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

10 August 2023

Great Mistakes in Criminal History / Mystery


Some days you run across things that just make you go, wait a minute, that's not right.  And I'm not talking about Florida Man or South Dakota Man.  I'm talking about people who have actually planned crimes, meticulously, and made some of the stupidest mistakes you can imagine.

For example, a married Colorado dentist who fell in love with another woman started looking up things on the internet like, “is arsenic detectable in an autopsy?” and “how to make murder look like a heart attack." (Yes, I know we at SleuthSayers have all probably done something like that, but at least we had the excuse that we're crime writers, right?)  But this guy not only left a suspicious internet trail a mile long, but he actually ordered a rush shipment of potassium cyanide that he told the supplier was needed for a surgery. To his office.  Where, of course, an employee opened it and went, "Wait, what does a dentist need with cyanide?" And that wasn't the only poison he ordered delivered. Sadly, all of this did not come out early enough to save his wife's life.  (AP News

But from it we can learn three things:  

  • Never use your own computer; 
  • Always delete the cookies and the history on the browser; 
  • Never have poison, etc., delivered to your office or home.  

Another example is researching Amber Alerts, watching a movie about a woman’s abduction, and writing and delivering to 911 a pretty believable script about finding a white toddler all alone on the side of the road and then vanishing, leaving the car open and running and her cell phone, and having law enforcement searching for her and the toddler, and two days later showing up, claiming to be kidnapped and held hostage but escaping - for nothing?  Ten days later, her attorney shows up and recites a flat statement that it was all a hoax. ??? (AP News)  Honey, if you need a couple of days off, just take off!  

And then there's other things that people have obviously written meticulously, carefully, and made a bestselling novel or movie out of it and... there's a major flaw.

I've talked about the 1998 movie A Simple Plan before.  Very good, understandable, greed and stupidity win over planning.  BUT, when an FBI Agent named Baxter arrives in this small town, Sheriff Carl Jenkins asks the "heroes" to work with him without ever having checked Baxter's credentials.  This does not happen in the real world.  No rural county sheriff would ever just say, "Nice to meet you, what can I do for you?" to someone claiming to be an FBI and wanting to investigate something.  Sadly, if Sheriff Carl was that dumb, he deserved what he got. 

(BTW: The fact that Sarah the librarian does and figures out who Baxter really is makes perfect sense to me but then I know that librarians can find out anything in the world, given enough time.)

This fact that rural, state, and national law enforcement do not always work smoothly together - indeed are often loath to listen to each other - explains a lot about some of the disastrous decisions made in recent years.  The latest is the video from Circleville, Ohio, where State Highway Police had Jadarrius Rose surrendered, hands up, while a Circleville City Policeman arrived on the scene with a German Shepherd K-9 and totally ignored the state trooper yelling three times, "Do not release the dog with his hands up!" and released the dog, which promptly mauled Mr. Rose. (Link)  I believe the city policeman figured he didn't have to listen to some state trooper.  

But a while back I figured the most egregious example of mistake that ruins the whole plot (for me) is in Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile.  Heiress Linnet Doyle is murdered at night in her cabin.  Everyone is a suspect.  Linnet's maid, Louise, is the second victim.  And that right there is a major flaw, because (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Louise knows who Linnet's murderer is, and has already pried money out of the murderer.  But murdering her right then and there makes no sense at all. You're the goose that lays the golden eggs, and she's a maid. She'll keep her mouth shut until everyone gets off the boat, because she wants more money. She'll follow you anywhere and keep your alibi, because she wants your money!  You don't kill the goose that has the golden alibi.  Instead, you pay her off for the next year or so, and then, away from Hercule Poirot, you kill her and make it look like an accident. 

Finally, though, my favorite is from The Big Bang Theory, in "The Raiders Minimization" Amy Fowler shatters Sheldon's favorite movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark by pointing out the major plot flaw:


I still like the movie, but she's right.

03 February 2023

Plotting Your Story with Aeon Timeline


I’ve spent the last year working on a nonfiction ghostwriting project for a client who got a deal to deliver a memoir about, shall we say, his military career. (Our contract precludes me from spilling many of the details, but I’ll try to work around it.)

Recently, I asked the client a question that puzzled even him.

“Did you return home at any point during your first deployment?”

“No, why?”

“Because your first daughter had to have been conceived during that year. If you were overseas…”

I stopped shy of asking him who the father really was…

A few days later I got a flurry of humorous texts from his wife. They both had a good laugh over my question. Yes, she recalled, he did come home once during that period of time. (She had photos of a romantic dinner and getaway weekend to prove it. Not that I needed it!) By the time Dad returned home again, a beautiful three-month-old baby was waiting to greet her father for the first time.

“That’s so funny,” the wife told me. “It was so long ago, we forgot that little detail. How did you figure it out?”

Normally, I can use these moments to brag that I’m the greatest reporter ever. But in this case, the tipoff sprung not from my brain but from a piece of software that I’ve been using to plot the book.

The software is Aeon Timeline. Product developers use it to plot the trajectory of their real-life projects. Scholars and historians use it to map out their areas of study, both Before Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE). Lawyers use it to plot litigation strategies and timelines. Writers of all stripes use it to map out fiction and nonfiction. Screenwriters presumably can do the same.

This is not the world’s most expensive software. You’ve got it forever for $65. If you want annual updates, that will run you a little extra. All completely tax deductible for a professional writer.


What do I like about the program? I can list every single character in the book I’m planning, inserting their birth and death dates. From that moment forward, whenever Character A meets Character B in the timeline, the software automatically calculates each person’s age down to the years, months, and days. For the project I’m working on now, I can insert real-life historic events—the election of presidents, dates of wars, what-have-you—and everything will populate on my screen, showing me how people, places, events all intersect.

