Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.
As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.
Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.
JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES
Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?
By using the first-person narrative, we meander through the protagonist’s mind as his car travels through an isolated, bleak landscape. While some of these internal musings felt a bit long-winded, I did appreciate the little tastes of what we as readers are getting into: that this protagonist is some sort of investigator who is also occasionally sent to “punish,” that he has “Masters” he must answer to, and that he is not so curious about his duties that he cares to learn more about where he’s going for his latest assignment and why.
The setting is beautifully described and is currently timeless in its way, but the back cover blurbs promise some futuristic details to come our way. By the end of three pages, we learn our protagonist’s name–Myles–and that he’s going to visit an isolated manor house where someone has died. Why or how? We don’t know, but we as readers are eager to find out.
As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!
While Bo was giving me commentary on what actor had gone on to do X or Q or T, I was noticing how certain plot threads would come and go depending on the adaptation. Now for technical reasons, I could see how a story is condensed so it can fit into a two-hour movie or three-part special. This will mean cutting characters or condensing characters for the film–normal stuff. As writers, we can debate the trials and tribulations of film adaptations until the cosmic cows come to roost, or however that saying goes.
But there was something about the Poirot Death on the Nile adaptations that left me pondering. Lots of good fiction depend on multiple plot threads to keep the reader engaged from the first page to the last. Mysteries in particular need those extra plot threads to create red herrings and plot twists so that the solution to the mystery is a surprise to the reader. In order to populate those other threads, one must have a sizable cast of characters.
But is a big cast really necessary for the story, or are they just filler?
THAT is the question I’d like to discuss with you today, and I’m keen to use Death on the Nile to do so. If you don’t recall the original story’s plot, the Wikipedia entry covers it fairly well. (The entry also mentions the film adaptations I’ll be mentioning here, too.) I’ve also snagged the original cast list from Litchartsso we can see what Agatha Christie saw fit to print. I’ve actually trimmed a few folks out, trying to limit us to the folks who rode the Karnak during the majority of the novel.
ALSO: Spoilers abound. Writer problems trump “spoiler-free” descriptions any day.
THE ORIGINAL CAST OF THE 1937 NOVEL (PRETTY SURE, ANYWAY)
Hercule Poirot: This is a given.
Linnet Doyle: the spoiled rich English lady who marries Simon Doyle and gets murdered.
Jacqueline De Bellefort: Linnet’s best friend who was engaged to Simon until Linnet gets involved. Also, one of the story’s murderers.
Simon Doyle: the youngest son of a well-to-do family, so he loves fancy things but has no money for them. Loves Jackie but marries Linnet. Also also, the other one of the story’s murderers.
Colonel Race: I didn’t remember him from other stories, but apparently he befriended Poirot before Death on the Nile takes place. (Edit: I had to look this up–they do meet in Cards on the Table.) He is present on the riverboat Karnak due to a potential Communist and/or Anarchist threat, but from a storyteller’s standpoint, he is the trustworthy one Poirot can speak freely about his observations so readers know what’s going on.
Andrew Pennington: An American trustee for Linnet Ridgeway due to family connections. There’s a partner, but he barely factors in, so we’ll not bother with him.
Mrs. Salome Otterbourne: a writer of sensational, sexualized fiction who drank more the less her books sold.
Rosalie Otterbourne: Daughter of Salome–and because of the alcoholism, her mother’s keeper. This leads to Rosalie being very difficult for folks like Poirot to interact with.
Mrs. Allerton: the “nice” character of the novel, and essentially Poirot’s gateway into meeting all the other passengers of the riverboat Karnak.
Tim Allerton: son of Mrs. Allerton, eventual lover of Rosalie Otterbourne, and cousin of Joanna Southwood who enjoys hanging out with Linnet before the trip to Egypt. He helps Joanna steal jewelry and make forgeries, and on this boat, it’s his job to switch their fake pearls with Linnet’s real ones. This leads to one of the minor plots of Linnet’s missing pearl necklace being a possible motive for murder.
