A Fond Farewell to the Dame

Well, kids, that’s it for Agatha Christie. I hope that you found something interesting to use for your own work from this bestsellingest of authors.

Stuff that I’ll take away:

1. You don’t have to be all organized in your notebooks. I know that seems like a really silly thing to take away, but I beat myself up constantly about “not being more organized” or “not completing a notebook”…if I do, great (it’s a nice feeling) but I’m gonna use the notebook as I need the notebook. If I need to vent about how something is going, I’m gonna. If I need to sort out a character arc, I’m gonna do that. Posterity be damned, the notebooks are for me and I’m gonna do what I wanna do.

2. A book a year is doable. If not two. =)

3. Write what you like, because if it’s even remotely popular…you’re gonna be stuck writing it. A pen name served for Christie…but there’s still only six of her Westmacott novels vs. dozens of Poirot/Marple/other mystery creations.

4. Live a long time. You can write more books.

How’s about you guys? Anything you particularly admire about Christie?

On Friday we’re starting Jack Kerouac, the only American on the scene this year, so do you have any questions about Kerouac you’d like me to look into for you?

Two Different Ends to Two Different Series

I just finished reading Curtain, Poirot’s last case. (I promise I won’t give away the end.) And recently I’d also read Sleeping Murder, which is Marple’s last case. In both cases the books were written years (decades) before they were published.

Also in both cases the sleuths are still sharp, still the same old human-observers, and still fun to read.

But, oh, how the sleuths are treated differently by their creator.

Miss Marple is the same as always. The story hinges on the case itself being unique. A “murder in retrospect.” The idea of a murder in retrospect is that the case has laid dormant, but still has the power to affect people. I think that this was a very poetic way to end the Marple series.

Inspector Poirot, however, is not the same as always. He is much older, wheelchair bound, and his comically dyed hair seems that much more pitiable, according to his buddy Hastings who returns for the final act. The end of this series is cyclical in a more direct way than the end of the Marple series. Hastings returns. The whole thing takes place at Styles — which has been transformed into a hotel. The characters take their old bedrooms. The difference is in the characters and not necessarily the plot.

I’m not certain how I feel about this. I’ve read in various places that, like Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie got tired of writing about Poirot. She apparently preferred writing the Miss Marple series, even though there are almost twice the Poirot stories/novels out there in the world. Somehow I sensed that preference much more in the final books than anywhere else where it’s easy to compare the two (like in the first books–but those are always much more hopeful anyway, aren’t they?)

Marple gets to be whole and the hero. Poirot, still heroic, gets a ton more difficulties added to his plate.

Do authors have to be fair to their series’ characters? As an author, of course I say no.  After all, we’re only human and we will inherently like one character over another. It can feel monotonous to write one character over and over again, and if we don’t feel particularly close to a character, or we don’t identify with a character, they’re harder to write.

Seems to me, as Christie got older, she would naturally identify more with her spinster, sharp-lady creation than her foreign, male counterpart. It only makes sense.

But authors also have to answer to their fans, and as a fan, I’ll admit to being a little bothered by–what I am perceiving as–the unbalanced aspect of the two endings. It almost seemed mean. The end was written way before it was published…so she knew what was going to happen to Poirot for years before the readers got to see it…so how could she avoid the images of Poirot incapacitated in her head?

I know, life isn’t fair. But this is fiction, cozy mysteries as a matter of fact, and it can be more fair than real life.

The reading for me was a bit jarring, I’ll admit, and my impressions are probably just that: impressions. After reading Sleeping Murder, my expectations for the Poirot story were different than what I was presented, so it took some adjusting. In the end, as Christie shows with Poirot, it is all about mind over matter. (Something Jeffrey Deaver explores with his Lincoln Rhyme character, right?)

Plus, he goes out with a bang:
Poirot deserves his place in crime fiction history and this was certainly achieved on his death in 1975; Poirot became the only fictional character in history to be honoured with an obituary on the front of The New York Times!“~from the Agatha Christie website

What do you guys think? If you have parallel-style characters, is it fair to expect fairness in their treatment? Or does the difference imply implicitly that you should present differences?

