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

03 September 2015

Serial Offenders


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


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.





29 April 2015

The Golden Age of Murder


A special treat today.  I lucked into an advance copy of a terrific nonfiction book and when I realized the official release date was this week I invited the author to tell us about it.  Martin Edwards is the author of eighteen novels, and eight non-fiction books.  Plus he's edited two dozen anthologies.  He has won the Crime Writers' Association Dagger and the Margery Allingham prize for short stories.  I highly recommend his book, which has taught me a lot about the writers of the so-called Golden Age, and especially WHY they wrote what they did. — Robert Lopresti


The Golden Age of Murder

by Martin Edwards

Crime fans know better than anyone that appearances can be deceptive. And that idea is at the heart of The Golden Age of Murder, my just-published study of the British crime novelists who dominated the genre between the two world wars. There’s a widely held view that those writers were cosy, conventional folk who wrote cosy and conventional books. But the more I researched the men and women who wrote the best Golden Age mysteries, the more I became convinced that the truth was rather different – and much more enthralling.

I write crime novels set in the here and now, but I’ve always loved the ingenious traditional murder mysteries. Like so many other people around the world, my introduction to adult fiction was through the books of Agatha Christie, a writer whose work I still love. From her I graduated to Dorothy L. Sayers, and then other great names of the era, such as Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Anthony Berkeley.

Later I discovered that those writers, and a good many others whose books I enjoyed, were members of the Detection Club, a select and rather mysterious organisation which exists to this day. Led by Berkeley (who founded the Club) and Sayers, members yearned to raise the standard of crime writing, and strove to ensure that their own work was fresh and inventive.

Sayers, for example, wanted to take the genre in a new direction, and with a fellow Club member, Robert Eustace, she produced The Documents in the Case, an ambitious book in which Lord Peter Wimsey did not appear.  Writing as Francis Iles, Berkeley became the standard-bearer for the novel of psychological crime – the first Iles book, Malice Aforethought, remains a genre classic, and the second, the dark and deeply ironic Before the Fact, was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. But Club members also remained true to the game-playing spirit of the times. They collaborated in “round-robin” mysteries such as The Floating Admiral, each writing a chapter in turn. The book enjoyed critical and commercial success, which was repeated when it was republished recently

I became fascinated by the relationships between the writers – long before the days of blogs, Twitter and Facebook, the Detection Club was a remarkable social network. Seven years ago, I was elected to membership of the Club myself, and was asked to look after the Club’s archives. But since very little had been retained over the years, really I had to become a detective, finding out about the Club’s history. I talked to experts across the world, and travelled around, tracking down descendants of those early Club members.

Fresh mysteries kept arising, crying out for a solution. The Club’s members obsessed about their personal privacy, and many of them hugged dark and disturbing secrets. One pioneering novelist even made diary entries in an unbreakable code, so nobody could decipher what was in his mind. Clever people, well-versed in the art of mystification, Detection Club members deployed their skills to obscure the trail for anyone seeking to learn more about them. Agatha Christie’s controversial eleven-day disappearance in 1926 is by far the most high profile of the numerous disasters that befell Club members, and affected their writing as well the future course of their lives.

In The Golden Age of Murder, I’ve set out to solve the mysteries of the writers who in many ways were responsible for inventing the modern detective novel. It’s been an engrossing quest, and my greatest hope is that it will encourage people who have, in the past, been dismissive of traditional detective fiction to think again. Of course, plenty of bad books were written in the Golden Age, as in every age, but the best work of the time was exhilarating, innovative - and unforgettable.

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?


[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!

19 May 2014

Odds & Ends, Bits & Pieces


by Fran Rizer

My most recent post was one week ago (5/12/14) when I interviewed Darlene Poier, publisher of the Canadian magazine Ficta Fabula, and Laura Crowe, editor.  For some reason beyond me, their photos disappeared though they still show on my preview.  Here they are again, and I sure hope whatever went wrong last week doesn't happen again.


Darlene Poier

Laura Crowe

ANTHOLOGIES

As some of you know, I've been working on an anthology of ghost stories.  It turned into a labor-intensive project, but the manuscript is complete, and the publisher accepted it Friday.  More about that later.

