Welcome back, my fellow creatives! July is nearly at an end, and alas, that means bidding farewell to Private Eye July.
Last week, I mentioned how my husband likes to poke fun at me for not reading a certain detective.
“Let me get this straight,” he’d say. “You’ve read all the Poirot.”
Yes. At least twice.
“But you’ve never read a single Miss Marple?”
He’d furrow his brows and say, “Yet you say you enjoy Agatha Christie.”
“You’ve read And Then There Were None and some plays and stuff, not just the Poirot.”
“But not…not Miss Marple? Her other most popular character of all time?”
Simple: I already had my sweet-older-lady-detective fix.
Bo would then bring up the Magnum/JB Fletcher crossover, and then we’d argue about which detective was better (they changed who solves the case for syndication, those stinkers!), and then the conversation would spiral from there.
In Wisconsin, summer is a time for nature immersion. Whether you hike in the woods, take to the lake in a boat, or hunt for bugs’n’birds’n’fairies, this is the season for journeys into the wilderness of the North Woods.
Every venture “Up Nort'” requires mysteries for road reading. Since Bo had gotten me some Poirots for Mother’s Day, this seemed like the perfect time to catch up on them. (Bo can’t read in the car because a)motion sickness and b)my driving style freaks him out.) What was meant to be a little simple escapism turned into a reflection on narrative point of view and how it helps–or hurts–a story’s ability to hold a reader.
Back when I was researching the nonfiction writing workshop I had to give at my university last month, I came across an article that referenced “Fleming Method.” This method, the author said, called for blasting through a story by writing only key elements: the dialogue, the action, etc. All the other elements were to wait for the next draft. Doing this allowed Ian Fleming to complete the initial draft of Casino Royale in a few weeks.
After reading Sad Cypress–published years before Casino Royale–part of me now wonders if Christie came up with the Fleming Method before Fleming did.
The premise is clear-cut.
Beautiful young Elinor Carlisle stood serenely in the dock, accused of the murder of Mary Gerrard, her rival in love. The evidence was damning: only Elinor had the motive, the opportunity, and the means to administer the fatal poison.
Yet, inside the hostile courtroom, only one man still presumed Elinor was innocent until proven guilty. Hercule Poirot was all that stood between Elinor and the gallows.…
The story itself is divided into three parts: Elinor’s flashback through all the events preceding the murder, Poirot’s investigation of the murder, and then the trial. Again, clear-cut.
Yet when I finished the book, I let out a “hmph” and tossed it onto the car’s dashboard.
Bo’s not used to me doing that, especially after what was, by all accounts, a good morning. We had successfully completed a walk and lunch at a beer garden with the kids–a HUGE accomplishment when two out of three are picky eaters. “Wasn’t the book okay?”
The mystery itself, I explained was fine. There’s a love triangle of sorts, a girl gets murdered, Poirot eventually shows up to investigate, yadda yadda. But the way Christie tells it was weird.
Bo gave me a look. “What do you mean?”
I show him a thick pinches of text–Part 1, the flashback. It’s all quite narrative, with descriptions, exchanges, changes of scene. Part 2 changes point of view character-wise, from the accused murderess to Poirot. Again, we’ve got multiple elements of storytelling. Grand. Part 3, however, drops almost all pretense of story-telling and moves forward almost entirely through dialogue–that is, through the exchanges between witnesses and lawyers during the trial. After 200 pages of “traditional” storytelling, 50 pages of almost pure dialogue jolted me so much I found myself nothing but irritated with the story when the mystery was resolved.
I stared at Bo so long that Biff scolded me. “It’s rude to stare, you know!”
How did Christie “normally” write a mystery? Was there such a thing as “normal”?
I looked at the other books I had packed along: Dumb Witness, After the Funeral, and Death on the Nile. I thumbed through them, sharing observations with Bo as I went…
Everyone blamed Emily Arundell’s accident on a rubber ball left on the stairs by her frisky terrier. But the more she thought about her fall, the more convinced she became that one of her relatives was trying to kill her.…
On April 17th she wrote her suspicions in a letter to Hercule Poirot. Mysteriously, he didn’t receive the letter until June 28th…by which time Emily was already dead.…
This story had a mix of methods I both liked and disliked. The first few chapters involve a lot of head-hopping amongst the characters of the victim-to-be’s family. I have written about this head-hopping before–nope, not a fan of this “I’m thinking murderous thoughts” to “and I’m thinking murderous thoughts, too!” to “oh, we’re just aaaaaaall thinking murderous thoughts, aren’t we?”. After those opening chapters, however, the unreliable-yet-charming Captain Hastings takes over as narrator until the end of the book. I’ve also written about benefits of the unreliable narrator for mystery writing, and in Dumb Witness those benefits were seen once again: clues quickly dismissed by the narrator Hastings carry crucial importance, and characters Hastings suspects or respects often tend to be something else entirely.
I always enjoy a trip alongside Poirot and Hastings; the two have a wonderful chemistry that allows for light-hearted moments, such as when the victim’s intelligent dog takes such a liking to Hastings that Hastings feels he knows what the dog is saying.
If Christie had written every Poirot mystery with Hastings, though, the misdirections would grow tedious, the joviality stale.
In other words, we’d get bored.
After the Funeral(also known as Funerals are Fatal)
“He was murdered, wasn’t he?”
When Cora Lansquenet is savagely murdered, the extraordinary remark she had made the previous day at her brother Richard’s funeral suddenly takes on a chilling significance. At the reading of Richard’s will, Cora was clearly heard to say, “It’s been hushed up very nicely, hasn’t it. But he was murdered, wasn’t he?”
Did Cora’s accusation a dark truth that sealed her own fate? Or are the siblings’ deaths just tragic coincidences?
Desperate to know the truth, the Lansquenet’s solicitor turns to Hercule Poirot to unravel the mystery. For even after the funeral, death isn’t finished yet . . .
I hope you like head-hopping, because this story moves from character to character in an entire family tree throughout the whoooole novel. For the record, I didn’t throw this book out the car window because a) I recalled some of the plot from the David Suchet adaptation, but not all the bits and that was really irritating, and b) the kids would have yelled at me for littering, which would have been even more irritating.
