Lessons Learned from Ellis Peters & Agatha Christie: Hide Your Clues in History.

History has always been the most important and most dangerous field of study in my eyes. As a student, I found the world of wartime propaganda utterly fascinating–how with the right words and imagery, facts and past events could be tainted, twisted, even erased from the society’s memory.  As a Christian, I cannot understand why those of, say, the Amish life, live by “forgive and forget,” which has lead to a terrifyingly high rate of sexual abuse in families, since the abuser never faces any consequence for the act. He asks for forgiveness; therefore, the sin is forgiven and must be forgotten, and nothing prevents him from raping or molesting yet again. Without history, we lose our only true teacher of human nature’s scope: its heights of selflessness, its depths of wretchedness.

History is not something one often trips upon by accident. There is but the single weed budding from roots that run deep and far, or the curved stone in the dirt which, as one digs, and brushes, and digs, becomes a bone. History hides itself in the present mess, and hides well, just as any good mystery should.

Ellis Peters, aka Edith Pargeter, knew this all too well as she wrote The Cadfael Chronicles.  Her stories of this Rare Benedictine are set in the 12th century during a civil war between two monarchs vying for England’s throne. The time’s rife with secret messages, castle sieges, hidden treasures, betrayals and all sorts of other delicious things that make the period rich with living…and killing, but also living.

Some years have passed since I’d read a Cadfael, and I decided to rectify that when we traveled to the North Woods (the way up north where the bald eagles hang out in ditches and bears will meander down your driveway and turtle nests are smashed by an old Polish woman with a shovel). I can read in the car; Bo cannot, so he prefers to drive. (That, and I apparently drive a bit too crazy for his liking. Wuss.) This title was not adapted for the Mystery! series starring thespian treasure Sir Derek Jacobi, which meant the mystery would be new to me. Yay!

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The Hermit of Eyton Forest begins with, of course, death, but this one’s natural: a father dies of his battle injuries, orphaning his son who was already in the abbey’s care. When the abbey refuses to send him home with his scheming grandmother, who has a marriage in the works for this ten-year-old, the grandmother takes in “a reverend pilgrim” and his young assistant to live in the hermitage on her land between the abbey and the boy’s inherited manor (33). The detail quickly fades in a passage of time, and it sounds like this pilgrim Cuthred has changed the grandmother’s mind about suing the abbey for custody.

Act I winds down with a conversation between friends: Cadfael and the Sheriff of Shrewsbury. War-talk is very common in these books, especially since Shrewsbury isn’t far from the Welsh border, where many fugitives run. So when Chapter 4 meandered through a conversation about King Stephen holding Empress Maud under siege in Oxford, my eyes, erm, well, dazed over somewhat.

“There’s a tale he tells of a horse found straying not far from [Oxford], in the woods close to the road to Wallingford. Some time ago, this was, about the time all roads of Oxford were closed, and the town on fire. A horse dragging a blood-stained saddle, and saddlebags slit open and emptied. A groom who’d slipped out of the town before the ring closed recognised horse and harness as belonging to one Renaud Bourchier, a knight in the empress’s service, and close in her confidence too. My man says it’s known she sent him out of the garrison to try and break through the king’s lines and carry a message to Wallingford for her.”

Cadfael ceased to ply the hoe he was drawing leisurely between his herb beds, and turned his whole attention upon his friend. “To Brian FitzCount, you mean?” (53)

Blah blah, war things, blah blah. Get to the murder already!

But Peters is no fool. If she’s spending a little time on “war stuff,” it’s for a reason. On the one hand, this gives us a taste of how monarchs struggle to reach out for help in the midst of a siege. It’s an historically accurate strategy, and a fine moment on which to focus for a sharper taste of medieval warfare vs the typical “argh” and swords banging and catapults and the like we always see in movies. On the other hand, this past event is a clue to solve the murders: a nobleman hunting a runaway villein is found stabbed in the back, and the hermit Cuthred is also found dead. Peters buried the clue in that conversation of war, that which we readers would think is just material for the period, not for the plot.

Yet it all comes very much to the forefront in Act III. The nobleman’s son, for instance, sets the reveal into motion when he sees the pilgrim’s body:

“But I know this man! No, that’s to say too much, for he never said his name. But I’ve seen him and talked with him. A hermit–he? I never saw sign of it then! He wore his hair trimmed in Norman fashion…And he wore sword and dagger into the bargain,” said Aymer positively, “and as if he was well accustomed to the use of them, too….It was only one night’s lodging, but I diced with him for dinner, and watched my father play a game of chess with him.” (202)

It’s not like the medieval period had finger prints on database or, you know, pictures for comparison. Identity hinged on being known, and in that kind of war-torn world, you never know who’s going to know you. In this case, Aymer, son of the dead nobleman, unwittingly revealed this holy man to be a fraud, therefore ruining the grandmother’s schemes to have the holy hermit force her grandson to marry a neighbor’s daughter for more land. The nobleman had gone to the hermit, thinking his assistant might be the runaway villein he’s hunting–and here he sees the soldier he had played games with posing as a pilgrim.

