Can Series Characters Get in the Way?

In An Appointment With Death, Hercule Poirot is on vacation in Jordan. He is called into a case involving the death of a woman in the historic city of Petra.

This sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Christie’s sleuth on the case.

Unfortunately, in the actual narration of the story, Poirot shows up just in time to overhear two conversations at the hotel. Other than those two encounters and the testimonials given at the end, he’s not involved in the storyline at all. The whole story centers around the dead woman, her abused adult children, a woman doctor who falls in love with one of the lady’s kids, and how they all interact. It’s a fascinating scenario….

But I wondered throughout if Poirot was needed?

He had nothing to do with anything except to overhear two key pieces of information. Then everyone else presents their testimony in the last few chapters and voila! The murderer is unmasked and sent off for justice.

There were other police officers who could just have easily figured out the situation. The characters involved in the murder could have sorted it out amongst themselves. There’s an almost infinite array of options, and yet it fell to Poirot. Which I understand, because a lot of people like the guy. Heck, I like the guy. I think he’s amusing and sharp and entertaining. But in this particular book, I felt like he was an unnecessary piece – just thrown in because readers would expect Poirot or Marple to be participating in some kind of investigation.

But Christie wrote books without either Poirot or Marple. (And Then There Were None being one of the most legendary of her career, as a matter of fact.) So why Poirot?

I have no answers. Only questions today, it seems. Have you guys read any series where you wondered what exactly the lead series character was doing in a particular story? Seems that it would pop in more in cozy series – after all, caterers and knitting clubs shouldn’t be involved in the first place, right?

Consistency of Physical Description

I have trouble keeping track of the various eye colors of my characters through one book. In my last completed draft of a book, I caught at least three variations of eye color of my main character’s eyes. Apparently I just couldn’t decide. So, as I read through Christie’s body of work, my main thought is: Damn, this girl’s consistent.

And creative. She paints a definite portrait of Poirot, but uses different methods to get there. The only thing that is perfect every time is the picture of the character.

Take for example the following descriptions of Hercule Poirot’s moustache throughout a few books:

from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926): “Over the wall, to my left, there appeared a face. An egg-shaped head, partially covered with suspiciously black hair, two immense mustaches, and a pair of watchful eyes.”

from Murder on the Orient Express (1934): “Hercule Poirot addressed himself to the task of keeping his moustaches out of the soup. That difficult task accomplished, he glanced round him whilst waiting for the next course.”

from Cards on the Table (1936): “While the Lovely Young Thing made a suitable reply, Poirot allowed himself a good study of the hirsute adornment on Mr. Shaitana’s upper lip. A fine moustache – a very fine moustache – the only moustache in London, perhaps, that could compete with that of M. Hercule Poirot.”

Throughout all of these descriptions, we have moustaches (Poirot’s signature trait), as well as Poirot’s fussiness about his appearance. (There are other creative references to his too-dark hair and egg-shaped head too.)

My good writer buddies, Ali and Deb, both have mentioned to me that they keep bibles for their books. This is something that I’m trying to do with my current WIP. But that’s just to keep me straight on what I’ve done already…it has nothing to do with giving a consistent description in varied, lively ways.

Sure, the descriptions in a series really just have to bring new readers up to speed. It doesn’t have to be new. (Sweet Valley High – I’m looking at you with Jessica and Elizabeth and their perfect size-six super-model good looks!) Generally, readers are gonna skim during those physical descriptions anyway, right?

Well, I say that’s no way to treat your reader!

Homework for this weekend: Take the physical description of your character and spin ’em around a little bit. Feel free to share your experiments in the comments section (if you’re feeling brave) and if you have any tips for keeping character traits straight (say that three times really fast!) please give tidbits! My book’s bible is getting so ridiculously full that I’m not sure how helpful it’ll be to me….

Thursday Reviews: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (A Mentor Review!)

The Murder of Roger AckroydThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is difficult to talk about without giving away the end. So I’ll just say that, as with Murder on the Orient Express I had a moment a little ways in where I went: “If she’s doing what I thing she’s doing, then there is a definite reason that Agatha Christie is the Queen.” Sure enough, she did it, and I was not only satisfied, but impressed. Though (sorry I have to remain a little cryptic here) the reason that I didn’t give five stars in this case was the way ‘justice’ was applied at the very end.

Probably the coolest thing about this is the double-mystery aspect of it. You’ve got the physical clues listed in regular Christie fashion, but you also have the literary clues–the clues in the narrative–that create a puzzle on top of a puzzle. It was the language that Christie used that made the little hairs on the back of my neck prick up and say “Hey, something’s up here,” and then the “If she’s doing what I think she’s doing….” So fun. I love it when I get engaged as a reader.

