There's still plenty of time to join Book Time with Bess, our Bess Crawford Read Along! Our first discussion of Charles Todd's first Bess Crawford mystery, A Duty to the Dead, is next Monday, March 26th - and takes place all week, so you have at least a week to read it!
To whet your appetite in the meantime, here's part 1 of an interview between Caroline Todd (one half of the Charles Todd writing team, Charles being her son) and John Curran, author of Agatha Christie's Secret Notebook and Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making about the Queen of Mystery herself, Agatha Christie.
Caroline: You were a student of the mystery before Agatha Christie’s now-famous 73 handwritten notebooks were discovered. How did you happen to meet Christie’s grandson, Matthew Pritchard, and what led to your work not only with the notebooks but with the restoration of Greenway House for the National Trust? Were you a great fan from the start?
John: I was born an Agatha Christie fan! So when I met Mathew in Canada in 2004 at the premiere of Chimneys, an ‘unknown’ Christie play, he invited me to visit Greenway House. Once there I took up residence in the room at the top of the stairs where all of the papers pertaining to Christie’s literary life were housed. I read the Notebooks cover to cover on the first night there but it was not until early the following year that the idea of a book occurred to me. Mathew immediately gave his blessing and I was off! It was while living in Greenway studying the Notebooks that I came to the attention of the National Trust who were preparing to clear the house for renovation. They asked me to undertake the task of cataloguing and boxing all of the papers before their removal from the house.
John: Most of your books are set in the post-First World War period when Agatha Christie—and the Golden Age of the detective story—was beginning. Is this coincidence?
Caroline: Because of the popularity of the Golden Age, we felt that this era would be familiar to readers—and modern enough to have motorcars, telephones, and attitudes towards crime and life that were recognizable. An historical mystery that wasn’t really historical. It is also a timeframe where forensics hadn’t become the tool that it is today. The policeman or the detective had to rely on his or her own “little grey cells”—a knowledge of people and of evil—to find the solution to the mystery. For Christie, this period was contemporary. For us it’s the challenge of understanding a period that isn’t our own.
Caroline: Murder in the Making is a must for all Christie fans. But it’s also a marvelous look at the way her mind worked, and how she came up with such innovative ideas. A writer’s guide for anyone interested in the mystery or in how mysteries are written. What did you yourself learn from writing Murder in the Making?
John: I learned how hard she worked! She had thousands of ideas but she selected and rejected, polished and honed, changed and adapted and kept working until the plot shone with ingenuity—and simplicity. She was the ultimate example of the art that conceals art; she made it look simple. And she made it look simple for over 50 years.
John: Have you ever thought that the relationship between Rutledge and Hamish is not unlike that between Mr. Satterthwaite and Mr. Quin in the Christie short stories, although Rutledge/Hamish is much darker? Quin is not of this world and he ‘haunts’ Satterthwaite during his investigations into mysterious deaths.
Caroline: That’s a very interesting comparison. Quin, of course, is the man who knows the answers and who points Satterthwaite in the right direction with his questions and suggestions. He is also visible to others when he comes to call. Hamish, on the other hand, can only know what Rutledge knows. But sometimes when he draws attention to something that is in Rutledge’s subconscious, it brings it to the surface and to his attention. Christie called Quin an advocate for the dead, and Rutledge became a policeman rather than a solicitor because he felt that the police were the advocates for the murder victim. In the Quin stories, Christie often combined a ghost story with a current murder—which I enjoyed. But Hamish isn’t a ghost, he’s the guilt that Rutledge carries over his death. Rutledge knows Hamish is dead—but knowing and accepting are two different things. As long as Rutledge hears that voice in his head, much as he hates it, he can tell himself that Hamish came home from the war.
Caroline: Christie’s An Autobiography has been called remarkable for what it reveals about her—and what it conceals. Did you find it helpful in working on the notebooks? Were there notes that she left from writing it?
John: No, the Autobiography was no help because from the start I set out to write books about the Christie output, and not her life. She was adept at concealing herself (and is, in my opinion, perfectly entitled to do so) and mentions her books hardly at all in the Autobiography. I was trying to understand how she did what she did.
John: Is Bess Crawford your Miss Marple?!
Caroline: Ah! I’ve always thought Miss Marple must have had an interesting youth, although I think Christie enjoyed the concept of the simple village spinster who surprised everyone with her infinite understanding of evil. Yes, the village is a microcosm of life in general, that’s the point. But it’s also intriguing to wonder if there was more in her past, perhaps during the Great War. There’s nothing in Christie’s background that suggests where she got her own understanding of evil. And I think that’s something we share, this interest in what makes ordinary people turn to murder as a solution to their problems. Which neatly avoids your question. The answer, I think, is that a woman must have certain qualities to be believable as a sleuth, and one is the ability to observe. Another is an ability to see through sham and to be objective. These I think Bess has learned from Miss Marple.
John: Some of my years-old questions were answered by my study of the Notebooks but what I still can’t understand would form the basis of my question: ‘How did you do what you did so well, so often, and for so long?’ And I don’t think even Agatha Christie herself could answer it!
Click here for more information about the Book Time with Bess Bess Crawford Read Along and to sign up. Browse inside A Duty to the Dead and I hope we hear from you next week during our first discussion of that book here!