Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Set the Stage with Just the Right Amount of Character.

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140290I wish I could tell you what set me on Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries first. It might have been the PBS Mystery! episodes starring David Suchet. My folks may have recommended her, but they never read her work. Or maybe a librarian long ago recommended Christie to me, tired of me checking out the same illustrated edition of Holmes stories again. Whatever the case may be, I was hooked, and still am. While school friends passed spare time in study hall with Dean Koontz, Jeanette Oke, or J.R.R. Tolkien (the Spanish edition…because plain old Elvish ISN’T HARD ENOUGH), I was lost in The A.B.C. Murders, Hallowe’en Party, or Death on the Nile.

Dame Agatha Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916—100 years ago!

Wow, a century of Hercule Poirot…ahem. Sorry, I just thought that was really cool.

Mysteries carry some unique strengths and limitations compared to other genres that I’ve read. On the one hand, you have the ease of using the same protagonist as often as you’d like. You can develop his/her character slowly over the course of five, ten, twenty books. And those books don’t have to connect–each can be a stand-alone story. You may want to be like my son Biff, who loves to climb a single rock, jump off, then run over to another rock further down the park, or you may be like my daughter Blondie, who will start with the first rock, and carefully move from one rock to the next, determined to travel the park upon this road of stone until she reaches its end.

Other characters, though, just don’t get that same treatment. Few can. Unless one’s a recurring villain, or a foil for the detective, there simply isn’t the page space for ample character development. I used to strongly believe the contrary until I took up Styles with a more critical eye. To be clear, I don’t consider this a strike against mysteries; mysteries simply don’t need to be totally populated by complete human beings I could reach out and touch. Nor am I expecting a whole new world built just for a mystery. When I read a fantasy, I want to see a new world, or a new layer to my world. When I read a mystery by Agatha Christie, I know she’s writing stories that take place on this planet, with the same laws of physics, history, etc. There’s no need for her to extensively explain what’s going on in the world in 1916 for readers to have some sort of appropriate context.

What she does need to do is introduce the cast—that is, the potential victim and suspects—in a tight amount of space. A mystery can only be a mystery when there’s a crime either about to be committed or committed already. In a book of 13 chapters, one shouldn’t have to wait until Chapter 6 for the first crime. In Styles, we get the “The Night of the Tragedy” in Chapter 3 (thus the chapter title). That means we need the cast established before that. Two chapters. Is that enough?

(It occurred to me just now that there’s one exception to this cast establishment: the law enforcement character if the detective is outside of the law. It doesn’t exactly make sense for the law to show up until after the crime’s been committed.)

Let’s see when and how Christie introduces her suspects—I mean, characters.

Chapter 1: “I Go to Styles”

The book opens with a first-person narrator, whose name—Hastings—isn’t used until the fourth page.

  • The first paragraph tells us Poirot is his friend.
  • The third paragraph gives something of Hastings as well as introduces another character: I had been invalided home from the Front; and, after spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, was given a month’s sick leave. Having no near relations or friends, I was trying to make up my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish.

Yes, yes—it’s rather like Dr. Watson, being a veteran of the war, wounded and sent home. But unlike Watson, Hastings is no medical professional. We learn he’s a bit of a loner, unsure of what to do with his life. For the sake of this story, that’s all we need for the start.

John Cavendish only gets a couple snippets of description over the first two pages:

  • Indeed, I had never known him particularly well. He was a good fifteen years my senior, for one thing, though he hardly looked his forty-five years.
  • John practiced for some time as a barrister, but had finally settled down the more congenial life of a country squire. He had married two years ago, and had taken his wife to live at Styles, though I entertained a shrewd suspicion that he would have preferred his mother to increase his allowance.

We often hear writers should use dialogue to get as much information to readers as possible, yes? Christie does that here. Other characters are introduced over the course of the conversation Hastings and John Cavendish have here at the beginning of Chapter 1.

  • “Your mother keeps well?” I asked.
    “Oh, yes. I suppose you know that she has married again?”
    I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who had married John ‘s father when he was a widower with two sons, had been a handsome woman of middle-age as I remembered her.
  • Lawrence, the younger, had been a delicate youth. He had qualified as a doctor but early relinquished the profession of medicine, and lived at home while pursuing literary ambitions; though his verses never had any marked success.
  • John noticed my surprise at the news of his mother’s remarriage and smiled rather ruefully. “Rotten little bounder too!” he said savagely. “I can tell you, Hastings, it’s making life jolly difficult for us. As for Evie—you remember Evie?”
    “No.”
    “Oh, I suppose she was after your time. She’s the mater’s factotum, companion, Jack of all trades! A great sport—old Evie! Not precisely young and beautiful, but as game as they make them.”
    “You were going to say—?”
    “Oh, this fellow! He turned up from nowhere, on the pretext of being a second cousin or something of Evie’s, though she didn’t seem particularly keen to acknowledge the relationship. The fellow is an absolute outsider, anyone can see that. He’s got a great black beard, and wears patent leather boots in all weathers! But the mater cottoned to him at once, took him on as secretary—you know how she’s always running a hundred societies?”
    I nodded.

