Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Let Dialogue & Point of View (Mis)Lead Readers.

Nothing annoys like repetition. “Mom, can I have a cookie?” “No.” “Can I have a chocolate chip cookie?” “Not until supper’s done.” “Can I have a cookie now?” “I said no.” (pause for approximately twenty seconds) “Can I have a cookie now?” (exasperated scream and toss of graham crackers) “Oooh, crackers.” (munching) “Can I have a cookie?” (head bangs wall)

I feel the same way when I read repetition–not just in my students’ essays, but in novels by those who should know better. The characters in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas had some very annoying spells of repetition that revealed no inconsistencies in circumstances or any sort of human nature. They were just part of the interrogation. Other lines had equally annoying bouts of foreshadowing directed at…nothing.

“He’s like the faithful old retainers of fiction. I believe he’d lie himself blue in the face if it was necessary to protect one of the family!”

bookcoverI wanted to believe Christie was better than that with her dialogue. I wanted to see some proof. So I took a risk and picked a story I knew would be more dialogue than anything: Five Little PigsIt’s a cold-case situation: a young woman comes to Poirot asking him to discover the truth about her parents. Everyone says her mother poisoned her father; the mother was tried and executed for it. Yet her mother’s last letter claims innocence. The daughter, now fully grown, wants to know the truth.

The truth must be found in the memories of others, and to get those memories Poirot must dig through dialogue.

 

There is nothing so dangerous for anyone who has something to hide as conversation!

Hercule Poirot, The A.B.C. Murders

Poirot speaks with a few legal members involved with the court case, and then five other people present in the home at the time of the murder. This comes to nearly 240 pages of conversation.

And none of it felt dull, let alone repetitive.

Clearly, Christie’s attentions were more focused on this story. One can feel it in the tight prose and pacing. Her descriptions of the characters are brilliantly precise:

Philip Blake was recognizably like the description given him by Depleach–a prosperous, shrewd, jovial-looking man–slightly running to fat. (58)

[Poirot] would never have recognized [Elsa] from the picture Meredith Blake had shown him. That had been, above all, a picture of youth, a picture of vitality. Here there was no youth–there might never have been youth. (104)

The dialogue also reveals a lot about the characters, such as the governess.

“Men–” said Miss Williams, and stopped. As a rich property owner says, “Bolsheviks,” as an earnest Communist says, “Capitalists,” as a good housewife says, “Black beetles,” so did Miss Williams say, “Men.” (117)

Besides the court personnel, who only witnessed the characters after the murder, there are five perspectives being tapped for details from the same time frame. This should welcome lots of repetition, considering these people are coming to the same house, dining together, conversing together, and so on.

Yet the repetition doesn’t happen. I’ll use one moment in the plot for an example.

Painter Amyas has brought his model Elsa to live at the house while he paints her. His wife Caroline does not like her; it goes without saying Elsa and Amyas are having an affair, which is normal behavior for Amyas and his models. Something seems different this time, though, and Amyas’ friends, the brothers Philip and Meredith Blake, warn him as such. Amyas shrugs them off. Caroline’s teenage sister Angela also lives at the house under the care of the governess Miss Williams.

What follows are four accounts of the same moment in the book: when Elsa announces to all she’s going to marry Amyas…despite Amyas still being married to Caroline. The police officer shares bits and pieces of Philip Blake’s account, so for the sake of sticking with points of view present at the situation, I’ll keep him out.

Philip Blake (considering the length, I felt photos the easiest way to share):

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Elsa: And in the end I broke down. Caroline had been talking of some plan she and Amyas were going to carry out next autumn. She talked about it quite confidently. And I suddenly felt it was too abominable what we were doing–letting her go on like this–and perhaps, too, I was angry, because she was really being very pleasant to me in a clever sort of way that one couldn’t take hold of.  And so I came out with the truth. In a way, I still think I was right. Though, of course, I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had the faintest idea what was to come of it. The clash came right away. Amyas was furious with me for telling Caroline, but he had to admit that what I had said was true. (183-4)