The characters in this book are typical Christie: nosy neighbors, a concerned possible Hastings-replacement narrator, mysterious strangers, secret marriages, clandestine meetings over saloons, and, of course, Hercule Poirot. Then you mix ’em all together, kill someone, and sort out the mess later. What’s not to love?

Side Note: One thing I appreciated, though didn’t necessarily need in this edition (which I found on a dollar shelf at a local used bookstore–I almost bought everything Christie wrote in one fell swoop…but stopped myself), was the translations of Poirot’s French exclamations.

Sorry this review is so short, but…you should really just read it for yourself.

View all my reviews

Characters Who Don’t Make It Through The Series

In both of Christie’s series – Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple – the opening books are narrated by characters who fall away fairly quickly in the series, never to be heard from in the same way again: John Hastings as Poirot’s bumbling sidekick in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Vicar Leonard Clement in Murder at the Vicarage.

Of course, these would be my two favorite characters out of what I’ve read of Christie’s books so far. Both characters are hilarious, charming…basically someone I’d like to date. They care about their fellow man. They are open to new possibilities (i.e. will listen when someone unexpected like Poirot or Marple has something to say).
But, in spite of all of their likeability as characters, there’re reasons that they can’t go on in the series. As much as you like a character, sometimes they have to go. It is the ultimate case of eliminating your darlings.

Why do these gentlemen have to hit the highway, though? Hastings wants to be a detective/sleuth (so he says). The vicar is a leader in Marple’s nosy little town. Seems like they’d be able to fit into the lives of Poirot and Marple pretty easily.

Yeah, but that gives the reader too many characters to negotiate. Instead of using Poirot and Marple as the keys to the mystery – which they are – the narrators of Hastings and the vicar are given too much power in their respective stories. Mostly because they’re the narrators. Narration is THE position of power and trust. As narrators, Hastings and Clement potentially negate the influence of Poirot and Marple in the novels.

Another reason is stage-of-life logistics. After all, Poirot is a retired inspector who is constantly being interrupted on vacation or when he’s moved to a quiet place to escape the hustle and bustle of detecting. Hastings is a young, flirtatious, prime-of-life specimen. How do you explain his trailing alongside a retired inspector?

Miss Marple is a nosy old lady, with her own established place in the village. The vicar is a busy man, with a young busy wife, with a flock of the sinning-est group of folk in the country. How do you explain him hanging out with Miss Marple all hours of the day and night, and conversely, how would you like Miss Marple if she had to constantly hang around him?

Eventually, everything that made these two characters likeable would wear away. While it makes me sad to see them disappear as the books go on, I do indeed understand the reasoning, or instinct, that veered Christie away from them.

What recurring characters can you think of who overstayed their welcome, either in a book series or a television series? Why do you think the Love faded away?

Meditating on What Makes Poirot a Good Series Character

In her career, Agatha Christie came up with, not one, but two iconic characters: Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. Today we’ll look at Poirot, seeing why he’s a good focal point for a mystery series.

In her Autobiography Christie gives a detailed account of the genesis of the The Mysterious Affair at Styles. By now the main facts are well known: the immortal challenge – ‘I bet you can’t write a good detective story’ – from her sister Madge, the Belgian refugees from the First World War in Torquay who inspired Poirot’s nationality….” ~John Curran, The Secret Notebooks of Agatha Christie, describing the impetus for Christie’s first novel.

As you can see, inspiration can come from any- and every- where. Because of her sister’s challenge, Christie was thinking ‘detective’ or ‘inspector’. Then, because of the Belgian refugees, Christie brought in a well-traveled foreign inspector (who continues to be well-traveled throughout his so-called retirement). The benefits of this are obvious: it adds a certain mystique, it allows for travel to different locations later, and, last but certainly not least, possibilities for multiple cases are endless because of Poirot’s profession.

Most of Christie’s books involve Inspector Poirot. Something about him must have 1. caught her fancy and 2. caught her readers’ fancy. I think that the pieces of his character that make him appealing could easily be applied to others who are trying to create a character that will live through multiple books (whether mystery genre or otherwise).

Here are some things that I think work well with Poirot that would translate to other characters:

Poirot is smart. In order for a character to have universal appeal, they can’t be stupid. Stupid sometimes equals funny (which is not universal – something can be funny to one person and not the next), but otherwise it equals annoying. Readers want characters who can hold their own in conversations and pay attention to what’s going on in the story. Smart, insightful characters also serve as a key to pay attention to what is important.

