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A discussion of murder mysteries on Twitter included this claim:

Agatha Christie is on record as saying that she didn’t decide who the murderer was until she was ready to write the last chapter—then she would go back through all the previous chapters making any necessary changes.

Q T Arbuthnot (9th October 2021). twitter.com.

Is Christie really “on record” as saying this? If not, is there another, less famous, writer of detective stories who did say something like this, who might have been misremembered as Christie?

I find the the claim hard to believe of Christie. Her plots are usually too tightly constructed for it to be possible to switch the murderer merely by rearranging the clues. There is often a plot device that simultaneously conceals the murderer and structures the events of the novel, so that the plot must have been worked out, at least in outline, before starting to write. She says in her autobiography that plot comes first:

Plots come to me at such odd moments; when I am walking along a street, or examining a hat shop with particular interest, suddenly a splendid idea comes into my head, and I think, “Now that would be a neat way of covering up the crime so that nobody would see the point.” Of course, all the practical details are still to be worked out, and the people have to creep slowly into my consciousness, but I jot down my splendid idea in an exercise book.

Agatha Christie (1977). An Autobiography, pp. 423–424. New York: Dodd, Mead.

However, the claim might be true of some other writer, whose plots are less tightly constructed.

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  • 4
    Probably not G. A. McKevett: "Before I begin a book, I absolutely, positively know Who-Done-It, why, how, when, and the mistakes they made that will get them caught in the end. The first book I ever wrote was a mystery. I waited until the last chapter to decide who the killer was. That manuscript was the only one I’ve ever written that I couldn’t sell. It was positively dreadful! But, hey, you live, and you learn."
    – Rand al'Thor
    Oct 10, 2021 at 14:55
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    Attributed to Elizabeth George (Inspector Linley) here. Note, though, that (1) it was one particular novel, rather than a general habit, (2) she had actually chosen a killer, but had to change her plan late in the writing, (3) unsourced paraphrase of a quote, might not be accurate, or misattributed. quora.com/…
    – Pete
    Oct 13, 2021 at 21:47

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I'm not able to find any direct statement from Christie that it was her habit to delay the decision of who committed the crimes in any given book, but she kept a series of notebooks throughout her life, which although apparently not orderly documents, do contain the bones of her works and how stories morphed and developed. The notebooks and other papers were made available by the family to John Curran, who writes in Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks:

But the most unexpected element in the Notebooks was, to me, the fact that many of Christie's best plots did not necessarily spring from a single devastating idea. She considered all possibilities when she plotted and did not confine herself to one idea, not matter how good it may have seemed. In very few cases is the identity of the murdered a given from the start of the plot.

The most dramatic example is Crooked House (see also Chapter 4). With its startling revelation that the killer is a child, it remains one of the great Christie surprises, in the same class as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express , Curtain and Endless Night. (To be entirely fair, at least two other writers, Ellery Queen in The Tragedy of Y and Margery Allingham in The White Cottage Mystery had already exploited this idea but far less effectively.) At that stage she had already used the narrator-murderer gambit, the policeman-murderer gambit, the everybody-did-it gambit, the everybody-as-victim gambit. Before reading the Notebooks, I had visualised Agatha Christie at her typewriter smiling craftily as she sat down in 1948 to write the next ‘Christie for Christmas’ and weaving a novel around the device of an 11-year-old girl as a cold-blooded murderer. Not so, however. Even a cursory glance at Notebook 14 shows that Christie considered Sophia, Clemency and Edith as well as Josephine when it came to potential murderers. It was not a case of arranging the entire plot around Josephine as the one unalterable fact. It was not the raison d’etre of this novel; the shattering identity of the murderer was only one element under consideration and not necessarily the key element.

Again, at no point in the notes for her last devastating surprise, Endless Night (see Chapter 12), is there mention of the narrator-killer. It was not a case of thinking ‘I’ll try the Ackroyd trick again but this time with a working-class narrator. And I’ll begin with the meeting and courtship, which is all part of the plot, rather than after the marriage.’ Indeed, there is brief mention in Notebook 50 of one of the characters being a friend of Poirot, who was, presumably, to investigate the case; and at only one point is there mention of telling the story in the first person. The inspiration for the shock ending came to her as she plotted rather than the other way round.

Arguably the last of the ingeniously clued detective novels. A Murder is Announced (see Chapter 5), would seem to allow of only one solution, and yet at one stage Letitia Blacklock is pencilled in as the second victim of Mitzi, who has already murdered her own husband Rudi Sherz. It was not a case of deciding to write a novel featuring a supposed victim actually murdering her blackmailer during a carefully devised game. Nor did Murder in Masapotamia (see Chapter 8) begin life featuring a wife-killing husband with a perfect alibi: she also considered Miss Johnston and, in fact, Mrs Leidner herself was a strong contender for the role of killer for much of the plotting. The setting, the archaeological dig, would seem to have been the fixed idea ofr this novel and the rest of the plot was woven around it rather than vice versa.

Although this still seems surprising, it is in keeping with her general method of working. Her strengths lay in her unfettered mental fertility and her lack of system. Her initial inspiration could be as vague as a gypsy’s curse ( Endless Night), an archaeological dig (* Murder in Mesopotamia* ) or a newspaper advertisement (A Murder is Announced) . After that, she let her not inconsiderable imagination have free reign with the idea and hey, presto! a year later the latest Christie appeared on the bookshelves. And some of the ideas that did not make it into that masterpeice might well surface in the one to be published the following year - or ten years hence.

We now have a clearer idea of Christie’s approach to the construction of her stories. Using the Notebooks as a combin tion of sounding board and literary sketchpad, she devised and developed; she selected and rejected; she sharpened and polished; she revisited and recycled. And, as I hope to show by a more detailed analysis in the following chapters, out of this seeming chaos she produced a unique and immortal body of work.

Apologies for the lengthy extract, but it seemed necessary to show that Curran is looking to take a broad view rather than narrow cherry picking. I caveat that I have merely dipped into the book having been alerted to it by an article on Slate: The Mystery of the Messy Notebooks: Why Agatha Christie's method was utterly deranged

Most astonishing, Curran discovers that for all her assured skewering of human character in a finished novel, sometimes when Christie started her books, even she didn’t know who the murderer was. Ah! It makes sense—a brilliant mystery writer must first experience the mystery! Or does it?

Curran's work suggests to me that while Christie may or may not have said that she didn’t decide who the murderer was until she was ready to write the last chapter, there is some evidence in her papers to support the notion that this reflects her working method, at least to a point.

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