Miss Williams: On this day, September 17th, as we were sitting in the drawing room after lunch, [Elsa] came out with an amazing remark as to how she was going to redecorate the room when she was living at Alderbury. Naturally, [Caroline] couldn’t let that pass. She challenged her and [Elsa] had the impudence to say, before us all, that she was going to marry [Amyas]. She actually talked about marrying a married man–and she said it to his wife! .. [Amyas] came in just then and she immediately demanded confirmation from him. He was not, unnaturally, annoyed with [elsa] for her unconsidered forcing of the situation. Apart from anything else, it made him appear at a disadvantage, and men do not like appearing at a disadvantage. It upsets their vanity. He stood there, a great giant of a man, looking as sheepish and foolish as a naughty schoolboy. It was his wife who carried off the honors of the situation. He had to mutter foolishly that it was true, but that he hadn’t meant her to learn it like this. (194-5)

Angela: The very first intimation I had of the whole thing was what I overheard from the terrace where I had escaped after lunch one day. Elsa said she was going to marry Amyas! It struck me as just ridiculous. I remember tackling Amyas about it. In the garden at Handcross it was. I said to him: “Why does Elsa say she’s going to marry you? She couldn’t. People can’t have two wives–it’s bigamy and they go to prison.” Amyas got very angry and said, “How the devil did you hear that?” I said I’d heard it through the library window. He was angrier than ever then and said it was high time I went to school and got out of the habit of eavesdropping….I stammered out angrily that I hadn’t been listening–and, anyhow, I said, why did Elsa say a silly thing like that? Amyas said it was just a joke. (199-200)

Notice the extensive detail Philip provides as opposed to, say, Miss Williams. Philip’s bias against Caroline and for Amyas highlights special touches of tension in his telling: “Elsa had got under her guard all right.” “Poor old Amyas…he went crimson and started blustering.” Then you have Miss Williams noting how Caroline “did not lose her dignity,” and later “walked like an empress” from the scene (193). Elsa’s telling revolves primarily around her feelings more than anything else, and Angela’s gets into something new: that Amyas  said it was all a joke.

Sure didn’t sound like a joke in that room.

One moment, told again and again, yet with new language and observations every time. This layering through multiple viewpoints gives readers the pleasure of digging for the unknown information and hidden emotions not known from the police account. Christie takes great care pacing out these plot reveals, too–Angela’s account, for example, isn’t given until the second to last chapter of the book.

The key here is that the information differs with each account: there’s always something new to learn. Even the lack of telling can be telling. Notice how Elsa breezes over this moment? You’d think she’d want to rub in how Caroline reacted to being told her husband was leaving her. Yeah, there’s a reason Elsa doesn’t share too much.

(Dunh dunh DUUUUUUUNH)

Now I get that this style of multiple points of view will not fit many kinds of story, nor can every story be told in a series of conversations. But if I’ve learned anything from my own point of view experiment, it’s that one’s got to try different styles of storytelling. Even if what you create isn’t fit for human eyes, you still stretched your brain. All those story-starts I did with Dorjan are going to remain stopped. They’re not going anywhere. But in writing them I did get to thinking about that character’s life, and other pieces that may be worth telling. And then, I got to thinking about other characters from the story and their lives…it goes on.

We don’t always find the right voice for a story in the first go. It might require a process of elimination to discover the true narrator. Or, maybe you’d rather have the different perspectives tell the story together. After all, Christie took a bunch of conversations and wove them into a taut mystery readers couldn’t leave alone. Just imagine what that kind of layering could do for your own fiction.

PS: In the spirit of Sarah J. Higbee’s weekly book cover studies, I wanted to share some of these designs for Five Little Pigs. Frankly, I feel gripped by none of them: not the childish ones, certainly not the giant pig. The one with the flowers is way too busy, and the beer glass of all things emphasizes THE biggest clue in the mystery. I see why later covers tended to focus more on the painting, as it is the catalyst for the murder.

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Have Mischievous Fun with Misdirection.

 

After a deep study of The A.B.C. Murders, I see just how bad-ass Agatha Christie was. She truly earned the title “The Queen of Crime.” One way she earned her crown: her use of clues.

