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'Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks' and P.D. James on Detective Fiction

Lost Hercule Poirot mysteries, and a master's secrets

Christie's jottings ranged from the telegraphic to the cryptic: "About Linda—Packet of candles—calendar—other things she remembers—green? Bath?" But Curran does a fine job of connecting the dots. The most enlightening sections explore Christie's extensive planning for And Then There Were None, the bestselling crime novel of all time (more than 100 million copies sold), and her preparations for Five Little Pigs ("the apex of Christie's career," in Curran's estimation). Curran examines Christie's use of nursery rhymes and classic literature for inspiration, retraces the frequent jaunts abroad in her mysteries, and plants helpful signposts throughout the text to steer us toward other points of interest: Christie's persistent themes and motifs, the balance she struck between legal justice and moral justice, and even the many story ideas she considered but ultimately rejected.

Either by volition or circumstance, we learn, Agatha Christie frequently reworked her book titles before publication. Among the titles tested (and tossed) for her novel Sleeping Murder (1976)—written over a period of years in the 1940s and placed in "safekeeping" to be published only after the author's death—were A Murder Is Announced and She Died Young. Indeed, Christie referred to Sleeping Murder by the title Cover Her Face from 1942 until 1964, when P. D. James debuted on the mystery scene with a novel by that exact name.

P. D. (for Phyllis Dorothy) James herself is perhaps best suited to claim Christie's crown. Her 18 novels, 14 of them featuring Scotland Yard inspector Adam Dalgliesh, have earned James a fervent following and high honors (the title "Baroness James of Holland Park" is one of them, bestowed in 1991). But in her recent study, Talking About Detective Fiction, James disses her eminent predecessor, branding Christie's writing style "neither original nor elegant" and labeling her characters as "pasteboard." Even James's praise here is damning: "Perhaps [Christie's] greatest strength was that she never overstepped the limits of her talent."

A harsh assessment, but James ultimately proves as incisive a reader and critic as she is a novelist. Her new book champions and celebrates detective fiction. It surveys the history of the genre, parses the craftsmanship behind the classics, and alerts us to new developments in the field.

James's ruminations focus predominantly on the British tradition. That's why you'll find more about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in these pages than Edgar Allan Poe, more about Dorothy L. Sayers than James M. Cain. But she illustrates with authority how each of these writers—and many others—addressed the needs, expectations, and challenges of their respective times and places. Some of her observations tread familiar ground: did we really need to be reminded, for example, that "some novelists like to begin either with a murder or with the discovery of the body"? Or that such an opening "involves the reader immediately in drama and action"?

Yet James is equally capable of the surprising aperçu: At one point she compares Chandler's hard-boiled men of America's mean streets to the very British, usually upper-crust characters of Evelyn Waugh: both Chandler and Waugh steadfastly avoid introspection, she points out, and both reveal character and plot solely through action and dialogue.

Time and again in this study, James returns to a certain ideal for the detective story—one that she first locates in G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories. She heralds Chesterton as "among the first writers to realize that [detective fiction] could be a vehicle for exploring and exposing the conditions of society, and for saying something true about human nature." Her reflections on those possibilities allow her to examine an array of fine writers who have published over the course of her lifetime.

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