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Kemper Donovan and All About Agatha

In a special interview episode, Brook and Sarah are joined by Kemper Donovan, host of All About Agatha, to discuss what he’s learned in over five years of deep diving into Agatha Christie’s work.


A Mysterious Affair at Styles (1922) Agatha Christie

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) Agatha Christie

The Secret of Chimneys (1925) Agatha Christie

The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) Agatha Christie

The Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha Christie (2022) Carla Valentine

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (2015) Kathryn Harkup

The Busy Body (2024) Kemper Donovan

More about Kemper Donovan and All About Agatha

All About Agatha on Apple Podcasts 

All About Agatha Patreon page 

Pre-order The Busy Body


Twitter (@allaboutthedame)

Instagram (@allaboutagatha)


For more information

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Contact us: hello@cluedinmystery.com
Music: Signs To Nowhere by Shane Ivers – www.silvermansound.com


This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery. Hi Sarah how are you today?
SarahHi, Brook. I’m doing really well how about you?
BrookI’m great and I’m so excited about a very special guest.
SarahYes, we have Kemper Donovan. Kemper is a writer and the host of All About Agatha, a podcast dedicated to all things Agatha Christie for 5 years. He co-hosted this podcast with his dear friend Catherine Brobeck, who tragically passed away at the end of 2021. His first mystery novel, The Busy Body will be published in January 2024 by Kensington Books. He lives in Southern California with his husband and two daughters. Welcome, Kemper.
Kemper DonovanThank you for having me I’m so excited to be here. I love being on the other side of the table so to speak.
BrookOh yes, it’s just a thrill to have you Kemper. We’re both fans of your show. But unlike you, Sarah and I haven’t read all of Agatha Christie’s work yet. We’re working our way through the canon. So, tell us what inspired you and Catherine Brobeck to take on the challenge of reading and rating every story?
Kemper DonovanYes, why were we such fools is that really what you’re asking. Why would we have taken this upon ourselves? Well, I knew Catherine for many years before we started doing the podcast. She was actually a friend from college of my husband. So, they had known each other for almost over a decade or perhaps over a decade by the time that I met Catherine and. She started as a sort of friend-in-law in that way and that’s always a funny sort of a relationship. And I think you have to find your commonalities with those people when you’re thrown together with them and we discovered to our mutual delight that we both had this passion for mysteries, really for literature overall. Catherine used to always say the moment that she realized we were going to be good friends is when we had an impassioned conversation about Anna Karenina and how Anna Karenina is really about Levin and not Anna at all and how obsessed we were with Levin and his story in that book and that was one of her very favorite books. So we would just talk about books all the time. She was my reading friend. What are you reading? And we would often gravitate toward the same things and we also both had an overwhelming love especially for the David Suchet Agatha Christie’s Poirot series.
Kemper DonovanAnd we would just talk about it constantly and just in way more of a granular and minute detail than I could with literally any other person in my life. And so one day we were just having dinner with Catherine, my husband and I. And for some reason the subject of podcasting and podcasts came up and this was in 2016, which was right around when podcasts really started to explode. There are even more podcasts now but that was I think when we were on the cusp of the podcast explosion. And we were talking about what a fantastic voice she has because she does, she has this really distinctive voice and I said Catherine you need to do a podcast because I would love to listen to you and you’re so smart and you’ll always have she was a very opinionated person too. She always had something to say about everything and an interesting thing to say which is not something that that you can say about a lot of people. I could never predict what her opinion was going to be on anything, literature or politics or anything in between. And somehow that conversation organically turned into “well maybe we could do a podcast together” because I think she said “I don’t want to have to talk into a void and monologue” and I’m sure you can both appreciate this doing a podcast with a friend is I think a little bit less of a scary endeavor. So we sort of came up with this idea. Well, if we’re going to do a podcast together, I think it would have to be about literature and about mysteries and we love Agatha Christie so much. Let’s do something Agatha Christie based. And then I honestly can’t really tell you how or why we came up with our rankings plan. But I think we just wanted some sort of an underpinning for it because it did feel like such a void like what are we going to talk about, how are we going to do this week after week? It turned into more of a once every two weeks sort of a thing but how are we going to have something to say? So I think that sort of gave us the confidence to go into the project having this very kind of strong structural underpinning for what we would be discussing.
BrookThat’s great I think that that’s so true for all of us bookish people we would drive our ah spouses crazy if they had to try to talk about this stuff with us. So, I know Sarah and I have that too. We’re like oh thank goodness we have somebody who wants to geek out as much on this topic as I do.
Kemper DonovanYes, yes.