Poirot is quirky. Quirky is different than funny. This guy doesn’t fit into the norm of everyday situations. He’s got an odd fashion sense, he wants everything to be neat and orderly, and he travels everywhere. It gives him perspective that others don’t have.

Poirot is concerned about the other characters. He is fascinated with their lives, quirks, motivations, and foibles. That makes the readers interested too. Since Poirot loves Hastings, for example, the early stumbling Watson with a penchant for redheads to Poirot’s Holmes, is that much cooler to the reader because Poirot hangs out with him.

Poirot can take a backseat. While Poirot is a great character, it’s rare that we see into his personal world. The story is always about a family in crisis, or a situation that he is not inherently involved in. This allows the other characters to shine through – therefore the reader can focus on the central issues.

What do you think are some good character traits for a series character?

How Fast the Machine Can Get Out of Hand

On Wednesday we talked about how writers are subject to the language of their day. This brought to mind a recent bout of my own with the rhetoric machine – specifically the quotation portion of the machine.

As you surely know, a couple weeks ago, Osama bin Laden was killed. The national reaction was big. Facebook and Twitter and the comments section of political blogs lit up like Las Vegas. Suddenly everyone spoke up at once. Everything from celebratory shout-outs to conspiracy theories hit the social media scene. And, unlike Agatha Christie’s time period, where the readers were forced to wait for newspapers or magazines (and only newspapers or magazines) to get to print, this kind of stuff was in front of millions of people all at once.

At times like that it’s common to look to historical figures (read: mentors, anyone?) to help sum-up the momentous occasion. This occasion was no different. Two particular ‘quotes’ started to pop up:

1. Attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”

2. Attributed to Mark Twain: “I have never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.”

Unfortunately, neither quote ever came from either man.

The first is a mis-post on Facebook, according to The Atlantic. Apparently an English teacher in Japan did not noticeably separate the MLK quote from her own opinion and thus was born a sentiment that was shared by millions. If you have a few minutes, Megan McArdle’s piece is well worth reading – anything with this kind of observation: “mangled to meme in less than two days” works for me. (And I have to say that I’m mega-impressed that this one was hunted down at all.)

The second quote, the ‘Mark Twain’ quote, is the one that I tripped up on, because I could’ve sworn that I’d heard it before — turns out I had, just not from Twain. Caught up in the moment, I reposted without verifying. And that’s exactly what it was: caught up in the moment. My brother served overseas. My father is a contractor who deals in these dangerous areas. My next door neighbor was killed by an IED. I live in a military town. No lie – I wasn’t sad to hear the bin Laden news. And the sentiment expressed by the Twain ‘quote’ fit perfectly with my mood. (Still does, if I’m being totally honest.)

But, you know.

Talk about embarrassing when talk of the false quotations started going around!

Turns out the second quote is actually from Clarence Darrow’s The Story of My Life, according to Alexis Madrigal over at The Atlantic Wire. The full quote: “All men have an emotion to kill; when they strongly dislike some one they involuntarily wish he was dead. I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.” I have no problem reposting this…Clarence Darrow was a pretty smart dude. If he sounds familiar it’s because he was the lawyer for the defense in the Scopes trial – dramatized in Inherit the Wind.

This is a great illustration, to me at least, of the importance of being aware of what you’re saying – and for a brief once-over of the consequences of not being aware, check out McArdle’s piece in The Atlantic. She talks about how people started defending the false quotations, creating historical references where none existed. So, yes, something potentially dangerous can rise out of something as seemingly insignificant as a quotation from a person who died years ago.

I’ll take this second to apologize to my Facebook buddies for spreading falseness through the ranks. After all, my integrity is not something I like to risk. Emotions can get the best of us, as it did for me in this circumstance, but we should always work to be constantly aware.

How’s about you guys? Have you ever misquoted? Or have you ever put yourself out there, sure that you were right, only to find out (Dammit!) that you were, ahem, not-as-right-as-you-thought?

Thursday Reviews: My Second Grade Notebook

Over at Girdle of Melian, Deniz posted a goal for this month: Look over your old writing. Which was one of those crazy synchronous moments for me because, lo and behold, I had just found a 3.5 floppy (you guys remember what those are, right?) filled with embarassing old short stories and a notebook that I kept in second grade.

(Originally, I thought it was from kindergarten…then I realized that my math sucked by two years. Better for me to stick to the writing….)