As you can imagine, this can be pretty useful for mystery writers working with tricky timelines. On its website, Aeon actually uses Murder on the Orient Express as one of their case studies. (I have reproduced some of the Orient Express screenshots here, but you will find them infinitely more readable on this page of Aeons website.

That novel is a good example because everything hinges on the events occurring over one night aboard that infamous train. Poirot nimbly tucks away all the details in his little gray cells, but I’m pretty sure Dama Agatha plotted her story using a handwritten version of what Aeon shows us in these screenshots.

If you need to keep track of murder weapons, locations, character traits, etc., you can easily create a new entry and start tracking that plot point or detail. 

I guess you could say the software is remarkably flexible. I like that about Aeon Timeline. I also sorta kinda hate it. This is one of those software programs that rewards a long learning curve. Luckily, there is a knowledge base, forum, and developer support on the software’s website, not to mention countless YouTube videos to help you piece together how to use it.

Early on in this project, I found myself spending a tedious week trying to input all our nonfiction milestones into the software. I pulled the details from a mountain of documents the client shared with me. Four or five days into this, I had to ask myself if this was all worth it. Was I wasting my time? Couldn’t I just hand-write the details on sheets of paper, the way I’d always done?

I could have, but then I would have had to keep a mountain of paper at the ready. Instead, once I input everything into the program, I tucked the reams of paper into a banker box, forgot about them, and focused on the unfolding story instead. Every time I did another interview with the client, I spent a few post-call minutes plugging new dates and times into the program.

Aeon has been a lifesaver, and I’m eager to try it again for an upcoming fiction project. I think you’d get the best mileage out of Aeon using it to plot longer projects such as novels, novellas, or anthology book series. One feature I’m eager to try is Aeon’s narrative timeline, which allows you to drag and drop plot points from one timeline into a secondary timeline that mimics how you will actually structure the book.

Example: A scene actually occurs at the end of the timeline, but you can drag it into the prologue position. That could be a valuable feature if you were planning a project with an abundance of flashbacks.

All that said, Aeon might be helpful if you’re writing a short story of unusual complexity. Since my short stories tend to be, ahem, fairly clueless, I don’t think it would be smart to plot them digitally. Most of the time, a sheet of scrap paper with a five or so plot points is enough to keep track of where I’m going. And besides, I enjoy writing short stories precisely because dense outlines aren’t necessary.

It may not look like it, but I really do try to limit the amount of software I use in my daily work. If something doesn’t blow me away with its usefulness, I chalk the whole thing up to an experiment that didn’t pan out, and delete the program from my computer. Because, in the end, who really has the time?

I’ll discuss another software program for writers when I see you in three weeks!

Joe

josephdagnese.com

26 July 2021

The Impeccable Poirot


I've been treating myself to a leisurely nostalgia trip through the Art Deco settings of the early seasons of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot on Britbox. David Suchet is the embodiment of the dapper little detective with his perfectly waxed mustache, spotless spats, and compassion for the emotions of others, even though for himself he prefers to rely on the "little gray cells" of his exceptional brain.

The fact that Poirot never changes makes him tiresome to some readers. Christie herself hinted she eventually found him tedious by giving her fictional alter ego, Mrs Ariadne Oliver, similar feelings toward her own protagonist. And Poirot on the page is a flat, even cartoonish character, especially compared to the fully realized characters we write and read about today. But as Suchet inhabits this character, he brings the finicky, precise, keen-witted little Belgian to life. An émigré and an outsider in English society, sometimes lionized and sometimes dismissed, he is sensitive to slights but manages to keep his temper, his sense of humor, and a sense of irony. And in the end, he solves the case without fear or favor.

Like most mystery writers who've been dabbling in deceit and death for a while, I can usually spot a few more tricks of the crime fiction trade than I'm supposed to, whether they show up in a novel, a short story, a movie, or a TV show. Furthermore, binge watching the series is giving me a further advantage, in that neither the prolific Dame Agatha nor the producers (ITV et al), with their ambitious goal of filming the entire Poirot canon, could help repeating some of their techniques.

We know the sweet damsel in distress whom Poirot unmasks at the end as the contemptuous murderess...the disregarded maidservant...the pair who detest each other most convincingly yet turn out to be lovers in cahoots...the victim who comes back to life. We've seen them before, these most unlikely villains, as we have the cluster of murders to conceal the motive for a single death. We may even have used them ourselves.

What we mustn't forget is that these classic devices—the least likely suspect, the unreliable narrator—are familiar to us because Agatha Christie thought of them first and sprang them on a vast audience who were as truly baffled as the witnesses and suspects Poirot gathers together for the revelatory dénouement of each episode.

Fashions in crime fiction have changed. Readers no longer care about the clock set forward or back, the scrap of fabric caught in a latch, the second spoon in the saucer of a coffee cup. But in the Poirot TV series, these details still give us pleasure, because they form part of the vanished world of "society" between the two World Wars when details of dress, manners, and decor still mattered to a lot of people. Such details become clues that help Poirot solve the crime at hand.

In Suchet's interpretation, Poirot is not merely observant. He has a touch of OCD, constantly straightening table settings laid awry or ornaments on a mantelpiece. I particularly loved the moment when he realized the missing will, or was it a compromising letter, had been torn up into "spills," twisted strips of paper meant for lighting the fire, in a jar on the mantel. They caught his eye because the other objects on the mantel were out of order—and he had straightened them the day before.

26 December 2020

Sleuthing and the Heroine's Journey


Greetings from We the North, where it is currently 41° F, with green grass! Even Santa scratched his head last night, wondering which side of the border he was on.

