Notes from “The Agatha Christie Code”

The Agatha Christie Code

As seen on PBS, produced in 2005, saw airing in December 2012

Few facts:

  • Burial place: St Mary’s Church, Chelsea, Oxfordshire
  • 2.3 billion books published, second only to Shakespeare
  • Agatha Mary Clarissa Mallowan, known as Agatha Christie
  • Born 1890
  • Died 1976

Research analysts who led this project:

  • Dr Richard Forsyth, Research Fellow in Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick
  • Dr Pernilla Danielsson, Academic Champion of Communications Technology at the University of Birmingham
  • Dr Marcus Dahl, Research Fellow at the School of Advanced Study, London University

Analysis of text using computer science, especially a modern day version of Concordance, a system originally developed in medieval times to break down and decode the Bible. Now turned into a computer program. This program was used to identify authors of two majors works, one that revealed name of secret author of piece that slammed Tony Blair, published under pseudonym Cassandra. The other outed the author of Primary Colours. Used analysis of word patterns, choices, to unmask the author.

Now using this concordance method to analyze Agatha Christie’s work.

What else we do know about her:

  • Very private person, thought to have been born in Devon.
  •  Enigmatic personality.
  •  Autobiography was remarkably unrevealing
  •  Self deprecating about her own work
  •  Shunned publicity
  • Born into a creative family who wrote extensively
  • Mother didn’t want her to learn to read before she was eight, but she learned on her own by five.
  • Didn’t write well, spelling was hit-and-miss.
  • Didn’t go to school, didn’t have organized instruction at home.
  • Wrote a poem about trams that was published at the age of 11.
  • Grew up in Torquay.
  • Solitary childhood, had to resort to imagination to pass the time.
  • Precocious mind that turned inward on itself quite often.
  • Imagination and reality often blurred.
  • Father died when she was 13, became very afraid that mother would also die

Agatha is the most successful author of the 20th Century. Why?

Plain Language — Dr Pernilla Danielsson

  • Compared her to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Conan Doyle used the word “answered,” and many other variants, throughout his work
  • Christie almost exlusively uses the word “said”
  • She’s not trying to be Shakespeare, doesn’t introduce new words, uses middle-range English, everyday language, and even repeats it
  • “She doesn’t challenge the reader with vocabulary; you are free to focus on the plot”

Patterns — Dr. Richard Forsyth

  • We thought it would be amusing to predict whodunit, did she have a pattern?
  • Associated the solutions with the opening chapters:
  • If book is less than 55,000 words, it’s nearly always a female killer
  • If book is over 71,000 words, nearly always a male killer
  • Kind of transport first used in book: road=female, air or water=male
  • Lot of “a” and not many “I” probably male
  • She was likely unaware of those quirks herself!

Sister Madge was a gifted, published author, dominant personality
Challenged little sister Agatha that she couldn’t write a detective story

Qualified as a dispensing chemist, and served as a nurse serve during WWI, a skill that served her writing career well.

First book:

  • Wrote The Mysterious Affair at Stiles while nursing during the war, during quiet moments.
  • Plot relied on new-found knowledge of poisons.
  • Published in 1920, moderate sales, well-reviewed, especially by pharmaceutical journal
  • This book established her template for all the rest, and she got it absolutely right the very first time

Her books are very similar in style, word length, sentence length, almost like a formula

  • e.g. Evil Under the Sun
  • Classic formula that epitomizes her outline
  • Body, very early on
  • Closed group of suspects, either because of setting or social group
  • Detective
  • Series of red herrings
  • Denouement
  • Solution, closure, the end, all wraps up quickly

Wasn’t bloodthirsty, not sexy, was like a puzzle, a Sudoku

“I remember reading a description of when the first Poirot books came out, because they were her first books, of people actually reading them like this [he holds flat hand up in front of his face to depict reader’s nose buried in book], they couldn’t put them down! It wasn’t because it was bloodthirsty or sex in there, it was the mind, it was like a Sudoku. How? How? How? How? And then they never get it right.” –David Suchet

“She wanted to entertain people, and she knew she could do that in a very sophisticated way. And she obviously, very obviously enjoyed it. She obviously had enormous fun working out the machinations of why people did things, and how they did them, and fooling people. And that’s an enormous skill in itself. It’s very difficult to do, to hoodwink a reader until the end of a book.” — Tara Fitzgerald

It’s about trying to jump ahead of the book and get head of the detective.