All this thought about anthologies set me to thinking of some I'd like to see in print:

Woman's World One Page Mystery Rejections -  An anthology of stories that have been rejected for this market where John does so well.

Very First Stories by Successful Authors

Historical Bloopers in Historical Fiction

A Collection of Leigh's Reasons Not to Move to Florida

An Anthology of Travelogue Pieces by SleuthSayers Who Vacationed this Year

All of John M. Floyd's and Rob Lopresti's Lists

Anything else you can think of and share with SS


FAMOUS QUOTES BY FAMOUS FOLKS










I agree with all of the above except Agatha Christie's.  

What's on your mind this morning?  Share it!

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

03 November 2013

Old Characters, New Novels


Criminal Brief readers might remember pastiches have to be damn good to win me over. That doesn't mean I dismiss or entirely dislike old heroes brought back to life by other than their original authors, but they must attain a high standard. One of our own, Dale Andrews with his thorough research, sets a high bar with his Ellery Queen stories.

Pastiche authors also have to capture the flavor of the original stories, the era, the settings, and especially the characters. More often than not, one of these will fall flat. Then the question becomes whether readers (and movie viewers) accept the character.

The Saint
The Saint
Saintly Motives

Often acceptance hinges upon what a reader or viewer is first exposed to. I recall an English friend complaining bitterly about the Roger Moore version of The Saint. At first blush, what wasn't to like? The cast and crew were British and whilst the series wasn't as good as anything the Patricks  appeared in (McGoohan and MacNee (not to mention Diana Rigg's Emma Peel)), it was a good diversion.

And then I started reading The Saint novels and became properly hooked. I understood ITC failed to capture the period and much of the ambiance of Leslie Charteris' characters.

Shelfish Motives

One other reason I'm slow to embrace pastiches is the abundance of fresh and perhaps unique stories that might never see the light of day (at least a bookstore day) thanks to being elbowed aside by better known heroes and authors. It's bad enough movie makers recycle characters and plots, but it seems a shame when book publishers do it.

Yes, I can understand hankering and hungering for more of characters one's grown to love. Perhaps for this reason and because it's not my chosen genre, I'm less critical of classic romance characters resurfacing than I am of mystery reprises. Recycle the Janes (Austen and Eyre) but don't touch Marple!

(Romance fans might be interested to learn new Jane Austen novels are in the pipeline including updates of Emma and Pride and Prejudice. And for the particular attention of our friend Travis Erwin, not all fans are pleased one of those authors is male, Alexander McCall Smith.)

If anything, romance fans are even more engaged and critical. You might remember the harsh criticism of Scarlett, the sequel to Gone with the Wind. The music field witnessed bitter, even vicious comments about Hayley Westenra covering Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights. While I rarely prefer remakes to the originals, I compliment Bush's creative genius but I find her little-girl performance a bit shrill for my ears, although I seem to be an exception.

Solar Powered

Okay, I confess a bit of tongue in cheek (cheeky lad, that!). There is another way: I very much like the Solar Pons stories. August Derleth was such an admirer of Sherlock Holmes, he wrote Conan Doyle for permission to pick up pen and continue the series. Doyle declined, but not to be entirely put off, Derleth invented the great detective, Solar Pons.

The character became so popular, that when an edition came out that edited some of the Americanisms and timelines, the fan base reacted harshly, and an omnibus correcting the corrections soon followed.

But here it gets curious: A few years after August Derleth died, British author Basil Copper began writing further Solar Pons stories. In other words, Copper wrote pastiches of Derleth's pastiches! (And to be perfectly clear, Basil Copper was the editor who'd corrected Derleth's occasional Americanisms.)

Bonding with Fans

Only recently, we learned Jeffrey Deaver was engaged by the Fleming estate to write an 'official' new James Bond novel. Deaver, an American as you know, received not unpleasant mixed reviews for his effort, some positive, some not so much but they were better received than his immediate predecessor, Sebastian Faulks (who rather sounds like a Bond bad guy). As some have pointed out, Deaver is a better writer than Ian Fleming was, but critics are tough when it comes to capturing the essence of a character.

