Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Pack it on Every Page.

04db458e057ef85b0eb1f4e30ccee27fWhen we think “cozy mystery,” we think of a manor, or someplace isolated, with a limited cast and one, maybe two murders in a tight amount of time. Subtle clues that we didn’t understand come to light when the detective gives his Great Reveal in Act III. My study of The Mysterious Affair at Styles fulfilled such requirements, as do other major Agatha Christie novels, like Murder on the Orient Express, Cat Among the Pigeons, or Murder on the Nile.

So let’s not talk about any of those and look at A.B.C. Murders instead.

This particular mystery takes place in and around London. The victims are not known until they’re dead. The killer has no face–in fact, the only clue that connects the murders is an A.B.C. railroad timetable. That’s the mark of a serial killer. The cast morphs and sprawls with each death.

All the while Poirot’s little grey cells ponder over long periods of time.

Now I will admit to my own little crime: I am writing this post before finishing the book. I read it once as a child, but, as suggested by Damien Walter, I wanted to give A.B.C. a serious study for craft’s sake. Arrangements to face The Monster in two days’ time have made it hard to focus, but I did manage nine chapters, and that’ll do for the topic I want to cover:

Pacing.

In my earlier study of The Mysterious Affair at Styles,  I noted just how quickly Christie gets the story moving in that first chapter with character introductions. I wondered how every line’s got to count in a mystery, be it for the character or the plot. This time, I decided to see what Christie accomplishes on every single page of A.B.C. Slow work, but already I find it most worthwhile.

Rather than give you my notes–well, here’s some of them. Now go and be thankful you don’t see my handwriting on a regular basis.

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Chapter 1’s header already engages us: “The Letter.” Consider the book’s title: Are we talking about the letter A? Correspondence was still a primary form of communication–are we talking about a posted letter? By page 4, we find out it’s both: the first note from our killer, taunting Poirot with a murder to be committed in the city of Andover. Hastings, of course, does not take it seriously, but Poirot does. On page 9, the killer’s predicted day comes and goes, and Hastings calls it a false alarm. By page 11, we learn differently. Come page 12, we get one hell of an eerie statement from Poirot:

“This is the beginning.”

Every single page contains a clue of sorts: testimony from a witness/suspect, scene of the crime, Poirot’s critique, and so on. Trust me, I looked for a page that could have been cut for its insignificance. As of nine chapters, we have two murders, two different groups of suspects and witnesses, two different towns, two different inspectors.

On page 24, for instance, Poirot took time to study the only three photographs in a victim’s apartment. You just know that’s going to be useful later, right? On page 25, Hastings tells us what he sees in the apartment; no overlap, and it sounds mundane, and yet in a mystery everything counts, so one of those items just has to stand out sometime.

By page 37, Poirot has met with the first victim’s family and usual suspects, then visited the scene of the crime. At this point, all leads to dead ends, and Poirot tells Hastings that there is nothing that can be “done” until the murderer strikes again. Hastings, being British, loathes this not-doing-anything, and spends page 38 lamenting Poirot’s clear loss of detecting powers. Sounds pointless? Not at all. The page puts doubts in reader’s mind as to whether or not Poirot really can solve this crime. For those who have read from Hastings’ perspective before, we know he’s not a reliable narrator, yet we can’t help but feel our faith shaken.

Then comes page 39, and another letter predicting murder with a B. Christie breezes over weeks of time by distracting us with Hastings’ doubt. From pages 40-42 we get the new victim, the conflict with a new inspector, and the increase in doubt of Poirot’s abilities.

By page 48, we start to see at least one connecting thread between victims thanks to Poirot. No, not the railway guide, that’s the obvious one left by the murder. Poirot remarks on the beauty of both victims. Why? Hastings doesn’t think on it, passing it off as something foreigners do. You’d think Hastings would know better by now…Anyway, that makes nine chapters.

