Lessons Learned from Ellis Peters & Agatha Christie: Hide Your Clues in History.

History has always been the most important and most dangerous field of study in my eyes. As a student, I found the world of wartime propaganda utterly fascinating–how with the right words and imagery, facts and past events could be tainted, twisted, even erased from the society’s memory.  As a Christian, I cannot understand why those of, say, the Amish life, live by “forgive and forget,” which has lead to a terrifyingly high rate of sexual abuse in families, since the abuser never faces any consequence for the act. He asks for forgiveness; therefore, the sin is forgiven and must be forgotten, and nothing prevents him from raping or molesting yet again. Without history, we lose our only true teacher of human nature’s scope: its heights of selflessness, its depths of wretchedness.

History is not something one often trips upon by accident. There is but the single weed budding from roots that run deep and far, or the curved stone in the dirt which, as one digs, and brushes, and digs, becomes a bone. History hides itself in the present mess, and hides well, just as any good mystery should.

Ellis Peters, aka Edith Pargeter, knew this all too well as she wrote The Cadfael Chronicles.  Her stories of this Rare Benedictine are set in the 12th century during a civil war between two monarchs vying for England’s throne. The time’s rife with secret messages, castle sieges, hidden treasures, betrayals and all sorts of other delicious things that make the period rich with living…and killing, but also living.

Some years have passed since I’d read a Cadfael, and I decided to rectify that when we traveled to the North Woods (the way up north where the bald eagles hang out in ditches and bears will meander down your driveway and turtle nests are smashed by an old Polish woman with a shovel). I can read in the car; Bo cannot, so he prefers to drive. (That, and I apparently drive a bit too crazy for his liking. Wuss.) This title was not adapted for the Mystery! series starring thespian treasure Sir Derek Jacobi, which meant the mystery would be new to me. Yay!

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The Hermit of Eyton Forest begins with, of course, death, but this one’s natural: a father dies of his battle injuries, orphaning his son who was already in the abbey’s care. When the abbey refuses to send him home with his scheming grandmother, who has a marriage in the works for this ten-year-old, the grandmother takes in “a reverend pilgrim” and his young assistant to live in the hermitage on her land between the abbey and the boy’s inherited manor (33). The detail quickly fades in a passage of time, and it sounds like this pilgrim Cuthred has changed the grandmother’s mind about suing the abbey for custody.

Act I winds down with a conversation between friends: Cadfael and the Sheriff of Shrewsbury. War-talk is very common in these books, especially since Shrewsbury isn’t far from the Welsh border, where many fugitives run. So when Chapter 4 meandered through a conversation about King Stephen holding Empress Maud under siege in Oxford, my eyes, erm, well, dazed over somewhat.

“There’s a tale he tells of a horse found straying not far from [Oxford], in the woods close to the road to Wallingford. Some time ago, this was, about the time all roads of Oxford were closed, and the town on fire. A horse dragging a blood-stained saddle, and saddlebags slit open and emptied. A groom who’d slipped out of the town before the ring closed recognised horse and harness as belonging to one Renaud Bourchier, a knight in the empress’s service, and close in her confidence too. My man says it’s known she sent him out of the garrison to try and break through the king’s lines and carry a message to Wallingford for her.”

Cadfael ceased to ply the hoe he was drawing leisurely between his herb beds, and turned his whole attention upon his friend. “To Brian FitzCount, you mean?” (53)

Blah blah, war things, blah blah. Get to the murder already!

But Peters is no fool. If she’s spending a little time on “war stuff,” it’s for a reason. On the one hand, this gives us a taste of how monarchs struggle to reach out for help in the midst of a siege. It’s an historically accurate strategy, and a fine moment on which to focus for a sharper taste of medieval warfare vs the typical “argh” and swords banging and catapults and the like we always see in movies. On the other hand, this past event is a clue to solve the murders: a nobleman hunting a runaway villein is found stabbed in the back, and the hermit Cuthred is also found dead. Peters buried the clue in that conversation of war, that which we readers would think is just material for the period, not for the plot.

Yet it all comes very much to the forefront in Act III. The nobleman’s son, for instance, sets the reveal into motion when he sees the pilgrim’s body:

“But I know this man! No, that’s to say too much, for he never said his name. But I’ve seen him and talked with him. A hermit–he? I never saw sign of it then! He wore his hair trimmed in Norman fashion…And he wore sword and dagger into the bargain,” said Aymer positively, “and as if he was well accustomed to the use of them, too….It was only one night’s lodging, but I diced with him for dinner, and watched my father play a game of chess with him.” (202)

It’s not like the medieval period had finger prints on database or, you know, pictures for comparison. Identity hinged on being known, and in that kind of war-torn world, you never know who’s going to know you. In this case, Aymer, son of the dead nobleman, unwittingly revealed this holy man to be a fraud, therefore ruining the grandmother’s schemes to have the holy hermit force her grandson to marry a neighbor’s daughter for more land. The nobleman had gone to the hermit, thinking his assistant might be the runaway villein he’s hunting–and here he sees the soldier he had played games with posing as a pilgrim.