SarahSo, Kemper can you tell us a little bit about the rating system that that you guys designed?
Kemper DonovanYeah, so we decided that we were going to go through each of Agatha Christie’s 66 full-length mystery novels in publication order. So we’d start with A Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920 and just go right on through into the 70s. And we would break down the book in terms of a plot summary that actually evolved gradually over the first year of the podcast. At first we tried to summarize the plot of each book in like under a minute or something like that, which was just insane. I think we even had a little ticking clock audio clip that we used. And it just didn’t work because we realized that part of the joy of Christie is the story. It is the plot and how twisty-turny those plots are and and where the puzzle takes you. So we started to take our time with the summarization of the story. And we also had a very specific way that we broke down each plot where we would talk about the victim of the murder mystery the suspects, and then the world as it appears to be before we get to our solution, the way that we get to our solution, which we ended up calling a bridge of clues that brings us into the world as it actually is, and that’s when we’re on the other side of who did it and we get a sense of what was actually going on the entire time and we have our resolution so that was the first half of every of every episode but again I think.
Kemper DonovanIt took about a year for us to get to that point. But from the very beginning then the second half of each episode was the same which involved ah applying some preset criteria to each book. And we had a couple of different categories. We had plot mechanics, plot credibility, series long characters, book-specific characters, and then a bit of a catchall category that we called setting and tone which basically both involved a discussion of how well-evoked the setting was and whether the book had a sort of tone or a writing style that worked for us, but it was also a way for us to convey how much we enjoyed the book overall, whether or not it was readable. Almost all christie is extremely readable. That’s that’s one of her superpowers. But there are books that are stronger than others, so those were the main categories. And then our final category was for depictions stuck in their time and that was our way of accounting for the phenomenon of reading Christie in the modern day and for us in the twenty first century and sometimes feeling that there are elements of the stories that were out of whack with a modern sensibility in terms of how they were depicted. So this is where we have instances of racism, anti-semitism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc, etc. And you know I always approached and I think Catherine as well. We always approached that category with a great deal of humility because it’s not like we’re sitting here saying “oh well, she did this wrong. She depicted it the wrong way and now we know how to do this so that no one gets upset” and “oh well I guess she just didn’t know the answer.” Of course not these are incredibly complicated subjects that will bedevil humanity for as long as we shall exist. And we we just felt like we needed to acknowledge that reader experience when you’re reading Christie because I think it’s one that all Christie fans universally recognize if you love Christie you know you love the puzzles you you might love a lot of the other aspects of the writing but there are often moments where you’re like oh wow that was that that was surprising not in a good way and I can now tell that that was written in 1922 and not in 2022 and I’m pretty sure that if Agatha Christie were living now she would have chosen to to put that a little differently or or maybe take that out or something and you know this is a very hot topic of the day I you know am very grateful that we could read the original text and I always would like to be able to read Christie’s original text because that’s very important to me as a reader and a scholar of Christie. But I never want to I think ignore that issue or shirk any of the discomfort that um may be experienced by certain readers and that I experienced or or that other readers did so that was something that we came back to again and again each time we covered a book.
Kemper DonovanAnd basically um each of those categories that I mentioned plot mechanics, plot credibility, book specific characters, series-long characters and setting a tone we would then rank. We would then um, assign a score to each of those categories anywhere from 0-to-10 and we would um, assign a number of deductions for depictions stuck in their time depending on how badly we thought they damage the read compared to if they hadn’t been there at all and in that way we came up with an actual numerical score for each book and then we were able to rank all 66 books so that we had this giant grid. Um, that. Included each category broken down but also an overall score and it was just a very nerdy exercise and I think a way of delighting in um, reading Christie and appreciating Christie that spoke to a lot of people. Um, even though we are obviously we obviously never thought that we were providing any sort of an objective answer as to what the best Christie is that this was our opinion but we certainly backed it up with a lot of textual support and ah conversational chatter.
SarahWow, it’s almost like um, a graduate degree.
BrookSo Kemper, lots of avid readers dream of reading for a living. But did your project ever become a chore for you?
