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

04 April 2018

Who Do You Trust?



by Robert Lopresti

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?

20 June 2013

How I Got This Way - Literature and Life


by Eve Fisher

Fran's blog on Adolescent Sexist Swill - which was GREAT - got me thinking about the books I read as a child and young adult.  Which ones still hold up?  Which ones don't?  Which ones do I still have on my shelves?  Which ones did I get rid of under cover of darkness?  I'm going to stick to the mystery/adventure/thriller domain, and so, here's my calls:

The ones that hold up:

Sherlock Holmes - I'm up for a trip to 221B Baker Street just about any time.  Just please, don't try to make me like the modern takes on Sherlock.  I want him lean, addicted to tobacco and/or cocaine, and totally emotionally detached.  (My favorite actor in the role was Jeremy Brett, with Basil Rathbone running a close second.)

Robert Louis Stevenson & Alexandre Dumas - the two greatest adventure story writers ever, imho.  One of my first great loves was Alan Breck in "Kidnapped".  And while the sequels to "The Three Musketeers" are overwrought to the point of pain ("The Vicomte de Bragelonne" leaps to mind), the original has almost everything anyone could hope for.  The rest is in "The Count of Monte Cristo".  (Sadly, while I love 1973/74 versions of "The Three Musketeers", I have not yet seen what I consider a decent production of "The Count of Monte Cristo" - they keep wanting to happy up the ending for Mercedes...)

Nancy Drew - you've got to start somewhere, and she was independent, fun, rescued all her friends, and solved the mysteries.  Way to go, Nancy!

Shirley Jackson - I still say the scariest movie ever made was the original "The Haunting" with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom.  Check out the books:  besides the original "The Haunting of Hill House" allow me to recommend "We Have Always Lived in the Castle".  Many of us might recognize an old, old fantasy come strangely to life.

Edgar Allan Poe - "The Cask of Amontillado" - "for the love of God, Montresor!"  "Yes, for the love of God."  Wow.

The ones that hold up, with reservations:

H. P. Lovecraft - I gave away my complete set to a young nerd who came back about a week later, strangely gray, and gave them all back to me.  He couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, and might have been damaged for life.  All I know is Lovecraft scared the crap out of me, I remember some of his stories vividly, a few of them were so brilliant I am still in awe of what he did, and I have no need to ever read them again.  (Same thing with "Johnny Got His Gun" by Dalton Trumbo - book and movie - saw it once, read it for some reason after that, had nightmares both times, I am done.)

My adolescent sexist swill (Thanks for the phrase, Fran!):
  • The Saint, a/k/a Simon Templar, by Leslie Charteris
  • Michael Shayne by Brett Halliday
  • Mike Hammer by Mickey Spillane
  • James Bond by Ian Fleming
I read all of these, mainly for the sex, because where else was there any in early 1960's literature?  Violent, cathartic, sometimes funny (especially Mike Shayne), sometimes educational, and a great way to really rile up the teachers.  (Girls weren't supposed to be reading them.) 

I will say that at least the Saint had Patricia Holm, who was as much of an adventurer as he was.  But then Charteris dropped Patricia.  Sigh.  And the James Bond novels had some strong women - but most of them, in the end, all went soft and cuddly, even Pussy Galore, which I never believed for one minute...  :)  But at least the locations were fantastic. 

I haven't run across any of Brett Halliday's in a long time, so I don't know how well he holds up, but I have re-read some of all of the others, and...  for me, they don't.  I can see the line, however, leading from these to Robert Parker's Spenser and Hawk.

My adolescent forerunners:

Agatha Christie - Still the classic, especially when it comes to plotting.  

James M. Cain - Mildred Pierce (the book) gets better every year! 

Dashiell Hammett - ah.  Nick and Nora. 

Rex Stout - I am trying to collect the complete works, and I almost have.  When it comes to media presentations, I want my Nero Wolfe (like Sherlock Holmes) unblemished by Hollywoodization - overweight, misogynistic, lazy, gourmandizing, and brilliant.  (I did like the Timothy Hutton version, although he's not how I've always pictured Archie Goodwin, and Maury Chaykin was not large enough...)

Well enough for now, I'm off to re-read "Death of a Doxy"!