It was as if every couple hundred words Christie took care to stick a useful02368ff322ea2f21263540e8c89718c6 tidbit in. Maybe she counted, maybe not. But I could certainly see why The New York Times said that this book is “The very best thing Agatha Christie has done”–at least that’s what it says on my edition, a 17th printing (SEVENTEENTH!) from 1967.
Christie lets no page go to waste. Only one page of genuine reflecting in nine chapters, and not general reflecting, either–it has an underlying agenda. Setting details are given quickly, almost waved aside:

“A dingy little place…A commonplace little shop, one of many thousand such others.” (23)

“Situated on the sea front, this was the usual type of small tea-room. It had little tables covered with orange-checked cloths and basket-work chairs of exceeding discomfort with orange cushions on them.” (45)

Did I mention the one departure from Hastings’ point of view? Chapter 2 focuses on a man named Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust? A man in a “shabby bedroom,” who smokes “cheap cigarettes,” and cults a “railway guide” and a “typewritten list of names”? We get this on pages 6-7.

He’s not been mentioned since.

But cheap cigarettes and railway guides sure have.

Such little things, and yet because of this single departure  from Hastings we hunt through the little details Christie places on every page, measured and sprinkled like chocolate chips for muffins. Too many and they’ll just spill off and melt on the pan. Too few, and the children will gripe and revolt and demand better muffins. (What, that doesn’t happen in your house?) Measuring out the placing of details gives readers reason to read not just the good chocolatey bits, but the whole thing. Give readers a sweet on every page, and they will not walk away until you’re story’s devoured completely.

 

 

 

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Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Take Advantage of the Sweet Yet Unreliable Narrator.

mysterious-affair-at-styles-fb-coverI admit that I still confuse “unlikeable” with “unreliable” every now and again. An “unlikeable” narrator is not so much a twit as an asshole. One we just can’t bring ourselves to care about. If the story swallows him up, good riddance. If he gets away with it, then we enjoy imagining how he’ll get his comeuppance in the unwritten pages thereafter.

Captain Hastings is NOT unlikeable. In fact, he’s one of the kindest, loveliest chaps you could ever hope to meet on the page. Affable, thoughtful, and never afraid when things get dicey, he’s the bloke we’d never mind having over for a long visit. Hugh Fraser was a brilliant casting choice for Hastings in the Mystery! presentations of Poirot that ran for decades, what with his bright eyes and sweet smile. In fact, he’s so sweet that we, the audience, can’t bear to smack him with a rolled-up newspaper until the latter half of the Mysterious Affair at Styles, when we all KNOW he should know better.

christieetext97masac11.jpgAgatha Christie’s creation of Hastings is, as I said in the previous post, not necessarily meant to be a Watson clone. While both were army veterans, Hastings has no medical experience, so when it comes to forensic studies of the body, he’s very much an every man. Perhaps that’s why Christie enjoyed using him in so many of the Poirot mysteries, and why television adaptations worked Hastings into stories where he hadn’t been written in: he’s the Every Man. Hastings is Us.

And we are sooooo clueless around someone like Poirot. Yet in Styles Hastings time and again wants to prove himself Poirot’s superior in the world of detection. Near the beginning of the investigation, Hastings already questions Poirot’s abilities:

I shrugged my shoulders. If he was going to take the matter that way, it was no good arguing with him. The idea crossed my mind, not for the first time, that poor old Poirot was growing old. Privately I thought it lucky that he had associated with him some one of a more receptive type of mind.

Every member of the family is certain that the odd duck Alfred Inglethorp is guilty BECAUSE he’s the odd duck: married the old lady for her money, etc. He acts suspicious, he dresses suspicious, so therefore, guilty. After Mrs. Inglethorp’s death–during which Alfred is suspiciously absent–the whole family sees nothing but clues proving their case. Although he recruits Poirot to discreetly investigate, Hastings completely agrees with the others, and cannot understand at all why Poirot would disagree with them both before and after Alfred Inglethorp’s vindication:

  1. As for me, I was literally dumb with astonishment. I could only conclude that Poirot was mad.

  2. His words gave me an unpleasant shock…Still, I had a great respect for Poirot’s sagacity—except on the occasions when he was what I described to myself as “foolishly pigheaded.”

  3. This proceeding of Poirot’s, in respect of the coco, puzzled me intensely. I could see neither rhyme nor reason in it. However, my confidence in him, which at one time had rather waned, was fully restored since his belief in Alfred Inglethorp’s innocence had been so triumphantly vindicated.

