Showing posts with label Agatha Christie. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Agatha Christie. Show all posts

16 March 2017

A House is Always Interesting

by Eve Fisher

For a variety of reasons (AVP, amenities, doctors, and the fact that we go down twice a week minimum) my husband and I are moving from our small town to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 50 miles down the road.

Sioux Falls, photo courtesy Wikipedia
Sioux Falls is growing by leaps and bounds.  There are whole villages of suburbs stretching south and west (mainly because our airport is in the northeast, btw).  Condos have grown up around the interstates.  However, we don't like suburbs much, and all the condos we saw were too small, and we wanted to live central Sioux Falls, which is a hot, hot, hot! market.  There were at least 3 houses that we wanted to see but couldn't even get in to view - they were no sooner on the market than bought. We put in offers on three, yes, three different places:  the first one turned our bid down, and upon reconsidering, we didn't rebid.  The second one failed inspection (huge foundation problems).  But the third, hopefully, is the charm!  I am working on the mortgage papers (everything's on-line these days, dammit!) probably as you read this.

House shopping is interesting and exhausting.  I remember back when we first house-shopped in 1991 (we'd rented the place we were living over the phone), and it was an educational experience. One memorable house had a room with bright orange and green plaid vinyl wallpaper, with orange shag carpet, and, in the kitchen, vintage orange appliances.  No, we did not buy it. Another place was beautifully done, until you opened the basement door and the reek of mold and mildew was enough to knock you down.  Another place was obviously the future home of someone who would formally entertain at the drop of a hat.  (We're the pot-luck or pizza types.)

Old houses are fun.  The history, the charm, the leftover stuff.  In our last house, we found an old-fashioned cream-skimmer that dropped behind the kitchen sink in the summer kitchen out back, decades ago.  I remember once I visited a friend in Chicago, who was remodeling an old house into apartments, and found 4 old books tucked away in the attic, including a first edition Harriet Beecher Stowe's "The Mayflower".  He was going to throw them away, so I leaped up and claimed them. They've had a good home ever since. And I remember living in an urban neighborhood in Atlanta, decades ago, with a bunch of roommates (starving artists all), and visiting with the little old lady who lived in the bungalow next door - turned out she'd been born in that house, and had never moved in all her 81 years.  I remember being gob-smacked by that.  I couldn't imagine staying anywhere 81 years.  I still can't.

Roderick Usher,
by Aubrey Beardsley
(note - not creepy enough)
Old houses can also be creepy.  I know of two houses in our small town that have had suicides, and at least one with a murder.  One of the original morticians' houses was bought and transformed into a family dwelling, and the owners put their master bedroom where the viewing room used to be.  There are also a couple of houses that just look WEIRD:  you know, the kind where you get the feeling that Roderick Usher uses it as his summer home.   I remember one house we looked at in Tennessee:  we walked into the back room, I turned to Allan and said, "Redrum", and we walked out. Quickly.

A lot of mysteries and thrillers have been written about what happens after the house is bought and/or inherited.  One of the great disappointments of such novels is Agatha Christie's "Postern of Fate", which is - well, the only way I can put it is that it's a real mess.  The Beresfords are too old, as was, sadly, Ms. Christie.  On the other hand, I love Christie's "Sleeping Murder" - which is NOT Miss Marple's last case by a long shot. The slow reveal of the fact that Gwenda Halliday Reed actually lived, as a child, in the house she bought in case of love at first sight still makes the hair stand up on the back of my head. Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" has the house itself as a central character, and God help all who stay in it.  And, speaking of Roderick Usher, the House of Usher went down with a pretty spectacular crash, didn't it?

"Northanger Abbey" -
1986 BBC production 
But that's often the point.  Gothic fiction, whether classics from the 18th century, like "The Mysteries of Udolpho", "Otranto", "The Monk", etc., all the way down to modern Gothic romances, all revolve around mysterious old houses.  Some are spookier than others:  the whole point of Catherine Morland's joy in being invited to the eponymous "Northanger Abbey" is that, to her eyes, it looked likely to have had a murder or two done in it, and she could hardly wait to find the body.  God knows her reading literature had taught her that if you can't find a dead body, or a hidden tunnel with an instrument of torture or two, or the remains of the missing first wife in an old ruin, where can you find one? Instead, being Jane Austen's creation, she found a husband, and the main mystery turns out to be the laundry bills left behind by Eleanor Tilney's secret love.


In true Gothic fiction there are always dark castles, dungeons, tunnels, empty graves, full graves, murders, rumors of murders, supernatural events, monsters, and sometimes all of the above.  ("Dark Shadows" captured all of these in one magnificently campy afternoon soap opera from my early teen years:  click on the picture above to see Barnabas Collins finally set free from his coffin...)

There is always a young, virginal heroine (even in modern Gothic romances) with a mysterious past, who is often revealed to have been born noble.  The hero is always courageous, although he is often a suspect (at least for a while) in the shenanigans going on around the place.  The villain of the piece is a control freak tyrant who will have things his own way no matter what (calling Mrs. Danvers...).  If the villain is married, his wife is completely under his thumb (Countess Fosco in "The Woman in White").  There is often a crazy relative, usually locked up. There is always a mystery.  And the heroine always feels that there's something seriously wrong, then that something's wrong with her, then that she's under threat, and, at various stages, worries about her own mental health...

How the heroine gets to her location varies.  Sometimes the heroine is a relative (Maud is practically willed by her father to Uncle Silas), sometimes she's the governess ("Jane Eyre", "Nine Coaches Waiting"), sometimes she's an invited guest (Catherine Morland).  But I believe - although I could be wrong - that "Rebecca" is the only one where the heroine marries the owner BEFORE she arrives at the house.  

But it's always about the house.  As Jo Walton says, "The essential moment every gothic must contain is the young protagonist standing alone in a strange house. The gothic is at heart a romance between a girl and a house."

