Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Clunk and move on.

My husband Bo presented me with quite the Hercule Poirot Christmas this year–half a dozen books and a set of television adaptations. (And a wallet. Wahoo.) “I scoured your shelf, so I know you don’t have any of these.” I nodded as I admired the old-school paperback covers vs. the latest hardcover editions. Where did the fun go?

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But today isn’t about cover design. Today I meant to study the effect a claustrophobic setting has on characters. Agatha Christie applies such a setting all the time in her mystery: the lonely manor house, the steam ship, the train, the island, even an airplane. I had picked up Hercule Poirot’s Christmas earlier this month knowing the story from its television adaptation, so I was eager to study her writing for this element.

Maybe it’s the ebb and flow of frustration and grief. Maybe it’s the stress thunked down on my shoulders every Christmas, the “you’re a preacher’s kid, get over here and make pretty songs” sort of thing. Or maybe Christie simply had to meet a deadline and, for once, allowed herself to not give a shit.

The story’s idea has oodles of promise: a nasty old invalid of a patriarch who loves setting his adult children at each other’s throats, mysterious new relatives, and sketchy house help all in a manor house for a proper English Christmas. But on Christmas Eve there’s a nasty crash and unearthly scream inside the patriarch’s locked room. They break in the door to discover signs of a terrific struggle and blood everywhere.

Cue Poirot on page eighty-four. EIGHTY-FOUR.

Granted, I knew I’d been spoiled a little by seeing the television adaptation first. Of course they revised the story to get Poirot there a lot sooner. But Christie spends forty-six pages solely on introducing the different family members. These little vignettes of their lives that could have easily been learned through a “catching-up” scene with them all in the manor house Christmas Eve. Thus the tension, plot, and setting would have been established much sooner–and therefore engaged readers much sooner.

The clues are also much more heavy-handed this time as well, which, after reading The A.B.C. Murders, felt very off. Take these lines of the patriarch’s dialogue all said before the murder:

“There’s only one of you that’s taken after me–only one out of all the litter.” (42)

“It’s going to be a grand Christmas! All my children round me. All my children!” (43)

“Not a son among them, legitimate or illegitimate.” (56)

“I’ll swear to Heaven I’ve got a better son somewhere in the world than any of you even if you are born on the right side of the blanket!” (74)

Get it? The killer is, of course, one of the family, but not “one of the family,” nudge nudge. And these are just the references pre-murder; more are made afterward. The characteristics don’t help, either: the patriarch has a couple quirks that of course all his sons do, including the characters present who are not yet known to be his sons, killer included. For instance:

Harry threw his head back and laughed. (53)

Stephen laughed, throwing his head back. (64)

Superintendent Sugden threw his head back and laughed. (198)

Then, there’s the murder itself. It’s an amazing murder, what with the unearthly cry, the blood, and the destruction. All done in a room locked on the inside. They work out the key was turned with pliers–okay, sensible. After only three and a half pages are spent in the room where the murder takes place, they spend the next forty-five pages talking to each family member. Just…talking. Rather felt like I was back with Eco and Name of the Rose with all the talking…

The ending comes with very little action around Poirot. Poirot has everyone gathered, as usual, but once he gets into how the murder is committed, he speaks of things that were never mentioned earlier, things like sodium citrate and animal’s blood being added to the victim’s blood. Plus he treats the bastard clue like it was some amazing discovery when it’s been one of the only topics discussed the entire book.

After the killer’s reveal, the final few pages share these one-paragraph scenes of the family members returning to life. It felt as frayed and unsatisfying as the beginning. Consistency, I suppose.

So, what went wrong here? I don’t know. Maybe it was the absence of Hastings–a stable narrator would have toned down all the p.o.v. shifts Christie used here. This could have been a very tight short story without all the meandering among family members; she published short fiction at the same time as novels, so it’s not like that was out of the question. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas was published after phenomenal mysteries like The A.B.C. Murders and Death on the Nile, before  And Then There Were None (considered by many to be her masterpiece), and at the same time as Appointment with Deathyet another fine mystery.

ALL writers, great and going-to-be-great, have their A-game and their B-game. Even my all-time favorite, Diana Wynne Jones, had her clunkers (I’m looking at you, The Pinhoe Egg.) This is clearly Christie’s B-game, and no wonder–Appointment with Death is a complex murder set in the raw beauty of the Middle East. Since this was also published in 1938, I can’t help but wonder if she worked on Appointment and Christmas at the same time, and therefore, dedicated her A-Game to Appointment. She made sure Christmas was an enjoyable read, sure, but it wasn’t the real priority. She wrote and moved on.