My pleasure today to introduce another stellar Canadian crime writer - Jayne Barnard - with a topic that blew me away. Some of you know I write epic fantasy as well as crime, and happily for readers, so does Jayne. So you can imagine my delight when I read this post and Jayne agreed to share it with us today on SleuthSayers.

We writing instructors always talk about The Hero's Journey in fiction. But did you ever wonder about the Heroine's? Jayne makes the case using crime fiction, and I am wowed by the brilliance of it. Take it away, Jayne…

— Melodie


Sleuthing and the Heroine's Journey

by J.E. Barnard

Here's a new truism for you: a Hero can be halfway through his Quest before a Heroine gets out the door.

And no, it's not because women are always late.

Males are expected to go out questing and few look askance if they do; females are expected to tend the hearth and the children, maintaining the home for the male's triumphal return. Before she can leave, the Heroine must first wrap up or delegate all the responsibilities tying her to normal life.

For the fictional sleuth, those gender expectations make for distinctly different heroic journeys through the crime-solving world.

Whether hard-hitting like a Hammett hero or cerebral as Hercule Poirot, male detectives generally undertake their heroic crime-solving from a place of relative strength and comfort, with skills and allies already in place, and a secure home to return to. They receive, in Joseph Campbell's journey model, a Call to Adventure that, once they overcome initial reluctance to leave their comfort zone, ultimately draws them into the heroic quest: the hunt for a villain or the race to save a (present or future) victim. Along the way they meet a good woman, a bad one, face off against a father figure or more powerful male, overcome some dangers to gain victory, and return to their comfortable world stronger and more respected, if not necessarily wiser.

Sound familiar? It's the baseline for almost every English-language detective story ever published, and almost every movie ever made.

Where a heroine sets foot in that story her role, as Campbell put it, is to "realize that she's the place that people are trying to get to."

Passive, not active.

In 1990, the acclaimed feminist scholar Maureen Murdoch wrote "The Heroine's Journey" to explicate the still-radical theory that women - in life and in fiction - need not follow the male-structured Hero's Journey, but could chart their own course, taking into account the entangled societal expectations and responsibilities that must be managed before the Heroine was free to undertake a Journey that was both outer progress and inner development. As academic Mega Rogers puts it, "The hero begins his journey with a strong sense of self-preservation and ultimately embarks on an external descent, then return to achieve individuation. In contrast, the heroine begins her story lacking a sense of self, giving too much energy to the needs and opinions of others and embarks upon an internal journey of descent from which she travels outward to achieve her individuation."

Plainly put, the first stage of the Heroine's Journey happens when she gets disillusioned by, or is forced out of, the passive, culturally supported, stereotypical feminine role.

Until fairly recently, fictional female sleuths had two choices: be as tough and unencumbered as any man, like Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, or be both unencumbered by domestic duties and simultaneously able to do their sleuthing on the home front, as did Christie's Miss Marple and Wentworth's Miss Silver. For both models of female sleuth there wasn't a lot of journeying, heroic or otherwise.

I can almost hear the readers crying out, "What about Nancy Drew?" To which I reply with more questions: did Nancy get forced out of a place of comfort? Did she have responsibilities she couldn't shelve to go sleuthing? Did she have an inner journey along with her outer one? The answer to all three is 'No.' She might have been a good sleuth but she wasn't on a Heroine's Journey. The home she came back to was the same safe place she'd left, with no inner growth (and not much outer advancement) demanded.

The modern female sleuth's journey, like the wider Heroine's Journey, is more than a hearth-bound, small-village imitation of the Hero's Journey. It's been shaping women's lives forever and crime fiction since the mid-1950s, when Mary Stewart started writing romantic suspense about heroines who had jobs instead of children. These heroines traveled, tackled mountains and foreign languages, detected anomalous behaviors, formulated theories of crime, decided for themselves who was trustworthy and who was potentially dangerous, and faced killers without fainting or falling into the nearest hero's arms. As Sleuthsayers' regular blogger Melodie Campbell wrote earlier this year, "Mary Stewart's protagonists had courage and resourcefulness. They fought back when threatened. They risked their lives rescuing large animals (This Rough Magic) and even men (The Moonspinners.) This was not only unusual for the time - it was absolutely groundbreaking."

Following in Mary Stewart's keystrokes, crime fiction authors began to let their heroines leap - or creep - out into the world. Even the redoubtable Dame Ngaio Marsh gave Troy Alleyn, wife of her longstanding male detective, a chance at her own journey. 1968's 'A Clutch of Constables' (the 25th book in the series) send Troy on a river cruise that led her into dangerous waters. It wasn't fully a Heroine's Journey as Troy was already quite independent. Further, the tale lacked introspection about her social role even while she puzzled out the mysterious happenings on board the riverboat. In the end, Inspector Alleyn appeared in his habitual heroic role to wrap things up.

That book, however, bridges the gap between the old, passive, heroine-as-adjunct model and the new: a heroine active in crime solving, stretching her skills and forging her own path.

Around the time Ngaio Marsh stopped writing, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Mertz took up the challenge, expanding the fictional sleuthing Heroine's Journey through her Vicky Bliss romantic suspense series, and her Amelia Peabody historical/satirical adventures. Vicki's involvement in crime ultimately led her to the traditional feminine reward of marriage and domesticity, while Amelia married early and continued on her journey. For 19 further books, Peters wove Amelia's increasing domestic duties through her career growth, her Suffragist efforts, and her intrepid tackling of crime and criminals. Amelia's inner journey started with rejection of marriage/domesticity (her assigned lot in life), wound through self-reflections upon the conflicting demands into a more individuated and comfortable participation in the company of other women as equals & allies and mirrored - sometimes anticipated - the expanding role of women in the late-Victorian/early Edwardian society. Her series-long arc is a near-ideal example of Murdoch's Heroine Journey. (see The Heroine's Journey for discussion and diagram.)

