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!

15 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Welcome back, Dale!

I haven’t read Postern and likely now shall not because of your warning.

There’s one crime writer whose early works I enjoyed but her latter novels seemed to become, well, sort of cartoonish, and I include an entire second series in that category. The last book I read seemed almost a parody of the earlier works. Until you brought up dementia, I hadn’t considered that as a possibility; rather I felt the author didn’t care about the series any more but was perhaps writing to meet contractual commitments. Now you have me wondering.

Regarding protagonists with dementia, I’ve highly recommended The Alzheimer Case AKA The Memory of a Killer, about a hit man with Alzheimer’s. I confess I haven’t read the book– the original is in Flemish– but the film is a great thriller.

It's great to have you back, Dale!

Fran Rizer said...

I haven't read POSTERN, and, unlike Leigh, I will probably read it now just to see how bad Christie could be. This is interesting, but, to me, it points out a much greater deficiency than poor old Agatha's decline. WHERE THE HELL WAS HER EDITOR?

janice law said...

A good piece.
We can also take comfort from the example of Sophocles, who defended himself against heirs who wanted to take control of him and I assume his money on the grounds of diminishing mental capabilities by pointing out that he had just composed Oedipus at Colonus, itself an elegy to old age

Melodie Campbell said...

A rather chilling but excellent post! And yet, it does point to something I have felt re famous authors writing into their 80s - for example, I have found P.D. James last few Adam Dal. crime novels ponderous and disappointing.
It is almost as if some crime authors (not Christie) feel as if they must say something 'important' in their final novels. Luckily, I never say anything important. ;)

David Dean said...

Good piece, Dale, and welcome back!

Elizabeth said...

A former boyfriend, who was an actor, singer, and poet, had a day job in telemarketing. He quit when he realized he was using the same old limited vocabulary of a few hundred words over and over, and jeopardizing his poetry.

I did read Postern of Fate when I was a child, and very uncritical. Now, being of a certain age, it occurs to me that possibly Agatha wrote it not for publication but to ward off impending dementia. But she was so famous by then, and no doubt was under contract to publish every scrap of paper she wrote.

Anonymous said...

For mid-list authors, the problem isn't writing into old age but getting a publisher to believe they have any relevance to an ever younger (and often non-reading) audience,

Anonymous said...

PS. Elizabeth has an excellent point.

Eve Fisher said...

Well, that's one explanation for "Elephants Can Remember" and "Postern of Fate." The trouble with Alzheimer's is that we all have it looming over us in these days of endless statistics, but it is the luck of the draw. You also have people like my old neighbor, Mrs. Davenport, who was still painting just as well as ever and giving art lessons at 100. Meanwhile, talk about unreliable narrators for a mystery!

Herschel Cozine said...

I was unaware of Christie's problem. I haven't read the book in question. There have been times in her early writings where I felt she was "cheating", but it may have simply unaware of previous scenes or conditions.
I was interested in your article since I am in the age bracket in question. As far as I know I still have all my senses, at least as many as I was born with. And I am still able to play a mean game of bridge, pass all of the so-called IQ tests which are designed to check for the symptoms of dementia. But there is a history in my family, my two older sisters suffering from Alzheimers before they passed away. I fight it as best I can by staying mentally active. That,by the way, includes writing.

So far, so good. But then I am not the best judge of my writing. It was never the greatest work ever published, so a decline may not be noticeable.

Dale Andrews said...

Thanks for the comments, all!

Herschel -- No worries -- your writing is fine in my book!

My mother, who died one day shy of her 90th birthday, was sharp as a tack until the end. When I used to speak with her on the phone it was easy to imagine that she was 30. On the other hand, her father was blundering off into delusions by the time he was in his late 60s. When he was in his 80s he decided he would write his autobiography -- a complete disaster. One of the chapters was entitled "Towns Where I Have Had Sex," and was simply a list of towns, which (unbelievably) went on for several pages. So my hope is always that I have my mother's genes but not her father's!

Jan Grape said...

Glad you're back, Dale. Honestly, I've read some authors that were young but I wondered if they had dementia. Maybe they just never had much sense to begin with...lol
I am like Fran Where The Hell Was Christie's editor. Those mistakes weren't something Christie might argue about, just plain good editing.
Maybe her editor had a problem?
Intriguing thoughts.

Robert Lopresti said...

Good if depressing piece. I had the same thought as Fran: that editor should have been canned. I remember reading one of Harry Kemelman's last novels and being embarrassed for him. The editor had really slept on the job there.

And speaking, ahem, of needing an editor... Stout's last book, A Family Affair, WAS a great exit, but the scene with Hoover was in The Doorbell Rang a decade earlier.

You know, the idea of Christie's last novel being, in effect, an SOS, reminds me of a collection of essays about Sherlock Holmes I read probably twenty years ago. In each one the (same) author looked at one particular story and put it into the context of Doyle's life and what i remember was that after reluctantly signing a contract to produce yet more Holmes fiction Doyle's next story was "The Six Napoleons," in which the villain commits the same crime over and over and over...

Herschel Cozine said...

My take on the Christie book: the editor was looking at the bottom line. The book was certain to sell whether it was up to Christie standards or not. So why spend a lot of time making it better? The editor took the easy way out, probably figuring it was the end of the line for Christie anyway. Profit over professionalism

Dale Andrews said...

Rob -- Thanks for catching my oops. This is what I get for referencing Wolfe novels that I last read in 1977! The article has been corrected.