Miss Marie Van Schuyler: wealthy old American lady who bosses her cousin Cornelia and nurse Miss Bowers around throughout the novel. She’s also a kleptomaniac, which adds to the pearl necklace subplot.
Cornelia Robson: a nice girl who becomes a tool for Linnet and Simon and an object of the affections of Mr. Ferguson and Dr. Bessner.
Mr. Ferguson (Lord Dawlish): a Communist who is hateful to pretty much everyone except Cornelia, infatuated with her genuinely kind nature. Secretly a member of a very well-to-do English family. His brazen comments about how awful rich people and capitalism are material for the political agitator subplot.
Miss Bowers: nurse to Miss Van Schuyler who isn’t actually treating the old lady for anything. She’s there to keep the kleptomania in check and return things Van Schuyler steals, which means there is a “mysterious” return of the necklace, only it’s a forgery, and…yeah, the necklace subplot is a bit much.
Signor Richetti: a middle-aged Italian archaeologist that Poirot meets on an excursion near the hotel (which Ferguson also came on). He turns out to be the political agitator that Colonel Race is after. He has absolutely nothing to do with the deaths on the Nile. He’s just there to be ominous and threatening.
Louise Bourget: maid to Linnet and Simon Doyle, Louise initially appears to be a minor character, until suddenly she takes center stage when she becomes the second murder victim.
James Fanthorp: a young English lawyer for Linnet Ridgeway, the nephew of the lawyer William Carmichael. I vaguely remember this guy.
Dr. Bessner: a middle-aged European doctor on board the Karnak who takes care of Simon after his leg injury and who eventually proposes to Cornelia Robson. Yes, Cornelia chooses this dude over the English Lord, much to her grandmother’s chagrin.
Fleetwood: an engineer on the Karnak who attempted to marry one of Linnet’s old chambermaids, despite the fact that he was already married to an Egyptian woman. Linnet prevented the marriage, which made both Fleetwood and Louise extremely angry.
So, we have our cast, and it’s not a small one. We have our primary players who drive the plot forward with their secret and not-so-secret actions, and those who make stuff happen for our primary players to react to.
Death on the Nile primarily takes place in Egypt, broken up with stops at hotels and busy locations. The named characters ride on the S.S. Karnak up the Nile River together, and it is on this boat that the murder and mayhem take place. In the original novel, Ustinov adaptation, and Suchet adaptation, most of the characters have negative, tenuous connections to Linnet Doyle–her father bought out one character’s business, ruining the family, for instance. In another example, we see that in the Ustinov adaptation, Dr. Bessner’s clinic is about to lose its funding because Linnet Doyle is changing her father’s financial ties. But not all characters have these connections, and that is okay. Something we must remember as writers is that when a story is taking place in a public space, there will be strangers to the story. There are plenty of other visitors to the hotels in Egypt, and the riverboats are common transportation for tourists. Readers don’t expect every tourist on a boat to be connected to every other tourist on the boat. That’s what makes the old connection between Mrs. Van Schuyler and Linnet Doyle a surprise. On the surface, Mrs. Allerton and her son Tim have no connection whatsoever to Linnet Doyle, but when Joanna’s name is mentioned, a shady connection reveals itself.
To put it another way, it’d be as if the Hogwarts School was only populated by Harry and his friends, and Draco and his friends. The school just has four teachers at any time and that’s it. None of the other students and faculty matter, so trim them out!
Readers expect a school to be populated. They expect a city to be populated. They expect a passenger boat to be populated.
Of course, Agatha Christie had plans for the characters she put on the Karnak, but at the outset, having this large group made sense because it’s a tourist’s boat. It’s supposed to be busy and crowded. But it’s not necessary to make all those characters obviously connected. She didn’t make intricate connections between every student and every teacher in Cat Among the Pigeons, either; sometimes, you just need people there because people are supposed to be there. They are, essentially, moving scenery. And because those extras are treated like scenery, we readers are not expecting backstories on all of them. We don’t know all the backstories of all the crewmembers on the Karnak, nor are we looking for them. They are there to simply fill in the scene.