Deaver wasn't the first American appointed to write official 007 tales– that was novelist Raymond Benson– but I was surprised to learn we're about to see another new pastiche, this one by British writer William Boyd.

Wait, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention Samantha Weinberg's chicklit trilogy, The Moneypenny Diaries. And I should mention internationalism works both ways: Irish author John Banville, writing under the name Benjamin Black, is channeling Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.

James Bond is hardly the only character brought back to life. I do my best to ignore the Batman-like parody of Sherlock Holmes that Robert Downey, Jr came up with. But other works have either arrived or are on the way.

British children's novelist Anthony Horowitz was licensed to write a new 'official' Sherlock Holmes with an Edith Wharton sounding title, The House of Silk.

Bourne Again

Apparently Robert Ludlum's estate didn't feel the Bourne Trilogy satisfactorily wrapped up the series. They've authorized yet another retake called The Bourne Dominion by Eric Van Lustbader.

And finally, we return to Agatha Christie, not Jane Marple but Hercule Poirot. You may remember Christie hoped to prevent pastiches following on her novels, but her estate had other ideas. They've contracted with writer Sophie Hannah to produce a new novel featuring the egg-headed Belgian detective.

While I may criticize errant pastiches, one parting thought occurs to me: Wouldn't we authors like to reach that pinnacle, one where readers love our works so much, they can't get enough even after we're gone?

24 March 2013

The Dame Herself


Susan Isaacs
by Susan Isaacs,
    introduced by Leigh Lundin
I've long realized I read more women mystery writers than I do male writers, especially British authors. To make my favorites list, an author must meet either of two demands: Either the novelist must plot a puzzle as keenly as Arthur Conan Doyle or craft characterization so well we come to know and enjoy the characters.

Ellis Peters and Dorothy Sayers could do both, as well as the light of my life, Lindsey Davis. The mystery plots of Elizabeth Peters and Janet Evanovich are thinner than a felon's underwear, but they create the most amazing characters. Indeed, women consistently hold the edge over men in characterization, although a master like John Lutz certainly holds his own.

When it comes to SleuthSayers' own authors, I've read virtually everything Fran's written including works in progress. I do love Callie and Jane. I've been reading Jan's short stories, which shine with her wit and sharp eye.
Compromising Positions

I recently read my first story by Elizabeth, and I confess I enjoyed her humor and clever asides that tickle an awake and aware reader. And Janice's recent novel is underpinned by her cloaked intelligence and knack of observation.

Quality and quantity: Without women writers, the body of crime literature would be a small fraction of its size. Without women writers, our genre would be far less rich. The best list of female mystery writers I've stumbled across comes from Christchurch, New Zealand City Library, although it contains one stunning omission, New Zealand's own Queen of Crime, Ngaio Marsh, but perhaps their librarians considered she'd be taken for granted.

Returning to Agatha Christie, she's not merely the premier British author, she's most people's favorite, so much so that some readers like Yoshinori Todo study her with passion. Through Emma Pulitzer, we have a guest article from Susan Isaacs about Agatha. Susan’s most recent bestseller is Compromising Positions and she is currently at work on her next book, a mystery.

— Leigh

A Note on Racism

To understand if not defend Christie's use of the infamous n-word in a title, a reader must understand British Victorian and Edwardian use is not the same as current North American use, and sadly many Americans once used the word out of ignorance rather than racial hatred. That said, many British of the time regarded themselves with superiority, that any citizen of the Empire was a cut above anyone elsewhere in the rest of the world. Indeed, they thought of those outside the sophisticated sphere of Europe as savages. I recall an English tale in which an important American ate without fork or spoon, using only a huge knife to stab his food at a formal dinner.
Agatha Christie

But words that tripped casually off the white man's tongue and may have started out innocently enough have become verboten in today's world: The N-word in North America, the K-word in South Africa, the S-word in Germany, and the H-word amongst the Dutch. Sometimes people project or misconstrue: I heard a white person insist the words Oriental and Negro were just as offensive. That would be much more convincing should an Asian or person of color make that claim. In the most recent census, thousands wrote in those very words. People may innocently use words without intending offense, but it's incumbent upon everyone to be sensitive to what wounds and demeans.