As the dual inner-outer Heroine's Journey took hold in the reading public's imagination, the old ways of solving mysteries through the exercise of either the fists or the little grey cells ceased to be satisfying. Nowadays, sleuths both male and female are expected to have an inner drive as well as an outer goal.

The speed of this shift is clear in the popular Miss Fisher mysteries as they moved from print to small screen. In 1989, author Kerry Greenwood set out to write an Australian adult Nancy Drew, a well-off and stylish sleuth who had adventures, but with added zing from adult freedoms including the sexual. The books' Phryne had a straightforward, hedonistic life with no much self-reflection beyond a determination to reject the confining expectations of upper class 1920s woman. The 2012 TV series, however, sets Phryne on an inner as well as outer quest. The childhood loss of her sister to a sadistic killer drives the adult Phryne to rescue street urchins and orphans, solve crimes mostly involving women, and along the way come to terms with her guilt and grief over her sister's kidnapping and murder. In doing heroic deeds outwardly for others, she progresses on her inward heroic journey.

Another aspect of the Heroine's Journey is the allies found along the way, more likely to be equal partners than the mentor or apprentices found in the Hero's Journey. As fantasy fiction author Elizabeth Whitton said during a recent panel discussion, "While the Hero's Journey is all about the main guy, the 'I', Heroines tend to talk, think and act as 'we'." Allyship is central for Heroines.

During the writing of my Falls Mysteries, starting in the mid-oughts, the Heroine's Journey was already part of my psyche due to decade of reading crime fiction with heroic female sleuths. My main sleuth, Lacey, is an ex-Mountie suffering from PTSD due to both workplace incidents and the violent spouse she fled (forced out of the home sphere.) My secondary sleuth, Jan, lost her art history career to an illness, ME/CFS, for which no cause and no cure were then (or are now) available. In 'When the Flood Falls,' the first book, Lacey and Jan must band together to save their mutual friend Dee from a midnight stalker who seems to be escalating his invasions. While each starts off thinking the other woman is a frail reed in the partnership, they soon recognize they are stronger together: Lacey's physical power and police training combine with Jan's art-trained observational skills and her deep knowledge of the suspects.

In addition to learning to work together, each woman must progress on her inner Heroine's Journey in order to survive and surmount the rising challenges around the heroic task of saving Dee. Lacey learns to accept help when offered and Jan to ask for what she needs to keep functioning physically. As the trilogy closes, in addition to solving some crimes and saving some vulnerable characters, Lacey has let down her armor and progressed in her inner healing, while Jan takes her first steps back into the wider world previously lost to her illness.

Once you understand the Heroine's Journey dynamic, you'll see it not only in crime fiction but in movies and television...and in daily life. How many true Heroines do you know?

Bio: JE (Jayne) Barnard has 25 years of award-winning fiction to her name. Her bestselling women’s wilderness suspense series, The Falls Mysteries (Dundurn Press) follows contemporary characters facing raw nature and manmade threats, medically assisted dying as well as murder, PTSD, and ME/CFS. Her newest book, Why the Rock Falls, excavates the dysfunctional family lives of Hollywood directors and oil dynasties amid the jaw-dropping limestone climbs in Alberta’s Ghost River valley. Follow her on

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11 May 2020

The Sidekick Dilemma


The D Case by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini presents an intriguing bibliophile premise. They bring the great fictional detectives together at a consortium in Rome to re-read, analyze, and eventually solve the unfinished Charles Dickens novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

During the course of the action, we see Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Arsene Lupin, Father Brown, Inspector Maigret, Pirfory Petrovich from Crime & Punishment, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Nero Wolfe, and a few others. The only major sleuths I don't remember seeing are Ellery Queen and the cops of the 87th Precinct.

I remembered my introduction to many of these characters from my parents' bookshelves and coffee table. My mother loved Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Rex Stout. I read all the existing Hardy Boys books between my tenth and eleventh birthday and receieved The Complete Sherlock Holmes for my twelfth birthday. I still have that book. As you can see, the binding is held together by duct tape.



Even at an early age, my reading ear was well-developed and I had definite likes and dislikes. I never liked Agatha Christie much, and I know now that it was because her dialogue sounded wooden and her characters felt like cardboard. The women were all either 12-year-old virgins or latent doms. I liked the early Holmes stories, but felt they went downhill after he went over the Reichenbach Falls, probably because Conan Doyle himself lost his enthusiasm. I discovered Nero Wolfe when I was 12 or 13, and always liked those books more. Now I know that Rex Stout was also from the Midwest, so our rhythms were similar.

Reading The D Case showed me something else that I'd never thought about. Another reason I never cared much for Poirot or Holmes is that Hastings and Watson always came across as so profoundly dull. They were the stereotypical stolid Englishmen with no imagination or creativity, and they bored the hell out of me. They spent page after page in arias extolling the brilliance of their companions, but did little else for the stories. Well, Watson had his service revolver. But they were so dull they weakened their heroes.

It's pretty much axiomatic that a hero gains his stature from the strength of his antagonist. A great villain demands a great hero. But if the people trying to solve the case can barely dress themselves, the guy solving that crime only needs to be able to tie his shoes.

All the cops in the 87th precinct were good detectives who spoke human dialogue and had real-life problems. Ditto Mrlowe and Archer. Nero Wolfe was an insufferable egomaniac like Poirot, but Archie Goodwin, Saul Panzer, and the other operatives were sharp investigators in their own right, and Archie only  put up with so much of Wolfe's attitude before calling him out on it. I always liked Wolfe more because he really did have to be better than Archie and the Cops. Those cops were a little narrow-minded, but they weren't cretins like Lestrade.