Kemper DonovanIt was I’d say 95% just utter joy. But, yes, of course like everything it had its drawbacks and I think that when Catherine and I first started the project one thing that we had forgotten about is that Agatha Christie wrote a number of thrillers throughout her career but especially in the 1920s so if you are embarking on the project of reading Agatha Christie in chronological publication order you know you start with Mysterious Affair at Styles and you got the Murder on the Links and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is an early jewel but before The Murder of Roger Ackroyd there are a number of these thriller books that she wrote um the first one is The Secret Adversary, which is actually her second book that she published and I actually became much more of a fan of Tommy and Tuppence over the course of the podcast than I was before I was not a Tommy and Tuppence stan before the podcast. I know there are many people who just cannot with them. And I I understand that but that was okay, it was more um, so books like The Secret of Chimneys, The Seven Dials Mystery and a couple of those twenties thrillers. They I think made a lot of sense when Agatha Christie published them because there were a lot of books around that time within that specific genre so she was writing for an audience. She was also I think figuring out what her style was and what she did well and what she wanted to write because this was early on in her career and you can tell by the 30s she locked in to what she did and and what she did so brilliantly and there was a little bit of muddling I think in the in the twenties, so when we just when we had first started and we were in our first year were saying to ourselves “Oh my god we have like 50 books to go and we’re just reading these thrillers” and we didn’t even completely remember quite honestly that she wrote all these thrillers. What have we gotten ourselves into? And Catherine and I would always joke that one of the reasons we ranked The Secret of Chimneys as low as we did is that we were just really grumpy while we read it. Because I think your personal mood can really you know color. Ah, ah how you approach a book and I finally revisited the secret of chimneys actually um, this was after Catherine passed away because it really had been something that we had been threatening to do for a long time.
Kemper DonovanAnd I did I think I had a greater appreciation for it just because I’ve become such a psychotic fan of all things Christy that like reading any literally anything she wrote brings me great joy including the secret of chimneys at this point. So um, you know I titled the episode justice for Secret of Chimneys and I think I bumped it up a couple of spots in the rankings but not many spots. It’s not 1 of her best so that was um I think a little bit of of a dark period in the podcast. And then the other thing I’ll just say is you know the logistics of recording and editing and publishing a podcast can be tricky and we definitely had a lot of trial and error in that department you both sound fantastic I can see that you have great microphones and good equipment and you know what you’re doing. We had no idea what we are doing and we sound so so bad in the beginning of our podcast we were using these awful little microphones that we clipped onto the tops of our laptops. It was just the blind leading the blind. We sound. I think one of our earliest reviews on Apple Podcasts said um you know “I really love your podcast that apparently you record from like the middle of an airplane hanger or maybe like in a bathroom” because that’s what it sounded like it’s so echoey.
Kemper DonovanCatherine had a crickets issue where she would have crickets outside of her window so you can hear crickets chirping half the time in those earlier episodes before we got microphones that would properly mute that background sound so that was difficult and then, I don’t know if I’ve ever actually. Talked about this on my podcast but we had a disaster when we covered Cards on the Table, which is actually one of my favorite Christie’s. It’s fantastic Christie. Ad Catherine and I recorded the episode I think it was well over an hour and my recording for some reason just crashed. And it was lost so I had to rerecord my part of the recording and like respond to Catherine who had already been recorded and it was just it was the weirdest experience. It took me so long I probably spent 10 hours editing first you know recreating and then editing um that that episode so to this day when I see cards on the table I love it. But I also shudder a little bit I’m like oh, Cards on the Table that was such a bad scene. Um, but yeah I mean. As I said 95% joy because I’ve always been a reader and um I think part of what I really loved about the podcast project is that it was something I was able to share with Catherine and then with this audience that we built of ah Christie scholars and um it was it was it was just a really great experience. Overall despite those little dark periods.
SarahKemper, what surprised you about christie’s work once you did the deep dive into her stories.
Kemper DonovanWell, we went into this project on the hypothesis that Christie is a much better writer than many people give her credit for but I don’t think I quite expected to find as much evidence to support this hypothesis as we did. You know there’s so much great character work in Christie but I think perhaps even more importantly, um I gained an appreciation for her unique craft the way that she writes I think is unlike any other author and. There are many people I think there are many mystery fans who would say well I love Agatha Christie’s mysteries because she’s such a clever plotter or puzzle maker. But I really prefer the writing style of Dorothy Sayers or PD James, or Ruth Rendell, Tana French these are all authors who I absolutely adore. Um, but I think that the reason readers tend to prefer those authors over Christie is that they’re more comfortable with the way they write because they write more conventionally. They write beautifully. They write elegantly. But I think they write in a tradition. That has um, just no say that again I think they write in a tradition that we’ve seen time and time again in lots of different genres. You know it’s kind of like dates back even to the grand Victorian novel.
