I’ve always loved reading, and mysteries have always been ‘my thing’. Of all the authors in all the bookshops and libraries in all the world, Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth remain my faves, with my girl Pat a nose ahead.
Why do I love them so much when a) there are thousands of modern authors out there, and b) these traditional mysteries seem rather old-fashioned by today’s standards?
There is a definite lure of the era: a time of long frocks, a time of afternoon tea, dinner parties, bridge evenings (I can’t even play bridge) and so forth. Yes, the plots can seem tame, contrived and are often insular, but as Miss Marple often comments, you see every aspect of life in a small village. It’s like viewing a sample of the whole of society under a microscope. I love to see how ordinary (kind of) people react in an apparently ‘safe’ setting when something goes wrong.
I often reread these books. I have read all of Christie’s works at least twice, often many more times than that, and the majority of Wentworth’s. (I’m still working my way through her non-series books.) Some of Wentworth’s books I have five or six different copies of, all with different covers, from different eras, and one of them is quite valuable. I won’t tell you which in case you nick it.
I recently decided to reread Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie. As you can see, I used quite a few sticky notes as I read it and made notes to myself–for funsies–at the same time. I wish I could say there was a special coded reason for using pink and green then yellow sticky notes, but it’s simply that I ran out of pink, then green…
There’s something a bit different about reading a book if you are a writer, and also, if you’ve read it several times before. (And, let’s not forget, it’s been on TV too.) As well as an enjoyable read, it’s been an interesting, and useful experience. Different things struck me this time. Here are a few of them: (btw – contains spoilers!)
Point 1. The book is quite long, I reckon it’s about 90,000 words or so. If you think in pages rather than words, it’s about 340 pages. That’s fairly standard for now, but many of Christie’s most well-known works are considerably shorter. (And Then There Were None, for example, is only 250 pages.) BUT the first clue comes on page 31! Wow! And even more interesting, the first red herring comes on page 30!!!!
p31 – the clue is: ‘A face that you liked but that you would find it hard to know again.’
p30 – the red herring is: ‘…the undercurrents that I sensed were nothing to do with Jane Wilkinson.’
Point 2. There are a lot of characters! It can be hard for the writer to handle a large cast, and just as hard for the reader! To try to keep track of a lot of people without making them all into over-large caricatures takes a lot of skill and hard work. This is something I struggle with.
Point 3. There is a surprisingly large amount of sitting around talking. I know it’s not exactly an action thriller, but it still surprised me how static the story is in many places. Poirot notoriously eschews running from place to place violently searching for clues, preferring to sit and exercise his little grey cells. But still, it was more static than I remembered, and so I feel it would lend itself well to a play or film, (as it has!) because of the economy of sets required. It would be so easy to have a couple of side-boards, a couple of chairs, a different lamp and hey presto! You’ve got a completely different drawing room. Please note, future play-makers.
Point 4. Obviously we have a sidekick. A sidekick, such as ‘ma cher Hastings’, is such a useful device to enable the author to ask and answer questions she puts to the reader. I love Hastings, he is supremely gullible, naive, and a wee bit thick. The perfect sidekick, in fact, as he allows the detective to shine. Hastings, in this book, asks all the questions that the reader might ask given the opportunity, and answers a good many of them himself, almost always wrongly. Having a sidekick enables the author to speak Poirot’s thoughts out loud, so that his detection is not entirely internal, and we, the readers, can be involved.
Point 5. The use of attitudes of the era, and the use of appearances crops up regularly in Agatha Christie’s work. You can tell a wrong ‘un by how they talk about other nationalities, or how they dress or behave.
We see that those who make racial comments are often unmasked later as the perpetrators. Famously, in Death In The Clouds, the two main characters find they have much in common, including their racial attitudes. These commonalities help them to fall in love. But importantly for the reader, they also mark them out as the murderer and his unwitting accomplice.
In Lord Edgware Dies, there’s a touch of that same thing. We can identify some of the worst characters by their espoused attitudes towards other races.
In appearance too, anyone a bit different, or wearing colourful clothes, is set down as dandified and therefore downright suspicious. This works well for Poirot, who is often viewed with mistrust by those–particularly the men–who meet him. We know that Christie hated Poirot, who was probably her most successful character, and possibly got a secret joy from having him so vilely abused by those he met.
But the attitudes of others towards him plays into his hands. They observe his outer appearance, make a judgement about him based on that, and they fall into the trap of underestimating him. Through this, we are invited to laugh at the staid, traditionally-masculine Brit who refuses to get in touch with his feminine side for another forty or fifty years at least. And Poirot emerges triumphant once more–as he should.
Point 6. Suspects are set up and knocked down one by one like ninepins. The reader, along with Hastings, and even Japp, and Poirot himself, turns their suspicions first on one suspect, then these are (reluctantly) dismissed as being the perpetrator. Alibis are given, investigated, found wanting, then reinvestigated and finally the alibi is accepted. Until… well it’s almost become an in-joke that Christie herself invites us to share in – the least likely one is the true murderer. Usually it’s someone who has been suspected, then proved innocent.
This is a satisfying plot device actually, as it means working out timelines and getting your cats, ornaments and salt and pepper pots to help you envision the action on your dining table, just so you can be sure that what you think happens, could in fact have happened.
Point 7. This investigating, dismissing then returning to a suspect develops layers in the plot, and this is the intriguing and absorbing nature of crime fiction: edging closer and closer to a hidden truth, or to a definitive set of events. This is the intellectual riddle that draws readers to this type of fiction, and is so satisfying, because at the end, you think, just as the detective (or the writer) thinks, ‘Ah, now I know everything.’
Point 8. There are other points too, but I’ve waffled on quite a bit. So I’ll end with this: The detective.
The detective of any single book or series is clearly of supreme importance. Hercule Poirot (in this particular book) begins by being lauded by Hastings as a great man, but then as always, Hastings, and the police, and everyone else, lose their faith in him and begin to think he’s past it. Poirot himself declares his greatness, which Hastings wryly smiles over, because neither Hastings nor the reader would ever say such a thing about ourselves, but Poirot does not hesitate to state his abilities and announce his talents.
However, if he is vain, that’s not to say he is confident. He can be humble, he can admit he has made a mistake. In fact if there is one characteristic that defines Poirot for me it is his willingness to admit he has made a mistake and to reevaluate the evidence. He constantly rethinks his approach, going over and over the facts, because if there is one thing he trusts more than his own judgement, it is logic. He knows there must be an explanation and he will not rest until he finds it. The detective and the writer have a lot in common – persistence is everything.
So that’s it. That’s what I’ve learned or observed in Lord Edgware Dies. As a review, this isn’t much cop, but if it’s made you think, ‘I might read that’, then my work here is done. Enjoy!