Perhaps Agatha didn't intend offense. The absence of evidence is not evidence– we don't truly know. Like Yoshinori and Louis Willis have opined, I give Christie the benefit of the doubt. As our guest points out, one should focus on her writing. And now, Susan Isaacs.

The Dame Herself: Agatha Christie


Agatha Christie
God knows my admiration for Agatha Christie is not based on her character development. Her recurring protagonists, Jane Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, Hercule Poirot, et al, are only slightly less thin than the paper they’re written on.

And I despise her biases. Frankly, I’d like to punch her in the snoot for the offhand anti-Semitism and racism she displays, especially in her earlier books. (And Then There Were None’s original title was Ten Little Niggers.)

But while I wouldn’t take tea with her, were she still around, I must acknowledge her virtuosity in plotting. Murder on the Orient Express has been read, filmed, and imitated so many times it now seems old hat. Yet she not only provides that gratifying narrative rush, but also shocking endings. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd broke one of the cardinal rules of the genre—a twist ending and a major no-no for any pedestrian writer. But Christie, with genius and hard work, pulled off that cheat with a brilliant casual audacity.

Her play The Mousetrap also twisted the standard rules of the whodunit forms: gasps, applause, stellar reviews. It’s been running steadily on the London stage since 1952. Her astonishing plotting made The Witness for the Prosecution a winner as a short story, play, film (should be #1 on your must-see list), and TV play.

So boo-hiss for Christie’s prejudice and many of her protagonists’ utter lack of depth. But yay for her skill in making a story not only hurtle along, but end with a big bang.

30 November 2012

Ghost and the Machine



A fairly recent post by Dale Andrews, concerning ghost stories, set me to thinking about the differences between ghost stories and mysteries.

In that post, Dale mentioned:

. . . British ghost story writer M.R. James identified five key features of the classical English ghost story:
1. The pretense of truth
2. “A pleasing terror”
3. No gratuitous bloodshed or sex
4. No ‘explanation of the machinery’
5. Setting: “those of the writer’s (and reader’s) own day”

(Dale listed these features by bullet point, but I’ve numbered them for ease of reference in further discussion.)

Looking at that list, it seems to me it very nearly fits most Agatha Christie novels I’ve read.

The Great Agatha Christie
 True, her stories no longer seem set in our present day, but I think they were, for the most part, set in the time frame of her own day. Probably, the biggest difference between a Christie novel and this list of ghost story features, lies in Feature Number 4: No ‘explanation of the machinery.’

 Explaining the machinery – letting the reader know not only who dunnit, but sometimes also how the murder or mayhem was performed, along with an explanation concerning any special steps of intentional misdirection – is, to me, an inherent part of a mystery story.

 Christie’s plots certainly reveled in this, it seems to me.

Rather Nicely, Too.

 Sometimes, solving the crime meant figuring out, and potentially reconstructing, some Rube-Goldberg Machine the murderer had set up, in order to carry out the crime (or to make it seem as if the crime had been committed) in a way, or at a time, which would rule-out the murderer as a suspect. Ferreting out the contraption’s construction, from the few clues left lying around, was central to determining how and why the victim was killed – as well as the murderer’s identity.

 When I was a kid, my father was a great lover of Agatha Christie stories. I think that, being an engineer, he loved the intricate detail of her plots, and all the little pieces of them. Each piece ticking-over machine-like – moving on its own, yet interconnected, its function interdependent on the movement of all the others, to produce the desired outcome. All those little whirring components formed a symphony of complex simplicity, seemingly tailor-made for an engineer’s pleasure.

The "Doctor" who made the Christie statement.
Some of Dr. Who's faces.



Perhaps this is also why Dr. Who (the title character in the BBC Sci-Fi series Dr. Who), in one episode, reveals that Agatha Christie is inarguably considered the greatest writer of all time -- throughout the entire universe!


An ‘explanation of the machinery’, however, does not seem limited to cozies.