In the most recent Branagh version, however, this entire cast–yes, all those people–are the wedding party for Simon and Linnet Doyle. Considering Branagh’s time in Shakespeare, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this strategy. Now the entire cast’s presence on the boat is justified. Such a move, however, means all the secretive, surprising connections are thrust out into the open. The chances for surprise go way down. And the fact some of those connections are negative at the outset makes it all the stranger some of these people are invited to the wedding. For instance, Branagh transforms the Dr. Bessner role part into another doctor who was Linnet Doyle’s former fiance. The man is clearly fawning after Linnet until she dies. Why is he at this destination wedding? No idea. But we need our suspects, dammit!
More Characters = More Subplots. Yay!
As previously noted, having this size of a group means one can have some other plot threads. These smaller plot lines give the writer a chance to break up the major plot and allow little breaks from major events without bringing the story to a standstill. After all, if all the major plot points of Death on the Nile were smushed together (marriage/murder/second murder/third murder/reveal), you’d have an overwhelming episode of a television show rather than a movie, let alone a novel. So having other plot lines allows the writer to build curiosity in the reader. What did that dollar fragment in the maid’s hand mean? Wait, who is Mr. Farnthorp, really? Why is the Signor so upset about his note? Why is Rosalie Otterbourne so protective of her mother?
Now even in a novel, one can have superfluous plot threads. Yes, Dame Christie, included. Take the Signor Richetti character. His sole purpose is to be the reason Colonel Race boards the Karnak. He is a sulky man who has no connection whatsoever to the Doyles or anything going on. He gets to have one angry interaction with Linnet Doyle, and that’s it. There’s a reason that all three adaptations of this novel omit this character. One could remove the “political agitator” subplot and affect absolutely nothing else in the story, which is why the films consistently cut him out.
The pearl necklace subplot is altered from film to film. Sometimes the pearls are forged, sometimes they are just stolen. Sometimes it’s the klepto old Miss Van Schuyler, while in the Branagh version the character created to replace Col. Race took the pearls in order to have a clean start with his love, Rosalie Otterbourne, whose mother is a jazz singer hired by the Doyle’s for this destination wedding thing. Unlike the political agitator plot, the stolen pearls provide a worthwhile red herring to Linnet’s murder–someone may have murdered her out of hate, but maybe they were just greedy for the money in those pearls. Greed doesn’t require a previous relationship or connection, and such greed allows strangers to become suspects. In a mystery set on a tourist boat, such a move makes sense and therefore requires characters to flesh it out.
More Subplots = More Characters to Keep Track of. UGH.
So you saw that list I made earlier. Let’s face it–that list is huge. Macbeth has roughly the same number of named characters. There’s a reason films often condense or omit characters from a movie: it’s just too much. The Suchet adaptation, for instance, eliminates three characters. The Ustinov adaptation deletes six. Branagh cuts a few, but then also adds some different ones to fill in the gaps. Yet these adaptations were able to tell the same essential story.
This means the effects of cast changes are felt far more in the subplots than in the major plot. Branagh’s adaptation, for instance, pushes love as the major motive for everything: the pearl necklace is stolen for love. Linnet is murdered for love. The maid–and the necklace thief–are murdered to protect love. By reorganizing the characters and how they connected, Branagh altered the very subplots those characters served.
And…sure, I guess that’s okay. But when there’s only one real reason folks are doing anything, you suck a lot of mystery out of the story.
Yes, having a big cast is a pain. Keeping track of multiple motivations is a pain. The Ustinov adaptation made this painfully clear with the connections they created for motives: Mrs. Otterbourne was getting sued by Linnet for libel (and Rosalie would go far to protect her mother, wouldn’t she?); Dr. Bessner’s clinic was going to lose funding; Communist Ferguson openly despised Linnet’s wealth and wanted to see her dead; the trustee Pennington was embezzling Linnet; even the nurse Miss Bowers blamed Linnet’s family for ruining her own. You couldn’t take a step on that boat without bumping into someone with the motivation to kill Linnet.
