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.
Good morning, my fellow creatives! Today’s selection comes in thanks to my mother, who is an avid listener of Wisconsin Public Radio and heard about a series set in one of her favorite places in all of Wisconsin: Door County.
Welcome to February, my friends! Sunlight is rare in Wisconsin these frigid days. The snow has frozen, and mothers–well, this mother, anyway–cruelly refuse to let children hurl ice at one another for fun. This has led to lots of running about the house, blasting imaginary baddies while flying off on dragons, Transformers, and Federation star ships. So long as their epic battles do not end with more stitches, we’ll be fine.
And then I discovered John le Carré through a whimsical selection of the library: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring the late great Sir Alec Guinness. Bo, ever the student of all things related to cinema, told me Le Carré wrote the George Smiley novels as a literary retort to Fleming’s Bond.
The two authors did actively serve their country in the Intelligence realm, so considering how each approached the world of spies, I’ll leave the idea of a rivalry up to you. Personally, when a character describes protagonist Smiley with “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for,” I can see how one could perceive Smiley to be the antithesis to the debonair 007.
In celebration of the incomparable John Le Carré, let us visit the postwar England of his protagonist, George Smiley. Let us see how one author transforms the landscape for a story dark and full of danger…oh, but this is not a tale of international espionage. Oh no. This is but a humble tale of a village murder.
Yet even a village murder can be filled with secrets and lies. Even a village murder can be a story of quality.
Chapter 1: Black Candles
The greatness of Carne School has been ascribed by common consent to Edward VI, whose educational zeal is ascribed by history to the Duke of Somerset. But Carne prefers the respectability of the monarch to the questionable politics of his adviser, drawing strength from the conviction that Great Schools, like Tudor Kings, were ordained in Heaven.
“Ordained in Heaven.” Already, Le Carré establishes Carne School’s feelings of superiority over the rest of the masses. Not only is this school connected to the throne and the aristocracy, but to God himself. Surely no common man would think himself better than such a place.
And indeed its greatness is little short of miraculous. Founded by obscure monks, endowed by a sickly boy king, and dragged from oblivion by a Victorian bully, Carne had straightened its collar, scrubbed its rustic hands and face and presented itself shining to the courts of the twentieth century. And in the twinkling of an eye, the Dorset bumpkin was London’s darling: Dick Whittington had arrived. Carne had parchments in Latin, seals in wax and Lammas Land behind the Abbey. Carne had property, cloisters and woodworm, a whipping block and a line in the Doomsday Book–then what more did it need to instruct the sons of the rich?
“Rustic hands.” “Bumpkin.” A school of the country, nestled in the dirty rural life, yearns to be a part of the “courts” and be “London’s darling.” Classism flows through the novel with a powerful current, the kind that grabs you by the foot and pulls you under if you’re not careful. We must tread on, carefully, for the students are arriving.
And they came; each Half they came (for terms are not elegant things), so that throughout a whole afternoon the trains would unload sad groups of black-coated boys on to the station platform. They came in great cars that shone with mournful purity.
They came to bury poor King Edward, trundling handcarts over the cobbled streets or carrying tuck boxes like little coffins. Some wore gowns, and when they walked they looked like crows, or black angels come for the burying. Some followed singly like undertakers’ mutes, and you could hear the clip of their boots as they went. They were always in mourning at Carne: the small boys because they must stay and the big boys because they must leave, the masters because mourning was respectable and the wives because respectability was underpaid…
Oh, this imagery! All the vibrant energies equated with youth have been cloaked with black and contained with piety.
But more on that in a moment, I just want to pause here on the importance of connecting what is “normal” in one setting is not always normal elsewhere. Sending children away to boarding school is not a common thing in the United States; I did so in high school (that is, for ages 14-18), and even for my religious boarding school, life was nothing like Carne. At first read, I couldn’t help but think of Ripping Yarns by Michael Palin and his episode all about poor Tomkinson’s transformation from a lowly first year to…well. You can watch the episode. It’s brilliant. 🙂
For those who did not send or attend a boarding school for children, this idea of youth forced to attend a starkly religious place for education completely justifies this procession of “black angels” and “little coffins.” But Le Carré also says the boys look like “crows,” and this hints at something a bit more malicious, a bit more sinister. After all, crows are the mediators between life and death, and feasters upon the rotting flesh of others.
We’re not two pages in, yet we are already keenly aware Death is afoot in this place.
…and now, as the Lent Half (as the Easter term was called) drew to its end, the cloud of gloom was as firmly settled as ever over the grey towers of Carne.
Gloom and the cold. The cold was crisp and sharp as flint. It cut the faces of the boys as they moved slowly from the deserted playing fields after the school match. It pierced their black topcoats and turned their stiff, pointed collars into icy rings round their necks.