Kemper DonovanAnd I’m not saying that Agatha Christie wasn’t influenced by Victoria novels because she really was I mean she loved her dickens. She loved her Thackeray, and you can see those influences but you see them in weird ways and I think that Agatha Christie is a much weirder writer. Than I ever realized before reading her as closely as I have and reading practically every word as closely as I have now over these six plus years and that I think is why she’s misunderstood and misapprehended sometimes as a writer despite her popularity. It’s such a weird situation too. Because few writers are as popular or as successful as Agatha Christie, but I think a lot of people first come to her when they’re children and you read books a certain way when you’re a child. And sometimes you don’t understand exactly why you love it as much as you do and why it’s working and you don’t have the same appreciation that you might have when you come back to it and you’re a more mature reader. Um I certainly found that to be the case when I started doing the podcast and I don’t think I expected that to happen so that was a real surprise. Um. And I think there are also a lot of people who say that they’re fans of Agatha Christie but 70 to 80% of their consumption of Agatha Christie is films and television series and that’s fine I mean that’s part of the beauty of Agatha Christie that her stories have been adapted as many times as they have. But.
Kemper DonovanIf you’re not actually going to the text I think that also can result in a bit of a misapprehension when it comes to what Agatha Christie is actually doing as a writer. Um the best way I think I can encapsulate the revelation that I had as to her unique writing is that it’s almost as if she’s creating myths or adult fairy tales I’ve said this many many times on the podcast at this point but she writes in this sort of almost elemental way that I think really speaks to people deeply which is why. We come back to her work again and again and again and can’t get enough of it. But I also think it’s very easy to dismiss her work because it is written in these sort of broad strokes and it’s conveyed very simply and I think it’s so easy to overlook how difficult it is. To write simply and clearly I think that Agatha Christie is one of the best writers ever and there are so many people who would laugh me out of the room still with that statement and people who have read practically every Christie and and who love her. So um I don’t think I expected to become as much of a zealot of Agatha Christie the writer as I have but I I really have and um yeah I I I think that um she is. Both one of the world’s most popular and misunderstood writers and that just fascinates me that contradiction really fascinates me.
SarahAnd so what did you learn about yourself and your reading preferences through the podcast?
Kemper DonovanWell I clearly learned that I love Agatha Christie I really love Agatha Christie. I think I learned also that I’m passionate about mysteries to a greater degree than I realized before the podcast. Um and this affected you know I know you asked about my reading but this also affected my writing you know I had published one novel before the podcast and um I think about halfway through the podcast I had been struggling on a second manuscript and I I thought to myself. Well I have been reading Agatha Christie nonstop for years now and I’m still not sick of her and I can’t get enough of her. Why am I not writing a mystery right now? Why have I not done that? And it it sounds so stupid that it took me years to get to that point, but it really did and I don’t think I would have asked myself that question if it hadn’t been for the podcast so that in turn affected my reading because then I also wanted to read a bit more widely and I think even though the podcast was very much centered on Agatha Christie I have expanded my reading of mystery authors. Overall um, I’d say another big lesson though as a reader is that I learned that you do have to vary your reading experience because I would get to points throughout the process of covering these books from the podcast where I was like okay I need to stop reading Agatha Christie for a little bit. This is this is a bit much and other mystery authors too. Um I have to step outside of the genre and you know I grew up loving Victorian literature in particular I was always ah ah you know Brontes, Dickens, Henry James, Thomas Hardy kind of a guy and um also Jane Austen, not Victorian but you know I of course loved my Jane Austen. And um I had to I think pepper my my reading with some of those classic authors again and do that very intentionally because ah if you read. Just one author or even just one genre of fiction I think that um it can get a little stale you know and I think it was important at least for me to to vary what I was taking in both as a reader and a writer.
Kemper DonovanAnd then the other thing I’ll say the podcast taught me is the power of nonfiction. I had always been one of those people who um, read probably 90% fiction 10% nonfiction and I um had to read so much nonfiction for the podcast because there are so many great ah reference books out there. Um. As to Agatha Christie’s writing and biographies of Agatha Christie and you know these wonderful books like The Forensics of Agatha Christie written by Carla Valentine and um A is for Arsenic by Catherine Harkup about the poisons of Agatha Christie um just stacks and stacks of books. And um I realized how important nonfiction really is if you want to um, get you know the full breath of knowledge about something and that too sounds like such an obvious thing like I’m as a reader how could I not have realized that before the podcast but I think I finally understood why it’s so important to read both fiction and nonfiction. Um, as a reader why you you have to do both. If you want to be a fully informed person in the world I don’t actually think it’s enough to read fiction alone and um before the podcast I Definitely would not have said that. So Um I now actually really do make an effort to read. Ah, more nonfiction and not not quite half I mean I Really do love my novels. But um I make a concerted effort to read more nonfiction these days.