So, who is this hermit that killed to keep his true identity dead in history, and who killed him? Not the nobleman, being already dead and all. And not the nobleman’s son.

Well, there is a falconer who has been loitering about the abbey, and who uses Empress Maud’s coins for alms. Cadfael, being a soldier in the Crusades before coming to the cloister, has his own opinions about divine duties in warfare, and chooses to say nothing rather than speak with the abbot, who is publicly aligned with King Stephen: “My besetting sin…is curiosity. But I am not loose-mouthed. Nor do I hold any honest man’s allegiance against him” (143).  Turns out this falconer is on a hunt for none other than the man who had taken off with the treasure and war correspondence from the bloody saddlebags discussed on page 53, and this thief was none other than the fake hermit Cuthred:

“He had killed Cuthred. In fair fight. He laid his sword by, because Cuthred had none. Dagger against dagger he fought and killed him…for good reason,” said Cadfael. “You’ll not have forgotten the tale we heard of the empress’s messenger sent out of Oxford, just as King Stephen shut his iron ring round the castle. Sent forth with money and jewels and a letter for Brian FitzCount, cut off from her in the woods along the road, with blood-stained harness and empty saddlebags. The body they never found.” (219)

Had Peters simply dumped this information on us at the end–as Agatha Christie has done a few times with Poirot–I would have been pissed. But Peters didn’t; she took advantage of Act I’s slow build and shared the clue inside her war stories. Readers may not remember this tale by story’s end, but Peters doesn’t cheat them with an absurd reveal thrown in at the end, either. She shares only the history that matters; it’s the reader’s responsibility to remember it.

On the flip-side of this, when someone hacks up a mystery by throwing history at us too early, I get rather miffed. Murder on the Orient Express is guilty of just such a crime.

No, no, not the book. There’s a reason so many look to this particular Poirot title as one of Christie’s masterworks. The first Act establishes Poirot on his way home from a case on the continent; this is why he eventually boards the Orient Express with other passengers.  The body’s discovered in Chapter 5, and it’s in Chapter 7 we get the history-reveal:

Orient-ExpressThe doctor watched [Poirot] with great interest. He flattened out the two humps of wire, and with great care wriggled the charred scrap of paper on to one of them. He clapped the other on top of it and then, holding both pieces together with the tongs, held the whole thing over the flame of the spirit lamp….It was a very tiny scrap. Only three words and a part of another showed.

-member little Daisy Armstrong. (161)

This clue both slows and tightens the pace: Poirot and his comrade recall this kidnapping and murder of the child Daisy a few years ago. It turns out the murder victim at their feet was that same kidnapper. From here the identities of the other passengers are worked out as well as their connections to the Armstrong child.

No, the book is not the guilty party. That verdict belongs to the 1974 film.

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It begins with a newspaper/newsreel montage about the kidnapping and murder of child Daisy Armstrong. It lasts a minute, and that’s a minute too long.  

It then jumps to five years later, and the gathering of characters to the train.

For one who’s unfamiliar with the book, this jump from dead child to Istanbul has got to be really confusing. For those who read the book–like me–this little montage kills the mystery. What does that footage do? Well, it shows readers that there’s a revenge in the works. We already want justice for that little girl, so whoever gets killed on the train deserves it before it even happens, which means readers won’t dare to connect with any of those other characters because they know one of them’s a wretch who needs justice bled out of him. In the book, we know nothing incriminating about any of the characters in Act I. In Act II, we’re still getting over the shock of a murder happening in an isolated, snow-bound train, where we know the murderer must still be hiding among innocent lives who sure need protection, and then, then, we find out the victim was a child murderer. It’s a double-whammy of a reveal thanks to present and past smashing together.

But when readers learn the history first, they know what to expect in the present. This is a must for so many aspects of life and story alike, but in mysteries? Part of what makes a mystery a mystery is not knowing what to expect.

PS: I dare to get excited about the upcoming Branagh version of the story despite Branagh’s mustache. Your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: How Much Stock Should One Put Into a Title?

Memorial Day weekend in a North Woods cabin: restful, right? Lots of time to write surrounded by nature and all its spring glory, riiiight?