How does Christie pull this off? On the one hand, she has to make sure all the clues to the murder are set into the lines of text, but she can’t be obvious about it. How can she get these major points by the casual reader? By placing them before a casual observer. For while Hastings may see himself as a thoroughly intelligent fellow who’s built upon Poirot’s method, in reality he is one who has allowed himself to be led to conclusions by others–not just the family, or the murderer. By Poirot, too.

“Who put it in the chest, I wonder?”

“Some one with a good deal of intelligence,” remarked Poirot drily. “You realize that he chose the one place in the house to hide it where its presence would not be remarked? Yes, he is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”

I acquiesced.

“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.

“Yes,” he continued, staring at me thoughtfully, “you will be invaluable.”

This part still makes me chuckle. We the readers know that Hastings is indeed being complimented on his true worth–only it’s not quite the same worth Hastings thinks he’s earned. I see this as Christie’s signal to readers that Poirot is NOT going to be giving Hasting’s clear clues from here on out. What we observe through Hastings’ senses may or may not be completely true. We’ll have to mind his perception that it doesn’t veil the truth from ours.

This slight shift in their budding partnership does lead to conflict between the two, which is another reason why I enjoy these characters so much. True people react to how they’re treated. At one point Hastings knows Poirot’s keeping stuff from him, and calls him out. Here a friendship is tested over truth:

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Some characters can listen, absorb, and grow. Others, like Hastings, are, shall we say, “stubborn.” Even after one of his friends is arrested for the murder, Hastings doesn’t understand why Poirot wasn’t more open.

“Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend,” observed Poirot philosophically. “You cannot mix up sentiment and reason.”

“I must say I think you might have given me a hint.”

“Perhaps, mon ami, I did not do so, just because he was your old friend.”

I was rather disconcerted by this…

Last I checked, “disconcerted” is NOT the same as “understanding.” Hastings has once again been told something very true but also unpleasant about his perspective on things, and once again he can’t quite take it in. As readers, we’re not totally sure what to make of it all, either. By now we’re on Possible Murderer #3…or is it #4…dammit EVERY one is a suspect! By now Christie’s slathered suspicion all over every member of the Inglethorp family. How can we readers possibly see through all this muck?

We won’t. And yet it is the Every Man’s observation that saves the day, for it is Hastings that reminds Poirot of a simple action from early in the investigation that sets Poirot’s grey cells dancing and reveals all to Poirot. Only after Poirot gathers all the suspects into one room (love that part!) and walks through the case step by step do the other characters–Hastings included–come to realize their own blindness to the facts:

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With the killer(s) revealed and brought to justice, the mystery can end, yes? Not quite. While we may not feel too invested in the family of suspects, we have been with Hastings and Poirot for quite a while now. It’d be a strange move to have these two end the book in a tiff. There’s a reconciliation to be done, and it’s done in such a way that we chuckle yet again over Poirot’s unique way of “handling” Hastings, although we know his compliments to be also genuine:

“Poirot, you old villain,” I said, “I’ve half a mind to strangle you! What do you mean by deceiving me as you have done?” …

“I did not deceive you, mon ami. At most, I permitted you to deceive yourself.”

“Yes, but why?”

“Well, it is difficult to explain. You see, my friend, you have a nature so honest, and a countenance so transparent, that—enfin, to conceal your feelings is impossible! If I had told you my ideas, the very first time you saw Mr. Alfred Inglethorp that astute gentleman would have—in your own expressive idiom—‘smelt a rat’! And then, bon jour to our chances of catching him!”

“I think that I have more diplomacy than yon [sic] give me credit for.”

“My friend,” besought Poirot,” I implore you, do not enrage yourself! Your help has been of the most invaluable. It is but the extremely beautiful nature that you have, which made me pause.”

“Well,” I grumbled, a little mollified. “I still think you might have given me a hint.”

Just because a character has a beautiful nature doesn’t mean he’s completely reliable. When a writer needs to reveal all and yet hide some, an unreliable narrator allows for truth-in-truth, a slight of hand that does not insult, but perpetuates the curiosity which meets us on page 1 and moves with us still. We must trust this narrator completely with the facts, and yet not so completely so as to give away all the plot points before their time. A careful balance requires a careful hand. God-willing, I’ll have that hand someday.

Perhaps your day’s already come.

Click here for more on Agatha Christie & Hercule Poirot.

 

 

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

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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