In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks John Curran has managed the paradoxical feat of producing a book which is on the one hand indispensible to the Christie aficionado, and on the other highly unsatisfactory. The book is the result of years of research into Christie’s so-called ‘secret notebooks’. In effect these were a series of notebooks in which – among shopping lists, reminders, much trivia of her everyday life – Christie jotted down plot ideas, from rudimentary outlines and single sentence concepts to fully developed schemes.

To start with the positive it is undoubtedly enormously interesting and valuable to be able to trace the way in which individual books took shape. The headline grabbing revelations which the book has made all fall into this category – the murderer in Crooked House was not pre-determined; Death on the Nile was originally conceived of as a Miss Marple rather than a Poirot book, being two such. Certainly as a work of reference when studying any particular book Curran would be a vital companion. My personal favourite revelation is that in 4.50 From Paddington Cedric is based on Christie’s real-life friend and neighbour Robert Graves and it is definitely he who is meant to ‘get the girl’ (Lucy) at the end – a conclusion I have always been certain of and have argued with others. The other great positive which emerges from Curran’s painstaking reconstruction of the way in which each book (not that every Christie is covered but a great many are) was built up and the way in which the final version often varied substantially from the original construction, is that it should finally allow Christie adaptations the autonomy they need; if Christie herself was quite prepared to alter plots entirely, including when transferring from book to stage, then why should not adaptations too? To do so is entirely in accord with her working methods. It would be nice to think that Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks would stop the whining of the faithful brigade (not that it will!).

Sadly, for all this, the book is a big disappointment. As soon as Curran moves away from the notebooks into any analysis or commentary of his own the lack of any real intellectual weight becomes immediately apparent. The opening chapters of the book which describe his approach and, if one may term it as such,  theoretical position reveal this immediately (it is probably worth skipping them and getting straight down to his transcription of the notebooks). As far as I can tell he seems to think that the notebooks explain Christie’s genius – they are her ‘secret’; that she proceeded not with any set method but through experiment and jotting and discarding. I would not question that this was her method and no doubt Curran’s book establishes that; however it is a big and unwarranted step from there to claim that this method was responsible for the outcomes – in other hands a similar method might produce complete dross, whereas on the other hand there may have been great mystery writers who proceed in a completely different way.

However it is when we come to the analysis of the content of any of the books, beyond Curran’s explanations as to what the notebooks reveal in any particular case, that his shortcomings are especially exposed. To give merely one example he claims that Christie’s 30’s ‘travel’ books (like Death on the Nile) introduced readers to new and exotic locations; on the contrary Alison Light remarks in her brilliant essay that the inter-war years were in fact precisely the age of the exponential growth of overseas tourism. In fact this may be over-stating it as anyone who reads Trollope’s short stories (as I am currently doing) can see that it was reasonably common in the 1860’s! The reason this is important is because part of Christie’s genius is never to go too far beyond her reader’s experience.

Even these errors pale into comparison with those which Curran makes in respect of the two new short stories which come with the book. Of these one is a dull and uninteresting re-working or alternate version of Dumb Witness called The Incident of the Dog’s Ball. The other however is a real gem ; an essential and fascinating addition to the canon called The Capture of Cerberus. This story has absolutely no connection or resemblance to the story of the same name which appeared in the short story collection The Labours of Hercules, other than the presence of Countess Vera Rosakoff, and Higgs and his dog. To summarise the story: Poirot is in Switzerland at Lake Geneva talking to ‘certain diplomatic personages’, he is depressed because he fears that War will break out. Then….

‘He thought sadly to himself:

‘If only a man could arise who would set enthusiasm for peace flaming through the world – as men have aroused enthusiasm for victory and conquest by force’

Now Vera Rosakoff appears, but her only function is to introduce Poirot to a man called Dr Keiserbach (brilliant name combining Kaiser and Bach!). Keiserbach is the father of a man called Lutzmann who had apparently recently assassinated the bellicose dictator Hertzlein. Keiserbach however claims that his son was a dedicated Nazi who would never have carried out this act; he wants Poirot to find out what really happened. With the assistance of Mr Higgs and his dog Poirot tracks Hertzlein to the lunatic asylum where he has been incarcerated and frees him. The truth of the matter is that Hertzlein had become converted to the cause of universal Peace ; this dissatisfied the military in his country who therefore imprisoned him, arranged for a look-a-like to speak in his place and had him ‘assassinated’. Hertzlein goes on to deliver his message of amity. The story ends with Poirot drinking vodka with Vera,  presenting her with Higgs’ monstrous dog and discussing the possibilities of ‘brotherhood’.

If that isn’t an extraordinary and invaluable addition to the canon, which makes the whole book worth-while in itself, I don’t know what could be. Curran’s analysis however is simply unbelievable. He explains that the story was probably written some time in 1938/9. Labours 1-11 were published from November 1939 onwards. Curran then has a section entitled ‘Why Was It Never published?’ He claims that ‘There can be little doubt that the political situation of time and the poorly disguised picture of Adolf Hitler…was the main (and probably only) reason for the rejection of the story……………..This would have been considered much too close to the actual state of the world and one of its inhabitants in 1939 to be considered escapist reading. Why Christie chose to write this story will never be known, as there is little evidence elsewhere in her work that she was particularly political’. Can Curran really think this? It is so wrong as to be laughable. The sequence of events seems dazzlingly clear (and fascinating). If this story was written – as seems to me utterly certain – before September 1939, during the ‘phony peace’, then it is wonderful piece of wish-fulfilment on Christie’s part which show her – as so often – utterly in tune with what is reported as the mood of a large part of her country-men ie: hoping against hope that War would be avoided; no doubt she wrote the story to reflect that mood. At this time Hitler was not to the general populace a figure of detestation and loathing. This is not for an instant to suggest that Christie was one of those Nazi sympathisers (although as we know there were a number of them about!) – I am quite sure she was not. But neither – as is abundantly clear from the story – had she any real understanding of Hitler’s nature or that of the Nazi regime. The reason the story could not have been published after September 1939 and the declaration of war (1st September) is, very obviously, that it would, at best have been enormously embarrassing, and at worst seen as an act of treachery (to suggest that Hitler was in fact potentially a man of peace).  Christie was no doubt appalled that she had written the story. She threw herself into her own war work in the form of writing N or M, one of her greatest books which Curran hardly mentions, which is above all propaganda (and extremely good propaganda). Of course she was – like every human being – political, and at a time of World War not to have been would have been a declaration of inhumanity or utter insanity. The great fascination about this original Capture of Cerberus is that the gap between it and N and M shows, in the microcosm of the Christie canon, the enormous political and social shifts which took place between 1939 and 1940. It might also be argued that when she came to write N or M Christie’s experience with Poirot here (and he does not really work in this context) inclined her towards Tommy and Tuppence, though my own feeling is that she would have realised that in the dark days of 1940 an English hero and heroine were needed in any case.

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks is essential for the Christie fan or critic, not least for the inclusion of Capture Of Cerberus Version One. But Curran’s insights and analysis should be treated at best with extreme scepticism.

Advertisements