Keeping track of all those motivations and connections is very, very hard, for on top of making them exist, you have to make them matter. This means dedicating page space (or screen time) that adequately gives every plot thread relevance and urgency to the overall storyline. The more plot threads you have, the more complicated your pacing will have to be, too, for the major plot thread can’t be out of sight for long.
So if you the writer are not sure you can make it all weave together, DON’T DO IT.
There is nothing wrong with keeping to a few plot threads and a small cast. There’s a reason “cozy” mysteries typically use a small group of characters: readers can track them easily, their motivations are easy to track as a writer, and any change to those characters is easier to distinguish because there’s less moving scenery to distract a reader. As one who has read mysteries for a few decades, nothing infuriates a reader like goofed character/plot connections. It messes up the story, and it makes you the writer look like you don’t know your own story-world.
Now I’m sure that, assuming you made it to the end here, you have your own thoughts on stories and the size of their character cast. I’d love to hear them!
And what’s your favorite book cover from the assortment in this post? I admit, I love the clean, cool colors of this one.
I’ve another indie interview on the way! Plus we could wander the Holmesian countryside if you’d like, dissect the plot and characters of my own fiction, find inspiration among the sounds of nature, or take up a dragon to fight Napoleon. Mystery and adventure await!
Welcome back, my fellow creatives! The Summer Solstice has come and gone, leaving Wisconsin with a collection of thunderheads eager to crack our air with lightning and thunder and blanket our countryside with rain (and sometimes hail). Had I knowledge of seeds and soil, such weather would be fit for a plot of sprouts (well, not the hail, but you get me). But alas, my neglected garden remains…neglected. Well, save for the one onion I threw into the mud for a lark. That’s actually sprouting! Now to make sure I don’t mow it down by accident…
In a few days’ time, a group of fellow educators and I are getting together to celebrate nature in literature. Some are eager to discuss the beauty of nature in poetry, others the power of nature’s presence in nonfiction.
And then there’s me, eager to talk about how nature can be used to kill us.
Don’t worry, I’m not digging into any eco-terror-type tales. No, I went to my beloved mystery series, for of course I had to. I gathered a batch of Sherlock Holmes stories where the rural isolation played a role in the crime, and a batch of Brother Cadfael mysteries where flowers played a role in the whodunit with the Rare Benedictine. If you’d like to explore the Holmesian Countryside with me another time, let me know! In the meantime, let’s take a stroll among the flowers that will never ever grow under my care (though considering the poisonous nature of some, that’s probably for the best).
I’ve only written about Brother Cadfael once or twice previously, so here’s a brief refresher:
The Cadfael series is a mystery series set in 12th century England featuring a Benedictine monk who had served in the Crusades before taking Orders. His time in the world not only taught him a wide variety of herbal remedies and apothecary skills, but also the depth and breadth of human nature.
Cadfael’s peace, though, is always to be found in the garden.
He doubted if there was a finer Benedictine garden in the whole kingdom, or one better supplied with herbs both good for spicing meats, and also invaluable as medicine. The main orchards and lands of the Shrewsbury abbey of Stain Peter and Saint Paul lay on the northern side of the road, outside the monastic enclave, but here, in the enclosed garden within the walls, close to the abbot’s fish-ponds and the brook that worked the abbey mill, Brother Cadfael ruled unchallenged. The herbarium in particular was his kingdom, for he had built it up gradually through fifteen years of labour, and added to it many exotic plants of his own careful raising, collected in a roving youth that had taken him as far afield as Venice, and Cyprus and the Holy Land. For Brother Cadfael had come late to the monastic life, like a battered ship settling at last for a quiet harbour…He saw no contradiction in the delight he had taken in battle and adventure, and the keen pleasure he now found in quietude. Spiced, to be truthful, with more than a little mischief when he could get it, as he liked his victuals well-flavoured, but quietude all the same…
We are not quite in Brother Cadfael’s herb garden within the cloister’s walls, but we are now on abbey grounds. This home, you see, was willed by a widow named Judith. She gifts it to Shrewsbury Abbey with the request of being given a single rose from her late husband’s rose bush as a form of rent. The rose bush itself is quite impressive, as our flora-loving monk will tell you.