30 November 2012

Ghost and the Machine


by Dixon Hill


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

24 September 2012

Childhood Memories


Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

This week I opened a quart carton of orange sherbet. Yum. I've had orange sherbet through the years yet, somehow, this time my childhood memories flooded back (maybe old age kicking in, who knows?) I suddenly felt as if I were eleven again, visiting my dad for the summer in Fort Worth, Texas. My parents divorced when I was young. Both parents remarried and during the whole school year, I lived with my mother, step-dad and two little sisters, out on the high plains of Texas, forty miles from Lubbock in the small town of Post, TX. Post then had a population of about three thousand folks and this was back in the olden days when ice cream was only available in grocery stores and drug stores. The most flavors I remember were vanilla, chocolate, Neapolitan, and strawberry. In the summer, when I went to visit my dad in the big city of Fort Worth for a couple of weeks, one of the first things we did was to drive over to Baskin Robbins where, at that time, they offered thirty-one flavors of ice cream. I'd look at everything they had and every single time order the same thing...orange sherbet, served in an ice cream cone. I have no idea why. They had banana nut, peppermint, chocolate mint, cherry vanilla, regular vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, peach, Neapolitan, and something with nuts, maybe butter pecan. They also had orange, lime and pineapple sherbet. I don't remember any of the other thirty-one flavors but for some strange reason orange sherbet really seemed like the best of the best to me and that's what I'd buy.

This nostalgic trip got me thinking about my childhood memories of reading. I honestly don't remember not liking to read and really not sure when I began reading. A little before first grade and then from first grade on I read and still read as much as I can now. I lived with my grandmother in Houston for my first grade and then my mother remarried and I moved to Post, TX when school was out. I spent a lot of the summer playing outside, but I also spent a lot of time reading...sometimes reading outside. My parents bought me books. Post didn't have a library then but there was a small library at our church. Most of the books at the church were biographies but written for children. So I learned about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, and George Washington Carver from these bios. At home mother bought, Heidi, Black Beauty, Grimm's Fairy Tales and Bible Story books. I loved the Bobbsey Twins and a series called The Sugar Creek Gang, which was about a boy and his pals but I liked adventures and the boys were always having those.

I probably started reading Nancy Drew when I was nine or ten years old and devoured those. I think I tried the Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belton, but Nancy was my idol. She had a really cool dad, an even cooler convertible and she solved mysteries. But my big love for mysteries really grabbed me totally when I was twelve and my father handed me a stack of his paperback books: Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, Richard S. Prather's Shell Scott and Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason and his Bertha Cool and Donald Lam detectives, and John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. I thought Private Eye books were awesome and Perry Mason was so exciting by the revelation of the murderer in the trial.

Soon I matriculated to high school and devoured as many of their mysteries as I could find...Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christi, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammet, Rex Stout. I could go on and on but you get the idea. I still read spies and thrillers, Ian Flemming, John le Carre, Alistair McClain and I soon discovered John D. MacDonald wrote other books besides the Travis McGee series. In the meantime, Post TX got a public library and my mother became one of the volunteer librarians and when they were able to hire a librarian full time, my mom got the job. She had only gone to the 8th grade in school but she had gotten a GED and she took some college classes by correspondence. She took many of the continuing education classes the library offered. That was her dream job and also helped add to my "have read" growing list of books. Is it any wonder that I wound up writing mysteries and owning a mystery bookstore?

In exploring my childhood memories which I decided to share with each of you I reveal how I managed to fall in love with mysteries and private eyes in particular. What about you?

Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to the kitchen to have a bowl of orange sherbet.

29 August 2012

Limitation of Statues


by Robert Lopresti

I don't know if you have seen this picture of the statue Boston is planning to erect near the birthplace of Edgar Allan Poe.  It appears to show the founder of our field going for a stroll with his giant pet raven.

People have disagreed on the quality of this work.  I won't say more than this: it will never be my favorite statue of a bird in Boston.

But it got me wondering which other mystery authors have statues in their honor.  Frankly, I was surprised at how few I was able to locate.  But take a look:

This is Arthur Conan Doyle in Crowborough, England.  It's surprisingly recent, having been created by David Cornell in 2000.
 
And here is Dorothy L. Sayers standing opposite her home in Witham.  I like the cat, don't you?

This bust of Agatha Christie stands in her birthplace of Torquay (which I will forever remember as the location of Fawlty Towers).

Here is Georges Simenon as seen in Liege in Belgium.



And below you will find the creator of Father Brown standing proudly in Chesterton Square.  Can you guess what city this piece by David Wanner can be found in?  Would you believe New Orleans?

And now that we have made it to the United States I would like to show you some photos of sculptures of American mystery authors.  Unfortunately I can't because a search of the web turned up no statues or even busts of Hammett, Chandler, Gardner, or Stout.  What likely candidates am I missing?

I suppose creating sculptures of authors may be more of a European thing than an American, but frankly I was expecting to find at least a bust or two created by schools that had been honored with the archives of one or another author.  If anyone knows of some, let me know.

Meanwhile I have a pedestal just my size if anyone is feeling inspired.  And let me close with what has to be the most coveted sculpture of any mystery writer...