But, I must admit, there was something else here, a good something that kept me wanting to remember the solution. For all the head-hopping, there remained a consistent uncertainty between characters, a singular dread of not feeling entirely comfortable around one’s own family, of relief for getting money and the simultaneous guilt for being thankful someone died so that money could be given. By giving these characters that mutual guilt and suspicion, the narrative no longer jostles readers about. We’re still following that dread, catching the little things that make the characters unique instead of having those things hit us in the face page after page after page to remind us who’s who.
Death on the Nile
The tranquility of a cruise along the Nile was shattered by the discovery that Linnet Ridgeway had been shot through the head. She was young, stylish, and beautiful. A girl who had everything . . . until she lost her life.
Hercule Poirot recalled an earlier outburst by a fellow passenger: “I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and just press the trigger.” Yet in this exotic setting nothing is ever quite what it seems.
I feel like this is the mystery that inspired spoofs like Monty Python’s Agatha Christie sketch or the movie Clue–you know, where someone says, “I saw the ___ who did it!” And just before that someone says a name, the lights go dark, a shot rings out, someone groans, and thud–another murder.
(I’m likely quite wrong on this, but that sort of scene is in Death on the Nile, so it’s all I can think about now.)
Blessedly, Death on the Nile is told with an omniscient narrator who mostly follows Poirot about, only occasionally lingering with other characters if there’s a romance arc to propel along.
The narrator never focuses readers away from what Poirot’s doing, nor does the narrator give unnecessary attention for the sake of distraction or red herrings. Being a third person limited point of view, readers don’t get insight into Poirot’s head, either, so we still don’t learn the full solution until Poirot’s ready to “do his thing,” as it were. And that’s fine.
It’s all fine.
Honestly, it is. The head-hopping, the unreliable narrator, the traditional omniscient–each are appropriate approaches to telling a story. Even a chapter of pure dialogue has its place. What matters is that the chosen method encourages readers to continue the story. Can the reader get the information by following one character around, or are multiple viewpoints needed in order to get the big picture? Would readers enjoy the guessing game that comes with unreliable narrators, or does the plot require a more neutral voice to share it? Does the scene’s power come in what is said, or what is not?
It never hurts to experiment and find which approach is the best fit for the story at hand, for like our kids, every story is different. So long as we consider the heart of the story–spurned love, broken family, desperate greed–we can take a step back and consider how readers should reach this heart. We don’t want it to be a simple straight path, nor the path we know so well we could write it blindfolded. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the understanding in that?
So, try directing readers to different characters to help them appreciate the multiple relationships. Let them follow the outsider to reach that inside perspective. Leave them with one soul and see if they will trust that character–or not.
Just don’t commit the Unforgivable Writing Sin, one that leads to readers abandoning your story to the Did Not Finish shelf, never to be journeyed again:
Thou Shalt Not Bore.
Have you ever been intrigued by an author’s choice in narrative point of view? Befuddled? Disappointed? I’d love to hear about it!
Interviews, music, and fantasy fiction lie ahead! I’ll also provide more updates regarding my new novel, Fallen Princeborn: Chosen and how YOU can get your hands on an ARC.
(Yes, I know this says 2019, but IT’S HAPPENING, dagnabit, and that’s what counts!)
Thank you for companionship on this writing journey. You help make my corner of the world a brighter, saner place. x
Yes, I know that hashtag #characterdesign is more of an art-related thing, but it fits with this little lesson learned, believe you me.
This week started with its usual chaos: calls at 5am for a substitute teacher in 5th grade–no wait, Kindergarten. No wait, art, just art for aaaaaall the grades, can you do that? Bash wakes up with a swollen eye from Lord knows what (don’t worry, it left just as mysteriously as it came), university students re-submit work I had already flagged as inappropriate for the assignment requirements. On top of all this, another university contacts me to schedule an interview for a full-time gig. (insert excitement and anxiety here.)
Meanwhile, I did my best to stay in the writing community loop, reading about the racial controversy over American Dirt and learning from fellow indie author Michael Dellert that The Arcanistis calling for western speculative flash fiction:
Is there another short story inside me for the bounty hunter Sumac? I asked myself as the twelve-year-olds tried to stab each other with colored pencils. 1000 words didn’t feel like a lot of wiggle room. Night’s Tooth was meant to be a short story, after all, but writing a fantasy western inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Nametrilogy meant a LOT of slow-but-tense moments. Thus, the novella instead of the short story. (Click here if you’d like to read one of those moments.)
As magical showdowns percolated in my mind, I continued planning my excursion into the “dark, impulsive, whiny villainy” of Disney’s Star Wars. I had my collection of Robert McKee Story quotes at the ready for studying the bizarre mix of Hux and Kylo interactions in The Force Awakens and shift from there into the smothering subversions of The Last Jedi.
That is, until my perusal through Agatha Christie’s short fiction sparked a little something that I just had to share.
So we all know that when it comes to short fiction, you gotta pack a lot into a tiny space. Plot, character, setting–aaaaall that jazz has gotta be played at a heightened, almost truncated speed. There’s no time for meandering interludes or long drum solos.
(RIP Neil Pert. I know he wasn’t a jazz player, but Bo’s a HUGE Rush fan, so he’s been showing concerts to the kids and now I’m stuck in a land of music metaphor that doesn’t jive and we’re just going to move on because I clearly have no sense of what decade I’m in.)
Agatha Christie wrote over a hundred short stories. If ANYone knew the importance of keeping the story elements thrumming along, it was her. This is especially clear when she describes her characters. Like any good musician, Christie’s style moves sweet’n’slick with just the right amount of flourish.
Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.
“How Does Your Garden Grow?”
In just three sentences, we’ve got a sense of this character’s physical appearance, interests, and mindset. Christie doesn’t dwell on the minutiae, like what Miss Lemon wears or how she does her hair. That all falls under “unpreposessing appearance.” But some readers whine when they can’t “see” a character without more precise detail. What if we picture different things? What if we don’t see the character the same way the writer did? THAT CHANGES THE READING EXPERIENCE, DOESN’T IT?!
Honestly, folks, does Miss Lemon’s outfit affect the story? No. Does it matter if each of us picture “a lot of bones flung together” (damn, I really like that bit) in different ways? No.
