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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

Any book entitled Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks promises a treasure trove of mystery gems. The shiniest jewels in this collection are a pair of long-hidden short stories featuring Hercule Poirot—the detective hero of 33 Christie novels (and 51 stories) published from 1920 to 1975, including some of her iconic works: The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, and Death on the Nile.

Of the two stories debuting here—"The Incident of the Dog's Ball" and "The Capture of Cerberus"—the latter is by far the richer discovery. "Cerberus" reveals new aspects of the Christie canon and offers a glimpse at the era's publishing values and concerns. In 1947 Christie published her best-known short-story collection, The Labours of Hercules—12 mysteries paralleling the adventures of the Greek hero whose name is echoed in Poirot's. Eleven of these originally appeared in The Strand, an English mystery magazine, from 1939 to 1940. The 12th story, "Cerberus," did not.

That omission had been a mystery of its own—until now.

In the 1947 version of "Cerberus," Poirot descended into a London nightclub named Hell to expose a drug ring. Not so in the original draft, which had lain hidden in plain sight for more than six decades—just another bound typescript in the Christie archives, one of a number that had been "lifted and carried and moved and re-shelved numerous times over that period" until Curran, a literary advisor to the Christie estate, happened to sit down and read the pages during preparations for restoring Dame Agatha's house.

Instead of seamy-side London, that earlier draft takes readers into the heart of Continental Europe to focus on the assassination of August Hertzlein, a thinly disguised Adolf Hitler. While on vacation in Switzerland, Poirot is approached by the father of the man who allegedly assassinated Hertzlein—and who in turn had been killed by an angry mob. Convinced that his son could not have committed such a crime, the father asks Poirot to uncover the truth. Poirot agrees, then dispatches a succession of men to what he enigmatically labels "the place of departed spirits"—and soon a telegram arrives back with an address and the phrase "Beware of the Dog." When Poirot himself sets out to investigate, he discovers that—

Ah, but that would spoil the surprise! Suffice it to say that the story reveals the deeply political concerns of an author who elsewhere insisted that she had "never been in the least interested in politics." It also underscores the reluctance of British publishers to print an edgy political tale in a genre traditionally considered escapist literature.

These two "lost" stories appear only at the very end of Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks. I read them (as many readers will) before leafing back to the notebooks themselves. Christie's mysteries, after all, promise more enjoyment than do studies of her style. But Curran's scholarship entailed detective work too, for he has followed clues spread across the 73 notebooks Christie left at her death to re-create her working habits and plumb the secrets of her success.

One might imagine these notebooks as regal, hardbound journals, but as Curran points out they "look like the piles of exercise books gathered by teachers at the end of class in schools the world over." He found them stuffed in a cardboard box in an upstairs room of the Christie family home. And they are about as far from systematically organized as one writer could get: a single notebook often spans decades. Plans for one novel crop up randomly across several notebooks. And the overall mix is leavened (some would say obscured) by random to-do lists, travel directions, and bridge scores.

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.

James also discusses her own novels, especially the importance of setting. In one beautiful section, she details how a visit to a "deserted shingle beach" in East Anglia inspired her Devices and Desires (1989): the "sullen and dangerous North Sea" loomed in one direction, the "great outline of Sizewell nuclear power station" in the other. "Immediately," she writes, "I knew that I had found the setting for my next novel."

Talking About Detective Fiction will have you reading the stuff as well, sending even the most ardent mystery fan to the library with a list of fresh titles. As much as those notebooks of Christie's, James's study expertly ushers readers inside the novelist's craft.

Art Taylor writes frequently on mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post, Mystery Scene, and The Strand. His short fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.