovered a collection of numbered notebooks containing plot ideas, character summaries and all sorts of plannings and jottings which shed light on AC’s creative process and working methods. Obviously they would be a little dry on their own if just reproduced, so he has taken themes from her work, grouped them into chapters and gives extracts and details from the notebooks that illuminate particular aspects of her books.
Curran’s knowledge and expertise in all matters Christie are quite overwhelming at times. This is not a criticism but I did feel that perhaps I should have read this book in smaller chunks to make sure I was taking everything in. Some of Dame Agatha’s books seem to have been plotted in detail, while for others (particularly earlier novels) there is less – or no – evidence of the planning stage. There are tantalising hints of plots never developed (particularly an obsession with non-identical twins) and it is absolutely astonishing how fertile her mind was.
As a lovely bonus, the book contains two unpublished Poirot stories. One, “The Incident of the Dog’s Ball”, is in many ways a dry run for “Dumb Witness” – but no less entertaining for that, especially as it features Poirot and Hastings! The other is a more curious and fascinating thing, being an alternative version of “The Capture of Cerberus” from “The Labours of Hercules”. The story as finally published in the finished book features a night club called Hell with a guard dog, drugs and drama involving Countess Vera Rossakoff. However, the alternate version couldn’t be more different. Countess Vera is still present, but the plot involves a not-very-well disguised Hitler figure and an assassination plot! Dame Agatha doing world politics? Now there’s a first! Curran’s commentary on the story is excellent as ever, reminding us of the state of Europe at the time AC was writing.
Like the best books about writers, this one made me want to scurry back to my AC shelf and start reading her all over again. Curran is not afraid to sing AC’s praises, which pleases me no end because I get fed up with people condemning her books as lightweight. They’re not – she was a remarkably good writer, excellent at plotting and her characterisation is not thin or insubstantial – she was just so good at it that she could get a person across to you very efficiently and in a few short sentences. Highly recommended for all fans of Christie – and I’m rather looking forward to the second volume, “Murder in the Making”, which promises an unpublished Miss Marple – yay!