Everywhere you look in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran, there are insights into the thought processes of an extraordinary writer that I find truly fascinating. One of the points that emerges very clearly is that good plots do not necessarily come into a writer’s mind fully formed. They often evolve over time.
This is something I needed to learn as a young writer. When, in my twenties, I wanted to write a murder mystery, I was daunted by the challenge of dreaming up a complex plot. Only when I realised that you can build up your story bit by bit did I really make progress.
A good example of the Christie technique is provided by her notes on The ABC Murders, which I believe is one of the finest whodunits ever written, with a central device that has been borrowed by many later writers (including several of real distinction.) It turns out that Christie flirted with the idea of having the murderer as one of the supposed victims of a serial killer. She pondered having a house party in the story – there isn’t one in the book. And, remarkably, her early notes make no mention of the alphabetical sequence which is at the heart of the novel. This seems to have occurred to her later.
It turns out that the first ‘A’ murder was originally due to take place in Aberystwyth, a resort I know and like. But for some reason she changed her mind and shifted the crime to Andover. It was left to Malcolm Pryce to make Aberystwyth a name to be reckoned with in crime fiction….