More importantly, a short story doesn’t have space to waste on that kind of detail. When a writer’s looking into contests like The Arcanist‘s, he/she can’t afford to spend a hundred words on description when forty will do the trick. Heck, even twenty’s enough for Christie in some cases. Take these character descriptions of two parents.
Mrs. Waverly’s emotion was obviously genuine, but it assorted strangely with her shrewd, rather hard type of countenance.
Mr. Waverly was a big, florid, jovial-looking man. He stood with his legs straddled wide apart and looked the type of the country squire.
“The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly”
Again, the colorful details are skipped in favor for body language and behavior. We get senses of these people–the hard, heart-broken mother, the upper-class, happy sort of father. We may not know what these two look like, but we know their body language, and in this we get impressions of their attitudes and behaviors, which are far more important than hair color.
Six months ago she had married a fifth time–a commander in the Navy. He it was who came striding down the beach behind her. Silent, dark–with a pugnacious jaw and a sullen manner. A touch of the primeval ape about him.
“Triangle at Rhodes”
Those third and fourth sentences say it ALL. “Silent, dark”–readers can already get a sense of a nasty face, but since this man’s “a commander in the Navy” then we know he’s going to carry himself like a man of authority and power. Words like “pugnacious” and “sullen” tell readers how he’s going to interact with the other characters: always negatively, aggressively, and without any sort of kindness. The fact he’s “primeval” practically forces readers to picture this character as a sort of sub-human, incapable of empathy or feeling.
And aaaaaall that characterization is given in just eighteen words.
When Poirot’s friend Captain Hastings narrates the story, Christie is also able to take advantage of her ever-lovable unreliable narrator, which allows her to misdirect readers when she so chooses.
The sixth Viscount Cronshaw was a man of about fifty, suave in manner, with a handsome, dissolute face. Evidently an elerly roué, with the languid manner of a poseur. I took an instant dislike to him.
Mrs. Davidson came to us almost immediately, a small, fair creature whose fragility would have seemed pathetic and appealing had it not been for the rather shrewd and calculating gleam in her light blue eyes.
“The Affair at the Victory Ball”
Oh, Hastings, you do love a pretty face. Poirot’s partner loves to let readers know when he’s a fan of a woman or not, consistently keen to describe her appearance and whether or not she’s attractive.Once in a while, though, he’ll catch something genuine, such as Mrs. Davidson’s shrewdness. Likewise, if Hastings doesn’t like a man, he’s obvious about that, too, and these opinions from Hastings always alter how he interacts with the characters as well as how he interprets their words and body language. This in turn affects the information readers receive, and so by the end of “The Affair at the Victory Ball” we’re just as surprised as Hastings to discover how wrong we are about these people.
Once in a while, though, Christie does allow a little drum solo when a minor character takes the stage. It seems to happen when it’s a character type Poirot, Hastings, or the omniscient narrator ignores in favor of more interesting goings-on: a mere citizen, a member of the populace where the mystery occurs. Sometimes it’s this common-ness that plays its part in getting Poirot to the mystery, such as in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”:
Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase–“a position of the utmost delicacy.”
“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”
And this bit from “A Cornish Mystery” is a lovely reminder to readers and writers alike that every setting’s character, no matter how bland and un-unusual, is still a person with problems, fear, and feeling.
Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace–a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs. Pengelleys in the street every day.
“The Cornish Mystery”
It seems Hastings spends an awful long time introducing us to a character that’s just one of a hundred one would pass in the street–81 words, in fact. Why so much time on a single, ordinary character in a short story? Hasting’s description creates an expectation of ordinary-ness, regularity, typicality. But of course, Christie being Christie, this time spent on an ordinary character comes with reason: this ordinary character, this one of one hundred, is murdered. Why would someone murder this one Mrs. Pengelley out of a hundred one would pass on a country town street?
Ah. That is why the reader reads on.
So when you work on your own character designs, writers, always ask yourself what matters more: the character’s appearance, or behavior? The character’s look, or feelings? A character’s choices are often the influence of action and pacing, but there’s no denying that sometimes, a character’s appearance alone may twist the narrative into surprising directions. What matters is that you share character traits important to the story. Picturing a character’s apparel means little when readers cannot see a character’s attitude.
Good morning, my friends! At last I can write to you by the light of a Christmas tree. Many still slumber in this snowless cold of Wisconsin, but thanks to coffee and sweet sounds of soft singing, I’m content to sit and write to you of Christmas traditions…and murder!
“It’s dying out, you know,” he said, “the real old-fashioned type of Christmas. People spend it at hotels nowadays. But an English Christmas with all the family gathered round, the children and their stockings, the Christmas tree, the turkey and plum pudding, the crackers. The snowman outside the window…”
“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”
Two years ago I shared with you a few of the traditions Bo and I have passed on to our children. I realize, however, I didn’t stress just how important those Christmas cookies are. Telling Bo to “skip the cookies this year” is akin to telling me to “skip the music this year.” In order words: BLASPHEMY! Bo will spend hours upon hours dying the dough, organizing the cutouts, laying out the sprinkles and ships for the kids to use for decorations. He loves giving these cookies to friends and family because they embody the love his mother shared when she baked cookies in his childhood. Though dead for twenty years, her love sweetly returns every Christmas through Bo, a tradition I love to see him honor.
Traditions, especially Christmas traditions, have this way of calling us back to our childhood. Once more we feel the snap of magic in winter’s air, hear the joy in song, see beauty in the world when the candles are lit and ornaments are hung. And don’t forget the food!
“All the same old things, the Christmas tree and the stockings hung up and the oyster soup and the turkey–two turkeys, one boiled and one roast– and the plum pudding with the ring and the bachelor’s button and all the rest of it in it. We can’t have sixpences nowadays because they’re not pure silver anymore. But all the old desserts…”
“What does all this have to do with your little murder bit earlier, Jean?” you may ask.
Okay, okay, I’m getting there.