So, who is this hermit that killed to keep his true identity dead in history, and who killed him? Not the nobleman, being already dead and all. And not the nobleman’s son.

Well, there is a falconer who has been loitering about the abbey, and who uses Empress Maud’s coins for alms. Cadfael, being a soldier in the Crusades before coming to the cloister, has his own opinions about divine duties in warfare, and chooses to say nothing rather than speak with the abbot, who is publicly aligned with King Stephen: “My besetting sin…is curiosity. But I am not loose-mouthed. Nor do I hold any honest man’s allegiance against him” (143).  Turns out this falconer is on a hunt for none other than the man who had taken off with the treasure and war correspondence from the bloody saddlebags discussed on page 53, and this thief was none other than the fake hermit Cuthred:

“He had killed Cuthred. In fair fight. He laid his sword by, because Cuthred had none. Dagger against dagger he fought and killed him…for good reason,” said Cadfael. “You’ll not have forgotten the tale we heard of the empress’s messenger sent out of Oxford, just as King Stephen shut his iron ring round the castle. Sent forth with money and jewels and a letter for Brian FitzCount, cut off from her in the woods along the road, with blood-stained harness and empty saddlebags. The body they never found.” (219)

Had Peters simply dumped this information on us at the end–as Agatha Christie has done a few times with Poirot–I would have been pissed. But Peters didn’t; she took advantage of Act I’s slow build and shared the clue inside her war stories. Readers may not remember this tale by story’s end, but Peters doesn’t cheat them with an absurd reveal thrown in at the end, either. She shares only the history that matters; it’s the reader’s responsibility to remember it.

On the flip-side of this, when someone hacks up a mystery by throwing history at us too early, I get rather miffed. Murder on the Orient Express is guilty of just such a crime.

No, no, not the book. There’s a reason so many look to this particular Poirot title as one of Christie’s masterworks. The first Act establishes Poirot on his way home from a case on the continent; this is why he eventually boards the Orient Express with other passengers.  The body’s discovered in Chapter 5, and it’s in Chapter 7 we get the history-reveal:

Orient-ExpressThe doctor watched [Poirot] with great interest. He flattened out the two humps of wire, and with great care wriggled the charred scrap of paper on to one of them. He clapped the other on top of it and then, holding both pieces together with the tongs, held the whole thing over the flame of the spirit lamp….It was a very tiny scrap. Only three words and a part of another showed.

-member little Daisy Armstrong. (161)

This clue both slows and tightens the pace: Poirot and his comrade recall this kidnapping and murder of the child Daisy a few years ago. It turns out the murder victim at their feet was that same kidnapper. From here the identities of the other passengers are worked out as well as their connections to the Armstrong child.

No, the book is not the guilty party. That verdict belongs to the 1974 film.

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It begins with a newspaper/newsreel montage about the kidnapping and murder of child Daisy Armstrong. It lasts a minute, and that’s a minute too long.  

It then jumps to five years later, and the gathering of characters to the train.

For one who’s unfamiliar with the book, this jump from dead child to Istanbul has got to be really confusing. For those who read the book–like me–this little montage kills the mystery. What does that footage do? Well, it shows readers that there’s a revenge in the works. We already want justice for that little girl, so whoever gets killed on the train deserves it before it even happens, which means readers won’t dare to connect with any of those other characters because they know one of them’s a wretch who needs justice bled out of him. In the book, we know nothing incriminating about any of the characters in Act I. In Act II, we’re still getting over the shock of a murder happening in an isolated, snow-bound train, where we know the murderer must still be hiding among innocent lives who sure need protection, and then, then, we find out the victim was a child murderer. It’s a double-whammy of a reveal thanks to present and past smashing together.

But when readers learn the history first, they know what to expect in the present. This is a must for so many aspects of life and story alike, but in mysteries? Part of what makes a mystery a mystery is not knowing what to expect.

PS: I dare to get excited about the upcoming Branagh version of the story despite Branagh’s mustache. Your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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49 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Ellis Peters & Agatha Christie: Hide Your Clues in History.