Well when one spends a long, rainy weekend with four sedentary in-laws and three hyper-active children in a space roughly the size of a one-bedroom apartment, “restful” does not come to mind.

Thankfully, parenthood has given me the ability to read despite screams and comfy animal battles about my legs and thrown cars and training potties full of urine positioned in dangerous places upon the floor, so I decided to allow myself some time with a couple mysteries Bo gave me at Christmas:

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At the outset, the titles didn’t strike me as anything unusual. Christie’s titles always connected to the story, so I was sure that when I opened up The Big FourI would indeed be reading about a group called The Big Four. Sure enough: the antagonist of the story was a crime syndicate run by a group of bosses known as The Big Four. Poirot saves the planet, everything is awesome, I got to read an entire book in one day, which I hadn’t done in ages. Could I get through another book before the weekend was out?

I began Murder on the Links with high eagerness. I wasn’t planning on doing a close study of these books for this blog–I wanted to read for fun. (Crazy concept, I know.)

But the more I read, a question began to niggle my inner writer. Something felt off about this story. Oh, the plot read plausibly with a strong balance of clues and red herrings. The dialogue was so-so, but not nearly so heavy-handed as Poirot’s Christmas. What the hoobajoob was wrong here?

I closed the mystery, completed, and saw it: the title.

One look at the title, and one expects golf to play a major role in the story. After all, the Nile was quite the set piece in Death on the Nile.  Murder in Mesopotamia was as exotic as it sounds. The train doesn’t just fade into the background in Murder on the Orient Express. Murder is definitely committed under the sun; ergo, the title Evil Under the Sun.

Bo noticed my scrunched face as I glared at the golf course on the cover. “What’s wrong?” I explained my niggle. “Well, did the murder happen on the golf course?”

“Yeah.”

“So what’s the problem?”

The-Murder-on-the-LinksAnd that was the thing, I guess, that really got to me: technically, the title fit. The murder itself occurred on land being turned into a golf course. Christie didn’t fib. Murder did indeed happen on the links.

But with the other stories I mentioned, the place was more than just a location. Whatever was mentioned in the title carried influence into the story, be it through the culture, method of crime, strategies of investigation, etc. I thought back to other stories I’ve covered in my “Lessons Learned” posts and their titles–were any lame titles in those?

Howl’s Moving Castle: Heroine Sophie is cursed and seeks help from the Wizard Howl. His castle moves because of a curse between Howl and a fire demon that Sophie promises to break. So, pretty important.

Charmed Life: Cat Chant and his elder sister Gwendolyn are taken on by the great sorcerer Chrestomanci to learn more about magic. There’s more magic in Cat than he realizes, which is finally revealed with his sister’s villainy. By book’s end Cat is destined to be the next Chrestomanci. That’s about as charmed a life as you can get.

Five Little Pigs: Poirot sets out to solve a murder committed 16 years ago. He considers the five living suspects like the five little pigs; the rhyme comes up every time he meets another suspect.

The Name of the Rose: I admit, I had to read a bit more into this one. I knew there was some sort of connection with language, since the mystery fixates upon the danger of language and ideas.  How fitting, then, that Eco found a poem reflecting that a thing destroyed is preserved in its name. I found Eco’s own explanation for the title:

 

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Eco states in the Postscript to the Name of the Rose that Bernard’s poem is also the source of the novel’s title and last line —

Stat rosa pristina nomine; nomina nuda tenemus.”
(Yesterday’s rose endures in its name; we hold empty names.)

— meaning that in this imperfect world, the only imperishable things are ideas.

“Since the publication of The Name of the Rose I have received a number of letters from readers who want to know the meaning of the final Latin hexameter, and why this hexameter inspired the book’s title. I answer that the verse is from De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Morlay, a twelfth-century Benedictine, whose poem is a variation on the “ubi sunt” theme (most familiar in Villon’s later “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan”). But to the usual topos (the great of yesteryear, the once-famous cities, the lovely princesses: everything disappears into the void), Bernard adds that all these departed things leave (only, or at least) pure names behind them. I remember that Abelard used the example of the sentence “Nulla rosa est” to demonstrate how language can speak of both the nonexistent and the destroyed. And having said this, I leave the reader to arrive at his own conclusions.”

With Murder on the Links, however, golf had absolutely nothing to do with the crime. The setting bore no real influence upon the clues, the body, or even how characters moved about the scene of the crime. The course is where the murder just so happened to, well, happen. It could have been on the grounds of the mansion or in the ditch of the freeway–it would have made no difference.

Perhaps that, more than the title, was what bothered me. Or it was because the title gave importance to something that carried none–a red herring from the off.