So, the next time you go house-hunting, consider...  you might be looking at your next mystery, your next ghost story, or your next romance.

Will keep you posted on our move.







30 October 2015

Old School, New Readers

By Art Taylor

A few years back, one of the professors in the English Department at George Mason University (where I myself teach) told me that she never put her own favorite books on the syllabi for any of her classes; seeing what the students said about them was too heart-breaking for her.

I'm currently teaching a class called "Five Killer Crime Novels"—a gen ed survey of some of milestone books in the genre, or at least books that serve to represent/illustrate some of the trends and range and depth of mystery and suspense fiction. So far, we've read Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles, Agatha Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, along with a sprinkling of short stories; still ahead are Ed McBain's Sadie When She Died and Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep. (And yes, I know there are tons and tons of others that could've/should've made the list!)

Whether I'd count these books as all-time favorites or not (Red Harvest certainly is), each of these are books I love, one way or another. And indeed it is a little heart-breaking to have students talk (spoiler alerts!) about how disappointed they are by various aspects of the three we've read so far. "We finally see the hound and then in the next paragraph they just shoot him and that's it?" And: "She could've cut about 50 pages toward the end of Roger Ackroyd. It was so slow and so boring." And then: "I'm sorry, Professor Taylor, but Red Harvest just sucks."

I'll admit it; my internal response to that last one was along the lines of "You think your comment shows your superiority, but really it just reveals your ignorance." But I would never say that publicly, of course.

(Oh, wait.... Whoops.)

Actually, I try not to take offense to these kinds of comments and criticisms, but instead try to transform them into productive aspects of class discussion. The complaint about Hound of the Baskervilles, for example—that quick movement from the hound's appearance in one paragraph to his demise in the next—leads to a closer look at serialization and how the publication schedule built suspense. The eighth installment of the story in The Strand ends strategically at the break between those two paragraphs, with these words: "Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog."

AND STAY TUNED FOR WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!

A different effect, right?

Other reactions call for deeper discussion: Why are certain scenes included? What is the potential purpose of such-and-such artistic decisions? What are the potential effects on the reader? Why structure and pace a scene this way? or a chapter? or a succession of chapters? Or more to the point: Can you articulate why you think this book "sucks"? The key isn't the judgement itself—pro or con—but backing up judgements with evidence and authority.

"Red Harvest was just a bloodbath. I couldn't both to get connected to the characters, because after a while, I knew they were just going to die. And nobody seemed to care, not even the detective—and we're not connected to him either. We don't even get his name!"

OK, let's dig deeper into all that, I'll say—and then we do.

My point here isn't to criticize my students or to celebrate my own tactics in the classroom. My students are—fortunately!—a bright and active bunch, and our discussions are often sharp and insightful. But I do wonder sometimes about the reasons behind some of those gut responses of boredom, dismissal, dislike.

Is it that students have been so conditioned by today's various media—the pacing of a CSI episode, for example, or the short bursts of information that constitute news, or the structures and expectations of Facebook status updates, tweets, and IM exchanges—that older works become dated in more fundamental ways than just their vocabulary or dress or gender attitudes? Maybe today's modes of communication and storytelling are so different that the average student can't relate.

Is the issue about the age or era of a book at all, or is it something about the genre itself (crime fiction) or the form (a novel) that is the impediment? Sisters in Crime has done studies about the demographics of mystery readers (an aging one, as it turns out), and many students in my gen ed classes these days don't count themselves as readers at all—not in a conventional sense, even as their days often consist of more reading in other ways than most "grown-ups" do.

Is it that many of my students in this class—a gen ed class, drawing mostly on majors outside the humanities—simply aren't interested in literature at all, so the process itself might be with some level of disinterest or even hostility?

I don't know the answer to these questions. Likely some deeper study would be required, and maybe I haven't even asked the right questions or framed any of this properly in the first place. Either way, I'd love to hear what others think.

In the meantime, however, an anecdote to end this on a more positive note—a story I've told before:

A few years ago, we'd come to the end of the semester for a class that examined hard-boiled detective fiction as social documentary (maybe my favorite class of all the lit courses I've taught). It was final exam day, and students were turning in their exams as they completed them, mumbling quick good-byes, and heading out of the classroom, done for the semester.

One student turned in her exam and then walked around the desk to where I was sitting, gave me a big smile, and held out her arms wide.

I have to admit, I find myself disinclined to hug students—for a variety of reasons, as you might imagine—so I didn't stand but just sat there, gave her a "what's this? look or gesture of some kind, I can't really remember.

But I do remember what she said: "Professor Taylor, before this semester, I'd never read an entire novel, and now I've read six of them."

I stood.

I hugged.

We're Facebook friends now, and she has a daughter of her own these days, and my hope isn't simply that she's continuing to read herself but that she's reading to that daughter too.

19 October 2015

Good Books and Old Movies, Part II

by Susan Rogers Cooper

I mentioned last post that I was teaching classes on the mystery from novel to film, and listed the books and movies I'd be teaching.  Rob Lopresti had done a little research on my first author, John Buchan, creator of "The Thirty-Nine Steps," and sent me his blog on him, which was quite interesting.

Buchan was a Scot, which might have had something to do with his grand descriptions of the Scottish countryside in "The 39 Steps," and began his adult life with a brief legal career, which he gave up for his real passion -- writing.  On October 19, 1915, John Buchan's first novel, "The Thirty-nine Steps" was published and was an immediate hit, selling 25,000 copies by the end of the year.  It tells the story of Richard Hannay, a South African visiting London who gets caught up in an espionage ring.   Jason Worden argued that Buchan actually invented a new sub-genre: the story in which a civilian gets chased both by the bad guys, and by the police who think he is the bad guy.  That paranoia made it perfect for Alfred Hitchcock, who not only filmed "The Thirty-nine Steps," but used a similar plot in two other movies.  Buchan wrote many more novels, including four about the plucky Richard  Hannay.  During World War I, his penchant for writing came in handy as he wrote propaganda for the British government.  He also served as Governor General of Canada until his death in 1940.  As Rob said, not bad for a thriller writer.

