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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who put it in the chest, I wonder?”

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

I acquiesced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was rather disconcerted by this…

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, but why?”

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps your day’s already come.

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