I remember feeling annoyed like this once before with Louise Erdrich, an amazing American author whose award-winning novel Love Medicine was my one reading joy from those years in graduate school. It was a family drama spanning years–not normally my thing at all, but her portrayals of the Native American life and landscape gripped me from the start. I read more of her work after school, but stopped with Beet Queen. Why?

33315Because this Beet Queen chick didn’t show up until the last few pages, dammit!

Now granted, I can see now that wasn’t entirely true. The character who grows up to become the Beet Queen–the beauty queen of the town–is born halfway through the book, and the first half of the book is about the family into which she’s born–that’s typical Erdrich. At the time, I couldn’t understand why the title fixated upon that final moment, that social title bought by the girl’s family so that she could feel special at last. Now I can see that the title embodied the desperation of the family to do what it could for the love of this girl, to make her socially acceptable, to make her happy…and how this girl, a rather selfish brat, held it all in contempt. Family drama, spanning generations. The title fit.

Murder on the Links, a fine mystery, has a title that pays heed to the least important aspect of the crime. I suppose being bludgeoned by a five iron or discovering a collection of heads in a caddy’s locker would have all been a bit much, but it’s nice to see titles that connect on more than just a technical level.

What of your title? Does it embody the struggle, the hero, the villain? Does it give a wink and a nudge towards a special clue to reveal the truth? Or does it just hang there, stating its purpose and nothing more? After all, some stories have made such titles work brilliantly for them: The Lego Movie, The Peanuts Movie, The Care Bears Movie, The Lego Batman MovieBut notice how all these titles are a)geared for children using b)easily identifiable toys/characters OF their childhood for c)a visual presentation. Kids know they get to watch Legos, Snoopy, and so on. That’s all they want.

But in stories to be read, we want titles that grip and hold. Don’t warp that grip into a bait-and-switch. What influences the characters? What place affects the plot? What taunts your hero from afar, that if he could just push himself a little bit more, he can touch it, taste it, know it? Your answers hold the key to a title of relevance, spirit, and strength.

Authors Should Always Stay Clear of the Top of the Volcano, and Other Tips from Famous Author Blondie

Two years ago, I introduced you to my daughter Blondie. At the time I was befuddled by her refusal to explore her imagination with words or pictures. These days? Well, let’s talk to her and find out what she thinks of writing. In honor of her 7th birthday, I give you: Blondie.

We start talking about her poetry and proceed to her story, but then the boys cause a ruckus in the yard and I have to pause.

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Biff decides to add his own two scents…from the toilet.

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Then Bash just had to get involved, too.

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Am I keen to push Blondie to do more and more with her writing? Two years have shown me Blondie adventures creatively on her own terms. It’s so easy for a parent to hoist those passions onto the kid and expect the little one to love it just as much. A child’s got to find her own way through her own imagination, as well as her own way to express it. Maybe she’ll complete her 12-volume set of mysteries, or maybe she’ll start writing about tornadoes.

The joy buzzing through me when she’s eager to create makes any wait totally worth it.

Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Some Questions Ought Not Be Answered.

As a child, I spent most of my time with cozy mystery writers like Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters, and, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. By saturating myself with mysteries, I grew accustomed to quick character development, red herrings, plot twists, and, of course, explanations. A good mystery must show the whodunnit, howdunnit, and whydunnit. If the mystery isn’t solved, then the protagonist is clearly not worth his weight in pages.

It’s with this mindset, cemented over, oh, a couple of decades, that I entered the fantasy worlds of writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman via film adaptations of their stories.

 

While both films take great liberties with the stories, I saw enough to get hooked on these writers for life.

Now I’ve got to admit something shameful: The first time I read Coraline–before motherhood and writing were serious endeavors–I was deeply disappointed. All these kudos on the back cover about how awesome the story is, it’s the new Alice in Wonderland, blah blah blah. Gaiman doesn’t EXPLAIN anything! What IS this button-woman? Why rats? Did no one else ever notice that giant door? Surely other people lived in the flat before that. Humbug, I say!

Five years later, I hope I can say that hearts change, and that what I felt about the book before: that was a humbug, as George C. Scott’s Ebenezer Scrooge put it.

Does this mean I discovered the answers to those questions? Nope.

It means I’m okay with there being questions unanswered.

Current culture revels in creating backstory questions the initial stories were not asking:

What made Michael Myers so evil? See the movie!

When did Anakin Skywalker turn to the Dark Side of the Force? Answers revealed!

How did Hannibal become Hannibal the Cannibal? Find out now!

Why do magic ladies go bad? Disney’s got the goods on The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent

Everything has to be explained. Everything has to be known.

Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable is its unknown, the extant of not-like-reality it contains. Neither the film nor book of Coraline explain what’s with the door between worlds, why there’s only one key, why sewing buttons into a child’s eyes keeps him/her in the other world, or even what the Other Mother is.

Because guess what–a kid don’t care. Coraline knows the Other Mother has her parents. She knows the Other Mother uses buttons to trap kids. She knows the Other Mother wants that key.

When I studied point of view, I realized just how vital that ignorance/acceptance trait is with a child character. While the writer knows how the world works, he can’t imbue that knowledge into the child. The child takes in the world as it enters her immediate perception, and she absorbs what impacts her personally. Coraline initially enjoys the Other Mother’s world very much, but when she’s asked to give up her eyes for buttons, she prefers her own home. Only then does the predatory nature of the Other Mother’s world become clear.

Mysteries thrive on what’s hidden: a character’s past, a buried piece of setting, and so on. But what’s hidden must also be exposed in order for a mystery to fulfill its promise to readers. Even mysteries for children will do this, as I’m currently learning from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit for the gazillionth time, as it’s my kids’ favorite movie.

coralineCoraline, however, is not a mystery as far as the genre’s concerned. It is a perilous adventure through a dark fantasy land, something which kids are not often exposed to.* The world both excites and tests the protagonist, and because the protagonist is as young as the readers, the readers share in the experience.

As Reality often proves, there just simply isn’t an explanation for everything that occurs in our lives. We have to learn how to accept the unknown as it comes as well as how to overcome it. These require courage, strength, determination, and wit–all traits Coraline uses to survive the Other Mother’s world.

No explanation required.

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Clunk and move on.

My husband Bo presented me with quite the Hercule Poirot Christmas this year–half a dozen books and a set of television adaptations. (And a wallet. Wahoo.) “I scoured your shelf, so I know you don’t have any of these.” I nodded as I admired the old-school paperback covers vs. the latest hardcover editions. Where did the fun go?

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But today isn’t about cover design. Today I meant to study the effect a claustrophobic setting has on characters. Agatha Christie applies such a setting all the time in her mystery: the lonely manor house, the steam ship, the train, the island, even an airplane. I had picked up Hercule Poirot’s Christmas earlier this month knowing the story from its television adaptation, so I was eager to study her writing for this element.

Maybe it’s the ebb and flow of frustration and grief. Maybe it’s the stress thunked down on my shoulders every Christmas, the “you’re a preacher’s kid, get over here and make pretty songs” sort of thing. Or maybe Christie simply had to meet a deadline and, for once, allowed herself to not give a shit.

The story’s idea has oodles of promise: a nasty old invalid of a patriarch who loves setting his adult children at each other’s throats, mysterious new relatives, and sketchy house help all in a manor house for a proper English Christmas. But on Christmas Eve there’s a nasty crash and unearthly scream inside the patriarch’s locked room. They break in the door to discover signs of a terrific struggle and blood everywhere.

Cue Poirot on page eighty-four. EIGHTY-FOUR.

Granted, I knew I’d been spoiled a little by seeing the television adaptation first. Of course they revised the story to get Poirot there a lot sooner. But Christie spends forty-six pages solely on introducing the different family members. These little vignettes of their lives that could have easily been learned through a “catching-up” scene with them all in the manor house Christmas Eve. Thus the tension, plot, and setting would have been established much sooner–and therefore engaged readers much sooner.

The clues are also much more heavy-handed this time as well, which, after reading The A.B.C. Murders, felt very off. Take these lines of the patriarch’s dialogue all said before the murder:

“There’s only one of you that’s taken after me–only one out of all the litter.” (42)

“It’s going to be a grand Christmas! All my children round me. All my children!” (43)

“Not a son among them, legitimate or illegitimate.” (56)

“I’ll swear to Heaven I’ve got a better son somewhere in the world than any of you even if you are born on the right side of the blanket!” (74)

Get it? The killer is, of course, one of the family, but not “one of the family,” nudge nudge. And these are just the references pre-murder; more are made afterward. The characteristics don’t help, either: the patriarch has a couple quirks that of course all his sons do, including the characters present who are not yet known to be his sons, killer included. For instance:

Harry threw his head back and laughed. (53)

Stephen laughed, throwing his head back. (64)

Superintendent Sugden threw his head back and laughed. (198)

Then, there’s the murder itself. It’s an amazing murder, what with the unearthly cry, the blood, and the destruction. All done in a room locked on the inside. They work out the key was turned with pliers–okay, sensible. After only three and a half pages are spent in the room where the murder takes place, they spend the next forty-five pages talking to each family member. Just…talking. Rather felt like I was back with Eco and Name of the Rose with all the talking…

The ending comes with very little action around Poirot. Poirot has everyone gathered, as usual, but once he gets into how the murder is committed, he speaks of things that were never mentioned earlier, things like sodium citrate and animal’s blood being added to the victim’s blood. Plus he treats the bastard clue like it was some amazing discovery when it’s been one of the only topics discussed the entire book.

