Friday (Saturday) Flotsam: Agatha Christie

1. Missed yesterday, obviously. I’m currently on a kind of personal mini-retreat at my sister’s, which meant being on the road or otherwise occupied for the past few days.

2. On the way up I listened to the Miss Marple novel They Do it With Mirrors. It isn’t one of Dame Agatha Christie’s best (I successfully guessed the solution the first time I read it), but like most of her work is hugely entertaining anyway.

Agatha Christie’s storytelling really does not get enough appreciation, I think; her intricate detective plots are brilliant, of course, but she also excels at mixing up a lot of different subplots in her work to try to keep you guessing. Usually, I find, there’s the actual plot (the murder), at least one major subplot (typically a romance: Dame Christie almost always worked romantic subplots into her books) that serves as a key smokescreen, plus two or three minor ones.

So, an Agatha Christie novel is set up as more or less a series of different, semi-connected plot lines all laid one on top of the other. Most have nothing to do with the murder, but they seem like they might. This also (I suspect) gave her the chance to explore other kinds of stories that she wanted to write anyway, but which were outside of the detective form.

(Upon reflection, I suppose all stories could be thought of like that, though in the case of a mystery novel, the subplots don’t have to contribute to the main plot at all. Their simply being there to muddy the waters is an adequate reason for their existence).

3. Another thing about Dame Christie’s work: she mastered the trick of making the most logical person guilty without making the solution obvious.

In most good murder mysteries, there are at least three suspects: the one everyone in the book thinks is obviously guilty, the one the audience is supposed to think is guilty, and the one who is actually guilty.

Say you have a man shot in his study. Is the killer A). his unscrupulous butler who was embezzling from him and about to get caught? B). the secretary in love with the man’s much-younger wife and whose story doesn’t quite hold together? or C). his very respectable lawyer who has a cast iron alibi and no obvious motive?

Of course it’s C (the lawyer actually had been embezzling from him for years and was about to be ruined). Dame Christie’s particular genius, however, was to make it turn out to be A after all, but in such a way that you would think he had already been cleared of suspicion. She didn’t do this all the time, but often enough. It keeps you on your toes.

4. The thing is, Dame Christie’s characterization and so forth isn’t usually brilliant: the characters are generally fairly clear ‘types’ with a few tweaks added on, but they’re well-realized and appealing types, which is really the important thing. The point of the story is to entertain, and as far as that’s concerned familiarity, or at least being able to get a picture of the character quickly is more important than depth. Not that you shouldn’t have both if you can, but in a detective story you usually don’t have the time for a whole lot of depth.

Besides which, the driving question of a detective story is ‘who did it’? And what gives the question its sting is the fear that someone you like is going to turn out to be the killer. So we need to set the characters quickly and clearly, in fairly broad strokes (the gruff military man, the pretty young woman, the middle-aged widow, etc.) so that the reader knows what’s at stake and can begin to try to figure out which one he thinks did the deed.

But then again, I’m generally of the opinion that vividness – that the characters stand out or stick in the reader’s mind – is more important than depth – that the characters show many different sides or layers and have a complex psychology. But that’s a topic for another time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s