 Bloodshed and sex may abound in hard-boiled mystery or suspense stories. And, the clues are different, many of them far less tangible than those in the average cozy. In fact, the protagonist sometimes seems to be more psychologist than detective, by the time s/he’s tumbled to the truth – often through a sudden and intuitive leap of understanding. Yet, a final explanation of the evil mechanism afoot still seems to be needed if I’m to walk away satisfied in the end.

 A ghost story can plausibly leave the ghost fully clothed and unexamined. A mystery, however, (for me, at least) seems to require some final revelation of the machinery behind the ghost.

 I hadn’t consciously realized this until I read Dale’s post, though my subconscious evidently knew it all along.

 Questions About Some Stories 

 A while ago, I read an anthology of noir mystery stories, but found myself unhappy with the collection. Many of them didn’t seem properly finished. The clues were all there, and I was quite sure I’d figured out what had happened in each story, but then they stopped.

 Each of those particular stories stopped short, as if they’d been writing assignments for a literary class that stressed the importance of letting the reader decide the outcome of the piece. I often appreciate such endings in literary stories, and many of these stories felt quite literary in nature. By and large, they were well written and engaging, yet I found myself left with a sense of disappointment after turning the last page. And I wasn’t quite sure why.

 I knew I was disappointed that the endings weren’t traditionally “wrapped up.” But, was this lack of “wrap up” a real problem, or just a problem of my perception. Was my disappointment rooted in lack of the familiar, or was an important ingredient missing from these stories?

 I considered the problem for a few days, on and off, then – as I’m wont to do when I encounter a relatively unimportant, yet protracted, problem – I set it aside, to let my mind work on it in my absence, in the hopes I’d eventually bump into something that would jar loose a solution.

 And, Dale’s post proved to be just the jarring “something” I needed.

 When I hit the list reproduced above, the parallels to Christie seemed to jump out at me. My mind instantly leapt to those Christie stories, I'd read, in which explaining who dunnit actually did require an explanation of the machinery used to do the deed. And, I realized:  The reason I’d been disappointed by the stories that didn’t include the “wrap-up” was because the game I traditionally enjoy, when it comes to reading mysteries – that of matching wits with the writer, and discovering whether or not I’d come up with his/her intended scenario – was denied me.

 Looking Through Another’s Eyes 

 Since my mom fell ill about two years ago, I stumbled across the joy of working the daily crosswords in the Arizona Republic newspaper. I enjoy these crosswords because they provide me the chance to consider how others see words. (Interestingly, the flip-side of this, is the same reason why I hated crosswords when I was younger.)

 The definitions, or clues often are not ones I would choose, if I’d written the puzzle. I don’t think of these words the way the crossword writers do. In this past Tuesday’s United King Feature Syndicate Crossword puzzle, for instance, the clue “Sudden Silence” was meant to provoke the answer “Hush”. But, if my 9-year-old asked me if “hush” meant “sudden silence,” I would have to tell him: “No. Not necessarily. A hush isn’t always the cessation of noise; sometimes it’s the long absence of noise, a deep quite like the one you might encounter out in the middle of the empty desert on a Summer day.”

 In the same puzzle, the word “Benchmark” was meant to evoke the answer “Norm.” I have a background in Engineering from my days in the army, however, so to me, a “Benchmark” is a small concrete square with a steel cap in it, which has a cross-hatch I can place a transit over, and “shoot from” in order to conduct surveying from a “known point” on the earth.

 On the other hand, when I saw the clue “Benchmark” I also noticed that the answer could only be four letters long and ended in an “M”, (since I’d already written a word that crossed through the last box of the answer space). Rethinking my mental list of definitions for “Benchmark” I considered the word “Standard,” which of course did not fit .

My choice of "Standard" over "Norm" was based on my personal experience with those two words.  A benchmark, in my experience, is a standard that is set for others to achieve, if they are to be considered “good” at something, while the “Norm” is the level of success most people achieve at a given task (hence it’s the “NORMal score” on a test for example). I’m not saying “norm” is an invalid definition for “benchmark”. I’m saying it’s not how I think of the word.

 And, That’s The Point. 

 Dale’s post led me to conclude that the joy I derive from working crosswords is similar to the joy I get out of reading a mystery.