Learning all this about John Buchan made me want to learn more about the other writers I was featuring in my class.  Although John Buchan was the least known (to me anyway) of the four, I decided to delve a little deeper into the others.  I knew before hand -- from general knowledge and reading Lillian Hellman's wonderful book "Pentimento" -- that Dashiel Hammett had worked as a detective for the Pinkerton agency, was an alcoholic, and had issues with rejection -- at least according to Ms. Hellman. Delving a little deeper, I learned that Samuel Dashiel Hammett worked for the Pinkertons from 1915 to 1922, quitting due to the Pinkertons penchant for strike breaking. Almost all of his books and short stories were written in the 1920s and '30s, due in part to his bad health and his interest in political activism. He joined The Civil Rights Congress (the CRC), a leftist organization, and soon became their president. The CRC came under scrutiny in the late 1940s, and Hammett was subpoenaed to appear before a judge to name a list of contributors to a defense fund set up by the CRC for people accused of communist sympathies. He refused, citing the fifth amendment, and was sent to federal prison. Only a few years later, in the early 1950s, he was blacklisted by the HUAC and was unable to work as a writer from that point until his death in 1961. Raymond Chandler wrote in The Simple Art of Murder, “Hammett was the ace performer... He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of, The Glass Key, is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

And speaking of Raymond Chandler, one of my all time favorite writers, I was interested to learn that he didn't start writing until 1932 at the age of forty-four. A former oil company executive, he lost his job during the Great Depression and decided to take up writing. In a letter to his London publisher, Hamish Hamiton, Chandler explained why he began reading and eventually writing for pulp magazines: “Wandering up and down the Pacific Coast in an automobile I began to read pulp magazines, because they were cheap enough to throw away and because I never had at any time any taste for the kind of thing which is known as women's magazines. This was in the great days of the Black Mask (if I may call them great days) and it struck me that some of the writing was pretty forceful and honest, even though it had its crude aspect. I decided that this might be a good way to try to learn to write fiction and get paid a small amount of money at the same time. I spent five months over an 18,000 word novelette and sold it for $180. After that I never looked back, although I had a good many uneasy periods looking forward.”

In the introduction to Trouble Is My Business (1950), a collection of four of his short stories, Chandler wrote, “The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passage work. The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story on the other hand was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing. We who tried to write it had the same point of view as the film makers. When I first went to Hollywood a very intelligent producer told me that you couldn't make a successful motion picture from a mystery story, because the whole point was a disclosure that took a few seconds of screen time while the audience was reaching for its hat. He was wrong, but only because he was thinking of the wrong kind of mystery.”

Chandler also described the struggle that the writers of pulp fiction had in following the formula demanded by the editors of the pulp magazines: “As I look back on my stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published. If the formula had been a little less rigid, more of the writing of that time might have survived. Some of us tried pretty hard to break out of the formula, but we usually got caught and sent back. To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack.” And in a radio discussion with Chandler, Ian Fleming said that Chandler offered "some of the finest dialogue written in any prose today".
After Chandler's wife died, he began drinking heavily and slid into a severe depression. He attempted suicide but called the police before the attempt to tell them he was going to do it. He died in 1959.

My final author of course needs no introduction to anyone – mystery buff or not. Agatha Christie is almost as well known as Santa Claus. She published sixty-six novels and fourteen short story collections. She was initially unsuccessful in getting published, but in 1920 “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” was published, introducing the world to Hercule Poirot. The Guinness Book of World Records lists Dame Agatha as the best selling author of all time.

Much has been made of her ten day disappearance after her husband asked for a divorce. A much maligned movie, “Agatha,” was made – with a large disclaimer at the beginning – with a fanciful explanation as to what occurred. It has never been made public what happened in that ten day period.
In 1930 Dame Agatha married archeologist Sir Max Mallowan, whom she met during an archaeological dig. Their marriage lasted until Christie's death in 1976.

05 October 2015

Good Books and Old Movies, Part I

by Susan Rogers Cooper

I've been honored over the past few years to be asked to teach classes at Austin's Lifetime Learning Institute. This is a wonderful organization for people 55+ to take classes in just about anything and for a very nominal fee. I've taught classes on writing the mystery a couple of times, which is always fun – especially when I'm able to dazzle my students with guest speakers like Jan Grape and Joan Hess.

This semester I'm teaching a class called: “The Mystery: From Novel to Film.” We read the book, we watch the movie. And we compare and contrast. Our first book was John Buchan's “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” and, of course, we watched the Hitchcock movie version. There were a lot of differences, the main being that in the book there were no women – in the movie there were plenty. I preferred the movie myself. As did a lot of the class.

Our second movie was the William Powell and Myrna Loy version of Dashiel Hammett's “The Thin Man.” After rereading the book, I noted that the alcohol consumption was even higher in the book than in the movie, and those people could drink!

Tomorrow we watch the 1974 version of Dame Agatha's “Murder on the Orient Express,” with Albert Finney as Hercule. I'm rereading the book now and have come full circle in my appreciation of Christie's talent. She was amazing. Even knowing the ending, I'm still fascinated with how she got there.

It's going to take two classes to watch all of that very long movie, but the next, and last, movie will star two of my favorite actors in the film version of a book by one of my favorite writers: the Bogart and Bacall version of Raymond Chandler's “The Big Sleep.”

Teaching this class has given me a chance to reread some classic mysteries and re-watch some wonderful old movies. I'm already thinking about next semester and what new treasures I can share.

Any suggestions?

07 September 2015

What Makes A Mystery?

by Susan Rogers Cooper

What makes a mystery? The three main characters help: The victim, the protagonist, and the villain.

