HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Rats. I didn't take a photo. But you should have seen John Curran hold the Malice Domestic audience captive with his stories about our goddess and mentor Agatha Christie. He got exclusive access to ALL her notes and notebooks and letters--stayed at her house, Greenway House, and was the very first person to see it all. Can you imagine? What a cache of treasures! And his stories are mesmerizing!
So of course we had to invite the world's expert on Agatha to come chat at Jungle Red. (And we're giving away a copy of his first book--and a new one! Just answer one little question--see below!)
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Okay, John. How did this all happen??
JOHN CURRAN: I have been reading Christie all my life and although I moved on to read lots of other writers I kept returning to Christie as she was/is the greatest exponent ever of the classical detective novel. For some years I edited an Agatha Christie Newsletter and later wrote an online version of it where I reviewed Christie plays and films and new editions of her books.
In 2004 I visited Calgary in Canada to see Chimneys, a play written by Christie in 1930 and never previously performed. There I met her grandson, Mathew, and he invited me to visit Greenway House, his grandmother’s home since 1938. When I read the Notebooks, which were stored there, I asked his permission to write a book about them and he immediately agreed.
JOHN: Yes! So now, two books later, I hope I have contributed something to Christie scholarship with a glimpse into how she some of the best detective of all time. Mathew and I are also working to establish an Archive of Agatha Christie’s papers for future generations of scholars.
HANK: I keep envisioning you, discovering those treasures. Tell us more!
JOHN:The biggest surprise was how disorganised they were. I had assumed the plotting would be very ordered (as her books are) but the notes that go to make up any of her titles can be scattered over half-a-dozen Notebooks. And there are very few dates included. And the handwriting was very difficult to decipher.
The other big surprise, considering the number of books she wrote, was the number of plot ideas that she scribbled down but never used. I have included many of these in my two books.
Finding the short stories was an added bonus. It was an unbelievably exciting event for an aficionado to sit in the author’s own home and read a typescript that no-one had even seen for over 60 years. It was the first ‘new’ Agatha Christie since I read Sleeping Murder in 1976. And finding the notes for them in the Notebooks made it even better. I feel very privileged to have been able to bring them to her legions of fans.
JOHN: Without doubt the biggest problem was the handwriting especially for the years between 1930 and the mid-50s.
HANK: Uh, oh. Lucky no one is gonna care about MY notebooks… Really?
JOHN: Yes, it took me about 8 months to decipher those notes and then to transcribe them into legible documents, one file for each Notebook. Of course, it must be remembered that no-one other than Agatha Christie was ever meant to read the Notebooks! When it came to deciding which notes would be included and which left out there were difficult choices to be made. I hope I made the right ones...
HANK: But wait, there’s more? You’re writing a doctoral thesis on Christie?
JOHN: It will deal with the Golden Age of detective fiction between the Wars when Christie and her contemporaries were at the height of their considerable powers. Apart from the literature itself it will also look at the social conditions that fostered its growth.
HANK: Let’s go back to the beginning. What was the first Christie book you read? Do you remember?
JOHN: I read my first Christie, Peril at End House, while I was at school and I still consider it one of her best – a very clever, totally fair detective story with a very simple plot device. After that I was hooked! And have remained so ever since.
HANK: So, what do you think is the secret of Agatha Christie? Why does she continue to attract readers?
JOHN: I think it is a combination of a few factors and this combination has never been matched:
· Her writing is straightforward and readable and her books are seldom more than 200 pages.
· She tells a story that seems complicated but is quite simple when we get the explanation.
· People love a puzzle and she gives us all the clues we need to solve the puzzle but we (nearly!) always fail to spot the vital piece of information that makes everything clear.
· She can be enjoyed by grandparents and grandchildren – and there are very few writers of whom you can say that.
· And, of course, she now has enormous nostalgia value. Which is why updating her stories is a disastrously bad idea.
HANK: I almost burst into tears, winning the Agatha. (Didn't you? The...synchronicity?) (Look how surprised Jonathan is!) What do you see as her legacy to detective fiction?
JOHN: Her influence is enormous; almost every crime writer today owes her some debt of gratitude. Although the type of story she wrote – the classical detective story – has almost disappeared today, she also experimented throughout her career – the historical crime story (Death Comes as the End 1945), the serial killer (The ABC Murders 1935), murder in retrospect (Five Little Pigs 1943), murder abroad (Death on the Nile 1937), the psychological crime novel (Endless Night 1967). She wrote detective fiction better, for longer and more often than any other writer; and she made it seem so easy. Although many writers criticize her nowadays, nobody would object to having her fame – or her sales!
HANK: Maybe unfair, but which Christie novel (or novels) is your favorite and why?
JOHN: My overall favourite is Five Little Pigs (Murder in Retrospect) – a brilliantly clever formal detective story as well as a novel with huge emotional impact. And the story-telling technique – five separate accounts of one day – is masterly. But very close to it are And Then There Were None, her most thrilling novel; Murder on the Orient Express with its wonderfully original solution; and Endless Night, a dark and brooding novel unlike anything else she wrote with a stunning surprise ending.
HANK: Can’t resist. Who is your favorite Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple?
JOHN: Oh, certainly, it’s…
HANK: Oh wait--we’re out of time! Come back Saturday for John’s answer--and the Reds will include our recommended summer reads! And today a lucky commenter will win a copy of Secret Notebooks!
John will try to come chat--he's in a different time zone! But meanwhile--what's your favorite Agatha? Or your best Agatha experience? Do you remember your first?
John Curran’s Edgar-nominated Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks (2010) won the 2011 Agatha, Anthony and Macavity Awards and his Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making (2011) was nominated for the 2012 Edgar and the Agatha awards. Both books examined the 73 notebooks used throughout her life by Agatha Christie in the creation of her immortal stories. A life-long crime-fiction enthusiast, he is currently writing a PhD thesis on Christie and The Golden Age of Detection at Trinity College, Dublin where he lives.