 In both cases, I find myself “matching wits” with the person who constructed the thing. In the case of the crossword, I enjoy trying to figuratively climb inside another person’s mind, and consider the clues through his/her eyes. Reading a mystery, I’m trying to figure out “who dunnit” before the writer tells me. In an action-adventure piece, I’m trying to figure the protagonist’s way out of the maze s/he finds him/herself caught in. And, I’ll admit it, I sometimes decide my solution to the mystery or maze in a story is better than the writer’s.

But, here’s the thing In all three cases, my satisfaction is dependent on being able to match my solution against that of the creator of the work in question. If, at the end of the story, the writer or creator fails to let me know what s/he sees as the “book solution,” then I’m left feeling unfulfilled.

 I get this same feeling if I miss picking up a paper, and checking the crossword solution on the following day. Because, I’m being deprived of the chance to compare solutions. Was I right or wrong in my estimation of what this creator was thinking? How did this other person see the clues and answers? I think my answers were the right ones, but I can’t know unless s/he lets me know.

 And, that’s the problem I had with those stories. When the authors decided to cut them off before concretely explaining the machinery behind the chicanery, I was left without an answer key. This didn’t keep me from coming up with a solution (and sometimes more than one), but it did leave me feeling somewhat cheated.

 I felt like a kid who completes the PSAT, then realizes he’s sitting in the auditorium all alone. He’s got the test done. He thinks he’s done a pretty good job of answering the questions correctly. But, there’s no one there to confirm this. He can’t really know if he got those answers right or not. And, it’s the Practice SAT, so his answers don’t really matter to anyone else. But, he’d sure like to know. Instead, however, he’s left in an empty room calling, “Hello . . . ? Hellooo . . . ? Hey, is anybody out there???”

 That’s a lonely feeling, indeed.

 And the person who takes a PSAT that never gets graded is very apt to feel just as disappointed as I felt when I finished those stories that denied me a glimpse of the writer’s-viewpoint solution.

 Ghost Story Redux 

 All this, coupled with the Halloween timeframe of Dale’s post, reminds me of a friend of my dad's. This guy happened to be a Hydrostatic Engineer, a person who spent his time studying the dynamics of fluid flow, an important subject if you’re designing something that you’d rather was not swept away by the runoff of a heavy downpour. So, he was often posted to construction areas around his state for several weeks at a time.

One night, this guy was driving down a narrow lane cut through a dense forest. Locals claimed the area was "haunted,” and refused to walk this particular stretch of road at night. He’d driven the road at night several times, while in the area, but never when it was so windy. Gusts blew the tree limbs around, and he had just decided to leave his lane and drive more closely to the crown of the otherwise empty road, to avoid them, when a spectral image -- grayish-white but transparent -- slipped from the woods and flitted across the road in front of his car.

The wraith floated above the pavement, writhing as it slipped past, through his headlights, arms and legs seeming to protrude then recede back into it’s body -- amoeba-like -- as if it were in pain, or searching. And, all along, he could see the lane markers of the road on the other side of the thing.

 The guy was shaken, but absolutely sure ghosts didn't exist, so he stopped. backed up until he reached the spot he thought the wraith had come from, then parked and walked into the woods to find out what was going on. About twenty feet in, he ran across a place where a small brook dropped several feet into a narrow area. The frothing water built a layer of foam on top of itself, because of the force.

 As I said, it was a breezy night, and when the next breeze came along, it blew a clump of foam off the top and out to the road. The guy chased it, but couldn't move as fast as the blowing foam. When it crossed the road, he was still in the edge of the woods. An approaching car squealed and swerved to miss it, then someone inside yelled, "I told you this road was haunted!"

 Is this a ghost story? Perhaps for those people in the car.  But for us?  My opinion: No. It’s a mystery story. The machinery behind the ghost was explained. Case closed.

 One last thought.

 If leaving the ghost unexplained results in a ghost story. And explaining the machinery behind the ghost makes it a mystery story. What’s a story that reveals the ghost inside the machine? Science Fiction? Horror? What do you think?

Or, for that matter, do you think that all this talk of matching wits is really pretty witless?

 See you in two weeks!
—Dixon