Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks – John Curran

A theme seems to be occurring when it comes to my reading habits. I always say that I am not the biggest fan of non fiction and then I read one each year and it completely takes my breath away (well almost) with its brilliance and soon becomes on of my favourites if not my favourite book of the year. This happened last year with ‘The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters’ by Charlotte Mosley, I utterly adored it couldn’t put it down and yet at the same time didn’t want it to end. This has happened again this year with ‘Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks’ by John Curran.

I heard about Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks on one of the many book podcasts that I download each week. These notebooks were a recent discovery when Christie’s family allowed Greenway, Christie’s holiday home, to be taken over by the National Trust. They had never been on display, they were a mix up of several plots, daily to do’s, shopping lists, character ideas, lists of books (made me love Agatha even more) she wanted and other thoughts with no chronological order. That is where John Curran, an Agatha expert and friend of Christie’s grandson, came in and this book is the results of four years work trying to decipher some of Christie’s handwriting “often like short hand” and working out what notes related to what books and when.

The discoveries are really very interesting. It seems that Curran’s (and probably most readers of her work) image of Agatha sat endlessly typing murder after murder, book after book with the killer planned at the start isn’t quite so. In fact as you get to read her notes, which John has painstakingly transcribed, you find she would often chop and change the killer as she went. The idea for a book might ruminate for years and start from a simple observation as ‘a stamp’ the notes then look at how such an everyday item could cause someone to commit murder. Who knew that a certain famous Poirot scene was originally meant for Miss Marple? Which books didn’t have the endings you and I might have read? Which short stories then with new characters and a subtle plot twist or motive change became a play or a novel? You can find all these things out and much, much more.

The book isn’t just John’s transcriptions, there are some wonderful pictures (as you can see above)  of the notes she had written with crossings out (which actually meant she had used the notes not that they were rubbish. This book isn’t just about her notebooks, though naturally they are predominantly the subject of the book. He also interweaves her personal life from making hair appointments to having her grandchildren to say and being part of ‘The Detection Club’ a group of the finest detective fiction writers with a secret initiation ceremony. Her disappearance isn’t much mentioned but this is more about the process behind the books and what went on in Agatha’s head.

I have to say I don’t think you have to be a huge Agatha fan in order to read this, though if you are this book is pure gold. If you are interested in how the minds of authors work and in particular one of the great British authors (who has sold over two billion copies of her books worldwide) ever then this is also fascinating. There are a couple of glitches in the book. One, which you can overcome, is that it does give a lot of the books endings away. My thoughts on that are just leave those books a while before you read or re-read them as she has so many ‘you could read one a month for seven years’. The other small glitch for me is Curran’s slight case of repetition; I think in the first hundred pages I had read the same quote three times which seemed to be hammering a point home a little too much. This is minor though as I found Curran a really interesting and enjoyable guide through these notebooks, he was never too clever or condescending just very enthusiastic which we all know is highly contagious.

Ooh, I must mention, well show you, the delightful end papers which are a selection of the notebooks and look gorgeous (my Gran could remember lots of them) I think…

This is a wonderful book that I adored, and I freely admit that I am quite a hard person to please with non fiction yet this won me over almost instantly. This is undoubtedly one of my favourite books of the year It has also made my previous desire to read all Agatha Christie that I can a much bigger desire. I am quite tempted to read The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding next week! Oh, which brings me to the point that this book has finally won me over to Poirot and not just because of the notes, but also the two previously unpublished short stories he features in. A must read in my humble opinion.

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17 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Books of 2009, Harper Collins, John Curran, Review

17 responses to “Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks – John Curran

  1. I’ve never read anything by Agatha Christie and this has review has intrigued me. I do love a good murder mystery. Any suggestions what book would be good to start with?

    • Hmmm you see I am a bit of a nightmare and like to read things in order. I didnt with Agatha though which irks me still but means I can hopefully read The Adventure of The Christmas Pudding guilt free. I wonder if this should be a boxing day read so I can eat Christmas Pudding at the time… sorry I digressed.

      I would say if you want to start with Marple (and I found Miss Marple the most accessable) then Murder at the Vicarage is a must. If you want to start at the start of Agatha full stop then her 1920 debut The Mysterious Affair at Styles is the one… though I havent read that yet!

  2. Simon, this sounds really well done, and, as I am a Christie fan, right up my alley. Is this a new release? UK only for now? Have to check out availability. Also love those endpapers!

    Every time I feel like I need a reading break, a palate cleanser as someone else said this week, I think about Christie. Regrettably, the copies I had as a younger person met with an unfortunate end. I think now is the time to re-stock so that the next time the impulse strikes, I will be ready.

    Best to Gran! Happy reading!

    • Hi Frances, this book is indeed done very well and I think part of that is the fact that John Curran really genuinely loves Agatha Christies work and is soooooo enthustiastic about it and the more I read of it the more it caught! Brilliant brilliant book. Its fairly new but I dont think its UK only… hmmm will have a look. Its on book depository am sure!

      I have a few Agatha’s but nothing like I used to have which is annoying andhad lots of wonderful 70’s ones but went through a phase of thinking I wouldnt read them all… disgraceful.

  3. I love Agatha Christie and have probably read everything by her (I started when I was 9 years old!) but not much about her, so this book sounds like a gem.

    • I wish I had started her when I was so much younger, but despite what I am sure my mother and Gran would say though they both have lots of copies of her works in their libraries still they actually sort of looked down on your reading Agatha Christie and felt it was a ‘teen phase’ which only shows she is accessible rather than low brow. I love her work and have no quarms telling the world so… John Curran clearly feels the same!

  4. fleurfisher

    I was inspired by Laura Thompson’s biography last year to start rereading Mrs Christie yet again. I have heard so much good about this book and, having seen it in the library catalogue. I am checking for it every visit. Though now I see those endpapers I’m thinking I need a copy of my own.

    • The endpapers are just gorgeous arent they, in fact the whole book is really a treat. I think getting it from the library is great I would have to say this is a book thats a delight to have for yourself and not one that you have to give back.

  5. Jessicabookworm – if a Poirot book is to be chosen, please read Five LIttle Pigs. Her best book in my humble…

    I am lucky in that I know the identity of every murderer in evry book of Dame A’s (has not helped me much in my path through life but there you go) so I did not have to worry overly about reading the endings to the books, but can imagine you have to be careful if you are still to embark on all these terrific books.

    I have recently re-read The Man in the brown Suit, one of her very early books set in the 1920s, very funny and amusing and shows a delightful side to her writing. I loved this book

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