While some rereadA Christmas Carol every year, I love to reread the Poirot short “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.” (No, I do NOT like to reread Hercule Poirot’s Christmas…though I’m the first to admit the David Suchet adaptation of this clunker is hilarious because they added a storyline of Inspector Japp dealing with his in-laws.) The premise for “Christmas Pudding” seems straightforward enough: a government official and a princeling ask Poirot to help them recover a jewel stolen by someone they suspect to be staying with the Lacey family at the old manor house King’s Lacey. They manage to bribe Poirot with the promise of the manor’s modern heating system–and, perhaps, some bloodshed.
“You see, it is very famous, this ruby. There is a long trail behind it, a history. Much bloodshed–many deaths!”
Poirot finally agrees to help and goes to the manor house under the guise of wanting to experience a good old-fashioned English Christmas. Though the Laceys do not know of the jewel, they do know they don’t like their granddaughter’s boyfriend, and hope this detective can help them disentangle their granddaughter Sarah from the cad Desmond, who only seems good when he tends to his mysteriously ill sister always hiding away in her guest room.
So, we have the traditional homecoming mixing with the nontraditional guests. This clash promises some engaging storytelling to come–and it does.
Hercule Poirot entered his bedroom. It was a large room well provided with radiators. As he went over towards the big four-poster bed he noticed an envelope lying on his pillow. He opened it and drew out a piece of paper. On it was a shakily printed message in capital letters.
DON’T EAT NONE OF THE PLUM PUDDING. ONE AS WISHES YOU WELL.
Hercule Poirot stared at it. His eyebrows rose. “Cryptic,” he murmured, “and most unexpected.”
A note is no dead body, but there’s a clear warning here of danger to come, and of all things that danger is connected to a Christmas dessert. I can’t imagine Bo’s cookies being dangerous, but then again, we don’t serve his cookies ON FIRE.
On a silver dish the Christmas pudding reposed in its glory. A large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it like a triumphant flag and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it. There was a cheer and cries of “Ooh-ah.”
Folks, it is utterly impossible for this anxious-addled mother of mischief-maker kiddos to imagine serving food on fire and expecting them to EAT IT. I mean, I know you don’t eat the fire, but still.
Rapidly the plates were passed round, flames still licking the portions.
“Wish, M. Poirot,” cried Bridget. “Wish before the flame goes….”
…. In front of everyone was a helping with flames still licking it. There was a momentary silence all round the table as everyone wished hard.
There was nobody to notice the rather curious expression on the face of M. Poirot as he surveyed the portion of pudding on his plate. “Don’t eat none of the plum pudding.” What on earth did that sinister warning mean? There could be nothing different about his portion of plum pudding from that of everyone else! Sighing as he admitted himself baffled–and Hercule Poirot never liked to admit himself baffled–he picked up his spoon and fork.
If the great Belgian detective admits he’s baffled, then readers know there’s a real mystery afoot. We know there’s a precious ruby somewhere in this manor. We know the the manor’s heir is dating a ne’er-do-well that is surely the ruby’s thief. But what has any of that to do with this age-old Christmas tradition?
We soon find out.
Something tinkled on [Poirot’s] plate. He investigated with a fork. Bridget, on his left, came to his aid.
“You’ve got something, M. Poirot,” she said. “I wonder what it is.”
Poirot detached a little silver object from the surrounding raisins that clung to it.
“Ooooh,” said Bridget, “it’s the bachelor’s button! M. Poirot’s got the bachelor’s button!”
Every portion of the pudding contains a little token: wedding rings, a thimble, a pig, a coin, etc. For my lovely friends across the Pond, you’ll have to enlighten me about what tokens are or are not traditional, for my two-second search on Google only alluded to coins, thimble, bachelor’s button, and a wishbone. (And again, Panic-Mom-Me would be crying “THEY’RE GOING TO CHOKE!” throughout all this. Prrrrobably for the best we don’t have the Christmas Pudding Tradition in the Lee house.) I especially wish I knew more about the traditional tokens because of what happens when the lord of the manor digs into his portion.
“God bless my soul,” [Mr. Lacey] ejaculated. “It’s a red stone out of one of the cracker brooches.” He held it aloft.
…. “But what I can’t understand,” said Mrs. Lacey, “is how it got into the pudding.”
Mr. and Mrs. Lacey are both baffled about this particular “token.” Poirot isn’t–nor are we readers–but the reaction of the Laceys makes it clear that of all the tokens Tradition dictates be put into the Christmas pudding, a red stone isn’t one of them. It’s a peculiar twist on the tradition to them, but to Poirot, the pudding provides the answer to the mystery of the ruby’s hiding place.
Of course, now he has to figure out how it got there in the first place. The answer comes in yet another Christmas tradition learned when Poirot compliments the cook Mrs. Ross on her pudding and asks how she makes it.
“…As it was, that pudding was only made three days ago, the day before you arrived, sir. However, I kept to the old custom. Everyone in the house had to come out into the kitchen and have a stir and make a wish. That’s an old custom, sir, and I’ve always held to it.”
When the cook says “everyone in the house,” she means it: not only did the family members come and have a stir, but the staff and all guests–including the suspected thief Desmond and his supposed sister. This tradition provides the nontraditional guests the opportunity to hide their criminal activity in an unlikely place.
Yet why would they hide the ruby inside something everyone was going to eat? It turns out the Christmas pudding wasn’t meant to be the Christmas pudding, as the cook explains.
“As a matter of fact, sir,” said Mrs. Ross, “it was the wrong pudding you had for lunch today…This morning, when Annie was getting [the Christmas Day pudding] down from the shelf in the larder, she slipped and dropped it and it broke…. So we had to use the other one–the New Year’s Day one.”
Thanks to the tradition of multiple puddings for the holidays, the Christmas dinner had been saved–and the ruby exposed.
Of course, then, there comes a wee spot of murder, but I’ll let you read about that on your own. Honestly, “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” is a quick’n’fun read for your lunch break or before dawn creeps to your window.
As you embark on your own writing adventures this December, consider the holiday traditions you’ve known since childhood. What villainy could hide under the plate of cookies, or in the shadows beyond the carolers outside? A festive promise of mystery and adventure awaits!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
I’m lining up author interview for 2020! Some have already reached out to me, and I’m in the process of reaching out to others. It promises to be a smashing year of sharing authors we love! I’ve also got some brilliant music to share with you both seasonal and magical. Plus, let’s not forget an update from Blondie and her own storytelling as well as the importance of giving the gift of literacy to others. Here’s hoping I can get Bash back on his Transformer Christmas story, too. 😉
He knows me so well: his Christmas gifts to me consist of books, music, and a good mystery series. Even the candle is scented “Oxford Library.”