The victim can be a nice person who didn’t deserve to get murdered, or a vicious schemer that had folks lining up to get a crack at him. What’s important from a plot standpoint is that the victim has lived their life so that they die NOW, at this particular place and time, and while in contact with a particular group of people.

The protagonist, or detective – be they a cop, private investigator, or amateur –
must have a strong interest in solving this crime. A police officer would have a strong professional interest. A PI would have both a personal and a professional interest in solving the crime – the professional because they’ve been hired; and personal because – as the story progresses – they begin to care about avenging the victim or feel a strong personal responsibility to the client. An amateur would probably always be personal – to avenge someone they cared for, or to clear their own name or the name of a loved one. If the protagonist is given a strong motivation to solve the case, this helps move the plot forward because it keeps the protagonist moving forward.

And the whole reason for the story: the murderer. There are all sorts of killers, but in fiction we writers like to stick with the tried and true: a serial killer, a murder for gain (money or love), or someone who thinks they have no other choice. This is my personal favorite and I find it most interesting. The person who commits the crime has been driven to this point by circumstances so horrendous that they thought murder was the only solution to their problem.

What would motivate a person to be murdered? Or to murder? What are the forces that drive a person? Is it money, love, security, or, most likely, a combination of them all? How would this person react if they were involved in a mystery? Would they be an active participant, in either detection or deceit, or would they attempt to extricate themselves from the situation? Is this a violet person or a passive person? What are this person’s interests and what do they tell us about the character? What is their physical appearance and what does that tell us about the character?

Agatha Christie may have thought of the peculiarities of a twisty plot, but to make it work she had to people it w/ characters that could live in that plot. Example: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. I’ve no doubt she thought of the clever twist as to who committed the murder before she thought of the characters on that train, but once she decided on that plot, she had to fill the Orient Express with characters who were capable of living out that plot and making it as believable as possible. Dame Agatha was a brilliant plotter, but she concentrated more on twists designed to shock a reader than she did on twists that emerged from the interactions of characters. Today’s plots are centered more on the interactions of characters rather than dependent on a cleaver means of killing a victim.

In my own books, character has a lot to do w/ the plot. Milt Kovak is a small town sheriff in Oklahoma, in a town he’s lived in all his life. He knows just about everybody in town. In most cases he knows the victim, and eventually, the murderer. The plot usually centers on the murder itself – as in a police procedural – but with lots of detours involving Milt’s many side characters – his staff at the sheriff’s department, his wife and son, his sister, and whatever else seems to be happening in Prophesy County, Oklahoma.

My E.J. Pugh series is more traditional, or cozy if you will. E.J. is an amateur sleuth whose first experience (ONE, TWO, WHAT DID DADDY DO?) is gruesomely personal. Actually, all the books have a personal interest for E.J., and many of them stem from something in my own family's life – not that we've experienced any murders, but, hey, what if?

In a traditional mystery there is usually a strong link in life between the killer and the victim. This immediately advances some of the plot: What were the circumstances that led to the killer’s decision to take a life? Was it an easy decision, a spur of the moment decision, or an idea that went terribly wrong?

In a mystery, the plot is the story. But it must ring true. Sometimes it's hard for an amateur sleuth to continually stumble over dead bodies and make that ring true, but there are other things in that story that should – the amateur's reasons for investigating, their knowledge of the victim, and their feelings about it. The truth is what matters in any story, and there should always be a nugget that our readers can take away.



03 September 2015

Serial Offenders

by Janice Law

Like most mystery fans, I have my favorites, characters I willingly read about time and again. Indeed, what lover of the genre wouldn’t like just one more Sherlock Holmes story or another vintage appearance from Lord Peter Whimsy or Adam Dalgliesh? Familiarity breeds contentment for the reader. The writer is another breed of cat.


Writers enjoy variety, new challenges, new plots, new directions, and perhaps for that reason even wildly successful mystery writers have sometimes had complicated feelings about their heroes and heroines. Demands for another helping of the same can arouse a homicidal streak – of the literary sort. Thus Conan Doyle sent Holmes over the Reichenback Falls and Henning Mankell gave Wallander not one, but two deadly illnesses. Agatha Christie wrote – then stored– Curtain, Poirot’s exit, at the height of her powers, while Dorothy Sayers, faced with either killing off or marrying off Lord Peter, mercifully opted for the latter. He was never the same in any case.


first POD for Anna. My design
During my career, now longer than I like to mention, I’ve twice created serial characters, each begun as a one off. Anna Peters was never projected to live beyond The Big Payoff and my second novel used other characters entirely. Alas, Houghton Mifflin, my publisher at the time, was not enthralled, and the new novel was destined to be unlucky. Bought by Macmillan – or so I thought – the deal fell through when the entire mystery division was folded.

Back to Miss Peters, as she was then. Nine more books followed. They got good reviews and foreign translations and sold modestly well, although not ultimately well enough for the modern publishing conglomerate. I did learn one thing I’ll pass on to those contemplating a mystery series: don’t age your character.

Sure, aging a character keeps the writer from getting bored, but in five years, not to mention ten or twenty years down the road, you’re getting long in the tooth and so is your detective. Poor Anna got back trouble and was getting too old for derring do. I was faced with killing her, retiring her, or turning her into Miss Marple.

I chose to have her sell Executive Security, Inc. and retire ( some of her adventures are still available from Wildside Press). I imagined her sitting in on interesting college courses and wondered about a campus mystery. But I was teaching college courses myself at the time, and a campus setting sounded too much like my day job.

Wildside edition,
last Anna Peters
For at least a decade (actually, I suspect two) I stayed away from series characters. I published some contemporary novels with strong mystery elements and lots of short stories. I liked those because I didn’t need to love the assorted obsessives and malcontents that populated them. I just needed to like them enough for 10-14 pages worth.