Almost three pages in, and we’ve already met or heard of six characters. Not too shabby!

By the bottom of the fourth page Hastings and John Cavendish arrive at Styles. First we hear of a new character—

  • “I wonder if we’ve time to pick up Cynthia. No, she’ll have started from the hospital by now.”
    “Cynthia! That’s not your wife?”
    “No, Cynthia is a protogee of my mother’s, the daughter of an old schoolfellow of hers, who married a rascally solicitor. He came a cropper, and the girl was left an orphan and penniless. My mother came to the rescue, and Cynthia has been with us nearly two years now. she works in the Red Cross Hospital at Tadminster, seven miles away.”

And then we start to meet the aforementioned characters.

  • Miss Howard shook hands with a hearty, almost painful, grip. I had an impression of very blue eyes in a sunburnt face. She was a pleasant-looking woman of about forty, with a deep voice, almost manly in its stentorian tones, and had a large sensible square body, with feet to math—these last encased in good thick boots. Her conversation, I soon found, was couched in the telegraphic style.
  • “My wife, Hastings,” said John. I shall never forget my first sight of Mary Cavendish. Her tall, slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense of slumbering fire that seemed to find expression only in those wonderful tawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other woman’s that I have ever known; the intense power of stillness she possessed, which nevertheless conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit in an exquisitely civilized body.
  • The French window swung open a little wider, and a handsome white-haired lady, with a somewhat masterful cast of features, stepped out of it on to the lawn. A man followed her, a suggestion of deference in his manner…. I looked with some curiosity at “Alfred darling.” He certainly struck a rather alien note. I did not wonder at John objecting to his beard. It was one of the longest and blackest I have ever seen. He wore gold-rimmed pince-nez, and had a curious impassivity of feature. It struck me that he might look natural on a stage, but was strangely out of place in real life. His voice was rather deep and unctuous…. Strange infatuation of an otherwise sensible woman!

During tea—for, being English, they simply must have tea—we get a couple more arrivals, and the first mention of Poirot among the characters.

  • Cynthia Murdock was a fresh-looking young creature, full of life and vigour. She tossed off her little V.A.D. cap, and I admired the great loose waves of her auburn hair, and the smallness and whiteness of the hand she held out to clam her tea. With dark eyes and eyelashes she would have been a beauty. (“Would have been”? Jeez, Hastings, what kind of lady-snot are you??)
  • He looked about forty, very dark with a melancholy clean-shaven face. Some violent emotion seemed to be mastering him. He looked up at my window as he passed, and I recognized him, though he had changed much in the last fifteen years that had elapsed since we last met. It was John’s younger brother, Lawrence Cavendish.

Notice who’s still missing? While Poirot isn’t met in Chapter 1, he is spoken of when Mrs. Cavendish asks Captain Hastings what he wants to do now that he can no longer be a soldier:

  • “Well, I’ve always had a secret hankering to be a detective.”
    “The real thing—Scotland Yard? Or Sherlock Holmes?”
    (I rather like how Sherlock Holmes isn’t the “real” thing because it’s not, you know, the “proper” side of legal service.)
    “Oh, Sherlock Holmes by all means. But really, seriously, I am awfully drawn to it. I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvelous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere mater of method. My system is based on his—though of course I have progressed rather further. He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever.”

Chapter 2, “The 16th and 17th of July,” allows for a surprise meeting outside the post office:

  • As I came out again, I cannoned into a little man who was just entering. I drew aside and apologized, when suddenly, with a loud exclamation, he clasped me in his arms and kissed me warmly.
    Mon ami Hastings!” he cried. “It is indeed mon ami Hastings!”
    “Poirot!” I exclaimed.

We quickly learn that Mrs. Inglethorp has provided residents for Belgian refugees, and Poirot is one of them. And so is set the stage…

~*~

As I read through these introductions, I loved Christie’s touch in using Hastings as the narrator. The ease of establishing the cast via “catching up” dialogue was not boring, and totally plausible. It is also none too surprising how much attention Hastings gives the young females, while the chum John Cavenish gets hardly a physical detail. We have to trust Christie’s tactic through Hastings that such omissions don’t matter to the story, while the excessive descriptions we do receive, such as the “alien” Alfred Inglethorp, must bear some importance. I find this one of the great challenges in writing fiction: what MUST be established vs. what can be left to the individual reader’s perception. It’s so tempting to define EVERYthing so the reader has no choice but to see the story as we do, but honestly, does it matter what the narrator wears, or what the maid looks like? No. But they are not the detective, the focal point of the mystery. And sometimes, those physical details say just as much about the character as their speech, interests, or method of deduction. Poirot takes great care in his appearance, from the style of his mustache to the polish of his shoes. He pays attention to the tiniest of details on himself, and around him…unlike, you know, everyone else, including Hastings.

I couldn’t help but smile as I read Hasting’s description of Poirot to Mrs. Cavendish. It just so happens to provide some amazing foreshadowing for the case to come—

–that is, for his telling of the case. If there’s anything else to be learned from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it’s the joy of storytelling through an unreliable narrator.

To be concluded…

*(insert lightning crash and maniacal laughter here)*

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