Kerrie Smith, of Mysteries in Paradise, whom I was so pleased to meet at Crimefest, suggested I contribute to the celebrations of the anniversary of Agatha Christie's birth 121 years ago, and I'm very glad to do so.
Curtain, the last Hercule Poirot novel, boasts a fascinating modus operandi. Agatha Christie explicitly gives a nod of gratitude to a play by Shakespeare and another by the rather less celebrated St John Ervine. In both plays, the same pattern of murderous behaviour is deployed. She had briefly toyed with the idea earlier, in the excellent Peril at End House. Its sheer cleverness has always appealed to me, but I agree with Robert Barnard’s verdict on Curtain. ‘For a long-cherished idea…this is oddly perfunctory in execution’. In particular, the murdererer’s character, crucial to the whole concept, is inadequately portrayed.
For years, I thought about reviving the idea. But how to do it? In the end, I decided that the secret lay in a combination of a law firm setting and a dose of political satire. The result was Take My Breath Away, published in the UK some years ago but only just now published in the US by Five Star. It marked a complete departure from my earlier books about the lawyer-detective Harry Devlin. Given that I was building upon foundations laid by Christie and the Bard, I am ashamed to say that it took me two and a half years, and endless re-writing, to produce the book. But I like to think that at least the effort was worth it.
And an odd thing happened while I was writing the novel; I received a book which featured Ellery Queen’s plot outline for a novel never actually published, The Tragedy of Errors. It boasts the same central concept. Like Christie and like me, Ellery Queen makes due acknowledgment to the inspiration that he drew from the Bard. As I understand it, Curtain was written before, but not published until after, The Tragedy of Errors plot was concocted. Great criminal minds thinking alike? I'm sure it wasn't plagiarism on Queen's part.