A snow of white, half-open buds sprinkled it richly. The blooms were never very large, but of the purest white and very fragrant.
Many men seek the attention of the pure, beautiful Judith, but she refuses all. Even the young monk charged with caring for the rose bush falls in love with the widow, but he is soon found dead alongside the plant. The authorities assume the rose bush was simply wrecked in the attack, but Brother Cadfael thinks otherwise.
“What was done to the rose-bush,” said Cadfael firmly, “was not done with that knife. Could not be! A man would have to saw away for half an hour or more, even with a sharp knife, at such a thick bole. That was done with a heavier weapon, meant for such work…”
Why is the rose bush as brutalized as the boy? THAT is a crucial piece of the mystery, for someone wants the Rose Rent as broken as Judith’s ties to the past. But who could it be?
For that, you will have to read the mystery.
Come, let us visit Brother Cadfael’s workshop now. I hear he keeps cherry wine here as well as many balms and salves. Just take care with the Monk’s-Hood!
While many plants served their purpose in healing mixtures, some could be powerful healers as well as killers. Monk’s-Hood is one such plant. Named for the cowl-like shape of its petals, this lovely flower plays a critical role in attending the aged in the abbey’s infirmary. The risks of using it, however, cannot be understated.
“But keep it carefully, Edmund, never let it near your lips. Wash your hands well after using it, and make sure nay other who handles it does the same. It’s good for a man’s outside, but bad indeed for his inside. … [the oil is] the ground root of monk’s-hood, chiefly, in mustard oil and oil from flax seeds. It’s powerfully poisonous if swallowed, a very small draught of this could kill…”
When a hard-headed landowner is found poisoned not only by food from the abbey but with the Monk’s-Hood salve Cadfael makes for the infirmary, the Benedictine must act quickly to clear the abbey and reveal the killer.
“If you can make medicines from this plant,” said Prior Robert, with chill dislike, “so, surely, may others, and this may have come from some very different source, and not from any store of ours.”
“That I doubt,” said Cadfael sturdily, “since I know the odour of my own specific so well, and can detect here mustard and houseleek as well as monk’s hood. I have seen its effects, once taken, I know them again.”
Cadfael uses his knowledge of the oil’s smell and stain to bring the killer to justice, for few realize just how poisonous such a potion can be. The sheriff certainly didn’t until Cadfael tested the main suspect by asking him to drink the monk’s hood to calm his nerves–and he would have if not for Cadfael’s intervention.
But why was the landowner killed? For that, you will have to read the mystery.
Plants can not only help heal, but they can also help provide place. We can visit a nearby shepherd’s hut so you can see and smell for yourself.
The clover’s quite heady isn’t it? Clover was often used as a perfume for altar lamps in this time period, but it was also grown by farmers to feed livestock. Goose-grass, too, was quite handy for feeding farm animals, but even Brother Cadfael could put such a clingy plant to use in making salves for wounds.
It’s this particular combination of clover and goose-grass that helped Cadfael uncover a murdered man’s body among King Stephen’s executed prisoners. Only the murdered man had the smell of clover and the burrs of goose-grass (as well as different strangulation marks, but that’s nothing to do with the plants), so by finding the barn with both plants, Cadfael was able to uncover the murder weapon and other clues to the killer.
The dry grass was well laced with small herbs now rustling and dead but still fragrant, and there was a liberal admixture of hooky, clinging goose-grass in it. That reminded [Cadfael] not only of the shred of stem dragged deep into Nick Faintree’s throat by the ligature that killed him, but also of Torold [Blund]’s ugly shoulder wound.
With war among the monarchs, everyone, even those cloistered, are caught up in the bloodshed, the betrayals, and the espionage. Cadfael must show the king that this singular corpse could crack his credibility beneath the crown…hopefully without losing his own life in the process. Does he succeed?