But I hold up the CD, and scowl.
“Hey, it was on your wish list.”
“That was before I saw the movie.”
“And now you have something to remember the movie by.”
“The book doesn’t count?”
“No.” And off he goes to read his new compilation of Dick Tracy comic strips.
Honestly, I didn’t expect to write about music that is uninspired, but after seeing the latest film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express with dear writer-friend Ben Daniel Parman, I just can’t understand what Scottish composer Patrick Doyle was going for here. If one didn’t know the film, one would think I’d been given the score to a Hallmark made-for-television movie about railroad workers struggling with love or grief or blizzards or grief-loving in blizzards or blizzards in love or…you get it. It’s music that does not speak to its icon of a detective, Hercule Poirot. It is music that does not speak to its historic period of the 1930s. It is music that does not speak to the claustrophobic tension a snow-bound train car creates. It’s just…there. White noise to the mystery. And while some mysteries revel with distraction, a mystery–or any story, for that matter–cannot afford to annoy its audience. Which this music does. Exceedingly.
In his defense, Patrick Doyle isn’t all bad. Take his score for Brave: it has some lovely moments of both epic scope and intimate character reveal.
One of my biggest struggles as a writer is creating the right ambience around me so I can, well, create. When the boys are trying to shove each other into the wall, when Blondie’s whining she doesn’t know what to do with herself, when the laundry and dishes and course work and cooking and….you know. It all heaps upon you, not just visually, but audibly, too. Take this very moment: I’m trying to finish this blog in the kitchen while the boys fight over a toy and the girl’s yelling at them to be quiet while The Lego Ninjago Movieplays at an obnoxious volume. I’ve got my headphones on. I put on Orient Express, and feel absolute bupkiss. I put on Brave, and feel the hint of Elsewhere swirl about my mind’s eye. I put on The Hobbit, and feel the adventure promised in misty mountains cold…
Seek on, writers. Find the music that transports you from daily life’s craziness and unfetters story-telling’s power.
Studying Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries has been a real treat this year. But like any favorite food, its taste has grown a touch stale on my writing pallette. Before I take a good, long break from one of the greatest authors of all time, I wanted to share one of the lessons learned from what many consider to be her masterpiece: And Then There Were None.
I had written this book because it was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me. That people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious. I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I had made of it. It was clear, straightforward, baffling, and yet had an epilogue in order to explain it. It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been. –Agatha Christie, “Author’s Note”
One extraordinary achievement in this book is the slick point-of-view-leapfrog Christie plays to bamboozle readers from the very start. Yes, changing p.o.v. is something that has irritated me in the past, but has also been used well in her Poirot series. In And Then There Were None, Christie deftly takes readers in and out of a killer’s mind without readers ever having a clue it happened.
Well to start, they’re all killers.
We glean this from the little things, the thoughts in the characters’ minds that run to the front of the bus like a child unbuckled…
A picture rose clearly before [Vera’s] mind. Cyril’s head, bobbing up and down, swimming to the rock… Up and down–up and down…. And herself, swimming in easy practised strokes after him–cleaving her way through the water but knowing, only too surely, that she wouldn’t be in time… (3)
Well, [General Macarthur would] enjoy a chat about old times. He’d had a fancy lately that fellow soldiers were rather fighting shy of him. All owing to that damned rumour! By God, it was pretty hard–nearly thirty years ago now! Armstrong had talked, he supposed. Damned young pup! What did he know about it? (7)
Lucky that [Dr. Armstrong had] managed to pull himself together in time after that business ten–no, fifteen years ago. It had been a near thing, that! He’d been going to pieces. The shock had pulled him together. He’d cut out drink altogether. By Jove, it had been a near thing though… (9)
Many of the characters wander in and out of such thoughts–all but one. The novel itself begins with Justice Wargrave (is that not just one of the most awesome names for a judge?) en route via train to the coast, where he will take a boat to Nigger/Indian/Soldier Island.*We learn nothing of his past, whereas all the other character introductions dip into the past for at least a paragraph or two. Why don’t we see his past? We’re too distracted to ask, for he’s thinking about the mysterious island, and the letter inviting him there from one Lady Constance Culmington. He thinks about her exotic, impulsive behavior:
Constance Culmington, he reflected to himself was exactly the sort of woman who would buy an island and surround herself with mystery! Nodding his head in gentle approval of his logic, Mr. Justice Wargrave allowed his head to nod… (2)
Note the words “his logic.” Why does he need to reason out something that, on its bare page, seems very straightforward? After all, the letter inviting him to the island is signed with her name. When he’s reasoning out why she’d send it, he’s not thinking about friendship or past pleasures together. Nope, he’s just thinking about why someone like her would buy an island. Why? We’re not told why.
Another curious moment arises in Chapter 2, when the judge addresses Dr. Armstrong about Constance Culmington and her “unreadable handwriting.” Who brings up that trait of all traits to someone they’ve only just met? We’re not told why.
Chapter 3 kicks the plot into high gear as a vinyl record states all the characters’ names and their murder charges. Justice Wargrave gathers up everyone’s connections to the island’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen, and shows the other guests there are no such owners, that the name simply stands for “unknown.”
Vera cried: “But this is fantastic–mad!”
The judge nodded gently. He said. “Oh, yes. I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman–probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.” (41)
Why the hell would a judge, a man of law and order, go spoutin’ off a description that’s bound to incur panic and other extreme reactions from the guests? We’re not told why.
But by story’s end we surely know: because he knows, in his own mind, what he is.