Those Little Bits of Insight

‘I was thinking,’ I said, ‘that when my time comes, I should be sorry if the only plea I had to offer was that of justice. Because it might mean that only justice would be meted out to me.'”
~The Vicar Leonard Clement in Murder at the Vicarage, discussing the necessity of mercy when considering a person’s fate
by Agatha Christie

I think that readers appreciate smart writers. Writers who can tell a great story are heroes without saying, but the ones who can also show a reader something about the world are remembered and returned to. Readers like writers who can make them think — not just about the puzzle in a mystery, but about the bigger world. Whether or not we agree with the writer.

Agatha Christie does that, in my opinion. I haven’t picked up one of her books yet where I wasn’t thoughtful at the end. The line above is the one that stuck out the most for me in Miss Marple’s first case. It reminded me of a Maya Angelou quote that goes something along the lines of “Don’t pray for justice because you might just get some.”

Great stuff to meditate on. Ya know?

I have read far more Agatha Christie than I anticipated while working on this mentor section. (Yep, I’d never read a word of hers until I did this….) A great part of that reason is that, every now and then, she brought me up short. Not to sound too cocky, but that doesn’t happen very often. (But it does happen.) I like it when someone can do that. I like being knocked around as a reader.

It’s a tricky thing to do without sounding preachy, these insightful bits. As it is, the one quoted above runs along that line…I just happen to agree with the vicar/Christie in the thought process presented here.

In my own stories, I don’t think I have pearls of wisdom like Christie’s. Part of the reason is my GREAT fear of sounding preachy in fiction. =)

(Or, you know, in blogs.)

In the end, I’m pretty sure you have to let the story tell itself, how it wants to be told. The little insights, and the big ones, will grow organically. Right? That seems to be the best way to do it. Like the vicar’s quote…it relates directly to the story being told. What is justice? How should it be delivered? Is mercy ever an acceptable alternative to inevitable ‘justice’? Justice is definitely a theme in the book and the quote is all about justice.

Didn’t even have to look far for that one, huh?

Plus, I think you have to emphasize the convictions of your characters. Declarative statements make stronger quotable material.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever been preached to in a story? Has any writer consistantly impressed you with their pearls of wisdom?  

Thursday Reviews: Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie (A Mentor Review!)

Sleeping MurderSleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was written waaaay before it was published in 1976. It sat in a deposit box waiting for the light of day. So there may be some inconsistancies with the rest of the series…but Miss Marple is not a series that you have to read in-order, in order to enjoy it.

That being said, I can see why this book was slotted for the end. The crime is two decades old, a “sleeping murder” or a “murder in retrospect” that is triggered by the main character’s (Gwenda) childhood memories. Today we’d call a case like this a ‘cold case’. By utilizing a murder-in-retrospect as the central mystery, Christie creates a reflective element that enhances the book itself, and also her series in general.

Let me clarify that last statement a little bit. Miss Marple is a character who has solved, and survived, many different cases. At the opening of this particular case, she is hesitant to wake it up. “Let sleeping murder lie.” But there’s no way the two main characters, Giles and Gwenda, will let it rest. It doesn’t matter how old the case, it needs solving. Miss Marple, of course, joins them in the investigation in spite of her reservations.

By focusing on this type of case, Christie seems to emphasize that no case is unimportant, no case it too old to ignore, and therefore, all of Miss Marple’s cases are important, and no book or puzzle is too old to ignore. As a final book, Sleeping Murder gives the Marple stories a certain gravitas. It’s worth reading just for that.