Then came Madame Selina, a nineteenth century New York City medium, whose adventures were narrated by her assistant, a boy straight out of the Orphan Home named Nip Tompkins. Once again, I figured a one off, but a suggestion from fellow Sleuthsayer Rob Lopresti that she’d make a good series character led me write one more – pretty much just to see if he was wrong.

That proved lucky, as she has inspired in nine or ten stories, all of which have appeared or will appear in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Thank you, Rob. However, there is a season for all things, and having explored many of the key issues of the nineteenth century with Madame Selina and Nip, I am beginning to tire of mysteries that can be wrapped up with a seance. That, by the way, gets harder each time out.

What to do? I’m not so ruthless as to kill off a woman who’s worked hard for me. But as she’s observed herself, times are changing and the Civil War, so horrible but so conducive to her profession, is now a decade past. As you see, I learned nothing from my experience with Anna Peters, as both Madame and Nip have continued to age.

I don’t think I’ll marry her off, either, although she knows a rich financier who might fill the bill. Instead, I think I’ll let her sell her townhouse and retire, perhaps to one of the resorts she favors, Saratoga or, better because I know the area, Newport, where she will take up gardening and grow prize roses or dahlias.

As for Nip, I’ve already picked his profession. Snooping for Madame Selina has given him every skill he needs to be a newspaperman in the great age of Yellow Journalism. Will the now teenaged Nip show up in print again?

We’ll see.

13 August 2015

No Sex, Please, We're Skittish

by Eve Fisher

"If you mention sex at an AA meeting, even the non-smokers light up."
--Father Tom, "Learning to Live With Crazy People"
Agatha Christie.png
Agatha Christie

And so do a lot of mystery writers and readers.  There are those who write and/or love cozies, and want everything as asexual as they think Agatha Christie was.  Except, of course, that if you actually read your Agatha Christie, there's a lot of hot stuff going on:  In AT BERTRAM'S HOTEL, Ladislaw Malinowski is sleeping with both Elvira Blake and her mother Bess Sedgwick, and that fact alone is one of the major drivers of the plot.  In SAD CYPRESS, Roddy Welman's sudden, overwhelming attraction to Mary Gerrard makes everything homicidal possible.  And, in at least three novels, a man's lust for one woman, combined with his lust for money, makes it possible for him to marry and murder a rich wife.

Then there's the noir crowd:  


“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
― Raymond Chandler, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY
“I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake.”
― James M. Cain, DOUBLE INDEMNITY
Brigid O'Shaughnessy: “I haven't lived a good life. I've been bad, worse than you could know.”
Sam Spade: “You know, that's good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere.”
― Dashiell Hammett, THE MALTESE FALCON

In noir, EVERYTHING is about sex.  That and greed.  But mostly sex, and often violent sex. (Prime examples are probably the "rip me" scene of James M. Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE - and Mickey Spillane's VENGEANCE IS MINE, in which - and I think it's the first chapter - he beats a woman before having his way with her and she loves it all.)  The noir guys all moon over the virgins (Walter Huff over his victim's daughter; Mike Hammer over Velda), but the women who obsess them are anything but. And so of course they hurt them, twist them, torture them, betray them, all of the above.  Truth is, after a long day in noir-land, you want to yell at them, "Try somewhere else besides a bar to meet women!   Buy the girl some flowers!  Try to stay sober for ten minutes!" but it's all a waste of breath.  (Except, apparently, to Nick Charles who got a clue and a rich wife.)

And spies...

The upper center of the poster reads "Meet James Bond, secret agent 007. His new incredible women ... His new incredible enemies ... His new incredible adventures ..." To the right is Bond holding a gun, to the left a montage of women, fights and an explosion. On the bottom of the poster are the credits.

Spy stories, of course, depend on global locales, tech wizardry, constant weapons, supervillains, and a high body count for both sex and death.   Women, women, women, of all ethnicities, although Russian spies are a perennial favorite.  (Is it the accent, or the idea of nudity and fur?)  I just read a novel in which the male American spy and the female Russian spy were mutually obsessed, madly, madly in love/lust/etc., to the point where I really thought that the cover should be of her holding him against her exceptionally large chest, hair flowing like a female Fabio...  Anyway, sex drives these plots as well, no matter what the spy or the supervillain think, because - besides providing objects of rescue, thus securing another reason for the ensuing sex - 90% of the time at least one of those women is going to save the male spy from certain death. The game is to figure out which one by, say, page five.  

Horror.  Sex = death.  The survivor's a virgin.  What more can I say?  



So, to all of those who say that mysteries are all about cerebral detection, and that there isn't much place for sex in them - WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?  

As Oscar Wilde once said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”  

You could look it up...





07 May 2015

Pagliacci, or, Killing Your Lover is as Old as the Hills

by Eve Fisher

I went to the opera last weekend - The Met Live in HD at the Sioux Falls Century 14, big screen, great sound, and subtitles, what more could you ask for?  They were showing Pagliacci.  Now I'd heard about that opera all my life - everything from people on the old Ed Sullivan show singing their guts out to an Elmer Fudd parody.  But I'd never seen it, so off I went, and enjoyed it a lot.  Good old drama:   jealousy, threats, attempted rape, betrayal, adultery and murder.  What's not to like? Plus a play-within-a-play (which I am always a sucker for).

The plot is simple:  Act One:  Traveling players, commedia dell'arte, arrive in a small Sicilian town, and set up shop.  Canio (who plays the clown Pagliacci) is married to the beautiful Nedda (who plays the romantic heroine Columbine).  The foreshadowing was the joshing about how (on stage) Columbine cuckolds Pagliacci every night with Arlecchino (Harlequin), and Canio said, hey what's on stage is fine, but in real life, I'd kill her.  Cue the dramatic music, and they did.  On comes the big thug Tonio (who plays Taddeo, a servant in the play-within-a-play), who wants Nedda and tries to rape her.  She drives him off with a whip and he vows revenge.  So he overhears and then oversees Nedda meeting up with her real lover, Silvio.  He goes off, tells Canio, who gets drunk and weeps his aria, "I Pagliacci" while he puts on his white clown make-up.