Look at the detectives who had to carry the load themselves without a shuffling minion to look up to them. My current favorites include Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro (now retired), Don Winslow's Boone Daniels, and Karin Slaughter's Will Trent, who has to cope with his dyslexia. All these characters are solid investigators with capable help and no fanboys in sight.

Call me elitist, but I like them a lot better.

25 March 2020

Sleeping Murder


"Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle."
          - The Duchess of Malfi

My pal Carole back in Baltimore recommends the latest BBC adaption of Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse. A cursory search turns up the following, that the book it's based on was influenced to some degree by a contemporary of Christie's named Dennis Wheatley. He was a successful popular novelist at the time, his best-known book being The Devil Rides Out.

Wheatley, whom I've never read, wrote thrillers with a supernatural twist - Satanism, black magic, the paranormal - none of which he apparently put much credit by. He was a sometime acquaintance of Aleister Crowley, and published him at one point, but he doesn't seem to have taken him too seriously. The interesting thing, to me, is the idea of using supernatural themes, whether it's demonic possession or a ghost story, as a counterweight to the rational or the orderly.



This surfaces in Christie, in John Buchan, and in Conan Doyle, to pick major names. Holmes remarks more than once, phrasing it slightly differently, that once you eliminate the impossible, what's left, no matter how improbable, is what happened. The Hound of the Baskervilles generates a lot of its electricity by suggesting the otherworldly - is the dog a physical presence, a phantom, a psychological monster, the manifestation of some past buried evil: a curse, in other words? Kipling fools with it, Robert Louis Stevenson works similar earth, sowing dragon's teeth.



Conan Doyle caught a great deal of ridicule, later in life, for his embrace of spiritualism. Harry Houdini famously disabused him on any number of occasions, but Doyle's enthusiasm wasn't dented. It's an odd irony, we think, that this onetime student of Joseph Bell's (the model for Holmes), the careful exponent of logical argument and defining your terms, trusts a false premise and falls into further delusion. A reversal of the Holmes method, to allow a conclusion to affect your view of the evidence.



Agatha Christie was a master of psychological horror, before it was even recognized as such. Daphne du Maurier comes close, but by the time Rebecca came along, the genre was established. The effect that Christie manages, and almost without fail, is to make you doubt the convention of the narrative. In other words, she gives you the building blocks, using much the same method as Dorothy Sayers or Ngaio Marsh, but you begin to mistrust the design, that in fact the pieces can be assembled in quite the opposite order, or the story turned back to front. Her last published novel, Sleeping Murder, puts all three elements into play, the frisson of the paranormal, the psychological night sweats, and a narrative at right angles to itself.



The story turns on buried memory, and the tension between whether it's actual or imagined. When the weight of memory breaks through the firewall of post-traumatic stress, the "sleeping" murder comes out of hiding. The uncertainty lies in whether you think the heroine is haunted, perhaps literally, traumatized by some childhood nightmare, or just plain nuts. Any one of the three will serve. Christie is entirely at home with these Gothic fugues, and even the confident and resourceful presence of Jane Marple isn't in itself enough to shake your sense of dread. Christie of course contrives a deeply spooky reveal, and you want to go around the house afterwards turning all the lights on.



There's something enormously satisfying about this class of mystery, and the Brits seem to manage it better than anybody else. Christie, like Sayers or du Maurier, and P.D. James, for that matter, is writing novels of manners, often brittle and generally bad - the manners, not the novels. In some sense, they're comfort food, but the best of them leave you uneasy. The era between the wars, seen at a comfortable distance, seems not so far off or foolish. The ghosts are real enough.

09 March 2019

A Parade of Poirots


I read today that Albert Finney died (7 Feb 2019; yes, I wrote this a month ago). Finney was a brilliant actor. I won't list his credits (it's a long list); suffice to say that the first movie I ever saw him in was the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express. This was also my introduction to Agatha Christie (and movies directed by Sydney Lumet, which could be another whole article itself).

Anyway, I was a child, it was a winter's night, and my parents decided on a night out: Dinner in the city, and then a few blocks walk in the rain to one of the many cinemas that used to line Queen Street; the main street in Auckland City, NZ (think Regent Street, or Broadway).

Finney played Hercule Poirot; Agatha Christie's master Belgian detective (a character who appeared in 33 of her novels, 50 short stories, and one play). Poirot is her most famous character, and Murder on the Orient Express (1934) is probably her most famous book.

Albert Finney
I was hooked. The movie, Poirot & Christie, were my gateway drug into mystery fiction, i.e., proper adult crime mysteries, and away from the watered-down child readers I had been privy to up until that point. You know what I mean: Jimmy and Johnny, and their dog, go in search of a missing pocket watch, or plate of muffins. No, nice and juicy murders were now on my immediate horizon. And I hoovered up all the mysteries on my parent's bookshelf: Christie, Earle Stanley Gardner, Ngaio Marsh, and many others.

Two years later (1976), Death on the Nile came to the movie theaters. Poirot was back on the screen, and I took a train into the city to go catch a Saturday matinee. Poirot, this time, was played by Peter Ustinov, who couldn't have been more different in his portrayal of the character to that of Albert Finney than a buffalo impersonating a bicycle.

Actors interpret their role and bring their own uniqueness to it, which is fine, and it's the way it should be. But, as much as I like Peter Ustinov's movies, I always feel he was mostly interpreting himself.

Peter Ustinov
Fast forward to the 1990s, and a third Poirot entered my frame; the small frame, this time. Every Tuesday night at 8:30, David Suchet appeared on the TV in the role of Hercule Poirot. By sheer weight of volume (the Poirot TV series ran from 1989 until 2013, and adapted almost all of the short stories and novels), Suchet became the definitive Poirot in my mind, and those of many others. It helped, also, that he's a superb actor (and meticulous in his method).

