Agatha Christie's private life would have stumped even Poirot





More than 30 years after her death, in January 1976, Agatha Christie is news once again. HarperCollins – with whom she first signed a three-book deal back in 1924 – is about to publish Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks, a hefty volume that details, exhaustively, the contents of the 73 extant notebooks in which she sketched out plots for her detective fiction.

In fact, there is nothing very "secret" about Christie's notebooks, which were first analysed by Janet Morgan in 1984, and later in my own biography in 2007. But they have rekindled our interest because they hint at answer to the central mystery, the question asked by her friend Allen Lane in a BBC broadcast in 1955: "How on Earth is it done?"

Christie wrote more than 90 books, which have sold an estimated four billion copies: more, as the familiar phrase has it, than everything except Shakespeare and the Bible. "The disappointing truth is that I haven't much method," Christie told the BBC, almost apologetically. As well as scribbling ideas in her notebooks, and on random scraps of paper, what she found most productive was to walk around the countryside, talking aloud to herself, thinking through her plots. And then came the finished product: smooth, seamless, deceptively simple, with the authorial presence barely visible.

She would have rued the publication of the notebooks, that is for sure. She gave away nothing; and that was how she liked it. Only in the six straight novels that she wrote between 1930 and 1956 did she reveal anything of herself, within the protection of a pseudonym. She was devastated when her secret identity, "Mary Westmacott", was exposed in 1949, even though the novels received reviews that most authors would have been glad to claim. The pseudonym, like the facade of "Agatha Christie" that she wrapped around herself, was a means to keep the world at bay...

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