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?

Working the Setting

So many of the Hercule Poirot novels (and Miss Marple too!)depend upon the setting to contain the story. Often, Christie puts her characters in a small village, brings them into a closed suite of rooms, or, most legendarily, puts them on a train.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of this closed-circuit kind of setting:

This tight use of setting means that the suspect pool is limited to the group originally introduced to the reader. There are no off-scene murderers in Christie. Which is what makes her cool. To avoid the deus ex machina sensation that accompanies the solution to a lot of mystery novels, a good use of setting seems valuable.

Setting in a particular place requires that the scenes are automatically related. It creates a flow.

Speaking of flow–it also dodges the sometimes tedious descriptions of place. You only have to describe the Orient Express once. (And, if you’re Christie, you only have to draw a diagram of the scene once.)

Details stick out, and therefore are given more weight than if the setting were all the details of the wide world. Dizzying. Significance matters in the details. Whether genre or literary…Emma Donoghue’s Room was heightened by the details of her small setting in much the same way that Murder on the Orient Express is heightened by the alibi details of the suspects. The reader notices what wouldn’t otherwise be noticed.

It can be claustrophobic. Especially in some of the exotic/historical locations that Christie utilizes, it could be disappointing to the reader to not learn more about such locales.

It’s very limiting. There are only so many small town/train/plane/automobile areas, right? And once you’ve established the setting, the characters have to logically fit into the time and place you’ve set up. So it limits your characters, it limits the scope (it’s really hard to get an FBI agent in there if you need to).

Can you guys think of any other pros/cons to a tight setting?

And now, to entertain you, observe the setting of Agatha Christie’s legendary Orient Express take off from the station:

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….

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?

The Solution to the Pop-Up Character Syndrome in Mysteries

During a critique session, years ago, one of our group members submitted a first-chapter of a novel she was working on. Members of the group had taken her pages home, read it over for the month, marked it up, and then we all came back to discuss–which is our M.O. Rarely is it the case that a group of our size concurs on an issue (there’s always one or two dissenters somewhere) but this one was unanimous:

Too many characters, too soon. It read like a pop-up shooting gallery.

I think that this is a verrrry common writing sin/mistake/problem, found particularly in the mystery genre. Let’s face it, the structure of a mystery requires a lot of characters. You’ve gotta have the investigator, the criminal, the red herrings, the random other people who interfere in the investigation…and let’s not forget the victim in this hubbub. How can a writer possibly avoid this chaotic assortment of characters? How on earth do you sort out the madness?

Well, if we’re following Agatha Christie’s example (and we are) then you do this: slow the heck down!

There’s this feeling when you’re writing a mystery that you must have everyone onstage now–so you can get to the murder–so you can get to the puzzle–so you can get to the next part that is sooo awesome!

Hold up, bub.

A mystery also requires that the reader understand who these characters are, what their relationships are, and what the possible motives are. If you don’t get that down, then the reader will actually be bored with your amazing plot twists because the reader won’t follow what’s going on.

In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first Hercule Poirot mystery (and I believe her first book in general–but don’t quote me, I’ll have to double check), Christie shows an amazing ability to introduce characters. And it’s because she takes her time. Two chapters go by before the murder occurs.

Each character gets his/her own introductory section. And guess what? It could go on for more than a paragraph. Don’t think that you have to go: “This is Sally. She beautiful and is in debt up to her eyeballs [to steal a line from one of my favorite commercials]. She was once in love with Tony [who you have given a previous paragraph of introduction to] but married Lou on a drunken weekend in Tibet” and then proceed with the action. That brief description tells us a little about Sally, and gives credence to a motive somewhere (maybe). But there’s no emotional involvement, there’s nothing to give us more about her personality, there’s nothing to make us invest in her.

Now, let’s look at the Dame her-own-self:

“I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who had married John’s father when he was a widower with two sons, had been a handsome woman of middle age as I remembered her. She certainly could not be a day less than seventy now. I recalled her as an energetic, autocratic personality, somewhat inclined to charitable and social notoriety, with a fondness for opening bazaars and playing the Lady Bountiful. She was a most generous woman, and possessed a considerable fortune of her own.”
~Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles

And that’s just the intro paragraph for this woman. Off the bat we know several things about her: energetic, generous, rich, handsome, raised kids who weren’t hers, etc. Christie then proceeds to explain Mrs. Cavendish and her family in more detail. We meet her stepson, John, and the narrator, Hastings, as they discuss the people they’re about to arrive at Styles. John gives the rundown on the family situation, and that dialogue description is backed up by Hastings’ own recollections about the family. The family takes a chapter by itself.

Then the next chapter is all about the family’s interactions.

Guess what? None of it is boring. When a reader picks up a mystery, she is expecting a puzzle, and she will want to know the puzzle pieces. So, as a writer, you have more time than you think you do.

Have you ever fallen prey to the ‘pop-up’ character trap? How do you avoid it? Is this a problem for other genres?