My good friend Tom Taylor is a gifted songwriter with some of the cleverest lyrics around. One of his best loved songs, “Murder on this Train”, weaves a famous tale of intrigue, then challenges the listener to recall the name of the train–while telling you which trains it isn’t–in a humorous recitation. Turns out it’s the one that made Hercule Poirot famous.
On NPR Tuesday morning another wrinkle was added to the saga. Professor Ian Lancashire of the University of Toronto has been studying concordances of lifelong writings of famous people, to look for clues about their psyche. Agatha Christie, who sold more than a billion books, was an obvious choice.
Lancashire chose 16 novels spanning more than 50 years of her storied career, and began to analyze. Amazingly, something happened at the 73rd novel, written when Christie was 81. Her vocabulary range dropped by 20% and she began using vague modifiers, like “anything” or “something”. This book was also panned by critics as being “poorly plotted”.
Was this the first sign of Alzheimer’s in the famous author? She was never officially diagnosed, and was kept close by her family in her last years. But the evidence seems compelling (and probably not lost on the Grande Dame herself, considering the book, Elephants Can Remember, involved a famous novelist with memory loss coming to the aid of Poirot!).
The article also discusses the “Nuns’ Study” and possible correlations between word density in younger writings and later risks for dementia. Fascinating stuff.