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Scholars at the University of Toronto have analyzed the vocabulary of Agatha Christie, and suspect her last novels indicate the onset of dementia.

A document describing their findings was presented last year.

I'm currently reading The Secret Notebooks of Agatha Christie and really enjoying the look at her process. As a reader I always found her plotting, and especially her fairness with clues, to be downright intimidating (put me off trying to write a mystery for years, frankly!) Sure, you could quibble about some stuff, and there were times when the ingenious solution was not really plausible. The stories made internal sense and, as I say, the plots were solidly constructed.

But. I read Postern Of Fate, the final book she wrote, a few years ago and then told every mystery fan I knew to avoid it. I didn't do that because it was a bad book, even though it was. I did it because it was incoherent to the point that I was sure Christie was suffering from dementia when she wrote it, and I didn't want anyone else to experience the helpless sadness I felt without at least a warning.

Anyone can have an off-book, but Postern was bad in ways that suggested some sort of diagnosable mental illness, and given her age at the time the first thing I thought of was Alzheimer's. I really wish her publisher had elected not to issue that book. It was extremely painful to read.

So--these investigators make a good case, but even as a layperson who'd read Christie's earlier books I was pretty sure something was wrong.

Do, however, read the notebooks. Actually, read her books first and then the notebooks, because there's a lot of detail given about her plotting, and spoilers are more enjoyable when they aren't, if you know what I mean.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
13th May, 2010 15:03 (UTC)
That's really interesting! I'd be interested to read Lancashire and Hirst's promised follow-up of syntactic and discourse analysis of her work.
13th May, 2010 15:09 (UTC)
It's a type of analysis that I'd never even thought of before, but when it's explained to me it makes sense. I'm going to try to remember to keep a lookout for an article later. It's the type of thing that might be indexed in PubMed, despite not being technically medical, so I might see it in searches there even if I forget.
13th May, 2010 22:01 (UTC)
I listened to a podcast about this today! Fascinating stuff.

ETA: This podcast: http://blogs.wnyc.org/radiolab/2010/05/05/vanishing-words/

The nun-study stuff is also really cool. I loff Radiolab.

Edited at 2010-05-13 22:01 (UTC)
13th May, 2010 22:12 (UTC)
Ooh, thank you!
14th May, 2010 02:11 (UTC)
This is absolutely interesting. The very first Christie book I read as a kid was "The Sleeping Murder".
A few years ago I began to read some of her books in the order in which they
were published. I got through all of the books she wrote in the twenties and the variety of style was so intriguing.
I will have to read her notebook to see how she put things together because that intrigues me a great deal.
For a couple of years my Mother and I have been slowly putting together a murder mystery (just for fun) and I am always curious as to how others put things together. (my mother is good with dialogue and I am good with plot and character development)
14th May, 2010 11:29 (UTC)
That collaboration between you and your mother sounds like great fun! It's sometimes frustrating to have no one to talk over writing with--a collaboration that works could be really enjoyable, especially as a hobby. (My writing is a hobby as well, so I support writing something just for fun.)

The notebook book is really interesting. It's very cool to see the bits and pieces she'd scribble down to keep for later use, and the notes she made on plots. A friend of mine who also writes likes to use "what if--?" to generate her ideas, and you can see Christie work through several of these per book, discarding some and keeping others. It's fascinating.
15th May, 2010 05:56 (UTC)
I will have to look for that then. I am always curious if some work backward or foward so that it is a surprise. Like we figured out who was going to be offed and who was going to do it and at times I am working forward and backward so who knows maybe I will just meet myself in the middle.
15th May, 2010 13:39 (UTC)
It's always cool to read how someone else does it, especially if you've read their books. And this is a glimpse of the real thing, not prettied up for public consumption. I was reassured by the lack of order in some places!
14th May, 2010 07:30 (UTC)
Christie could do plots, yes. She was bad at characterisation, psychology, realism - but wow could she put a plot together.

I agree, her publishers shouldn't have printed that last book if it was as incoherent as you say. But of course, she was a big name and a chief milking cow for them, so ...
14th May, 2010 11:31 (UTC)
Chief milking cow is right--I read yesterday that after Postern of Fate, which was a mess even after considerable editorial intervention (and no, I don't believe the editor was the problem, no one without some sort of mental illness could have thought that plot made sense) Christie's daughter contacted the publisher and asked them to please not press her mother for another book. Bless her.
14th May, 2010 12:19 (UTC)
It's a tragedy she had to do that.

Luckily, Christie wrote enough books before her problems started to be remembered as the great plot-builder she was. That late catastrophe you read isn't what people talk about when they hear her name. That's a blessing.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )


Shelley McKibbon


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