View all my reviews

The Literary Portion of the Detective Novel

Strange that I should be talking about the accusations leveled against genre and literary writers when, lo, I come across an article by George Grella entitled “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel,” published in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, which contains an example of exactly the type of rhetoric aimed at genre writing in general, and the mystery genre in particular that I talked about on Monday:

It is one of the curiosities of literature that an endlessly reduplicated form, employing sterile formulas, stock characters, and innumerable clichés of method and construction, should prosper in the two decades between the World Wars and continue to amuse even in the present day. More curious still, this unoriginal and predictable kind of entertainment appealed to a wide and varied audience, attracting not only the usual public for popular fiction but also a number of educated readers.” ~George Grella, “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel”

In this 1970 article (see? this debate can be picked out of any year, any era), Grella attempts to explain the ‘curious’ appeal of detective fiction in particular. The article proceeds to explore the potential reasons for the popularity of the detective novel. Grella looks at, and ultimately discards, the ‘puzzle defense’ (readers like a puzzle, even super-educated ones) and the resemblance of the detective story to the Greek tragedy, and he latches onto the idea that detective fiction is a modern comedy of manners.

I like this idea because, as Grella puts it: “the detective novel’s true appeal is literary.”

Literary? Whoa. What?

Okay, he’s not saying literary like Literary vs. Genre. But the argument that the appeal is literary – meaning it’s not the puzzle and it’s not the catharsis that a reader gets and it’s not the vicarious thrill of violence – implies that there’s something about the stories that should be studied. Popular appeal aside. The novels themselves are worthy of exploring…and they have a tradition.

That gives some weight to Christie’s work that’s not from the Populace. It gives us a place to start dissecting a little closer. In that frame of mind I came up with some questions to think about the next time I read Christie in particular, and detective pieces in general:

1. Who is the hero? Is it the same as the sleuth? If they are different, how so? What role does each character play? In Christie, I’ve noticed that there’s often a character that is easy to cheer for – and it’s not always Poirot or Marple, though we like them, their safety and prosperity is not necessarily the reader’s main concern. She builds select characters and tells their stories.

2. Is the place a factor in the story? Does its history add weight? How familiar are the characters with the setting? Do they move around the ‘stage’ gracefully? What purpose does the setting serve? Does it trap? Does it offer answers? With Christie, a lot of times it’s easier to figure out who the villain is if you pay attention to how she describes things. The last few books I’ve been able to pick up on the villain not from any clue that Christie understands, but through the language she uses to describe how things are.

3. What ‘literary’ authors have written books with a similar structure? (Grella points out Jane Austen. And I see the limited settings, the interactions of the characters, and the gossip-laced ‘evidence’ all playing a part in Christie’s novels, as well as Austen’s – and no one knocks Austen.) Wodehouse is king of the comedy of manners…but his is not considered literary, mores the pity. =(

I realize it reads like a list of book club questions…but I think that close readings will reveal that there is more than meets the eye. (Appropriate for mysteries, dontcha think?)

Genre vs. Literary: It’s Not a New Debate

I cannot say that I have at any time a great admiration for Mr. Raymond West. He is, I know, supposed to be a brilliant novelist, and has made quite a name as a poet. His poems have no capital letters in them, which is, I believe, the height of modernity. His books are about unpleasant people living lives of surpassing dullness.”
~The Vicar Leonard Clement in Murder at the Vicarage, discussing his impression of Miss Marple’s nephew, the renowned novelist Raymond West; by Agatha Christie

In my opinion – that’s a pretty good burn from Christie to the literary establishment.

As this book (the first in the Miss Marple series) was published in 1930, I think it’s safe to say that the debate of quality between genre stylings and literary stylings is not exactly new.

During Agatha Christie’s publishing phenomenon, and during the Golden Age of Mystery in the 1930s, there were other writers at work. (I know, shocker!, considering her domination of bookstore shelves…even today it’s hard to get a new mystery in edgewise because her books take up so much room.) You may recognize the names of Christie’s contemporaries during this period: Virginia Woolf (who was thrilled that her sales numbers went over 1,000), James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and one of the probable targets of the above quoted passage e.e. cummings – a poet who used no capital letters in his work.

Does directing a zinger like the one quoted above mean that Christie was being catty towards the literary establishment?

Maybe.

But I think of it more as a participatory comment. Let me explain what I mean by that.