  1. The only curse to afflict history is, I believe the contradictory views we all have regarding the present, a present time that swiftly becomes history. Some rewrite history and those (inevitably) poor attempts are always seen through by pretty much one and all. The curse I refer to is the view of the present taken by either those who watch from a vantage point or those who participate in the now. Multiple views as to the current event shape how that event will be viewed over time. As you know I’m an old leftie. My view of the ‘now – as the now happens’ will be the polar opposite on one who sits on the right of politics. A sad thing, yet a most worthy post, Ms Lee.

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    • Ah, how true, Master Steeden. Terry Jones made a number of documentaries that show just how often history is written by the winners–Crusades, Barbarians, even Medieval Lives show how contorted historians get with twisting and/or romanticizing history as they see fit.

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      • A wonderful post Jean. This is a Christy book I do love too. Totally agree re the film. I also agree re Mr Steeden here, that history is so often written by the sabre rattling winners. I won’t start. I’m am going to be good today. I will just add that sometimes it is hard to believe the past because of that distortion.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yes, Shey. Plus, people tend to go in whatever path takes the least effort to acquire information. More often than not the easily-grabbed information is the MISinformation, and that stuff spreads like milk leaking from a forgotten sippy cup left under the couch.

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      • True, Ms Lee yet not always by the winners (excepting that they are in the clear majority) but sometimes by those with a vested interest. Be it politicians expounding theories of reasons after the event; protectors of a chosen faith; hard-nosed blinkered atheists; stories carried down the years and expanded upon by the weak seeking solace; all these things, all these people either deliberately or by dint of admonishing themselves of guilt who write an alternative account must…not that they ever do…hang their heads in shame for the evils of their own perceptions of events. Gosh, that was a bloody good post. I feel like the 18 year communist I once was…I got that wrong as well!

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      • I was just commenting with Sarah about that! How the monks would take care with their laud-filled dedications lest their patronage would change hands, or would become the loser in a war.

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      • All this does pose the question, ‘Is anything true?’ and/or ‘Is there such a thing as truth?’ Inanimate objects are probably the only things that defy the subjective…at least the ones that aren’t turned into art!

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      • YES. Even as a Christian, I know in my soul that some things are true, but c’mon, I’m not so unaware as to think Scripture’s the exact same despite being through a gazillion translations over the past few thousand years.

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      • I trust I haven’t offended in part or at all, Ms Lee…it’s the last thing I’d ever want to do. You know I have had this lifelong dilemma regarding ‘truth’. Certainly ‘me’ and I suspect almost everyone, and from every which angle inadvertently sees ‘truth’ in personal ‘opinion’. To me, on the odd occasion it dawns on me that I’ve fallen into the trap yet again I have to pinch myself…I am forever bruised, forever wishing I was the consummate philosopher (which I am plainly not).

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      • Oh gosh, no! No no no, you have NOT offended me, to be clear. We’re all on our own walk for truth, and each of us carry our own satchels filled with what we trust. I’m sure your satchel’s different from mine, but that doesn’t mean we can’t walk a spell together…especially when one of us trips on a stone and needs a bit of support along the way. xxxxxxxxx

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      • That’s good. I do worry about these things. It’s just when I talk of ‘truth’ I’m not talking of it from any faith (or lack of) perspective. Just ‘truth’ in general. The movie The Matrix type ‘truth’. I’ve been trying to compose the perfect analogy yet have failed thus far. I’ll let you know if and when I can come up with an allegory!

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  2. As ever, an engrossing and thought-provoking article. I really like the point you’ve made regarding adding backstory that matters. So often films and TV series mess this up this aspect as novelists have a huge advantage with a protagonist who can muse/reflect/discuss the crucial details more or less at will. Flashback is often the go-to option for film and TV adaptations – and sometimes it works.
    The point about history being rewritten by the victors is apt – but it is also rewritten by historians of the day depending on whatever contemporary concerns are bothering them…

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  3. Oh my, I haven’t read Ellis Peters for years. Glad you found one that was new to you.

    As for real life, it’s interesting to me how often history is distorted and/or fabricated to suit one’s own purposes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Social media has certainly made propaganda all the easier to create…though I think that’s partly reader laziness…

      And I know, right? I discovered a few more titles I’ve never read, and those will definitely be on my reading list for this year.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. O, the mustache! The preview makes it look like they hot-glued a pair of squirrels to his face.
    As for Poirot saying that he’s “probably” the greatest detective in the world…probably? I’ve never heard Poirot so unsure of himself.
    OTHERWISE, it looks like it could have promise, I grant you. I’d go with you! If air fare were cheaper…sigh…
    Great points on the inclusion of history in novels. The hubby and I have both enjoyed finding as many first person accounts of our periods of interest as possible. Of course ‘first person’ doesn’t mean that the people involved didn’t have their own biases, BUT at least they are the biases of the day and not someone retro-fitting history to modern tastes 🙂

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    • I know, that mustache! In defense of that line, though, I think that’s one of those moments where he’s acting modestly…sort of. 🙂
      Hey, understanding the prejudices of the day is important for history, too. 🙂

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  5. OMG, the trailer looks great! I didn’t even know they were doing a remake. I agree. Too many reveals at the front end ruins a mystery for me. The BEST mysteries are when the reader/viewer figure it out just ahead of the story. There’s a certain sense of satisfaction in it for the reader having “solved” the mystery.