Actors interpret, and they can research.

Many have argued that, of all the actors who've taken on the role, Suchet's interpretation of Poirot is the closest to what's on the page in the books: the appearance, the mannerisms, the attention to detail.  So, having read a large chunk of the books for myself, he always felt right when watching him.

Part of the Poirot TV series included a feature-length adaption of Murder on the Orient Express (2010). I thought it was excellent; as good as the 1974 adaption. I think the murder scene was better staged, too. It had more bite. It felt vicious (and rightly so).

David Suchet
I've not seen the 2017 movie adaption of Murder on the Orient Express staring (and directed by) Sir Kenneth Branagh. I was put off by the mustache. Poirot is fussy, persnickety, refined, monumentally anal. His mustache should reflect that. Branagh's choice of mustache makes him look ridiculous; a Colonel Blimp, or a pantomime villain. Seriously, the only thing an actor could do with that mustache is twirl the ends of it and cackle.

Kenneth Branagh (he's just tied someone to the railroad track)
Actor interpretation. Yeah. Whatever.

I hear that Branagh is next going to tackle Death on the Nile (which is probably Christie's second most famous book). I'll pass. David Suchet did a version of that in 2004, and it worked fine for me.

Finney, Ustinov, Suchet, and Branagh are not the only actors to have portrayed Hercule Poirot on film, TV, or in audio adaptations. Wikipedia lists 24 other actors (everyone from Tony Randall, to Charles Laughton, to Orson Welles), the latest being John Malkovich, who appears in the 2018 three-part adaption (Amazon Prime) of the ABC Murders (one of my favorite Christie books). Malkovich sports not just a mustache, but a full, gray circle beard. AND a bald head. I've not seen the miniseries, but the trailer is intriguing, and Malkovich's take on a Belgium accent is interesting. I will definitely make a point to watch this one.

John Malkovich
I can report that the Wikipedia list is missing a name: Hugh Fraser. Yes, the actor played Poirot's sidekick Arthur Hastings in the long running TV series, but he has also recorded audio book versions of many of the Poirot novels, in which he has voiced both himself, well, Hastings... and Poirot. And since I've wandered down a trail of trivia, I can also report that Fraser has lately become a writer of mystery novels. I hear he's good.

Hercule Poirot has been portrayed by Englishmen, Irishmen, Americans, a Russian, a Puerto Rican, and two men from Japan (and even his sidekick). I'm not aware that he has ever, in fact, been played by an actor from Belgium. Funny that.

So, who is your favorite Poirot?



www.StephenRoss.net

22 November 2018

The Macbeth Murder Mystery


UPDATE:  It has been borne in upon me that my copying of The Macbeth Murder Mystery from another site may infringe upon copyright. I have deleted it, but here is the original New  Yorker link:  New Yorker, and New Yorker Folio.

It can also be read in its entirety here.

I have had a cold I can't shake and spent the weekend at the pen, so, for your Thanksgiving entertainment, enjoy a trip down memory lane - and murder - with James Thurber!
Thurber First Wife

Thurber Big Animal
https://jimsworldandwelcometoit.com/2012/12/07/thurbers-cartoons/

https://jimsworldandwelcometoit.com/2012/12/07/thurbers-cartoons/#jp-carousel-2168
Thurber, James 1943 The Thurber Carnival Harper and Brothers, NY pp. 60-63
Submitted by Caryl for our enjoyment!!!!
http://userhome.brook...
Image result for JAmes Thurber cartoons
https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/60-minutes-favorite-new-yorker-cartoons/42/

16 August 2018

The Best Anthologies Wake You Up


The death of Harlan Ellison stirred up some old memories.  My first encounter with his work was from Outer Limits:  Demon With a Glass Hand.  I didn't know who the author was, and I didn't care - I was 10 years old, gobbling sci-fi by the yard, and a bit worried that I was some kind of demon seed myself, so the episode really hit home for me.

DangerousVisions(1stEd).jpgSkip forward 3 years and I read Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison's ground-breaking sci-fi anthology.  Now, I'll tell you straight up, Harlan Ellison's story in that anthology was perhaps my least favorite - but I loved his introductions and epilogues for each story.

My favorite story was Philip K. Dick's "Faith of Our Fathers", in which the hero discovers that there really are drugs in the water - but everyone in the world is having the same hallucination.  It's the anti-hallucinogens that create different realities for everyone.  That alone made me sit up and look around.  But what really stuck with me was this quote from Mr. Dick in the epilogue:
"The last word, however, on the subject of God may have already been said: in A.D. 840 by John Scotus Erigena at the court of the Frankish king Charles the Bald. "We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being." Such a penetrating—and Zen—mystical view, arrived at so long ago, will be hard to top; in my own experiences with psychedelic drugs I have had precious tiny illumination compared with Erigena."
THAT still rings through my mind regularly, like a deep hum, like the cry of a peacock, like a distant bell.

It also caused me to start reading history.  Who were those Frankish kings?  What else did Erigena say or write?  Who influenced him?  Why was a Celt at the Frankish court?  All damn good questions that launched me - after a wildly improbable twenty years or so - into becoming an historian.

A good anthology will rattle your cage for years, which is why I don't let go of them when I find them.  (My copy of Dangerous Visions is tattered and brown-paged by now, but still readable.  It will see me out.)