All writers – regardless of what we write, or how we write it – are concerned with where they fall in the “lit” spectrum. Genre writers defend their writing constantly from criticism (or worse, non-criticism indicating that the work is not worth commenting on). Accusations towards this camp include, but are not limited to, “It’s formulaic, thus predictable. It’s easy to read. The themes are simple or absent. There is no experimentation with language. Characters are cut-out.” And so on. Basically arguing that genre is easy in every sense of the word and is therefore not worth noting.

On the other end of the spectrum are the lit writers. Accusations against this establishment are pretty rife too: “It’s boring. The characters are navel-gazing whiners. The language is too ‘flowery’ – why do I need every detail of the wallpaper? The story is slow. The characters unsympathetic. The scope too narrow.”

So, I think Christie was sounding off against her own critics when she slid this gem in, and she continued to speak out like that later with Ariadne Oliver, her literary doppelganger.

I hate to say it, but it’s probably going to keep going on like that. Papers will be written debating the literary merits of X, Y, or Z. G will be ignored by critics entirely. S will be acknowledged, but in a small, two inch review in a dying magazine. Depressing, huh?

Well, perk up. It felt that way when George Eliot wrote “Silly Novels by Silly Lady Novelists” (and George Eliot is a lady novelist…just not a ‘silly’ – read: genre, particularly romance – novelist). It felt that way when Agatha Christie wrote the above passage. And it will feel that way through the times we write. Check out the Franzen-Picoult-Weiner debate for today’s variation.

The thing is, we’re writers. So, whatever you’re writing, write it to the best of your ability. Then write something new and do better. Be prepared to defend yourself either way. Because you’re going to have to defend yourself. It doesn’t matter what you write. Young Adult, mysteries, the next Pulitzer winner, the next Nobel Laureate, whatever – every last one of them are assaulted and every last one of them will have to answer the Who What Where When Why of their work.

Christie chose to put a few well-placed words in her bestselling books. Millions of eyes have read those words. She participated in the debate. And participation is good.

Even if it is a little catty.

Notebooks!!

A book was recently released called Agatha Christie’s Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making, by John Curran. Check out Curran’s deal: he got to spend hours in a room, pouring over handwritten exercise books, reading page after page of difficult notes, deciphering faded pencil marks, and losing his eyesight while reading Christie’s plots in her own writing.

I know. What a great deal! I’m so jealous.

Curran put all of his interesting discoveries into this book. I’m not going to go into all the deets (mostly because you should go buy this book for your-own-self to peruse at your leisure) but I do want to talk about the thing that was most interesting to me: 76 notebooks.

Yeah, that’s a lot, huh?

Apparently she was neither neat nor orderly in keeping them either. Notes for some books are mixed into notes for others, which are all mixed with packing/grocery/Christmas lists. Christie used the notebook closest at hand to plot, write treatments, jot ideas, or list housekeeping details.

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pretty disorderly and I’ve always felt guilty for it. If I didn’t label/date my diaries or if I forgot to write in it once I started a diary, I felt like the world was going to end. I beat myself up.

In January, when I was reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries, I started keeping another one…only I told myself that I didn’t care if I didn’t write every day. If I wanted to jot down other people’s quotes, I could. If I wanted to I could whine about writing, or plot stuff, or do exercises. Whatever. It’s worked well for me. I don’t date pages, but I am trying to fill one notebook at a time – and I’m almost done with the first one.

Sounds pathetic, right? Almost done with the first one.

Well, if we count how Agatha Christie kept notebooks, haphazard and without organization…I think I might be able to take her. I’ve filled cheap spiral notebooks with lists, plots, outlines, first lines, random thoughts, blog ideas, character names, etc. And, to the detriment of future scholars (who will, of course, study my work with the same interest and passion as Curran has done for Christie) I’ve tossed a lot of notebooks out.

Some of Christie’s notebooks were filled, others only had ten pages. This makes me feel better as a writer. Less unfocused.

I’m gonna stick with my more ‘disciplined’ notebook keeping for the moment – mostly because I want the satisfaction of completely full notebooks. But it’s nice to know that the bestsellingest author was creating at all times, with what she had on hand. Makes me want to go write stuff!

How’s about you guys? You notebook keepers? Or computer screen fillers?