On Fridays the Women of Mystery honor an author recognized for her contribution to the mystery genre, and take a look at one of her novels.
I hardly need to introduce you to Agatha Christie, British Golden Age who-done-it writer best known for two eccentric and diametrically opposed detectives: self-aggrandizing and methodical Hercules Poirot, and self-effacing Miss Jane Marple, student of human nature.
It’s possible you didn’t know that, according to PBS’ Miss Marple website, she was outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, that in fifty years she wrote more than a hundred literary works, including six romances under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. That Christie, with Sayers (whom we honored last week), was one of thirteen contributors, members of London’s exclusive Detection Club, who playfully co-authored the world’s best known round-robin mystery, The Floating Admiral.
It was especially fascinating to read, at The Christie Mystery, about her writing methods. It was no surprise that her characters came from observations of strangers on trains. As for plots, it was delicious to learn that she sometimes stumbled on an elegant way to disguise a character’s guilt while, for example, gazing at a hat in a shop, and that she usually did so (stumble, that is) before sitting down at her typewriter. Her books evolved not only in the five or six notebooks she had going at once, but grew like embryos inside her very soul, and once they reached full gestation she sometimes wrote them incredibly fast. But she was just as likely to write two at a time to keep them from going stale.
Her writing style has been analyzed by academics who have gone so far as to figure out the average number of letters in her words and the number of words in her sentences: remarkably uniform, apparently, although the site does not reveal the magic figures.
She seems, almost, to have set out to mesmerize readers. According to researchers, people can’t focus on more than nine things at a time, and Christie often used more than nine characters and sub plots. Her language was simple, and she repeated words rapid fire for emphasis, to penetrate (something akin to brainwashing?). With frequent descriptive segments near the beginning and few toward the end, she controlled the speed at which we read her books. It’s no wonder we lose ourselves in them.
And Then There Were None is a much-admired stand-alone mystery. Christie published it in 1939, calling it “Ten Little Niggers,” but it first arrived on America’s shores with the less offensive title “Ten Little Indians.
Although we’re clued in to the number and manner of murders by the children’s nursery rhyme, which starts the count-down at ten and ends with “and then there were none,” I defy you to figure out who done the deed. There’s no detective, unless you count the bewildered Scotland Yard inspectors in whose laps the puzzle falls when the story’s all told. I was relieved, after all, to find Christie’s traditional tie-it-all-together-with-a-bow ending. It comes in the form of a sort-of letter. It blew me away. By the way, if you want to enjoy the book, I do not recommend reading Wikipedia’s page about it, where major spoilers lurk.
Here is a little something to leave you wanting more:
“In a non-smoking carriage Miss Emily Brent sat very upright as was her custom. She was sixty-five and she did not approve of lounging. Her father, a Colonel of the old school, had been particular about deportment.
The present generation was shamelessly lax – in their carriage, and in every other way….
Enveloped in an aura of righteousness and unyielding principles, Miss Brent sat in her crowded third-class carriage and triumphed over its discomfort and its heat. Everyone made such a fuss over things nowadays! They wanted injections before they had teeth pulled – they took drugs if they couldn’t sleep – they wanted easy chairs and cushions and the girls allowed their figures to slop about anyhow and lay about half naked on the beaches in summer.
Miss Brent’s lips set closely. She would like to make an example of certain people.”
Tra la! Do tell me your favorite Christie works, and I’d really like to hear about the romances, if you’ve read one.