After the killer’s reveal, the final few pages share these one-paragraph scenes of the family members returning to life. It felt as frayed and unsatisfying as the beginning. Consistency, I suppose.

So, what went wrong here? I don’t know. Maybe it was the absence of Hastings–a stable narrator would have toned down all the p.o.v. shifts Christie used here. This could have been a very tight short story without all the meandering among family members; she published short fiction at the same time as novels, so it’s not like that was out of the question. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas was published after phenomenal mysteries like The A.B.C. Murders and Death on the Nile, before  And Then There Were None (considered by many to be her masterpiece), and at the same time as Appointment with Deathyet another fine mystery.

ALL writers, great and going-to-be-great, have their A-game and their B-game. Even my all-time favorite, Diana Wynne Jones, had her clunkers (I’m looking at you, The Pinhoe Egg.) This is clearly Christie’s B-game, and no wonder–Appointment with Death is a complex murder set in the raw beauty of the Middle East. Since this was also published in 1938, I can’t help but wonder if she worked on Appointment and Christmas at the same time, and therefore, dedicated her A-Game to Appointment. She made sure Christmas was an enjoyable read, sure, but it wasn’t the real priority. She wrote and moved on.

I’ve often been told that “perfect is the enemy of done.” While I don’t agree with that statement, there is something to a steady progression forward rather than putzing and putzing and putzing and PUTZING. Life, especially a family and a job, don’t allow for countless revisions of a single story–I learned the hard way such stagnant sameness only worsened my depression and buried my creativity.

Nudge your creativity away from the familiar. Venturing into the unknown is the stuff good stories are made of.

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.

 

 

 

Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Like this character? Tough tamales, I’ll kill him. Why? Because I can. Mwa ha ha!

mediaLast Time, on Jean Lee’s World…

To be clear: I LIKED The Name of the Rose. I admire Eco’s grace with language–hell, the man could write in what, four or five languages with ease? He felt the thrum of narrative in his fingers and his heart. As a reader, I took great pleasure in the rhythm, and danced where I was led.

But just because I danced does not mean I agree with how this dance went.

~*~

Now: This is the second step, and the more irritating of the two at that.

Death is a natural for the mystery. Death is itself a mystery, after all. Being a daughter of faith, I learned that death is but a door, a turning at the crossroads. All reach this turning when God says it’s time. Since the birth of my daughter I have seen four important people of my life take that turn: my father-in-law, my grandfather, my grandmother, my father. One year after another, Death’s crossing led my family away from me. The air tastes like vinegar when I think of it.

So when it comes to death in a fictional world, I do not take it lightly. In fact, I am infuriated when an author does. Like Eco.

Yes, Eco.

“But Jean, it’s a mystery. People die in mysteries ALL the time.” Well duh. My all-time favorite tv show is Murder, She Wrote, for cryin’ out loud. Once I started reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I lost myself in the intrigues of Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, P.D. JamesEllis Peters, and Elizabeth George.

Yes. In a mystery, someone dies. A bunch, even.

But those deaths are still not taken lightly. At the very least, those deaths serve the story, and press it forward. Justice is sought, and usually served. If justice is not served, there is at least some sort of reason to answer why.

Does Eco have such deaths? Oh, yes. A number of monks die in The Name of the Rose due to their involvement with something sinister. Their deaths work with the story. Eco even seems to relish the foretelling of their murders, which…eh. A little foreshadowing is fine, now and again, such as when Ado alludes to a future tragedy in the midst of a religious debate:

Perhaps I made a mistake: if I had remained on guard, many other misfortunes would have been averted. but I know this now; I did not know it then.

Or he’ll stick his foreshadowing into the chapter heading to hook the reader:

MATINS: In which a few hours of mystic happiness are interrupted by a most bloody occurrence.

Yes, it worked on me every time, blast him.

Yes, I’m still infuriated. Not about that–about the fates of two particular characters.

First, the girl. A poor villager smuggled in by monks for sexual favors and paid for with food. The only physical girl character in the novel (as opposed to female saints or witches), our narrator, the novice Adso, discovers her in the kitchen waiting for whomever has bought her that night. But his entry interrupts that, and they…well Adso’s far more poetic about sex than I could ever be. A few chapters later she is discovered by an inquisitor and branded a witch. Adso pleads with his master, William of Baskerville, to save her. He shakes his head. Nothing to be done. She is, as he puts it, “burnt flesh.”