She didn’t really like mysteries, she liked the resolution of them. Her clues “resolve right.”

She threw in red herrings like a fishing expedition! — Sylvia Sims

Ex-Commander of New Scotland Yard believes real crime fighters can learn a great deal about the power of observation from her books, there is real value in studying her work.

“The only thing that could have happened is always there right from the start, but she hid it cleverly…” — Roy Ramm

What is her code?

What her notebooks show…

  • One thing they reveal is the imprecision of it, a mix of shopping lists, puzzles, game scores.
  • Scribbles, then suddenly completely intact sections, she reached the zone,
  • notebooks show her “flow” is so defined, she sucks the reader into her trance

Writing seemed to come easily to her

Life was a lot tougher for her

  • Married quickly at the start of the war, 1914
  • Only daughter was born five years in
  • Appeared happy on the surface, but husband suddenly left and it all unravelled
  • She disappeared suddenly, abandoned car found, no one knows what happened to her during her absence
  • All she had was a child who doted on her father not her, her mother
  • She went away to have her breakdown
  • Went to an inn and signed in under a false name, stayed there for ten days, remembered nothing about it afterwards

Shortly after, wrote two books that reflected her disturbed frame of mind during that time, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and The Mystery of the Blue Train

  • Used words like: haunted, affected, lunatic, madness, premonition, anxiety, madness….
  • Used language that was likely what doctors said to her during her time of distress
  • She seemed to have had total memory loss during those two weeks of disappearance
  • Or she was in a trance-like state
  • Seances were very popular during that time, and she used them in many books, but never attended one herself as she distrusted them
  • Pragmatic, yet aware of occult and spiritualism


Penned 80 crime novels, and at least 50 plays!

The Mousetrap was a present for Queen Mary’s 80th birthday

  • Broke all box office records of the day
  • Ran continuously for ten years!
  • Now in its 53rd year and still going strong (as of 2005)

And Then There Were None

  • Classic Agatha Christie because:
    • It’s in a confined space (island)
    • Limited number of suspects
    • Lots of red herrings
    • Anyone could have done it
    • The Twist: no detective!

Non-formulaic formuale — Val McDermot

  • Her critics accuse her of writing the same book over and over… 80 times over, in fact
  • But closer analysis shows she repeated a basic idea but twisted it very creatively, in innovative ways, making her solutions hard to figure out
  • Remarkably innovative
  • She used techniques that had never been done before, although now copied many times since
  • No one in Christie’s books is safe from suspicion
  • It can be your favourite character, it can be the most dis-likable, and it certainly is not always the least likely person!
  • Sometimes it’s even the most likely person, “after you’ve gone all around the houses of the least likely person”
  • What she does so well is make every story different

Hypnotic — Paul McKenna

  • Template is always the same, which people like…
  • We like the consistent and the familiar
  • What we fear most is the unknown
  • We can rely on always being certain we will always find out the answer by the end
  • This is very appealing
  • Uncertainty at the beginning will always get resolved by the end
  • James Bond is the same way: same story, characters change a bit, there’s always a “baddie” who wants to take over the world, Bond defeats him by the end

The genius is that she can write non-formulaic formulas!

After divorce from Archie Christie, she became a full-time writer, travelled, and then she met and eventually married an archeologist, a wonderful match, loved travelling with him, and she became very happy, they were great companions, and she became truly prolific, found she could write anywhere. 80 books, 50 plays, 120+ short stories!

A Key to the Mystery — Dr. Dahl

  • She used cloud of words that relate very closely,
  • Key concepts
  • Words occur in a very dense space,
  • Repetition of key concepts in very tight succession, even in one paragraph,
  • Eg “life” and analogous words — life, live, die, lived, living, dead… all in one paragraph!
  • Still digging into how her vocabulary relates to the key themes and concepts she’s developing in her books

Neurolinguistic Programming — David Shephard, Master Trainer, NLP

  • Often repeats the same word at least three times in a paragraph
  • In NLP it’s called “meta-programming”
  • Convinces us with this device
  • eg paragraph that uses the word “remember” (and related variants) repeatedly
  • We subconsciously become convinced that we need to remember things
  • It also lets us move easily on the the next paragraph with certainty, knowing full well that the previous paragraph was about remembering

Dr. Dahl

  • She introduces quite complex ideas with a rapidity that you might expect would put off readers!
  • That’s actually one of the things that makes her challenging, at first, yet oddly compelling