Act Two:  The Harlequinade, as Columbine gets ready for her tryst with Arlecchino. Taddeo wants her, she drives him off.  Pagliacci arrives - but Canio/Pagliacci is murderously drunk and playing for real. (The audience, bloodthirsty as they come, is enthralled by his realism.)  He chases her around the stage, they fight, and he stabs her to death.  With her dying breath she calls "Silvio!" and, as Silvio fights his way up onto the stage, Canio/Pagliacci grabs him and stabs him to death, too.  And then turns to the audience and cries, "La commedia รจ finita!" – "The comedy is finished!"  Short, sweet, violent.

Pagiliacci, Cavallere Rusticana, and other operas were all part of the versimo movement of the late 1800's.  Naturalism!  Realism!  Lots of violence!  Lots of sex!  Bodies piled up on the stage!  (like that hadn't been done before - hadn't they ever noticed the Shakespearean body count?)  And, of course, everyone is no good.  Very much like film noir.  The literature of the day was the same:  whenever you want a good, depressing time among adulterers, thieves, murderers, whores and corrupt politicians, try Emile Zola's brilliant, harrowing, brutal Therese Raquin, Nana, and La Cousine Bette.

But if that wasn't enough excitement for you - not enough sex, not enough violence, not enough B&D, S&M - you went to the Grand Guignol, where the old tradition of violence on stage was revived.  Blood Feast, eat your heart out.  Even Titus Andronicus didn't quite reach the levels of violence porn that the Grand Guignol did in its theater on the Rue Pigalle.  From 1897 to 1962, they presented such upscale entertainment as Andre de Lorde's:
Grand Guignol, 1932
  • Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations: When a doctor finds his wife's lover in his operating room, he performs a graphic brain surgery rendering the adulterer a hallucinating semi-zombie. Now insane, the lover/patient hammers a chisel into the doctor's brain.
  • Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous: Two hags in an insane asylum use scissors to blind a young, pretty fellow inmate out of jealousy.
  • L'Horrible Passion: A nanny strangles the children in her care.  (Synopses thanks to Wikipedia.)
(On the other hand, even the Grand Guignol didn't reach the heights of ancient Rome, where wealthy diners could and were treated to the entertainment of live gladiator contests, and theatergoers would be treated, in "The Death of Hercules", to an ending that included condemned criminal being burned to death in front of them.  Humans do love violence porn...)


The Mysterious Mr Quin First Edition Cover 1930.jpgAnd they also love magic, dance, and romance.  Which is also at the heart of Pagliacci.  The Harlequinade that Canio and Nedda perform in Act 2 is straight from the commedia dell'arte, a staple and source of European entertainment for centuries, which always involved romance and sometimes murder. Characters from the commedia show up in Mozart operas, Shakespearean plays, and innumerable other operas and ballets.  And mysteries:  Sir Peter Wimsey dressed as Harlequin for half the plot of Murder Must Advertise, and Agatha Christie used the commedia over and over again as a trope or theme or a plot point, and at one point even a character - Harley Quin, who appeared in at least a dozen short stories.

The original commedia dell'arte was all about lovers (innamorate) who wanted to marry, but were hindered by elders (vecchio) and helped by servants (zanni).  In the old companies (old being 1500-1700s) there would be 10 characters:  two vecchi (old men), four innamorati (two male/female couples, one noble or at least middle class, the other lower class or downright clowns), two zanni, a Captain and a servetta (serving maid).  That gave plenty of characters to interfere with the two classes of lovers.  
Papageno and Papagena
BTW, this structure of thwarted/thwarting/attempting to thwart lovers, operating on two levels, is an old plot device.  In "As You Like It", Rosalind and Orlando, the noble lovers, are balanced off by Touchstone and Audrey, the comic relief.  In "The Magic Flute", the noble lovers Tamino and Pamina are balanced by Papageno and Papagena.  In Anthony Trollope's "Can You Forgive Her?" there's a series of triangles:  in the noble group, Plantagenet Palliser and Burgo Fitzgerald vie for Lady Glencora (PP's wife), in the middle-class group, George Vavasor and John Gray vie for Alice Vavasor, and in the lower-class group, Captain Bellfield and Squire Cheesacre vie for the Widow Greenow, and the latter three (the most hilarious) are straight out of the classic comic commedia dell'arte:  smart woman, miser, and the captain.  
Anyway, the characters and plot lines went all the way back to ancient Greek and Roman plays, and were continually updated and remade.  The major characters were:

Harlequin (a/k/a Arlecchino) - in love with and the beloved of Columbine. Originally, Harlequin - and this is what makes him very interesting - was an emissary of the Devil, and was played with a red and black mask and the motley costume that the demon(s) used to wear in the old Medieval Mystery Plays.  An athletic, acrobatic trickster, he was transformed over time into a more romantic figure.  But he remained a magician, and he could either be hilariously clever or diabolically deadly...  Even to Columbine...

Columbine - beautiful, witty, often the wife of Pierrot (Pagliacci), but always in love with Harlequin, and always the smartest person in the room.  She was usually the only person seen on stage without a mask or clown make-up.

Pierrot (a/k/a Pagliacci) - a clown who somehow got Columbine to marry him. In the 18th century, he (almost) gave up Columbine, because he had his own Pierrette. But Pierrette often died young, leaving Pierrot always, always grieving - the sad clown.

Scaramouche - a clown, but "sly, adroit, and conceited".  Later he became swashbuckling, mainly because of the Rafael Sabantini novel in which a swashbuckling nobleman's bastard hides out (in a plot twist) in a commedia troupe.  BTW, the novel "Scaramouche" opens with the great line:  "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."

