Sunday, December 15, 2013

On Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie, DBE. (Wiki.)

by Louis Shalako

I’m the sort of guy who likes to figure things out for myself.

You can’t be writing crime or mystery fiction without ever hearing of Agatha Christie. She wrote seventy-eight mystery novels and five or six Gothic romances under the Mary Westmacott name. She wrote the longest-running play in history, The Mousetrap.

She was made a Dame of the British Empire and has sold something like a billion copies worldwide.

I was about fourteen years old. I was bored, and my mom suggested that I might like to read a book, I guess it was a rainy Saturday or something.

I recall coming out of my room and announcing that I was going to be a mystery writer! So I guess I liked the books just fine back then. In fact, about that age, I decided I was going to be a private detective, the fact that I was reading Erle Stanley Gardner and Brett Halliday, and Rex Stout may have had something to do with it. In some strange way, I got my wish, for having set up a murder in a book, the writer must go on to solve the crime, using those 'little grey cells.'

Nero Wolfe’s leg-man Archie Goodwin could remember a conversation verbatim, and recite it in full to Nero Wolfe later, serving as his eyes and ears because Wolfe hated to leave his house.

That impressed me as a valuable skill, and at a certain age, you sort of resent it when people remember things wrong. Were they just stupid? Or just covering their backsides, or had they lied, and never had any intention of doing what they said they were going to do? I guess I’ll never know, but kids are impatient creatures and I concluded that the average person was a bit stupid if they couldn’t remember what they said last week, last month, or last year. Archie Goodwin influenced me, it’s fair to say. Enough background, but I figure I’m relatively competent to write a book report or a review.

Is Agatha any good?

When my mother kindly brought a box of twenty old Agatha Christie books around, I finished whatever I was reading and they were close to hand.

The first one kind of put me off. Elephants Can Remember was rather passive. It was rather vague, and yet it involves a crime that occurred twelve years previously. Sure, old people have fuzzy memories, and the one character, a young girl, in one scene, when asked where she was when her parents were killed, said she couldn’t quite recall. In a later scene she said she was in school in Switzerland when it happened. Even so, that book has page after page of dialogue.

I would estimate the book at well over ninety percent, more like ninety-five percent dialogue.

So that one didn’t impress me too much.

The next one I read was The Man in the Brown Suit.

That one restored my faith in Agatha Christie, but of course the action didn’t happen twelve years in the past. 

Elephants got a three-star rating on Goodreads and the next one five stars, as I recall.

I’m working on the fifth one now, The Murder of the Blue Train. It’s a good book.

The trouble with Agatha Christie books of course, is that they’ve been in print for a long time.

Publishers bought the license, changed the title, and slapped a new cover on old books. If you bought one brand-new at the bookstore, there was a very good chance that you’d get halfway into the story, sit up and say, “Shit! I’ve read this book before.”

We can only blame the publisher for that.

One thing I noticed, in a Fontana edition, was that they used single quotation marks for dialogue.

When someone quoted from history, a literary figure or an aphorism, within dialogue, the typesetters had little choice but to use double quotation marks. To me, that’s bass-ackwards, although it really doesn’t detract from the overall story.

I’m just reading analytically.

In the first five books, two of them have involved wigs. As soon as I read that, I sat up and said, “Aha!”

I knew that was a clue, right? My suspicious were aroused. In the last book I sort of had it figured out, sort of, but she threw yet another twist in and fooled me. If I was investigating that crime for myself, I probably would have worried away at it and just kept going until I caught the killer, but in a novel, all the reader has to go on is what’s inside the pages of the book. Real life is different.

In fact, murder mysteries are not that common in real life, one only has to watch The First 48 Hours a few times to realize that most homicides are anything but planned, anything but well thought out and anything but clever—they are crimes of impulse, passion, and as often as not people get killed over a fifty-dollar drug debt, some disparaging words, or an argument over a girlfriend.

They are anything but sophisticated. That being said, the mystery genre has its tropes.

Agatha Christie is masterful enough (or Madameful enough?) that she always managed to bring up the important clues and at the same time misdirecting enough that so far I have not really known who did the crime until the author revealed it to the reader.

Speaking of tropes, the wig, the Hollywood makeup, the rubber mask glued on with ‘spirit gum’ are all too familiar. That wouldn’t work for me and it probably wouldn’t work for the average killer. I’m six-foot five inches tall, and the odds of me successfully posing as a woman for any length of time are negligible. I would say that’s true of most males, although a pale, slender, relatively short male might pull it off—as long as he doesn’t have a heavy beard, and a five-o’clock shadow, and remembers to sit down to pee…

How many times have we seen it?

The killer is run to ground and then someone grabs them under the chin and pulls off the tightly-fitting mask and of course it’s always the least suspicious person, diabolically clever, and the detective would have to be some sort of genius to get that far.

But also, when you think of Murder She Wrote or even The Rockford Files, it’s pretty obvious that mystery writers, book, film, TV, are often borrowing from the past. They do it pretty heavily and without shame. I would say there have been perhaps one too many writerly crimes—authors, publishers, agents, all very clever and willing to kill to get what they want. Jessica Fletcher, in Murder She Wrote, runs in those circles. She has no need to go out and solve drug crimes in the least glamorous part of town. In that sense, murder mysteries are still escapist fantasies, using established tropes and full of the usual stereotypes.

Another thing is the preponderance of what Christie calls the ‘mentally-disturbed.’ James Patterson has made a good career of portraying the seriously mentally ill perpetrator, his only variation being the serial nature of the crimes, the ticking clock in the background, (which builds tension and suspense) and the setting in a major city. The books are more thriller than mystery or detective story. His detective Alex Cross, the one with all the kids, still follows the stereotype, in that the detective has to have a ‘tic.’ Hercule Poirot had his green eyes, the egg-shaped head and the luxuriant mustaches. I think Mrs, Ariadne Oliver, another character invented by Christie, also a crime writer, has come to hate her own Finnish detective, God knows if he’s got a peg-leg or an eye-patch, but that is just the way things were done—and they still are, as often as not, in modern detective fiction. It is a formulaic genre and woe betide the author who forgets that the readers have certain expectations.

One of my criticisms of an Agatha Christie novel, and I think it is a valid one, was where a small group of people are at dinner and one dies of poisoning. The number of suspects is so limited that in my opinion no self-respecting murderer would ever take such a chance! And yet she pulled that one off too.

That is one small part of Agatha Christie’s legacy. She influenced more than one generation of writers.

I have no doubt of that at all, and she certainly influenced me.

When I go to write my fourth mystery novel in a few months, I will have a lot to think about.

Hopefully the reader will wish me luck on that one.

But we are following in a great tradition. If you don’t like something as a reader or a writer—and I’m not fond of Patterson for some reason—you have the right to do it any way you like. If you can pull it off, then you may have accomplished something of literary value.

If nothing else, I have a hell of a lot of fun writing them.


If the reader is interested, my original crime novella ‘The Handbag’s Tale’ is free from iTunes and a number of online bookstores.

This series was inspired as much by Georges Simenon’s Maigret series as anything else, as I wanted a distinctly French feel, a certain noir kind of literature, but there are distinct parallels with Hercule Poirot; perhaps more so with Maigret, although I've only read a couple of those.

The Art of Murder. (Barnes & Noble.)

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