For that, you will have to read the mystery.
One last stop, I think. The hawthorn hedge is beautiful this time of year, its white petals falling as gently as snowflakes upon the ground. Did you know those of this time period believed the crown of thorns placed upon Christ’s head came from a hawthorn plant? Such a connection with the divine should be revered…and put to good use…
One of the young monks under Brother Cadfael’s supervision frequently experiences visions and extreme spams, so Cadfael must often give the monk poppy juice to help still the boy’s body and mind. When some other ambitious monks “interpret” the boy’s visions as a plea from a Welsh saint to dig up her bones and bring them to Shrewsbury, Cadfael (being Welsh) has no choice but to accompany this band of Brothers into Wales to exhume the saint.
Not surprisingly, this venture leads to conflict between cloister and Welsh, and one morning soon after their arrival, the leader of the Welsh village is found dead. Cadfael is not wanting for suspects, but once he discovers his poppy juice supply has been drained, he quickly works out the identity of the killer.
To cease the conflict in the village and protect the saint whose bones his abbey so desperate wants, Cadfael chooses to put that reverence for hawthorn to use in a display of “divine” intervention.
Over altar and reliquary a snowdrift of white petals lay, as though a miraculous wind had carried them in its arms across two fields from the hawthorn hedge, without spilling one flower on the way, and breathed them in here through the altar window.
Why the ruse? For that, you’ll have to read the mystery.
Is it any wonder that Cadfael inspired my character Arlen? Both men of nature and healing, of principle and justice. Both called in dire days to summon past skills. Both fiercely loyal, giving, and kind.
We could use more Cadfaels in this world right now. But perhaps they are already among us–in the streets. In the battles.
Or, perhaps, in the gardens.
This season, do take a moment to explore a beloved park, forest, or other sanctuary of nature. Such places of color and quiet can be a balm to soothe the tired soul.
If you’d like to meander through the Holmesian countryside, do let me know! Otherwise, I’ve finally seen Kenny B’s adaptation of Death on the Nile, and I have thoughts–not just about his take, but on how big or small a cast should be. Considering how the cast size of Death on the Nile changes over the course of a novel and three different film adaptations, it’s worth asking ourselves as writers just how many characters and subplots one needs in a tale to keep it clipping along.
Welcome back, my fellow creatives! Winter is the perfect time to curl up in a blanket with a pile of books, and I can think of no better place to find those books than at the local library.
It’s all too easy to just meander over to my favorite sections, though, and 2022 is the year to try new things! So, for this series on Story Cuppings, I am only going to pick books from my library’s New Release shelf by the entrance. Those books could be of any genre, fiction or nonfiction. If it’s on that shelf, it’s game for a podcast!
Not going to lie, folks…this one was hard. Yet this book’s got a ton of happy reviews! Clearly I’m on the odd one out with my thoughts about this book. Ever put a book in the “Did Not Finish” pile that everyone else loved except you? Let me know!
Welcome back, my fellow creatives! I’ve always been thrilled to see how much my three little Bs love to read, but it makes my heart melt to hear my daughter Blondie say she wants to do a podcast with me to share her favorite books. When I said we could make a little “12 Days of Christmas” style series in December, Blondie whipped through her books and picked twelve for us to study. She even designed our banner with her favorite fantasy creature. x
So here we are! I’m blessed to have such amazing kindred spirits in my life, and I am so very blessed to have a daughter who loves storytelling as much as I do.
On the tenth day of Blondie’s Books, my daughter gave to me:
What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!
Why did you pick this book, Blondie?
I picked it at first because I liked other books Gordon Korman did, like Notorious, which is another good dog mystery. And the Unteachables was another good one with lots of funny and heartwarming parts. This one was no exception. It was funny and serious at the same time! I normally like fantasies more than realistic fiction, but I gotta say, this book is just as good!
Stay tuned for more storytellin’ and carol-singin’!
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