“Gloom and the cold.” I love that this is a sentence fragment after such lines about gloom over “grey towers”–for an institution that considers itself divine, Carne certainly has no physical sense of light or hope. But gloom can be a different thing on warmer days, when sunlight is not so rare. In the wintry days of Lent (Carne can’t even refer to this time as the Easter Term, Easter being a holiday of light, resurrection, glory, HOPE!), when the Divine is at its lowest point in preparation for crucifixion, the cold has a physical power to “cut” the innocents of this school.
Carne isn’t the only gloomy place
in England on this day. London, too, struggles beneath foreboding.
Abruptly [Brimley] stood up, the letter still in her hand, and walked to the uncurtained window…She looked down into the street, a slight, sensible figure leaning forward a little and framed by the incandescent fog outside; fog made yellow from the stolen light of London’s streets. She could just distinguish the street lamps far below, pale and sullen. She suddenly felt the need for fresh air, and on an impulse quite alien to her usual calm, she opened the window wide. The quick cold and the angry surge of noise burst in on her, and the insidious fog followed. The sound of traffic was constant, so that for a moment she thought it was the turning of some great machine. Then above its steady growl she heard the newsboys. Their cries were like the cries of gulls against a gathering storm. She could see them now, sentinels among the hastening shadows.
This theme of proper mourning flows downwards from the school to the nearby village. For instance, Le Carré has readers picture the village’s hotel as “sitting like a prim Victorian lady, its slate roof in the mauve of half mourning” (24). When a policeman meets with George Smiley about the murdered wife of a teacher, he wastes no time in establishing the set-apartness of Carne School:
“Funny place, Carne. There’s a big gap between the Town and Gown, as we say; neither side knows or likes the other. It’s fear that does it, fear and ignorance. It makes it hard in a case like this….They’ve got their own community, see, and no one outside it can get in. No gossip in the pubs, no contacts, nothing…just cups of tea and bits of seed cake….”
“Town and Gown.” What a phrase. Now this definitely recalls something of my own boarding school experience. We were all of us outsiders to this small Midwestern community. We weren’t of their earth, we teens of unknown backgrounds. And with all the rules dictating where we could go and when, we rarely connected with any peers of town. Where no one knows the other, ignorance will take root, and in Carne, those roots run as deep as the currents of classism. All are beneath the sanctity of the School, worthy only of “bits” of seed cake and tea. Not even seed cake–bits of seed cake. It hearkens to the Biblical image of dogs begging for scraps from the Master’s table, and that such scraps of Gospel Truth are the key to salvation.
Yet clearly Carne School does not feel the rest of the town is worth such truth, as one teacher proves in a conversation with Smiley:
“The press, you know, are a constant worry here. In the past it could never have happened. Formerly our great families and institutions were not subjected to this intrusion. No, indeed not. But today all that is changed. Many of us are compelled to subscribe to the cheaper newspapers for this very reason.”
It is quite a surprise to Carne School’s faculty, then, when the new teacher’s wife refuses to follow the rules and restrictions that keep Town and Gown apart. After this same wife is found brutally murdered in her home late one snowy night, both Town and Gown are suspect because, as another teacher’s wife put it, “‘Stella didn’t want to be a lady of quality. She was quite happy to be herself. That’s what really worried Shane. Shane likes people to compete so that she can make fools of them.’ ‘So does Carne,’ said Simon, quietly.”
Let us close this analysis with Smiley’s glimpse of the murder scene.
[Smiley] glanced towards the garden. The coppice which bordered the lane encroached almost as far as the corner of the house, and extended to the far end of the lawn, screening the house from the playing fields. The murderer had reached the house by a path which led across the lawn and through the trees to the lane at the furthest end of the garden. Looking carefully at the snow on the lawn, he was able to discern the course of the path. The white glazed door to the left of the house must lead to the conservatory…And suddenly he knew he was afraid–afraid of the house, afraid of the sprawling dark garden. The knowledge came to him like an awareness of pain. The ivy walls seemed to reach forward and hold him, like an old woman cosseting an unwilling child. The house was large, yet dingy, holding to itself unearthly shapes, black and oily in the sudden contrasts of moonlight. Fascinated despite his fear, he moved towards it. The shadows broke and reformed, darting swiftly and becoming still, hiding in the abundant ivy, or merging with the black windows.
We return to darkness, slick and liquid, seeping into all the cracks seen and unseen. We return to the imagery of a woman from a bygone era and the doomed youth. In this place ordained by heaven to protect and enlighten, the pure innocence has been stained black and red. Beware the Town. Beware the Gown. Beware the Devil flying with silver wings.
Such are the details that catch the reader’s breath in their throat. Hold it there, writers. Take a lesson from the Master of Subtlety and Method, whose Slow Burns creep so delicately the reader never notices the licking flames until it’s too late. Use the details of the setting to bind actor, atmosphere, and action together, leaving no chance for escape until the final page is read and the reader can breathe at last.
Along with more lovely indie author interviews, I’m keen to share my process in worldbuilding for my own fantasy fiction. We’ll have a go at a little mapping, a little digging, a little thrill-seeking. 😉
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