SarahSo after reading all of Christie’s works, do you have a favorite sleuth of hers?
Kemper DonovanYeah I I always insist on asking everyone I bring onto my podcast you have to choose is it Poirot or Marple who’s your favorite. So I guess it’s only fair that ah I answer the question for myself I do my favorite sleuth of Christie’s is miss marble. There’s no question I just adore Miss Marple and even though some of Christie’s most impressive books puzzle-wise are Poirot many of them really are um I think that you can feel Christie’s own adoration for the character of Miss Marple. Ah, in in those books that she created and even if they’re not all the cleverest as to puzzle I think they’re all incredibly well-written and um, they’re some of the more literary Christie’s actually um, among the canon. And I just love the the character of Miss Marple I love everything about her I can’t get enough of her. So yeah, Miss Marple all the way.
SarahSo Kemper, where can listeners find you? You mentioned that you’ve got a new book coming out.
Kemper DonovanYes, so I well listeners can find the podcast wherever you are listening to this podcast. It’s called All about Agatha and um, you can find me a couple of different ways. The podcast is on Twitter @allaboutthedame and on Instagram @allaboutagatha and then I recently as an author started a Facebook page at Kemper Donovan Books and I also have an author website which is just kuemperonovan.com www.kemperonovan.com and I think we’ll be doing some links to all of these in in the show notes for the episode. So yeah I would encourage anyone if they’re curious to to click on some of those links um as well as one even to preorder my mystery novel I have to you know do that self-promotion I suppose but um, yeah, we’re we’re now in the pre-order days here for for the novel which is coming out in January 2024.
SarahAnd can you tell us a little bit about it?
Kemper DonovanSure so the novel is called The Busy Body and it is entirely contemporary. It’s actually the first in a three-book series I sold the book as a three-book series to Kensington Books who are a fantastic publisher they so they publish a lot of mysteries. They really know what they’re doing in the mystery genre and put my spin on the detective genre because I wanted to do something a little different. I figured if I’m going to do this I I have to do something a little original. Instead of having a series-long detective character I actually have a series-long sidekick character. So, it’s as though you know Hastings is the character who travels from book to book pairing up with different detectives in in each and in very different settings as well. So, each book will feature a very different world but will have this character anchoring them and the character is a ghost writer. She is a ghost writer, primarily for celebrity memoirs. Um though, not exclusively and in the first book she is pairing up with this female politician who just very publicly lost a national election and is holding up in her house and wants to finally write that tell-all memoir. About her life and her experience in the election and um while they are getting into this project one of her neighbors dies under mysterious circumstances and from their mystery and mayhem ensues. And it’s a lot of fun. You know it has it has some poppy elements and in a very contemporary setting but I very deliberately. Um, used a lot of the tricks that Christie uses because I don’t think any of us can do better as as mystery authors than Agatha Christie. So all I can really do is work in ah in homage to her and um, my goal was to create a mystery that fans of Christie would recognize as inspired by Christie in terms of the crafting of the puzzle even though it would be set in ah you know a contemporary setting that I felt I could evoke and even though I’m using Christie’s some of Christie’s tricks as to the puzzle I of course did not ape her writing style whatsoever. Because as I was saying I think Christie was unique. Ah, no one can write like Agatha Christie so even though I have my own much more conventional. you know more I’d say along the lines of you know a PD James I should be so lucky if I’m writing like pd James mean I’m I’m not actually forget that I’m not comparing myself to PD James but all I’m saying is I don’t think that I’m as special or unique of a writer as Agatha Christie but I was inspired by her on the level of puzzle nonetheless. So I hope that that comes through ah to readers of the book.
BrookI Love that concept camper the the recurring sidekick super original. Super fun.
Kemper DonovanOh thank you? Yeah fingers crossed I hope it works and you know three book series at minimum I would love to if if if I could only write you know 66 I don’t think I want to do 66 books in the ghost writers series. But I think I got more than three in me if if they’ll allow me.
SarahOh, wonderful. Well thank you so much for joining us Kemper, this was this was a really great conversation and and um I’m still catching up on on your episodes but really enjoy your podcast.
Kemper DonovanThank you so much for having me I really enjoyed this.
BrookYes, thank you Kimber this is such a treat and thank you all for listening today to Clued in Mystery. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.