Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Reading Agatha Christie

When Mighty Reader and I were in Victoria, I bought a copy of Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It's the first novel Christie ever published, the first Hercule Poirot novel, and also a book I've never read. It also has a cool cover and I am, admittedly, swayed by nice artwork. I am tempted to pick up all of the Poirot mysteries in these new Harper UK editions because they're so attractive.

Anyway, it occurred to me last night that the secret to the middle of a classic detective novel is to present every single thing the detective sees or touches as A Clue. You just bury the reader in Clues for 100 pages. "There was a blade of grass on his left shoe." That sort of thing. "His tie was askew." "There were two cups in the sink, though Jones claimed he'd been alone for breakfast" (it turns out later that Jones used one cup to drink coffee and the other to water a houseplant while having his coffee; "the cup was right there, so why not use it?"). And so on. None of these clues are differentiated, though it's helpful to have someone insist that certain of these Clues are Very Important. The less they have to do with the actual crime, the more important someone should insist they are. If the detective waggles his eyebrows over a particularly slight discovery ("Look: the cat has shed on the bedspread!"), all the better.

The middles of classic detective novels often annoy me because they are generally little more than lists of nonessential information. The stories grind to a halt and a weird sense of stasis settles over the narrative. I grit my teeth and push forward, hoping for something exciting like a second victim. Christie sometimes breaks up the monotony of building the pile of clues with passages about gardens or architecture or whatever that are usually pretty entertaining and well written. But most of the time the middle of a detective story simply irritates me.

In my philosophical detective story, I have attempted to avoid this "These Are All Important Clues So Pay Attention" technique, and have focused instead on the characters and their relationships. I decided to write a story that happens to be a mystery, not a mystery that includes a story, if you see the difference. Even so, it's tempting to go back through my manuscript and add a deluge of Clues, not because I think that will increase the enjoyability/challenge of the mystery, but because it looks like a lot of devilish good fun. I mean, I can see what Christie is doing with her second acts full of useless detail; it's interesting work to come up with and plant useless clues. You have to make it believable to the reader that there was a tire iron in the dining room and a shard of broken mirror under the sofa in the parlor. You can't just throw in props at random.

Why is the cat shedding on the bedspread significant? Because the owner of the bed is allergic to cats. What's that have to do with anything? Well, it turns out that the allergy is a lie. Is the liar guilty of murder? No, he's actually just afraid of cats but can't admit that so he made up the allergy. He's trying to impress a girl and thinks his fear of cats isn't impressive. See? It's all misdirection but it all has to make real-world sense, or something close.

The secret to reading a classic detective novel is to ignore, to the best of your ability, all of the alleged Clues the detective presents and instead focus your attention on what happens with the characters who move about in the background. That's where all the real action is.

3 comments:

  1. The secret to reading a classic detective novel is to ignore, to the best of your ability, all of the alleged Clues the detective presents and instead focus your attention on what happens with the characters who move about in the background. That's where all the real action is.

    Excellent advice :)...I keep finding gems every time I lurk on your blog.

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  2. Damyanti, I read your blog daily (or whenever you post, that is) but I almost never comment. Because I'm lame. What was my point? Oh, yeah, I like your blog, too!

    I've been reading detective stories for years and I like them a lot but the middles have always just pissed me off and it wasn't until the night before last that I figured out that I should just ignore all the clues. Which seems counterintuitive, but there you are.

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  3. It's also possible that today's mystery writers ignore the format Christie used, and I'm just making a fool of myself talking like this because I'm out-of-touch with what's going on in the current world of detective fiction. This is what happens when literary writers dabble in genre fiction. I think that because I've read Poe and Doyle and a dozen Christie books and six mysteries by Iain Pears that I know the literature, and really I don't, do I? It's just like when people say "I didn't like Dickens, so I gave up on literary fiction because it's boring." I have not got an informed opinion, and an uninformed opinion is nothing but ignorant spouting.

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