David Shephard

  • Conscious mind can only track between five and nine elements at once
  • Beyond that, we can’t cope at the conscious level and we literally go into a hypnotic trance to absorb
  • She uses beyond-nine all the time, which creates a trance-like state, can’t consciously track more than nine characters at once, for instance, yet she uses more than nine all the time to force us beyond conscious tracking while reading
  • This is how we get the feeling that “time flies” while we read her books!
  • We feel like we’ve been reading for ten minutes and we suddenly realize it’s been an hour, or we miss our transit stop because we are so absorbed in the multitude of elements we’re trying to tack simultaneously
  • We get pushed beyond reading her book to feeling it.
  • Feelings are infinitely more memorable than thoughts.
  • We associate the feelings with her name and novels, and people want that feeling again
  • When the next book then comes out, we feel like we have to get the book, we have to read it, we have to finish it

Her extraordinary success seems to be rooted in our unconscious experience of her books

Adrenaline theory — Val McDermot

  • Her success is rooted in our unconscious experience of her books — safe terror!
  • We love to be scared safely,
  • Like a roller coaster, we finish the ride and have to go again
  • We can feel her situations, experience adrenaline rush safely
  • Adrenaline rush is addictive!

Close to Home  — Darian Leader, psychoanalyst

  • As we read her books, we see that everyone in the village, community, family, whatever, has a motive for the murder
  • Great paradox of mystery games like Clue is that murderers are usually people we are close to, the very people we would play such games with!
  • With Clue, you have to take the risk, be the detective and solve the “crime”
  • With reading books, we can rest in letting the detective to sort it out

“Where would human beings be if they didn’t have the belief that somewhere, someone knew something, knew about the mysteries of human life, knew about the things in life that we can’t explain or make any sense of? And one of the captivating things about Agatha Christie’s books is that she creates little worlds in which, at the end, everything is explained. There’s someone there, Poirot, Miss Marple, who reveals things to us, who explains things, who solves the mysteries. In other words, it’s a universe in which meaning prevails.” — Darian Leader

Dr. Dahl

  • Ingenious device she uses to control the speed at which we read her books
  • She changes the speed at which we read her books on purpose, precisely controls the act of reading!
  • Lots of descriptions at the beginning, read slower at the beginning
  • Level of descriptive detail controls our reading speed
  • Has the effect of streamlining her plots
  • We literally rush towards the end of her books

She writes in a way that not only grips the attention of the reader, but also very precisely controls the act of reading itself

Addiction theory — Paul McKenna

  • She starts us out by releasing dopamine, the anticipation
  • Leads us down blind alleys, teases us, causes us to yearn for the answer, begin craving for solution
  • We read faster and faster to get to the right solution after getting it wrong,
  • We finally get the answer which floods our brains with seratonin and we feel fantastic…
  • Which then causes us to want to experience that cycle again, ergo we read another book
  • Creates an addiction!

Computer modelling and linguistic analysis shows us that Agatha’s style is unique

  • Linguistic patterns that are uniquely hers
  • Repeatable, predictable processes that control the way we read her stories
  • Uses linguistic techniques that create trance-like states
  • Her writing is like cocaine: once we’ve tried her books, we are involuntarily driven to read them again

Hypnotic commands? — Dr. Richard Bandler

  • Father of neurolinguistic programming
  • A great communicator goes beyond just telling the story on one level, but instructing people at a deeper level, a subconscious command
  • Repetition of the same word or close variants causes the reader to absorb that word like a command, eg using the word interested 20 times on one page which causes the reader to feel compelled to become more interested
  • Uses the same techniques as every great hypnotist
  • Embedded commands
  • Blends very specific with artfully vague, which first captures attention then allows people to fill in their own blanks
  • Too many details forces the reader to erase the picture they’ve already tried to create in their own heads
  • Deliberate vagueness with just enough detail doesn’t disrupt people’s attention.
  • “Dilapidated house” without too many details lets us create our own picture of what that looks like and move on with the story, lets stay with the trance, keep our train of thought in story

Can it be true? Can she create hypnotic trances in the reader? Can her writing style and formula create sensations akin to Class A drugs?

A long-dead writer still holds us under her spell!

About Erin Anne

I use storytelling and "content marketing" to promote my clients' work. I develop and implement communications strategies using all the on- and offline tools and media at our disposal, publish books and ebooks and market them internationally, or even just simply create a new website and teach the client how to run it. If you have something interesting to say, a valuable service to offer, or an important cause to promote, I'd love to work with you, too!

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