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Getting Away With Murder

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So, you know, that was nice.  We still have a ton of food.  That’s nice, too, because it means we don’t cook anything serious for a day or two.

And as most of you know, I’ve been spending a lot of time rereading all the Agatha Christie in existence.  Or that I’m interested in, which might be more to the point–I like Marple and Poirot, but not most of the others.

At the moment, I’m rereading The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which I remembered, for some reason, as thin and badly written.  So far it’s neither.

But it’s the book I just finished a few days ago that has me thinking, and that was Murder on the Orient Express.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat it–if you’re looking for a movie, get the version with Albert Finney and Lauren Bacall, which is true to the book and really marvellously done.  It also has that neat thing where you’ll recognize everybody in the cast–Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Ingrid Bergman–all willing to take relatively small roles because…well, because actors do that sometimes with material they like.

The BBC Masterpiece Mystery thing is a travesty, giving Poirot a sudden serious Catholicism he has nowhere in the books and turning the ending into a prolonged period of moralistic angst that is opposed to the very spirit of Poirot as Christie wrote him. 

But the book of Murder on the Orient Express is interesting for another reason:  it is over two hundred pages of Poirot interviewing suspects.

Just that.

Chapter after chapter, each suspect is called in and questioned.  There are no Big Scenes.  There is no violence.  There is no action.

The book is, very nearly a pure puzzle mystery.  There is characterization, and it matters–but not a single page from the point of view of any of the suspects, no flashbacks, no running around chasing anybody, nothing else.

Suspects.  Interviews.  Puzzle. 

I liked this book the first time I read it, and I’ve liked it every time since, including this last time.

But it occurs to me that it would not be possible to get it published today. 

It’s hard enough to get publishers interested in puzzle mysteries at all, but something like this, without action, without anything cinematic happening (although it made a fine movie, twice–interesting, that), would be incomprehensible to most editors any more than, say, ten years younger than I am now.

I’ve been thinking about Christie’s other breakthrough books–The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance–and I think some of these would be easier.  But the likelihood is that Christie would have had to be far better known than she was (I think Ackroyd was something like the third of the fifth book), and to get that way she would have had to have written books very unlike the ones she did.

The other thing I wonder about is Christie’s complete lack of consistancy in the formal aspects of the novels in the early days of the Poirot series–the books are in first person from Hastings’s point of view, or they’re from third person mostly Poirot’s point of view with a couple of glimpses from characters, or they’re in omniscient narrator, or they’re in first person from yet another person’s point of view.

If part of the attraction of a series to readers is its predictability, Christie was not being very predictable when she started. 

I don’t know why any of this should be the case, or why modern readers should be so fundamentally uninterested in puzzles. 

Part of it, I’m sure, is just the difficulty of constructing really interesting puzzles.  There are over thirty books about Hercule Poirot, and in that list I’d guess there might be four or five that are really unique as puzzles

But part of me thinks that the disinterest in puzzles connects to the disinterest in all things intellectual, with that word given the broadest possible definition.  People who see nothing wrong with cheating their way to a master’s degree are not likely to be interested in making their minds work to figure out who killed the butler.

Robert said, a few days ago, that it would be interested to find out just what students cheated on–if they cheated more on their “distribution requirements” than they did on the courses they thought were giving them actual information in the field they were interested in working in.

At the time, I forgot that several of the examples in the article about bought term papers I had linked to were of graduate students, who have no distribution requirements and are, at least nominally, dedicated entirely to learning things in their chosen fields.

It also occurs to me, whenever we have that kind of discussion, that in my father’s era, the Required Reading List was even narrower than it is now, that it included nothing at all of the kind of “exciting” book some of you think would get more people to love reading,

These days,  you couldn’t publish Murder on the Orient Express, and if you wanted to publish The Mysterious Affair at Styles, you’d have to cutesy it up with comic great uncles and even more silly housemaids.

And even then,  you’d only sell it to old ladies.

I think I need some caffeine.

Written by janeh

November 26th, 2010 at 9:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Getting Away With Murder'

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  1. Well, you’d be the better judge of what editors want, but I’d keep in mind that if they all want the same things, we can’t tell what the public would or would not buy. (Sounds as though there aren’t enough mystery editors. If you have enough, someone gets hungry and takes a chance.)

    Worth keeping in mind that many of the classic mystery authors remain in print, or are reprinted frequently enough to be readily available. To me, this indicates a level of interest–and also a level of competition. The “Crime” shelves of bookstores and libraries are filled with volumes which are not by any sane standard mysteries. Failing a better sorting system, going to a known author of a given type works–but it could be very rough on a new author trying to write classic puzzle mysteries.

    My problem is that to a degree I really have read them all–every Wolfe and Fox, every Fell and Merrivale, every Hemmingway, Grant, Wimsey and Marple. (I always found Poirot and Queen a tad irritating–and I might have missed a Fen or so.) Logically, I should fall back on the less prolific and well known, but those CAN be hard to find.

    SS van Dyne, please pick up.


    26 Nov 10 at 3:13 pm

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