Not that we see her death. We’re just told it will eventually happen in some other town. Adso never sees her after the arrest, and she quickly fades from importance.

I gritted my teeth over this one. So, the character was created to help propel seedy events. Growth of Adso’s character. Expose the absurdity of witchcraft accusations back then. Okay. Sure. But her death doesn’t matter? Even the screenwriters of the film version didn’t care for this, and had the girl be saved from the pyre. Saved or not, at least give the girl a chance to finish her life’s arc on the stage instead of off.

But the “death” that REALLY gets me is way, way in the beginning of the novel, with one of the first major characters we meet: Ubertino. An older man, very learned, experiences with the warring Pope and the Emperor, friend of William of Baskerville, and now in hiding for his life awaiting the secret religious debate to take place at this very abbey. At one point in their first conversation, Adso gets a little freaked out by Ubertino’s behavior:

At that moment, terrified, I thought Ubertino was in the power of a kind of holy frenzy, and I feared for his reason. Now, with the distance of time, knowing what I know–namely, that two years later he would by mysteriously killed in a German city by a murderer never discovered–I am all the more terrified, because obviously that evening Ubertino was prophesying.

Part of what makes a mystery a mystery is that there’s no telling who will be killed, when, with what, or why. Because Adso is writing this account years later, we know he survives, but that’s it. We don’t know if William of Baskerville lives through this murder. We only know that one monk has died under suspicious circumstances, but the book is massive (my edition is 538 pages long), so there HAS to be at least another death. Who will it be? Readers want to be invested in the characters. Sure, they want them to live. That makes them read on: so they live.

What we DON’T like is being told: “Sure, this guy will live. For now. He dies later, so you know. His efforts are pretty pointless here. But hey, he lives through this!”

Then what’s the point?

Why should I care about him, if I know he’s going to live through this ordeal only to die for no reason offstage? Any suspense surrounding this character is gone. That means the mystery around this character is gone.

And the last thing a mystery can afford to lose, is mystery.

 

Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: If the Reader Cares, They’ll Read it All. Even Latin.

Eco, from my meager understanding, was an extremely brilliant individual. Speaker of many tongues, student of many histories–i.e., a brainy dude. One can expect that when an intellectual someone wishes to write  a story set in the distant past, that someone will immerse in all aspects of the culture, and come forward with a riveting tale.

For the record, I LIKE The Name of the Rose. I do. But at the same time, I’m not sure how to feel about all of this:

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Just look at all those not-English words! I mean, I figured there would be some Latin. It is a mystery inside a monastery set in fourteenth century, after all. But I have my limits. And there are GOBS of sections like this. Was I warned? Yes. “You can usually get the gist from context, but then you miss out on crucial stuff. Keep a dictionary handy.”

Outwardly I gave an absent assent, but inwardly my mind is groaning as loud as a kid told she can’t lift shirts to poke belly buttons anymore. (Am I the only one who had a daughter go through this phase?) I read from 5-6am if work and/or kids permit. The last thing I want to do at 5am is conjugate a pluperfect verb and decipher which noun is in its ablative case. No. Thank You.

Thankfully I discovered a blog that did all the translations–Rapid Diffusion. This, I always kept handy when I read Eco, and yes, having the translations does make a difference.

So is it wrong to make readers work? No. Granted, the idea of translating all that Latin intimidated, but it did not deter. I still had my Latin books from high school, so I was totally ready…to contact my classmate who could translate Latin as she read it without notes or dictionaries or anything by the flipping brilliant age of 16. (Yeah, she’s pretty awesome.) I wanted to read this book. I knew this book was going to require more of me than other literary fare. I didn’t care. I wanted to read it. If my friend couldn’t help me, then (insert gulping sound) I would give the translating a go.

In an earlier post, I discussed Diana Wynne Jones’ lament over the dumbing-down of fiction for adults, while kids don’t mind working their brains to appreciate a story. When I first cracked open The Name of the Rose and saw all the Latin, I thought of this. Maybe translating several dozen pages’ worth of Latin is a touch extreme, but shouldn’t books written for adults be at least a LITTLE challenging? I like my chocolate muffins of fantasy or mystery, sure, but veg is good for the body AND the brain, and Eco provides a cornucopia of veg with this novel. Yeah, I had help with the Latin, but the history is so complexly woven with the mystery, and the dialogue so dense without action (a topic I very much want to discuss in another post) that my brain had to chew it all, slowly, before fully appreciating what it had just devoured.