Pulcinella a/k/a Punchinella a/k/a Punch (as in Punch and Judy) - a mean, crafty, hunchbacked clown who pretends to be stupider than he really is.  He is also incredibly violent:  with his "slapstick" (a stick as long as himself), he beats the living crap out of everyone, especially Judy.

As it says in the novel Mrs. Miniver:  "[Punch's] baby yelled and was flung out of the window; Judy scolded and was bludgeoned to death; the beadle, the doctor, and the hangman tried in turn to perform their professional duties and were outrageously thwarted; Punch, cunning, violent and unscrupulous, with no virtues whatever except humour and vitality, came out triumphant in the end. And all the children, their faces upturned in the sun like a bed of pink daisies, laughed and clapped and shouted with delight."  Perfect childhood fun.

"The Last of the Summer Wine" -
Foggy's in back
Pantalone - An old, ruthless miser who is trying to control everyone and everything.  Probably based on Plautus' "Aulularia" and both are the probable sources of both Ben Jonson's "Volpone", and Moliere's "The Miser."  And let's not forget that almost every bad guy in Dickens is an elderly, solitary miser who tries to control everyone and everything...

Il Capitano - The soldier, who boasts constantly (while being an arrant coward), knows everything, and is always getting into fights he has no real intention of fighting.  Il Capitano is still a major stock character in everything from Dickens (Nathaniel Winkle in the Pickwick Papers), Agatha Christie (think of  Major Palgrave in "A Caribbean Mystery"), E. F. Benson's Major Benjy, Flashman, and Foggy in the long-running comedy, "Last of the Summer Wine".

Actually, as I think about it, these are all stock characters, still used all the time.  You could say that Harlequin today is someone like Jack Reacher, Patrick Jane, Spenser, etc., and Columbine is Emma Peel, Elizabeth Swann, perhaps even Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Make your own list.  But keep your eyes open:  the cast of the commedia dell'arte shows up in all sorts of times and places.  And where they come...  death often follows.





11 April 2015

Go Away, Space Angel! I'm Trying to Write Crime

by Melodie Campbell

A funny thing happened on the way to the crime book: it became a comic sci-fi spy novella.

That’s the frustrating thing about being a fiction writer.  Sometimes you don’t pick your characters – they pick you.

I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business, when…no, that’s not how it happened.

It was far worse.

“Write a spy novel!” said the notable crime reviewer (one of that rare breed who still has a newspaper column.) We were yapping over a few drinks last spring.  “A funny one. Modesty Blaise meets Maxwell Smart, only in modern day, of course.”

“Sure!” I said, slurping Pinot by the $16 glass.  After all, crime is my thing.  I was weaned on Agatha Christie.  I had 40 crime short stories and 5 crime books published to date.  This sounded like the perfect 'next series' to write.

And I intended to.  Truly I did.  I tried all summer. I even met with a former CSIS operative to get the scoop on the spy biz (think CIA, but Canada – yes, he was polite.)    

Wrote for two months solid.  The result was…kinda flat.  (I blame the Pinot.  Never take up a book-writing dare with a 9 oz. glass of Pinot in your hand. Ditto good single malt.  THAT resulted in a piece of erotica that shall forever be known under a different name…  But I digress.)

Back to the crime book.  I started to hate it.  

Then, in the middle of the night (WHY does this always happens in the middle of the night?) a few characters started popping up.  Colourful, fun characters, from another time. They took my mind by siege.  “GO AWAY,” I told them. “I’m trying to write a crime book!”

They didn’t.  It was a criminal sit-in.  They wouldn’t leave until I agreed to write their tale.
So the modern day spy novel became a futuristic spy novel.  Modesty Blaise runs a bar on a space-station, so to speak.  Crime in Space, with the kind of comedy you might expect from a descendent of The Goddaughter.

Two more months spent in feverish writing.  Another two in rewrites.  Then another, to convince my publisher that the project had legs.

CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH is the result.  Yet another crossing the genres escapade.

Written by me, and a motley crew of night visitors.

Now hopefully they will keep it down in there so I can sleep.

CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
“Comedy and Space Opera – a blast to read” (former editor Distant Suns magazine)
“a worthy tribute to Douglas Adams”  (Cathy Astolfo, award-winning author)

It isn't easy being a female barkeep in the final frontier...especially when you’re also a spy!

Nell Romana loves two things: the Blue Angel Bar, and Dalamar, a notorious modern-day knight for hire.  Too bad he doesn't know she is actually an undercover agent.  When Dalamar is called away on a routine job, Nell uncovers a rebel plot to overthrow the Federation. She has to act fast and alone. 

Then the worst happens.  Her cover is blown…

Buy link AMAZON
Buy link SMASHWORDS

The Toronto Sun called her Canada’s “Queen of Comedy.”  Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich.  Melodie Campbell got her start writing standup.  She has over 200 publications and nine awards for fiction.  Code Name: Gypsy Moth (Imajin Books) is her eighth book.

25 January 2015

Slip Sliding Away?

by Dale C. Andrews
[The Doctor] gave me the route map: loss of memory, short- and long-term, the disappearance of single words -- simple nouns might be the first to go -- then language itself, along with balance, and soon after, all motor control, and finally the autonomous nervous system. Bon voyage!
                                                                       Atonement: A Novel 
                                                                       Ian McEwan 

       Over the holidays I read several mystery novels, each set in Florida or the Gulf Coast, all in a row. I don’t know why I did this -- maybe the gray skies over Washington, D.C. and the promise (threat?) of more winter on the horizon had something to do with it, or maybe it was just a simple reaction to my impending return to SleuthSayers and the prospect of sharing space on a new day with my friend and inveterate Floridian Leigh. More on those Florida books later -- perhaps next month.

       But after that steady southern diet I started to feel a little swampy, which led me to Ian McEwan’s Atonement in search of something different. A great book, by the way. And in it the above quote, from an author character who, near the end of Atonement, confronts the onset of dementia, struck a chord. Confronting and dealing with dementia in the context of mystery novels has been a recurring theme, both lately and historically. 