On the front page of said notebook is a small note written in the hand of one Roxanne Clarke, my second grade teacher at Nolanville Elementary School in Killeen, TX. (It may be Harker Heights, TX, now.) It is dated November 26, 1986:

“Jennifer — You need to work on new ideas. Your stories make sense, but are almost the same every day.”

What? What! The same every day? Need to work on new stories! Augh! (And yes, she did emphasize the word ‘new’.)

Imagine how I must have felt earlier today, reading those words some couple decades later.

Yeah. I felt just like Philip Roth.

When Carmen Callil left the Man Booker Prize judging in protest she leveled a similar charge, as quoted in The Guardian: “he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book.”

Oh, I feel for my second grade teacher and Callil both. Having to read the same old story over and over again, and only the characters have different names. Thinly veiled political agendas such as the following pepper my notebook: “This is a cake. What is a cake? Oh, it is something you eat.”

Only to be repeated again and again to make sure the message gets through, like so: “This is a flower. Flowers are pretty. Lets pick one!”

I can hear the criticism now….

She only writes about chubby girls.
She only writes about girly girls.
She only writes about chubby girly girls.

Well, gosh darn it. If Roth can win the Man Book Prize for repetitive themes, then I say that I give my just-turned-seven-year-old self at least three stars for the same thing.

Product-of-Your-Time Rhetoric – Is Awareness the Answer?

Agatha Christie is my third mentor for this year, and she’s also the third British writer who published actively in the ’20s and ’30s. Woolf, Wodehouse, and Christie could, very conceivably, have hung out and had some beers together. They were all about the same age and wrote throughout both World Wars. What’s so interesting about reading these three authors back-to-back is their approaches to literature are so startlingly different. Stream-of-conscious Woolf. Humorous Wodehouse. Mysterious Christie.

However, I noticed a disturbing trend as I read through these three writers. I hesitate to bring it up, only because it involves the potential to insult these writers whom I’ve worked so hard to talk about. But I think if we are to learn anything from a mentor, we have to examine the subjects that come up, flaws and all. So I’m going to risk it and hope that you’ll share your thoughts and comments below.

Underlying the different techniques and the approaches to language in these writers, there was one thing that they all hit on at one point or another: disparaging commentary toward minority groups. Specifically Blacks and Jews.

The book that brought my attention to this directly was the original title of Christie’s And Then There Were None. At first that book was called Ten Little Niggers. Then Ten Little Indians. The final version I read had no reference to either of the previous titles – the song used in the book refers to ten soldiers.

My brain spun at the idea that a book could be published at all with the two original titles. Then I thought about Wodehouse and Woolf, remembering that there had been one or two times where a derogatory term would pop up. I flipped back through and here are some examples of what I found:

• from The Voyage Out: “ ‘I want people to like me and they don’t. It’s partly my appearance, I expect,’ he continued, ‘though it’s an absolute lie to say I’ve Jewish blood in me….’”
• from Jacob’s Room: “she liked that man Jacob better than dirty Jews.”

• from “The Little Nugget”: “It is always the bad nigger who gets religion most strongly at the camp meeting, and in my case ‘getting religion’ had taken the form of suppression of self.”
• from Mike and Psmith: “Unfortunately, he used the sooty hand and the result was like some gruesome burlesque of a nigger minstrel.”

And there are more examples from each one of these writers. I’m not saying that to bash their stories or their accomplishments. In fact, as I turned it over in my head, considering the drastic differences in style, method, selling-ness, and experiences of the authors, I found it strange that all three could consistently mention Blacks and Jews in such a fashion: just throwing down the words without expectation of reprisal.

Then it occurred to me: in the time period these three writers were producing work, it was – while not necessarily encouraged – accepted that “nigger” or “dirty Jew” could be thrown into a story as a legitimate metaphor. Readers wouldn’t have thought twice (unless such terms were thrown into the title…and even Ten Little Niggers got past enough editors to get published). The rhetoric of the culture allowed such things to be said.

While, today, we bitch and moan about having to be Politically Correct, there are some darn good reasons to watch what we write or say. First off, piled-up rhetoric is very convincing.

Imagine, if you will, that thousands of people are reading just these three authors (as they were and are). Therefore, thousands of people are exposed to the language “nigger” and “dirty Jew” thrown around in casual conversation/popular literature. That casual language sets a layer. Now, imagine a talented rhetorician comes around, notices what is or is not acceptable to talk about, and starts emphasizing certain things, i.e. “You have no money, but that dirty Jew shop owner does.” Another layer. And imagine a rhetorician with a film camera commenting on The Eternal Jew. Another layer.