There's 1962's "The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction, 11th Series" edited by Robert P. Mills.  Among the great stories:
    Kurt Vonnegut 1972.jpg
  • The fabulously written Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, which introduced me to Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind stories, and the idea of the Underpeople, derived from animals, who are given human form, speech, and intellect but have absolutely no civil rights.  If they make any mistake, they can/will be destroyed.  Something else that make me look at what was going on around me.
  • Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, about a world of enforced equality - to the lowest common denominator of everything.  
  • And the mystical, fabulously beautiful, The One Who Returns by John Berry, which gave me a new view of what a Yeti might really be.   
A more recent mystery anthology in my library is 1993s "More Murder Most Cozy", edited by Cynthia Manson, which has P. D. James' Adam Dalgleish uncovering a truly cold case - a Victorian May-December mesalliance that led to murder - in The Boxdale Inheritance.  Wonderful.  I also reread Melba Marlett's The Second Mrs. Porter every once in a while to try to figure out how she pulled off the most unique gaslighting I've ever heard of.

And then there are the weird collections you find in the antique stores.  A Treasury of the Familiar, chock full of poetry from the 19th century, Bible quotations, Washington's and Lincoln's political speeches, Edgar Allan Poe, Victorian songs, Spartan defiances, a little bit of everything.

The Holiday Reader, 1947, edited by Bernard Smith and Philip Van Doren (which instantly makes me think of Dorothy Parker saying, "I put myself to sleep counting Van Dorens"...)  This tome is divided into sections:  Stories (Hemingway to Hecht), Humor (Beerbohm, Lardner, Benchley, Parker, etc.), Travel (including Thomas Wolfe, Rachel Carson, and both D. H. and T. E. Lawrence),  Poetry (everything from sonnets to E. E. Cummings), and Eating and Sleeping (worth it for M. F. K. Fisher's Madame is Pleased) and Mystery Fantasy & Murder.

Whistle and I'll come to you illustration.jpgEspecial shout-outs to E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (which only gets more timely every year), M. R. James Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad, (scared the bejeezus out of me) and Raymond Chandler's I'll be Waiting.   Imho, one of the best in this collection is Irwin Shaw's Search Through the Streets of the City, which is about as noir as you can get without a murder.

BTW, long ago I made a grave mistake and gave away a paperback collection of 50 Great Short Stories which included a story about a man whose male friends successively date this woman who is beautiful, intelligent, just amazing...  And she cares so tenderly, lovingly, for each of them as they contract this or that fatal illness.  And then he gets sick and she comes to take care of him...  Does this ring a bell with anyone?

Another great find was the 1957 "A Treasury of Great Mysteries".  I don't know how they got the rights to all of these, which include Christie's Murder in the Calais Coach, Du Maurier's Rebecca, Ambler's Journey Into Fear, and Chandler's The Big Sleep.  That right there made it worth the $2.00 charge.

Also a number of truly great short stories by most of the icons of 1950s mystery writing, including Inspector Maigret, in Maigret's Christmas, Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason in The Case of the Crimson Kiss (a pretty severe lesson in choosing roommates), and the original short story Rear Window (William Irish).

But my personal favorite is Rex Stout's Instead of Evidence.
"Archie Goodwin," she said.  "You think I'm terrible, don't you?  You think I'm an awful woman, bad clear through.  Don't you?"
"I'm not thinking, lady.  I'm just an errand boy."
The funny thing was that if at any moment up to then I had made a list of the ten most beautiful women she would not have been on.  
You can't get much more noir than that.

04 April 2018

Who Do You Trust?


If you haven't charged through the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine yet, I encourage you to get off the proverbial dime and do so.  You will find many good stories including appearances by three SleuthSayers: Michael Bracken, R.T. Lawton, and your humble (oh, shut up) reporter.

It was R.T.'s story that inspired my sermon today.  (And if you missed it, you can read his own thoughts about the tale here.)

What I want to talk about is something much beloved of literary critics: the unreliable narrator.  The concept has appeared in literature for thousands of years but the phrase comes from William C. Booth in 1961.  It refers to a piece of literature with a first-person narration which the reader, for whatever reason, would be unwise to trust.

To my mind there are four varieties, all of whom can be found in mystery fiction.

The Lunatic.  This one goes all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe.  (Hint: When a character begins by insisting that he is not crazy you would be wise to doubt him.)

The Liar. Agatha Christie did the most famous version of this, infuriating many readers.  Decades later something happened that I imagine went like this:
Critics: Of course, having the narrator secretly being the murderer is a one-off stunt, and no author could use it again.
Dame Agatha: Is that so?  Hold my tea.
And to everyone's consternation, she did it again.

I mentioned this a long time ago, but: One of my favorite examples of this category was The Black Donnellys, a short-lived TV series about Irish-American criminals in New York (2007).  The framing device is Joey Ice Cream, either a hanger-on or the Donnelly brothers' best friend, depending on who is telling the story.  Joey is in prison and he is being interrogated by the cops about the Donnelly's career.  And he is a compulsive liar, happy to change his story when they catch him fibbing.  YOu can see the brilliant pilot episode here. 

The Self-Deluded.  Not crazy and not deliberately lying.  This character is just so wrapped up in himself and so devoted to defending his actions that his views can't be trusted.  Think of Jonathan Gash's Lovejoy with his endless stream of explanations for his failures and dubious decisions.  I remember one book in which  he casually mentions breaking a man's arm "practically by accident."  My private eye character Marty Crow is quite trustworthy - unless he is talking about his gambling problem.  Problem?  What problem?

The Innocent.  This narrator describes accurately what he saw, but fails to understand it.  A famous example is Ring Lardner's classic story "Haircut."  The barber describes a crime, and doesn't even realize it.

And that brings us back to R.T. Lawton's story.  "The Left Hand of Leonard" is part of his series about the criminal underground during the reign of Louis the Fourteenth.  His narrator is a young pickpocket, not very skilled and not very clever, who is sent by the king of the criminals to help steal the bones of a saint.  Things go wrong and then seem to go right and the boy can't figure out what happened.  Ah, but the reader will, just as R.T. intended.