        In an earlier article discussing first person narration I referenced Alice LaPlante’s debut novel Turn of Mind, where the central character and first person narrator, Dr. Jennifer White, is an Orthopedic surgeon suffering from Alzheimer's disease. LaPlante skillfully allows the reader to know only what Jennifer knows, and the story progresses only through her distorted view. As readers we are imprisoned in her mind, a mind that Dr. White herself describes as:
This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my mind rots out, I remain aware. An unanesthetized patient. 
       Another recent mystery utilizing the same technique -- a narrator disabled by dementia -- is Emma Healing’s ambitious mystery Elizabeth Is Missing. Here, too, the first person narration is by the central character, Maude, who speaks through her dementia, and all we know of the mystery at hand, and the clues to its solution, are told to us through her filter. 

       Tough stuff, writing a mystery under such constraints. But what about the tougher task -- writing a mystery when it is the author who is struggling with the real-life constraint? That may be precisely what Agatha Christie did when she penned her last mysteries. 

       I began to read Christie late, after I had exhausted all of the Ellery Queen mysteries that were out there. And that early obsession with Queen tripped me up a bit as I approached Christie. With Queen I found that I liked the later mysteries best, those from the mid-1940s on. I particularly liked the final Queen volumes, beginning with The Finishing Stroke. And that led me to a mis-step. I began reading Christie by starting with her most recent works, specifically, Postern of Fate and Elephants Can Remember. Oops. 

       Postern of Fate, the chronologically last book that Christie wrote, features Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. This, on its own, is a sad way to end things -- they were hardly Christie’s best detective characters. But that is not the real problem. The reader uncomfortably notes from the beginning of the book that conversations occurring in one chapter are forgotten in the next. Deductions that are relatively simple are drawn out through the course of many pages. Clues are dealt with multiple times in some instances, in others they are completely ignored.  The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English, tags the work as one of Christie’s "execrable last novels" in which she "loses her grip altogether." 

       Elephants Can Remember, written one year earlier, fares no better. The Cambridge Guide also ranks this as one of the “execrable last novels.” More specifically, English crime writer, critic and lecturer Robert Bernard had this to say:      
Another murder-in-the-past case, with nobody able to remember anything clearly, including, alas, the author. At one time we are told that General Ravenscroft and his wife (the dead pair) were respectively sixty and thirty-five; later we are told he had fallen in love with his wife's twin sister 'as a young man'. The murder/suicide is once said to have taken place ten to twelve years before, elsewhere fifteen, or twenty. Acres of meandering conversations, hundreds of speeches beginning with 'Well, …' That sort of thing may happen in life, but one doesn't want to read it.
       Speaking of reading, are we perhaps reading too much into all of this? Could it just be that Christie had run out of inspiration? Younger writers (Stephen King comes to mind) display peaks and valleys in their fiction output.  Could Christie have just ended in a valley?  Unlikely.  There is almost certainly more to Christie’s problem than just un-inspired plots. 

       Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University of Toronto wondered about the perceived decline in Christie’s later novels and devised a way to put them to the test. Lancashire developed a computer program that tabulates word usage in books, and then fed sixteen of Agatha Christie’s works, written over fifty years, into the computer. Here are his findings, couched in terms of his analysis of Elephants Can Remember, and as summarized by RadioLab columnist Robert Krulwich:
When Lancashire looked at the results for [Elephants Can Remember], written when [Christie] was 81 years old, he saw something strange. Her use of words like "thing," "anything," "something," "nothing" – terms that Lancashire classifies as "indefinite words" – spiked. At the same time, [the] number of different words she used dropped by 20 percent. "That is astounding," says Lancashire, "that is one-fifth of her vocabulary lost."
         But to her credit, Christie was likely battling mightily to produce Elephants and Postern. Lancaster hypothesizes as much, not only from the results of his computer analysis of vocabulary, but also based on a more subjective analysis of the plot of Elephants.
 Lancashire told Canadian current affairs magazine Macleans that the title of the novel, a tweaking of the proverb "elephants never forget", also gives a clue that Christie was defensive about her declining mental powers. . . . [T]he protagonist [in the story] is unable to solve the mystery herself, and is forced to call on the aid of Hercule Poirot.
"[This] reveals an author responding to something she feels is happening but cannot do anything about," he said. "It's almost as if the crime is not the double-murder-suicide, the crime is dementia."
In any event Christie likely should have stopped while the stopping was good, which she did after Postern. Her final mysteries, Curtain and Sleeping Murder, while published in the mid-1970s, were in fact written in the 1940s. 

       Christie’s plight is a bit uncomfortable for aging authors (I find myself standing in the queue) to contemplate. But thankfully Christie’s road as she reached 80 is not everyone’s. Rex Stout still had the literary dash at about the same age to give us Nero Wolfe slamming that door in J. Edgar Hoover’s face in The Doorbell Rang.  There, and in his final work Family Affair, written in 1975 when Stout was in his late 80s, there are certainly no apparent problems. Time’s review of Family concluded "even veteran aficionados will be hypnotized by this witty, complex mystery." I recently read Ruth Rendell’s latest work, The Girl Next Door, written during Rendell's 84th year, and it is, to use Dicken’s phrase, “tight as a drum.” Similarly, the last P. D. James work, Death Comes to Pemberley, a Jane Austen pastiche written when James was well into her 90s, received glowing reviews, most notably from the New York Times, and has already been adapted into a British television miniseries. And when James’ works were analyzed by the same computer program to which Christie’s novels were subjected, the results established that James’ vocabulary, even in her 90s, was indistinguishable from that employed in her earlier works. 

       So if you are both writing and contemplating the other side of middle age, watch out! But on the other hand don’t needlessly descend into gloom. Keep your fingers crossed and remember the advice of Spock, as rendered by Leonard Nimoy (also in his 80’s): Live long and prosper!