Agatha Christie

Does it Have to Be Fair?

Hercule Poirot

If you were to ask a million people what makes a detective story good, you might get a whole bunch of different responses, everything from that the murder be nice and bloody and happen to someone who deserves it (or who, though undeserving of being murdered, perhaps is annoying enough that we enjoy it), to the fact that the detective is someone unexpected.

However, and this is pure speculation as I have no way to ask a million people a question (and if I did, this probably wouldn’t be the question I’d choose), I believe that there are two answers that would come up more than the rest combined.

The first is the interest factor.  If the butler did it with the revolver in the billiards room, no one cares.  It’s been done before.  So to keep people’s interest, the writer needs to get clever either in the method, the culprit or the motive.  So if the butler’s invalid mother committed the murder using a poison distilled from the teeth of a Venus flytrap, because she wanted to take the rear-view mirror from the victim’s antique Bentley, readers who like originality will be happy.

The second major preference in my utterly hypothetical scientific study would be those who want to have a chance to beat the detective at his or her own game.  These would insist that the keys to discovering the murder must be given to the reader, no mater how fiendishly disguised.  In fact, the more cleverly hidden, the better; true experts aren’t interested in the thrill of a hollow victory.  They want to earn it.  But to do so, there must be no ambiguity, and the clues must point to a single possible resolution.

The perfect mystery story would have both of these characteristics at the same time.  It would be both original and fair.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, which creates a Venn diagram with a couple of circles that do touch, but not as often as would be ideal.

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

So where are we going with this?  Well, we’re looking at a specific book, and through it at a particular author.  The book is After the Funeral and the author is Agatha Christie.  I’ll try not to spoil it for anyone.

(By the way, we’ve looked at Agatha Christie before, but that was through the lens of what made her a megagazillion bestselling author–not looking at her as a pure specimen of a mystery writer.)

This is a typical Christie book in that everything, including the murder, is in doubt until the very end.  From a reasonably large sample size that also includes her more well-known titles, I’d have to say that this is a fairly typical showing.  If someone put a gun to my head and asked me where Christie falls on the spectrum discussed above (again, is that the question anyone would ask another person while threatening them with death?), I’d place her firmly on the “originality” side of the Venn diagram with one foot occasionally, but certainly not permanently in the “fairness” circle.

This isn’t to say that Christie doesn’t give certain clues, or that it’s always impossible to guess at what’s happening, but her objective, I believe, was more to make her audience say ‘coo, that was clever’ (she was British, the British say this sort of thing) than to slap themselves in the forehead and say ‘of course! That was why the goose swallowed the revolver!’

But, at the same time, there is certainly a soft focus to the clues in many of her mysteries.  While the resolution arrived at by Poirot or Marple or whoever might fit all the clues, there is always a fuzzy border in which the clues also fit other answers.  These are usually discarded by Poirot after he goes on an undisclosed trip to talk to someone off camera.

That’s fine, and I think half of the people who read these books will not be overly concerned with that… But the other half might, and considering Christie’s status, they might be put off mystery fiction forever.

Of course, as a writer in a different genre, I am not unduly bothered by this.  A failed mystery or a perceived unfairness in a Christie novel might simply drive them to one one of my books instead (hooray).  So I’m not complaining!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, an SF novel with a mystery at its core which may or may not be fair, but it will definitely both shock and surprise you.  You can buy it at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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Queen of Crime: A Midlist Report

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie

If you’ve never read a book by Agatha Christie, you’d be silly to begin with anything other than The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express.  These are clearly the two “must read” Christies, and act in the same way that The Great Gatsby does for Fitzgerald: the rest of the books might be decent, but there’s a reason these two in particular stand out.

But, as witnessed by the fact that she is the best-selling novelist of all time, it’s pretty clear that most people don’t stop at these two.  They read on and on and on.  The questions we aim to answer today are: 1) why? and 2) is it worth it?

In order to make a run at these, I’ll use three Christie books I recently read: Elephants Can Remeber, Nemesis and Murder on the Links.  These three are a couple of Poirots and a Miss Marple, so a reasonable selection.

Before answering the question, though, I found something interesting: Nemesis was not set in a soft-focus prewar era, but actually in a much more modern milieu.  That ultimately made little difference to its effectiveness as a mystery but somehow, cozy mysteries are just that bit less cozy without some kind of Edwardian-ness about them.

Anyhow, with these three as the star exhibit (I won’t go into plots here – anyone aware of Christie’s methods knows it’s difficult to avoid spoilers if one gets into details) I’ll try to answer the quesions.

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

1)  Why do people read more that one or two of the non-superstar Christie books.  I think there’s a couple of reasons for this one.  The first is the fun of trying to work out who the killer is alongside the detective.  Christie’s lesser work might not be quite as good as her best, but with her, you know that the mystery is going to be interesting and fair to the reader.  You’ll be given a chance to solve it.

Another reason is, I believe, comfort with the characters and scenario.  The grisly, life-shattering effects of any murder are glossed over to focus on the surviving characers and the detective.  No scenes of blood spattered bathrooms or bodies in excrement-filled sewers here, just a clean dead body that starts a process of deduction.  Also, the characters speak in familiar ways and plow familiar furrows.  They are books you can relax into.

Finally, they are entertaining.  Whatever their status as classics, you can certainly count on them to help you pass a pleasant two or three hours and, really, what else can you ask from a book of this kind?

The Murder on the Links

2) Is it worth it?  That’s the crux of the question, isn’t it?  There are more books out there than any human can possibly hope to read, so why bother with anything other than an author’s best?

Well, the reasons above are a good start, but they clearly don’t work for everyone.  Many people will answer the question above with “Don’t bother with anything else,” and they’d have a perfectly valid point.

In my own case, I find that a little Christie novel is the perfect balm after reading something a bit more literary and dense, an Eco, maybe, or some Joyce.  I enjoy a good mystery as much as the next fellow, and these are pretty much always decent, if not necessarily brilliant, and I don’t have to worry about subtext and symbolism (the body was buried in a bunker on the eighth hole… is that symbolic of something?  Sand being the end of all life?).

To others, Christie is exactly the right level for all their reading.  Even very well-educated people might not feel like diving into Kierkegaard after a hard day at the office, and that’s just fine.  And some people can’t be bothered to read anything harder than this – which is also fine; at least their not watching a reality show featuring a Kardashian.  That counts for a hell of a lot in my book.

Whatever the theoretical answer, reality has already given us the real response: Yes.  To many, many people it certainly is worth it.  The illustrations above show the most recent editions of these books, but most, if not all, of them have been continuously in print since they were first published – and the most recent was released in 1975: 43 years ago.

Yeah, she knew what she was doing, and even the internet age hasn’t dulled that.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer.  The characters in his novel Outside face a 500-year-old mystery that has a completely unexpected resolution.