Do you have any favorite tales with unreliable narrators? And if you say you do, should we believe you?

07 August 2017

Two Different Worlds


We’ve had a lot of Sleuthsayers columns on different types of mystery writers: noir vs psychological, cozy vs hard boiled. And also considering different approaches: stories planned with outlines vs developed on the fly, even that big question to revise or not to revise.

I’d like to suggest a different division that encompasses a lot of these varieties, namely closed vs open plotting. By closed, I mean something like the traditional mystery which, despite its relative modernity, has classical antecedents. Back in the day, Aristotle talked up the unities of time, place, and action, basing his analysis on the Greek tragedies that favored a tightly focused action with a few protagonists in one locale. Contemporary short mystery stories, anyone?

The Greeks also liked to begin in media res, in the heart of the action, another favorite device of most modern mysteries, not to mention thrillers.

Beyond this, we see an interesting split. If the closed mystery may no longer be set in the country house or the isolated motel, it has a small universe of suspects and usually a fairly compact geographic area. This is particularly clear in the various UK mysteries that adorn PBS each season. Vera may be set out on the windswept moors and empty sands, but there are rarely more than five real suspects and, in this show at least, they are as apt to be related as in any Greek tragedy.

Midsomer Murders is also fond of a half dozen suspects, mostly unpleasant people who will never be missed. Ditto for Doctor Blake who, with all of Australia, sticks close to Ballarat and, yes, the handy five or so possibilities. Clearly, the attractions of this sort of story for the TV producers are the same attributes that pleased the Athenian town fathers: compact locations, smallish casts, one clear action. The emphasis is on the puzzle factors of mysteries, and at their best such works are admirably neat and logical.

The open mystery takes another tack, flirts with thriller territory, and likes to break out of confined spaces both geographic and psychological. If it has ancestors, they’re not the classically structured tragedies, but tall stories, quest narratives and, if we need a big name, Shakespeare, who loved shipwrecks and runaways and nights in the woods, as well as mixing comedy and tragedy and all things in between.

I’ve thinking about this divide for two reasons. First, I just finished what will be the last novel in the second Francis Bacon trilogy, Mornings in London. I really wanted a little bow to the great British tradition of the country house mystery, and I managed a country mansion – just the sort of place Francis hates – and a nice half dozen suspects. I had a victim nobody much liked and rather a nice crime scene, and I must confess that neither Francis nor I was really happy until I could get us both back to London and off to other places less claustrophobic.

Turns out what I had long suspected was true: I’m not cut out for tidy and classical and ingenious puzzles. And I don’t write that way, either. I like to meander from one idea to the next, a method of composition much more conducive to glorified chases and quests than to Murder at the Manor. Too bad.

The other reason I got thinking about closed vs open plots was a quick dip into a Carl Hiaasen novel, one of his orgies of invention that spins off in every possible direction without somehow losing a coherent plot. If Agatha Christie is still the godmother of every good puzzle mystery, Hiassen’s satiric crime romps have certainly taken chases, quests, bizarre personalities, and imaginative disasters about as far as they can go.

I wonder now if writing style is inevitably connected with a certain type of mystery. Perhaps those who compose traditional, classically inspired mysteries are the same clever folk who can plan the whole business from the start. And maybe those of us with less foresight are inevitably drawn to a chase structure with a looser time frame, wider real estate, and more characters.

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.







11 April 2016

Quote Unquote


by Susan Rogers Cooper

I was recently in the market for a good quote for a talk I was asked to give. So I started doing my research and found more than I bargained for. Unfortunately I can't bombard my listeners with all the great quotes I found, so, instead, I intend to bombard the reader. Go forth at your own risk.

On the act of writing:

“Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”
Colette

“I've always believed in writing without a collaborator, because when two people are writing the same book, each believes he gets all the worry and only half the royalties.”
Agatha Christie

“Nothing you write, if you hope to be any good, will ever come out as you first hoped.”
Lillian Hellman

“All books are either dreams or swords. You can cut or you can drug with words.”
Amy Lowell

“Looking back, I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But far better to write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.”
Katherine Mansfield

“The difference between a story and a painting or photograph is that in a story you can write, 'He's still alive.' But in a painting or a photo you can't show “still.” You can just show him being alive.”
Susan Sontag

“There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”
Oscar Wilde

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
Mary Heaton Vorse
*Note: I have also seen this quote attributed to Ernest Hemmingway.

“Writing a book is like scrubbing an elephant: there's no good place to begin or end, and it's hard to keep track of what you've already covered.”
Anon.

“The answers you get from literature depend upon the questions you pose.”
Margaret Atwood

On the consequences of writing:

“It is rarely that you see an American writer who is not hopelessly sane.”
Margaret Anderson

“I was gravely warned by some of my female acquaintances that no woman could expect to be regarded as a lady after she had written a book.”
Lydia M. Child

“A person who publishes a book appears willfully in public with his pants down.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay

On the opinions of others:

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
Dorothy Parker

“Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.”
Sylvia Plath

“The more sins you confess, the more books you will sell.”
Anon.

On criticism:

“There is probably no hell for authors in the next world – they suffer so much from critics and publishers in this.”
C.N. Bovee

“What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers.”
Logan Pearsall Smith

“Every author, however modest, keeps a most outrageous vanity chained like a madman in the padded cell of his breast.”
Logan Pearsall Smith

“Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true,
But are not critics to their judgment too?”
Alexander Pope

“Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense.”
Samuel Johnson

“People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.”
W. Somerset Maugham

What are some of your favorite quotes about writing, authors, books, criticism, etc.?  Maybe that's something we all, we writers, can reach for -- to be quoted some day.  Would that be cool, or what?

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.