Part of any mystery’s fun is the deduction of a clue’s status: red herring, or genuine? Mysteries must be addled with both in order to satisfy both the narrative and the reader. That woman managed to make a ton of clues both red herrings and genuine clues, and it’s never clearer than in The A.B.C. Murders. It’s so clear, in fact, that some publisher thought it was smart to throw the most important elements of the mystery onto a book cover.

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Gah, this one really pisses me off!

No, I’m not over-reacting.

Look, I get that all book covers need to attract readers, and what better way to draw readers to a mystery than by putting a mystery on the cover, right? If you pop on back to my earlier post on this story, you’ll see two covers that focus on different elements:

04db458e057ef85b0eb1f4e30ccee27f You got your railway guide. Important, but not a giveaway.

02368ff322ea2f21263540e8c89718c6You got the killer’s shadow and A.B.C. Neither are giveaways.

3fdbce79-c391-d822-f06e-75c7fc83740f-mediumoriginalaspectdouble Typewriter: Ibid.

925034295-2887690-1_s Corpse: Ditto Ibid. Etc. Etc. Etc.

That one cover with the stockings and letter, though…THAT one is showing off a little too much. (Shout-out to Sarah Higbee for getting me into these book cover comparisons!)

Let’s start with the letters. The first arrives on page 4:

MR. HERCULE POIROT–You fancy yourself, don’t you, at solving mysteries that are too difficult for our poor thick-headed British police? Let us see, Mr. Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be. Perhaps you’ll find this nut too hard to crack. Look out for Andover on the 21st of the month. Yours, etc., A.B.C.

The other three letters have this same tone: confident and mocking, with oodles of superiority. Inspector Crome of Scotland Yard, Hastings, and others dismissed the initial letter, but after the first murder each letter is treated as a window into the mind of the killer. Three of the four letters arrive some days in advance, even, as a way to let Poirot and the Yard prevent the next crime, but Poirot and the Yard’s measures are never enough. Only one letter arrives late because of an incorrect address, which the Yard puts off as an accident:

Poirot gave [the letter] to [Inspector Crome].

He examined it, swearing softly under his breath.

“Of all the damned luck. The stars in their courses fight for the fellow.”

“You don’t think,” [Hastings] suggested, “that it was done on purpose?”

Crome shook his head.

“No. He’s got his rules–crazy rules–and abides by them. Fair warning. He makes a point of that. That’s where his boastfulness comes in. I wonder now–I’d almost bet the chap drinks White Horse whisky.”

Ah, c’est ingenieux ca!” said Poirot, driven to admiration in spite of himself. “He prints the letter and the bottle is in front of him.”

The letters offer no forensic help, and only when the families of the first three victims come together does there seem to be any hope in catching the killer. In Chapter 21, Poirot deeply believes that conversation among the family members and witnesses will reveal the killer:

“Each one of us knows something about him–if we only knew what it is we know. I am convinced that the knowledge is there if we could only get at it.”

And sure enough, by the end of that chapter, a major connection is made when the third victim’s secretary recalls a stockings salesman coming to their door. The sister of the second victim mentions that her mother bought stockings for the victims the day she died. A reader can flip back and confirm what police say: a new pair of stockings was included in the first victim’s belongings.

Poirot presses the police to use the stockings angle, but they dismiss it as a coincidence. Of course they do! It’s only A MAJOR CLUE, right? And it does help: after the fourth victim is discovered, a man is spotted, bloody and bewildered, fleeing his room. A suitcase of new stockings was left behind. The man: Alexander Bonaparte Cust. A quiet man. Awkward. Shabby. Shy. Epileptic, and not medicated, so his memory has big gaps. He’s been to every location the day of a murder. He has a bloody knife, for crying out loud. The pressure to find him reaches such a fever that Cust himself walks into a police station in a daze and collapses.

So endeth the A.B.C. murders, yes? A typewriter in his room was the same used to write the letters. More stockings. More railway guides. All the clues are there….

And yet.