    Re: the Amish — I live in Amish country in Lancaster, PA, and some years ago, there was a shooting in an Amish school by an “English” who then turned the gun on himself, a real tragedy, and the Amish did what they always do — they forgave him despite the carnage, the fact that several children died, the anguish to the community. It was an act of courage to forgive publicly like that, but the problem for me is, I don’t believe the forgiveness to be genuine. Not that they are lying, they were really trying to live their faith, but everyone comes to forgiveness in their own time and some never. The Amish community made an announcement as a group some weeks after the horror and there was no way that any of those grieving mothers had processed that tragedy in that time (if ever). So while I see the nobility of the gesture of forgiveness in all situations, I think it reaches for a spiritual response not yet achieved personally and denies the 3-D nature of a very flawed world. And as you said, sexual abuse is rampant.

    Great post, Jean. Have an awesome weekend. :0)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent points. I do remember something of that shooting, yes. Sometimes I think such practices like forgive and forget turn more into a societal process than a true act from the heart–rather like saying the words of a prayer when your mind’s on something totally different.
      On that same note, another reason I can’t wrestle with this concept is because so often the perpetrator of the abuse is in that same mode: speaking the words without genuine penitence. That, too, cheapens the act of forgiveness and turns it worthless.

      On a brighter note, I think I’ll see the Branagh version with skeptical, but high, hopes. That Albert Finney version from the 70s was awful, and the David Suchet one was…sigh…I adore Suchet as Poirot, but it whoever was in charge of that adaptation determined to go super artsy and emotional. Granted, that’s about as opposite from the Finney one as you could get, but it wasn’t all that good, either. And I’ve seen enough Suchet adaptations to know they know better.
      (that was a terrible sentence, but you know what I mean.:)

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  6. I am not a Branagh fan after seeing him get the Wallender character so wrong! And I think you make a wonderful point here about the film versus book argument. Those who watch the film are generally a little more passive than readers of a book and need to be spoon fed the plot. If they don’t linger a second too long on a facial shot or frown, if they don’t use the atmospheric music, some viewers won’t get the story and be confused until the end. When reading a book, there seems to be more time to pause and reflect the content and try to put the puzzle together. I try always to read the book first and see a movie adaptation second, otherwise it is disappointing. But then I find myself concentrating on the differences between the two which detracts somewhat from the movie experience.
    Great post!

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    • Thank you so much for reading! I never read the Wallander books, though I will say it’s Branagh’s work that makes me want to read them. I completely understand what you mean about presentations of characters–Albert Finney’s Poirot in the 1974 film drives me NUTS. I had high hopes for the David Suchet adaptation of Orient Express, but that one, I felt, was excessively dark and moody, so unlike many other Suchet adaptations of the stories. We’ll have to compare notes after this film comes out!
      I concur completely on your other points, though. There’s this urgency to spoon-feed in film, something I do not agree with, but it’s obviously common practice compared to books. Have you ever seen a movie where they did NOT spoon-feed? “Memento” comes to mind.

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      • Well I guess there aren’t so many where you have to exercise your brain. Malice is my immediate thought. I had to think a bit also in Premonition but it was a little predictable, perhaps.

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      • Hmmm. Yes. I suppose my biggest problem are the withheld clues. I’m currently working through a couple Agatha Christie mysteries to see if she pulled this nonsense; she’s done it sometimes, but in her masterwork AND THEN THERE WERE NONE? We will see!

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  7. Agatha Christie used different writing techniques in various stories. I, too, disliked when Poirot revealed at the end and Christie had not given the info throughout the book – to allow the reader to discover or to fail on his own – BUT, her writing was ingenious and, at times, experimental. It’s hard to argue with genius. Thanks for a great post!

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    • Oh yes, Annette, I’ve been seeing that, too, such as when Hastings is our solo narrator vs. the multiple povs she’ll use in other mysteries. I’m still working on my study of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, which is just–the more I look at it, the more I sit in wonder of it. And the author’s note in the beginning is hilarious, saying this is one of the hardest books she ever wrote. I believe it!
      Thanks for reading!

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