904cea2232616.56012d54f1266I highly doubt I’ll ever write a period novel, but Eco helps me appreciate just how much world-building goes into recreating the past. Writers fill their worlds with what matters to the story; to pass over a description, a conversation, or a verse in another language is, well, rather akin to ignoring someone in conversation, isn’t it? Just, turning up the nose and continuing on with the person you like because he’s the interesting one.

No.

A writer should not overwhelm their story with innocuous minutia, and a reader should not skip around and still expect to understand the story without a hitch. Both parties must work, and work hard, to truly bring a book to life.

Click here for more on Umberto Eco.

Click here for more on THE NAME OF THE ROSE.

 

Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: The Prologue

119073No, I didn’t have a brain-freeze and misspell Diana Wynne Jones that badly. I’m taking a wee break from Jones to fulfill an obligation I set for myself a decade or so ago.

Back when my dad walked with the living, he also read. Profusely. Not just Scripture and Bible commentaries—he was an avid reader of Dr. Who and Star Wars, as well as mysteries cozy and hard-boiled. We often shared mysteries, even unwittingly giving each other the same books for Christmas.

This shared love spilled into shows and films, and has resulted in why on earth I’m typing this post right now.

Already a fan of the Ellis Peters books and Mystery! series Cadfael starring Sir Derek Jakobi, Dad didn’t have to ask me twice about watching a different medieval mystery. The Name of the Rose was…well, it was a bit dark for a child of single digits, but I wasn’t afraid, since James Bond the Monk just HAD to win out in the end. When I discovered it was also a book, I knew I had to read it.

Aaaand then I saw how big the book was, and decided to wait a bit.

Does sixteen years still qualify as “a bit”?

Anyway.

The only other experience I’d had of Eco came from The Count of Monte Cristo, where he wrote a lengthy introduction about how the novel is one of the best and worst ever written.

Perhaps not the best first impression of the writer, considering how much I adored Count.

So admittedly, I cracked open The Name of the Rose with a teeeeeeny bit of skepticism.

A prologue.

Hmph. Aspiring writers hear a lot of mixed messages about prologues. Use’em, don’t use’em. They detract, they provide an excellent spot for necessary info. I’ve personally read prologues that had more action/drama than the actual novel.

First person narration. In the second paragraph Adso, the narrator, informs us he’s old, and he’s going to tell us of “wondrous and terrible events,” which he clearly must have survived if he’s writing it all decades after the fact.

Well there goes that tension.

Sass aside, The Name of the Rose really does require the prologue. Unless you’re a medievalist—heck, even if you are—there is a LOT of historical context required to fully understand the tumult of Church and political conflict, how they amplified and worsened each other. You’ve got sects of monks being burned, a pope and an emperor trying to outfight and outwit each other. Frankly, I’m still not entirely sure how that all breaks down, but one thing’s certain: the structure of the known western world depended on The Church, and The Church was not secure. It had cracks like those of a mug knocked off the table (by two mischievous little boys, of course): the mug’s intact, you can put liquid in it and it won’t leak. But you can see the fissure-veins, and you know it won’t take much for the mug to shatter in your hand.

All right, I accept prologues are capable of contributing to the story.  Will I make use of one? Doubtful. But I will appreciate a prologue that sets the stage and lays out the players without ruining the story itself.

So far, so good, Eco. Let’s see what else you’ve got.

Click here for more on Umberto Eco.

Click here for more on THE NAME OF THE ROSE.

Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna III

51tlmvsqpelMy love for Mychael Danna’s music originates here, with Capote. This is the music that pulls the floor out from under your characters and crashes realization down upon them. Hard. Crudely put, Capote’s perfect for the moment your character whispers, “Oh, shit.

At some point, our characters discover just how far out of depth they are from their comfort zones. This may be the introduction of fresh conflict, a singular plot point, or even a change of setting. I rely heavily on Capote when describing the moment my protagonist learns her sister is missing. This moment comes in the country, with few facts based in reality for her to follow. I suppose that is why I love the strings and piano in Capote—they disturb my emotional base with their harsh simplicity. Nothing can just be beautiful. There is a menace underlying every track, even in “Epigraph.”

“Epigraph” is unique in two ways: piano dominates the track, and the menace of the strings is weakened by the kindness in the piano’s melody. One feels an almost-hope in this song, and that can translate well to characters unsure of where they stand, especially after a downfall.

Which brings me to that second uniqueness: that “Epigraph” is music to bring characters together. So much of Capote can be utilized to alienate your characters, to make them feel cut off from everything they know. “Epigraph” is almost physical in the way it helps characters connect, be it in their resolve, their consolation, or even grief.

Bring Capote into your world. Watch your characters grow as they fall…and come together in almost-hope.

Click here for more on Mychael Danna.

Click here for more on CAPOTE.