Friday Flotsam: Dean Koontz and more Agatha Christie

1. It has been an odd week for me. I’ve been strangely listless and unable to settle down to anything (I mean, more so than usual). I really don’t know what to ascribe it to: depression, anxiety, medication side-effects, or just old-fashioned vice. Suppose the only way to find out is simply to keep working at it and see what works.

2. On the way home from my sister’s place I listened to Dean Koontz’s Tick-Tock (well, after finishing another Agatha Christie: Lord Edgware Dies. That one’s pretty good, though in retrospect it depends on Poirot making a major mistake early on to avoid solving the mystery in about ten minutes). It was…odd. The more I read of Mr. Koontz, the more I find that he has a tendency to let his stories get away from him, where things start to go absolutely nuts as the plot progresses. This was one of those: it starts off as a creepy supernatural horror thriller, then maybe half-way through takes a hard left into an almost cartoonish comedy, while maintaining the gruesome imagery and concepts of the early parts. Or maybe that was intended from the get go, but it was an odd experience nonetheless, and I confess I think I would have preferred a more straight-fire thriller, since the premise itself was really good. I chalk this and similar books up to his being a pantser who works things out as he goes.

(Also, this book hails from the mid-nineties, when ‘super-witty and competent chick paired with nervous, out-of-his-depth, wimpy hero’ was still considered cute. That aspect hasn’t aged well at all).

3. I don’t want anyone to run away with the idea that I dislike Mr. Koontz’s work. On the contrary, I usually enjoy him a lot. The Odd Thomas series is great, as is From the Corner of His Eye and The Good Guy (among the ones I’ve read). Strangers had a great opening, but I thought the payoff was a letdown (though to be fair, it’s really hard to come up with a good payoff to books like that), ditto, though to a less extent, for Phantoms. I remember liking Watchers a good deal too. I didn’t finish Intensity because, well, it was too intense. I took a breather and never went back. Not ‘light’ reading that one.

In any case, as I say, I generally like Mr. Koontz’s work, and even in his more disappointing books I love his style. He’s a wordsmith with a sense of humor, and you can’t ask for more than that.

4. Speaking of Agatha Christie, I also recently revisited Murder on the Orient Express. I think that’s probably the best gateway book if you want to begin reading her work (not least because Poirot spoils the ending in many subsequent books): it’s a strong premise and a fantastic plot, and Poirot has to make some brilliant deduction to solve it. It’s also a pretty delightful cross-section of interwar European society, if you’re into that sort of thing (and who isn’t?).

Of course, the only trouble is that it’s a very famous book and most people already know the solution. If you, by any chance, haven’t already heard it, I urge you to do your best to avoid finding out! Just pick up a copy and read it: you’ll be glad you did.

Then after you’ve done that, pick up the 1974 film version starring Albert Finny as Poirot and a truly staggering collection of stars as everyone else. It’s a great film, even apart from the mystery and the sheer delight of seeing Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Sir John Gielgud, Richard Widmark, Ingrid Bergman, and more acting together.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
“Mais oui!”

(I haven’t seen the 2017 Kenneth Branagh version, but I think it’s fair to say the odds of its being as good are tres petit).

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.