Such little details given without context, like single puzzle pieces without a box, are as close to clues as we’re going to get. In Chapter 4, Wargrave’s the only one “picking his words with care” (43). In Chapter 6, he tells the others in “a slightly ironic voice”:
“My dear lady, in my experience of ill-doing, Providence leaves the work of conviction and chastisement to us mortals–and the process is often fraught with difficulties. There are no short cuts.” (66)
For all my ripping over the use of outlines and plans for a story, there’s no denying that one needs to plan a mystery such as this in extreme detail in order to find what one can omit and what one can say with “a slightly ironic voice.” How else could Christie describe a man as “passionless and inhuman” (108) in a setting and plot driven by fear and humanity’s fight to survive against an unseen threat? Plus, Christie distracts readers in Chapter 10 by using characters Philip Lombard and Vera to move suspicion from Wargrave (“He gets to see himself as all powerful, as holding the power of life and death” (114)) to Dr. Armstrong (“He’s the only person here with medical knowledge” (115)). These maneuvers successfully keep readers from missing the omissions.
This level of subtle hint-craft reminds me of Graeme Base’s The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery.We owned the picture book when I was a kid, and yes, I broke open the super-secret solution envelope at the end to find out who stole the birthday feast. Base painted wee mice into every single picture of the book as clues to the culinary culprit, but these mice were a part of the furniture, the yard, the tennis court–only when you knew what clues to look for were you able to actually see them.
So it is with And Then There Were None: when one’s just reading, one moves with the ebb and flow through the different points of view. Only when the reader reaches the end and learns the judge is the culprit can he/she see the absence of the past, the details that don’t quite fit with such a character, and so on.
Perhaps, like me, you enjoy flying by the seat of your pants through that first draft. If you wish to create a mystery with no clear answers, though, plan to work hard on the, well, plan. Some clues need to be heard, seen, touched, but other clues can be created with an absence, removal, a tearing-outing. Only by knowing your villain’s moves from story’s end and back, back to before the story’s start, will you be able to create clues as stealthy as a mouse.
*I have to say that I find the soldier iteration of the poem better than the ethnically offensive versions. Any one of any race can be murdered, but one expects a soldier, let alone a group of soldiers, capable of overtaking a murderer.
I’ve read Christe’s F game (see Poirot’s Christmas). I’ve read Christie’s A game (see ABC Murders). My latest acquisition, Dead Man’s Folly, would be, I’d say, her B game. There are a few obvious clues, as well as one dumb bit of New Information At The End that of course explains the motive. Yet there are also some surprises that, looking back, you realize were there all along, beginning before the killer gets a’killin’.
Poirot’s foil in the post-Captain Hastings years is a mystery writer named Ariadne Oliver. This time she’s invited Poirot to a manor where she’s created a “Murder Hunt”–a hunt for clues to solve a fake murder for prizes.
Now it sounds like this is where the title comes from, doesn’t it? A fake murder + a game= Dead Man’s Folly. Simple enough approach, but functional.
Oliver senses something sinister is brewing around her, but can’t figure out what it could be and wants Poirot to help. They meet on the grounds and she describes the manor’s residents, which leads us to our first mention of the architect and his job on the estate:
“Then there’s Michael Weyman–he’s an architect, quite young, and good-looking in a craggy kind of artistic way. He’s designing a tennis pavilion for Sir George and repairing the Folly.”
“Folly? What is that–a masquerade?”
“No, it’s architectural. One of those little sort of temple things, white, with columns.” (23)
Like Poirot, I had to pause here. I’d never heard of a Folly before, but then I live in Wisconsin, where any used gazebo’s got thick-as-you-can-get bug screens, or else.
Further on it sounds like this Folly’s called a Folly for another reason:
“It’s bedded down in concrete,” said Weyman. “And there’s loose soil underneath–so it’s subsided. Cracked all up here–it will be dangerous soon–Better pull the whole thing down and re-erect it on the top of the bank near the house. That’s my advice, but the obstinate old fool won’t hear of it…If the foundations are rotten–everything’s rotten.” (27-8)
So we have a rich man, apparently a fool, who’s insisted on erecting this lovely bit of architecture in the worst possible place for no apparent reason. The stereotype works beautifully in Christie’s favor, as the lord of the manor seems frivolous in wife, jewelry for aforementioned wife, and more. This Folly is just one more way he spends without thinking.
Or is it?
Foolish talk from a child about a body found and hidden in the woods. Snide remarks from an old man about the manor’s bloodline. A mysterious yachtman from a foreign country arrives to see the lady of the manor. Suddenly the lady is missing, the child strangled to death in the very spot where a fake corpse was to be found for the Murder Hunt. Days later the old man has drowned in an “accident.” All of it swirls and overlaps until Poirot connects the talk to the actions, to the behaviors, to the past…which, sadly, is where the New Information at the End kicks in. Despite this, Poirot’s last reveal to a suspect connects all with such deftness that even I’m willing to forgive that Late Clue Drop:
“Listen, Madame. What do you hear?”
“I am a little deaf…What should I hear?”
“The blows of a pickaxe….They are breaking up the concrete foundation of the Folly…What a good place to bury a body–where a tree has been uprooted and the earth already disturbed. A little later, to make all safe, concrete over the ground where the body lies, and, on the concrete, erect a Folly…” (223)
What was originally presented as a bit of foolishness by the New Rich Guy turns out to be the clever cover by the Old Family Bloodline. The old man’s snide remark is true about the family, the tale the child told is true about the body, and the strange foreigner who insists on seeing the lady of the manor would have exposed an evil the lord and lady were hiding. All was rotten from the start, even pointed out to us as such in that opening chapter, but only now upon the last page do we understand just how rotten the manor–and its family–had become.
Was Dead Man’s Folly a thrilling read? No. In fact, I’d put it on par with Murder on the Links (har har). But whereas I kept reading Links expecting a deeper connection to golf, I was pleasantly surprised by the many-fold meaning of the Folly. In the end, the title helped the book become a more satisfying read because it foretold and still surprised, just as a strong title should for a story of any grade.
When we create characters, we want them to be a person we can reach out, touch, talk with. And they must be more than mere dolls with that scratchy speaker embedded somewhere inside its stuffing that rasps out a limited number of lines. We want to create people who have thoughts and beliefs all their own. We want characters to be.
But how to grow such characters? Sometimes, one quirk is all it takes.
Take my kids, for instance. Bash often lays on his back with his legs crossed in the air. It’s a startling image: my father used to do the same thing all the time. Bash often crosses his legs while sitting, just as my father, grandfather, and uncles all did. It’s a strange habit that, once noticed, reveals a familial connection.