I’ve often been told that “perfect is the enemy of done.” While I don’t agree with that statement, there is something to a steady progression forward rather than putzing and putzing and putzing and PUTZING. Life, especially a family and a job, don’t allow for countless revisions of a single story–I learned the hard way such stagnant sameness only worsened my depression and buried my creativity.

Nudge your creativity away from the familiar. Venturing into the unknown is the stuff good stories are made of.

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37 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Clunk and move on.

  1. Yes… you’re right. All prolific authors have their best books and those that simply aren’t – I’ve also always thought the gap between Christie’s best and worst was unexpectedly wide since reading the whole Hercule Poirot canon to my pre-teen children at bedtime. However, there is also the issue of her writing simply being dated. We expect our novels to move along at a fair clip, mirroring the pace of film and TV programmes, while back in the day taking pages to develop characters and set the scene was the norm. As with everything else, fashionable tastes dictate the prevalence of a particular writing style – and most best-selling authors tend to chime with that current taste.

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    • Oh yes, good point. When I was ticking off the repeating character traits, I started to notice just how many obvious adverbs she used, too–“She said coaxingly.” “He said worryingly.” UGH. But, as you say, this was part of the writing style at the time. Just like Doyle–he often had characters give Holmes their entire life stories. Why? Well, it meant more words for money, but that was just also the style–lots of talking like that. I think that’s why I want to study dialogue next with a book where Poirot handles a cold case. Dialogue will be the major method of gathering information, so I want to see how/if Christie swings this without losing the reader….well, um, me. 🙂

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  2. An Agatha short story (a two part event) named The Witness for the Prosecution was watched by Shirl and I over Christmas. Stereotypical tale, her regular writing template sufficient enough, yet the settings and filming mimicking the 1920’s sublime!

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  3. I always feel a little disloyal when I read an author I love and don’t love the book, but I have to agree with you on this one, though I based my reaction on my “gut” more than on actual analysis! (And the fact that, yes, too many clues added in at the end. I like the ones where I could IN THEORY have solved it, although I’m generally just content to go along for the ride 🙂 In a way, it’s comforting to know that even the people who have the ability to spin a great yarn occasionally have clunkers! Thanks again for sharing- new “Jean Lee” articles area always a highlight of the day!

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    • Exactly! I’m horrible at catching on to mysteries, but I don’t like how clues are completely withheld until the end. That’s not fair, and I think that’s one of the tropes that has stuck with others who parody the cozy mystery. I often assumed that these parodies just didn’t appreciate the cozy mystery, but examples like HPC points out the parodies didn’t pull those tropes out of the ether.

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      • Which is what makes a good parody delicious! Speaking of which, if you need a good laugh I’ve just been put on to a fabulous one 😉 Here’s hoping the rest of the books are more satisfying! I just finished a great non-fic, and am just about ready for something lighter, like some murder and mayhem!

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  4. First of all – I love the new look of your blog! 🙂 Happy 2017!
    I use adverbs with an inner smile when I want to tell: don’t take this too seriously because I am smiling when I write this 🙂 But of course I am not a writer and I can afford using any word I fancy 🙂
    I don’t remember if I ever read Christie’s biography. May be the answers are there? Some books are odd indeed, but the other eighty are such a pleasure to read 🙂

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  5. I’ve read all the Poirot novels and short stories (40-odd books I think!). Definitely vary in quality, some stick in your mind for ages, others are instantly forgettable – but through them all I think they are worth reading for the character himself – such a great, lasting fictional detective. Also, in her last few years, Christie wrote some really bad non-Poirot books – try Passanger to Frankfurt for a really bizarre read that makes even the worst Poirot seem like a masterpiece!

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    • Oh WOW, that sounds like a must-find, Iain. I’m currently reading FIVE LITTLE PIGS, and thought for sure it was doomed, being a cold case, but I’m surprised by how well Christie’s handling such a dialogue-heavy story. I’m making that a future post, actually–her work with dialogue. You can tell this story mattered, unlike that damn Christmas one…blech.
      Thanks for reading, by the by! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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