No! Before anyone jumps to conclusions, I do not in any way blame Woolf, Wodehouse, or Christie for Hitler – or for slavery/segregation/American politics until the 1960s for that matter. I’m merely illustrating that what we say (whether in writing, in speech, in blogs) has a layering effect. It’s like millions of pieces of paper or bytes leaning and piling on top of one another.

And, unfortunately, we may not realize that what we said added to the layers of negativity.

Not to get any more political, but only to illustrate today’s potentially rhetorical danger zone: Today, as we know, Osama bin Laden is dead. The Middle East is in upheaval. And there are going to be literary reactions to all of it, on all sides. Books have already been written in reaction to 9/11 (The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Hamid, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Safran Foer, and The Terrorist by Updike to name three wide variations on this theme).

While great writers try so, so, so hard to remain balanced, to just tell the story, to examine what could be the truth from all sides…the truth is, writers are only human. They have biases and prejudices – often fed by their Time. They’re (we’re) bound to fuck up. And only future generations can tell how much so.

But I think, by being aware of what we’re saying, we’ll be able to say it better, without offending too many, and without compromising our own integrity or the integrity of our work.

Okay, I’ve gone on waaaay too long. You’re turn. What’re your thoughts on political correctness? Derogatory terms? The three mentors’ language? Or, you know, if you know a good joke that’ll lighten the heavy discussion…. =)

Plato and Aristotle Weigh in on Agatha Christie

Back in the olden days, Plato made the argument that still resonates today: Violence on T.V. causes violence in real life.

Okay, maybe that’s not a direct quote. But the essence of the argument is there. According to Plato in his Republic, poets specifically should not be allowed into a well-ordered society because, well, they make society un-ordered. Poets (read: writers/storytellers/artisans) were imitators of real life. As imitations of life were skewed, the poet’s perceptions could rile the populace. Ergo: If you watch violent cartoons, you will become a violent, bullying child and continue on through your adulthood to be a violent, bullying adult, thus fucking up the Republic.

So let’s look at Agatha Christie. She promotes violence (just look at the body count she’s racked up!). Every one of her bestselling novels requires that someone die. Every other character has to lie about their part in the murder. There’s greed, murder, corruption, and lawyers – damaging to even the best-laid Republic anywhere! The very puzzles in her books – her signature style – makes everyday folks think that they might be able to get away with murder: just think about Hercule Poirot’s thought process and thwart it! I tell you, if you follow Plato’s line of thought, Agatha Christie is right there in the middle of the trouble.

There’s one little problem, though. I can’t think of any real-life murderer going “Agatha Christie made me do it!” (If you find one, let me know, because I would be fascinated – perhaps too much so – by that.)

Aristotle, the opinionated student of Plato, had another thought on how art (tragedy specifically) worked: via catharsis. His idea was that if you watch violence on T.V., you will experience all the thrills you need and, therefore, will not go out and commit mayhem on the streets.

So, let’s look at Agatha Christie again. She has ‘perpetrated’ and ‘solved’ hundreds of murders/burglaries/bad stuff. She has delivered justice/retribution to villains the world-over. Families can sleep at night because they know that the bad guy who hurt their loved one is behind bars, or identified, or dead. Looking at it from that perspective, Christie’s work might’ve saved countless lives because potential murderers got their jollies from her depictions of death and/or worried that some Inspector Poirot or nosy neighbor Marple would hunt them down.

Yeah, but the truth is, either point is moot. There is no way to test Plato’s hypothesis, specifically. After all, every single Republic has always had some form of art/imitation of life. And there’s no way to limit the range of Aristotle’s point. Aristotle’s catharsis could’ve kept any number of nation-states from becoming outright chaos. People were busy at the theatre rather than at war. Unfortunately, the theatre-rather-than-war-argument doesn’t work because every generation since Plato and Aristotle has had wars, disorder, and random acts of violence – and they’ve all had art. But there’s no way to directly measure art’s influence. Perhaps the theatre-goers really did stop a war from becoming larger than it would have otherwise. Or maybe it caused it.

See? It can go either way. I’m pretty sure that’s why we still read and discuss Plato and Aristotle.

I read and discuss Agatha Christie because it’s fun.

Sorry, guys, this week has gotten too far away from me. Will return to regularly scheduled blogging on Monday. Don’t worry–plenty of Agatha Christie coming your way soon.

You can stop banging down the doors now. =)