Blondie, my amazing girl: gifted with my memory for words and her father’s humor. A girl of giving heart…and also some of the worst traits of her parents. Like Bo, she does not like to work very hard on something for very long. A task will get a flurry of attention, and then is left to rot into the oblivion. Like me, she is quick in temper and prefers screaming at her brothers rather than talking through the problem. I still struggle with staying calm and not blowing up at them for throwing toys or fighting.
And then, of course, there are the quirks that are unique to each child. Biff, who is no longer constipated, thank the Lord, insists on being Master of Toilet Flushing. The second anyone uses the facilities there comes a frantic, “Can I flush it can I flush it FLUSH IT?!?!?!” He doesn’t throw anything else into the bowl–hell, he doesn’t even stick around to watch the swirling. He just needs to be the one who pulls the handle. My aunt, my husband, and I have all made the grievous mistake of flushing on our own. The tantrum that results is both epic and pathetic, nor will it not stop until someone else uses the toilet so he can FLUSH IT!
Like the food coloring mixed in the water for carnations, singular quirks can influence other traits. Yup, Biff has moments of extreme OCD. He may leave a pile of crashed cars in his wake, but don’t you dare leave any book face down. Blondie will freeze when school work gets hard and gets extremely frustrated when the solutions don’t come via guesswork. Bash loves using found things to tell a story, just as the grandfather he barely knew would do for his sermons. (Though I don’t recall my dad insisting on eating with several forks so every kind of food had its own utensil. That’s just weird, Bash.)
Fictional characters can grow a good deal from a single trait, too. Say what you will about toy-driven movies like TheLego Batman Movie: it took a single character element–in this case, Batman’s ego–to extremes both hilarious and fitting for the story. I wish I could share the entire opening sequence, but this song should give you a fairly rough idea on how Batman views himself:
No one can tell Batman what to do or how to handle the bad guys. He’s the best at everything, and “no one [else] has ever had a good idea. Ever.” It takes getting captured by the Joker and being sent to the Phantom Zone for Batman to see just what kind of jerk he’s been. It’s a change of heart that might seem obvious to adults, but that means kids see the transformation clearly as well.
I recently saw this single-trait strategy work well for Agatha Christie, too. In Thirteen at Dinner(also known as Lord Edgware Dies, a far more fitting title) we meet Jane Wilkinson, a selfish film actress who wants her husband dead. But since she doesn’t “seem to run to gunmen over here [in England],” she asks Poirot to persuade the Lord Edgware to divorce her so she can marry a duke.
“I think you overrate my persuasive powers, Madame.”
“Oh! but you can surely think of something, M. Poirot.” She leaned forward. Her blue eyes opened wide again. “You’d like me to be happy, wouldn’t you?”
Her voice was soft, low and deliciously seductive.
“I should like everybody to be happy,” said Poirot cautiously.
“Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of everybody. I was thinking of just me.”
“I should say you always do that, Madame.”
“You think I’m selfish?”
“Oh! I did not say so, Madame.”
“I dare say I am. But, you see, I do so hate being unhappy.” (7)
Well of course, someone murders Lord Edgware, and of course, everyone suspects Jane since she’s been talking of nothing else but wanting her husband dead. Of course, clues arise to clear her. Of course, Poirot and Hastings visit the widow:
She looked like an angel about to give vent to thoughts of exquisite holiness. “I’ve been thinking. It all seems so miraculous, if you know what I mean. Here I am–all my troubles over. No tiresome business of divorce…Just my path cleared and all plain sailing…I’ve thought and I’ve thought lately–if Edgware were to die. And there–he’s dead! It’s–it’s almost like an answer to a prayer.”
Poirot cleared his throat.
“I cannot say I look at it quite like that, Madame. Somebody killed your husband.”
“Why, of course.”
“Has it not occurred to you who that someone was?”
She stared at him. “Does it matter? I mean–what’s that to do with it? The Duke and I can be married in about four or five months…”
With difficulty Poirot controlled himself.
“Yes, Madame. I know that. But apart from that has it not occurred to you to ask yourself who killed your husband?”
“No.” She seemed quite surprised by the idea. (49-50)
Selfish to the extreme, I’d say. But this selfishness is both a clue and a red herring because it’s Agatha Christie, and we should all know better by now.
Jane’s obsession with her own life and goals gives readers the impression of someone so self-involved that she doesn’t get how the world works. “Things just go right for me,” she says, and believes it. Other scenes in the story show her lack of knowledge about the law, culture, politics, etc. She comes off as, well, a bit of a bimbo.
Yet by story’s end we learn she’s not dumb at all. Oh, she’s selfish, make no mistake, but she’s not dumb. She found an actress who does impressions and had that actress impersonate her at a dinner party to provide an alibi. In the end, Jane did indeed kill her husband, since the duke did not believe in divorce. Jane wanted that duke; therefore, the present husband had to go. This then means that answering Poirot’s question seems rather silly. Of course she knows who killed her husband: she did.
The book ends with a letter from Jane in prison addressed to Poirot, explaining how she had managed to murder three times and elude detection for so long. Even here, the selfishness shines as brightly as ever:
“I thought of that all by myself. I think I’m more proud of that than anything else. Everyone always says I haven’t got brains–but I think it needed real brains to think of that…I wonder if you are ever sorry for what you did. After all, I only wanted to be happy in my own way. And if it hadn’t been for me you would never have had anything to do with the case. I never thought you’d be so horribly clever. You didn’t look clever. It’s funny, but I haven’t lost my looks a bit…” (125-6)
It’s so easy to get caught up in the idea of making “complicated” characters, with all sorts of goodness and wickedness and everything in between. And sometimes, complicated works very well, just as several different flowers together make a garden. But a single seed grows, too, in ways both beautiful and unexpected. You’ve but to plant it, care for it, and see.
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!
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 Expressis 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:
The 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.
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?
Memorial Day weekend in a North Woods cabin: restful, right? Lots of time to write surrounded by nature and all its spring glory, riiiight?
Well when one spends a long, rainy weekend with in-laws and three hyper-active children in a space roughly the size of a one-bedroom apartment, “restful” does not come to mind.