At the end of Chapter 31, Hastings wakes up from a nap to discover Poirot’s figured it out, and he’s going to be damned gleefully secretive about it. He’ll only say what he’s said before:

“There is nothing so dangerous for any one who has something to hide as conversation.”

Poirot meets face to face with Cust. Cust doesn’t recognize the detective’s name at all. He has no memory of the murders. Another man even remembers playing dominoes with Cust in a different part of the town where the second murder happened. And the second murder victim, a pretty young girl who liked to party, would NOT have given a guy like Cust the time of day, let alone her belt to be strangled with.

Yet the clues point to Cust. Cust even thinks he did the murders–he can’t remember those days, and as a stranger told him while reading his palm, he’s destined for the gallows…

Cust’s conversation reveals how some old clues are impacted by new clues. His character, for one, is in total contradiction with the letters. Unless the guy’s got split personality disorder, there’s no way a wuss like him is the snot who wrote the letters. He also talks about his dead-end job after the war, and the blessing that came with this selling job: a door-to-door job with a salary and commission. To any one with an iota of common sense, the idea of selling stockings door to door for a big salary and commission should sound questionable.

See what Christie did here? Those major clues–the letters, the stockings–were red herrings to take Poirot and the Yard to Cust. But those clues also reveal genuine hints of the true killer. By building us to this false climax of the killer caught, Christie increases tension a hundred fold. Despite Hastings’ skepticism (you’d think he’d know better by now), readers can’t help but read on to find out what Poirot’s discovered. I mean, I was super-peeved because my school contacted me about teaching and my son had the audacity to get sick. The wait until evening for those last fifteen pages was agony!

Chapter 34 is entitled “Poirot Explains,” for this is when all is explained to the families of the victims. Yes, it’s the typical gathering of suspects–it wouldn’t be a Poirot mystery without it. 🙂 Poirot focuses on the letters first: why write to Poirot, and not the Yard? Why commit these murders at all? Everyone else had thrown their hands up at “madness!” because that was the catchword of the day, apparently, and therefore everything’s justified. But Poirot points out that if a madman just wants to kill, why in Hades would he draw attention to himself, and therefore risk getting caught? He goes on with these contradictions found with the other clues, like the railway guide. There’s no discernable motive to be tied to Cust, or justification from any off-balance point of view.

So Poirot turns it all on its head with this base deduction about the letters:

“What was wrong with them was the fact they were written by a sane man!”

After all the “What?!?” by the victims’ families, Poirot points out how easy it is to hide something:

“When do you notice a pin least? When it is in a pin-cushion! When do you notice an individual murder least? When it is one of a series of murders.”

Now the letters become a major, genuine clue: the third letter, the only one mislabeled–the one Hastings wondered had been mislabeled on purpose–was for the murder that needed to happen without interference. When approached with that in mind, suddenly the true killer comes to the forefront: the boyish, adventurous, and broke brother of the third victim. He is one who could get that pretty girl to give him her belt. He is one with the snot-attitude that fits the letters to a T. He is one with the risk-taking spirit to kill in the open one night and approach the police the next. He had met Cust, and put the idea of the gallows destiny in his head. He planned out everything, from the bulk purchase of stockings and railway guides, to sending Cust the typewriter he used to type all the A.B.C. letters beforehand. He selected Poirot to get the letters because a letter addressed to Scotland Yard won’t go astray, but a letter to a private address can!

So yes, I’m still miffed about that one book cover. It took two of the most important pieces of the mystery and stuck them on the cover, forcing them to always be at the forefront of the reader’s mind. I’m also miffed this book isn’t used in more writing classes. It’s a brilliant piece of a mind-game: the clues alter in importance depending on the latest piece of information. What was once deemed important becomes a red herring only to become important again. And the fact that Christie gives us little chapters from Cust’s point of view early on makes us think we’re keeping tabs on the killer, and yet we can tell from those snippets what a shy, shabby fellow he is, devoid of confidence or wit. She’s giving us both a red herring and a real clue with every scene.

All method. No madness.

All hail the Queen of Crime!

 

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.