Thankfully, parenthood has given me the ability to read despite screams and comfy animal battles about my legs and thrown cars and training potties full of urine positioned in dangerous places upon the floor, so I decided to allow myself some time with a couple mysteries Bo gave me at Christmas:
At the outset, the titles didn’t strike me as anything unusual. Christie’s titles always connected to the story, so I was sure that when I opened up The Big Four, I would indeed be reading about a group called The Big Four. Sure enough: the antagonist of the story was a crime syndicate run by a group of bosses known as The Big Four. Poirot saves the planet, everything is awesome, I got to read an entire book in one day, which I hadn’t done in ages. Could I get through another book before the weekend was out?
I began Murder on the Links with high eagerness. I wasn’t planning on doing a close study of these books for this blog–I wanted to read for fun. (Crazy concept, I know.)
But the more I read, a question began to niggle my inner writer. Something felt off about this story. Oh, the plot read plausibly with a strong balance of clues and red herrings. The dialogue was so-so, but not nearly so heavy-handed as Poirot’s Christmas. What the hoobajoob was wrong here?
I closed the mystery, completed, and saw it: the title.
Bo noticed my scrunched face as I glared at the golf course on the cover. “What’s wrong?” I explained my niggle. “Well, did the murder happen on the golf course?”
“So what’s the problem?”
And that was the thing, I guess, that really got to me: technically, the title fit. The murder itself occurred on land being turned into a golf course. Christie didn’t fib. Murder did indeed happen on the links.
But with the other stories I mentioned, the place was more than just a location. Whatever was mentioned in the title carried influence into the story, be it through the culture, method of crime, strategies of investigation, etc. I thought back to other stories I’ve covered in my “Lessons Learned” posts and their titles–were any lame titles in those?
Charmed Life: Cat Chant and his elder sister Gwendolyn are taken on by the great sorcerer Chrestomanci to learn more about magic. There’s more magic in Cat than he realizes, which is finally revealed with his sister’s villainy. By book’s end Cat is destined to be the next Chrestomanci. That’s about as charmed a life as you can get.
Five Little Pigs:Poirot sets out to solve a murder committed 16 years ago. He considers the five living suspects like the five little pigs; the rhyme comes up every time he meets another suspect.
The Name of the Rose: I admit, I had to read a bit more into this one. I knew there was some sort of connection with language, since the mystery fixates upon the danger of language and ideas. How fitting, then, that Eco found a poem reflecting that a thing destroyed is preserved in its name. I found Eco’s own explanation for the title:
Eco states in the Postscript to the Name of the Rose that Bernard’s poem is also the source of the novel’s title and last line —
“Stat rosa pristina nomine; nomina nuda tenemus.”
(Yesterday’s rose endures in its name; we hold empty names.)
— meaning that in this imperfect world, the only imperishable things are ideas.
“Since the publication of The Name of the Rose I have received a number of letters from readers who want to know the meaning of the final Latin hexameter, and why this hexameter inspired the book’s title. I answer that the verse is from De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Morlay, a twelfth-century Benedictine, whose poem is a variation on the “ubi sunt” theme (most familiar in Villon’s later “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan”). But to the usual topos (the great of yesteryear, the once-famous cities, the lovely princesses: everything disappears into the void), Bernard adds that all these departed things leave (only, or at least) pure names behind them. I remember that Abelard used the example of the sentence “Nulla rosa est” to demonstrate how language can speak of both the nonexistent and the destroyed. And having said this, I leave the reader to arrive at his own conclusions.”
With Murder on the Links, however, golf had absolutely nothing to do with the crime. The setting bore no real influence upon the clues, the body, or even how characters moved about the scene of the crime. The course is where the murder just so happened to, well, happen. It could have been on the grounds of the mansion or in the ditch of the freeway–it would have made no difference.
Perhaps that, more than the title, was what bothered me. Or it was because the title gave importance to something that carried none–a red herring from the off.
I remember feeling annoyed like this once before withLouise Erdrich, an amazing American author whose award-winning novel Love Medicinewas my one reading joy from those years in graduate school. It was a family drama spanning years–not normally my thing at all, but her portrayals of the Native American life and landscape gripped me from the start. I read more of her work after school, but stopped with Beet Queen. Why?
Because this Beet Queen chick didn’t show up until the last few pages, dammit!
Now granted, I can see now that wasn’t entirely true. The character who grows up to become the Beet Queen–the beauty queen of the town–is born halfway through the book, and the first half of the book is about the family into which she’s born–that’s typical Erdrich. At the time, I couldn’t understand why the title fixated upon that final moment, that social title bought by the girl’s family so that she could feel special at last. Now I can see that the title embodied the desperation of the family to do what it could for the love of this girl, to make her socially acceptable, to make her happy…and how this girl, a rather selfish brat, held it all in contempt. Family drama, spanning generations. The title fit.
Murder on the Links, a fine mystery, has a title that pays heed to the least important aspect of the crime. I suppose being bludgeoned by a five iron or discovering a collection of heads in a caddy’s locker would have all been a bit much, but it’s nice to see titles that connect on more than just a technical level.
What of your title? Does it embody the struggle, the hero, the villain? Does it give a wink and a nudge towards a special clue to reveal the truth? Or does it just hang there, stating its purpose and nothing more? After all, some stories have made such titles work brilliantly for them: The Lego Movie, The Peanuts Movie, The Care Bears Movie, The Lego Batman Movie. But notice how all these titles are a)geared for children using b)easily identifiable toys/characters OF their childhood for c)a visual presentation. Kids know they get to watch Legos, Snoopy, and so on. That’s all they want.
But in stories to be read, we want titles that grip and hold. Don’t warp that grip into a bait-and-switch. What influences the characters? What place affects the plot? What taunts your hero from afar, that if he could just push himself a little bit more, he can touch it, taste it, know it? Your answers hold the key to a title of relevance, spirit, and strength.
A collection of book reviews by Patricia Skalka — A Chicago native, life-long reader and author of "Death Stalks Door County," "Death at Gills Rock," "Death in Cold Water," and "Death on a Ferry," the first four volumes in the Dave Cubiak Door County mystery series.