13 June 2012

ABC


by Neil Schofield

It's been a funny old few weeks. 'Funny' in the Emo Phillips sense of strange or bizarre. We've been pulling down the house, was the first thing, or at least a false wall that the previous owner had built to encase the monumental fireplace and chimney that graces our living room. We expected to find human remains, but all there was was a spider evidently dead of boredom. During this demolition, surrounded by stepladders and tools of all persuasions, I had a clever idea which finally turned out as usual to be a suicidal manoevre. At the end of this clever idea I fell flat on my cervical vertebrae. I suppose I was lucky: two people I know of who did the same sort of thing are now quadriplegic. But the results are still with me. For one thing, I can now only walk with the aid of a stiff drink.

But that was long ago. Last week turned out to be the most bizarre of all.
First there was the Queen Spree in London which I watched from afar, while wiping away  a fugitive tear and a fugitive spill of scotch.
The rest of the week is a sort of ABC. That's all I can think of to characterise it - sorry I put an 's' there instead of a 'z'. I'll try to do better.

A  is for Auden (W.H. of that ilk).

Tomorrow, Mimi is off to London to visit her son. Rather now than in a month, since he lives within the epicentre of the Olympic Games. She is going by Eurostar, and therefore is going under the Channel. This has her white-lipped and trembling. I have tried to reassure her that the tunnel is in a part of the planet,: "They didn't tunnel though the water, dear, but through the rock."  That does no good. For Mimi the Channel Tunnel is a wobbly sort of tube resting on the seabed.
But anyway, I shall be waving her off at the Gare du Nord which pleases me no end. I love railway stations. I love them to death. I would prefer a lot of vapour and a steam-whistle, but those days are gone, Marjorie. I'll make do with what there is. I love just looking at it all - the crossroads. And what does all this have to do with anything? Well, for a month or so, I've been reading a lot of poetry. I read poetry when the writing isn't going too well or just isn't going, when it seems to have a cleansing effect, rather like that stuff you use to unblock drains. Auden has been one of my favourite poets since I was a teenager. I don't know why. Perhaps it's the imagination coupled with a talent for the common touch.
In 1938 Auden spent some time in Brussels where he wrote some of his best shorter poems. 'The Musée des Beaux Arts' is one that I'll bang on about some other time. My all-star favourite is 'The Gare du Midi' which has always fascinated me, because it is a short mystery story, or at the very least the start of one. Everyone probably knows it by heart, but I like writing it out.
Gare du Midi


A nondescript express in from the south.
Crowds around the barrier, a face
To welcome which the mayor has not contrived
Bugles or braid: something about the mouth
Distracts the stray look with alarm and pity.
Snow is falling. Clutching a little case
He walks out briskly to infect a city
Whose terrible future may have just arrived.

You just know that on a certain day in 1938, Auden sat in a station cafe and saw something - a person - that disturbed him and stayed with him. Since I first read it, I've been trying - and we're talking decades here - to write the story that Auden began . And there must be other poems like this somewhere. Does anyone have another?

B is for Bradbury.

By a sad coincidence, on the morning of the 5th, I pulled out a copy of Fantasy and Science Fiction - October 2000. I often pull out this particular magazine to read a Ray Bradbury story called 'Quid Pro Quo'. It's a story that involves time travel but it's not about time travel, if you get me. But  I don't read it just for the story, but for the author notes, which accompany it.
In the notes, Gordon Van Gelder, ( for I take it to be he) writes this:
"One of the things Ray Bradbury takes seriously is the matter of using one's talents. When asked years ago what the Eleventh Commandment mmight be, Mr Bradbury repeated Polonius's advice to Laertes: " This above all: to thine own self be true." 
"To neglect God's gifts to you," says the great Mr B., " is one of the greater sins."


Furthermore, the manuscript bore this gentle warning from its author: "Reader, beware. If I ever meet you and ask you what you have done with your genetic talent and you give the wrong answer, I may throw you down the stairs." 

This little passage has always made me very very uneasy. And never more so than when the writing gets too difficult and I seek other easier tasks. I have been negligent in the past. Less so now. But whenever I am tempted to persuade myself that rolling and smoking a cigarette to smoke under the Big Parasol and listen to the sparrows holding a rowdy class reunion in the forsythia is a worthwhile  activity, comparable to sitting down and doing the writing, I feel the cold breath of these words on the back of my neck. The words of one of the greatest teachers of  Writing and Reading we have ever had.

C is for Christie.

Last week, I decided to try again. Agatha is not my favourite. We do not get along. We rub each other up the wrong way. So last week, I had another try to see whether, with advancing age, I could see my way to finding some good in there. And I can already feel the shudders of revulsion and loathing. ("Someone doesn't like Agatha Christie!  What sort of a world are we living in? Isn't there some sort of therapy for these people?")
I didn't read 'The ABC Murders'; that would have been way too neat. I read 'Mrs McGinty's Dead'. And I have to say, it didn't take. I simply don't like her. That's all.
But I didn't come out empty-handed. Because I realised that I had a quiz question. I know it is more Rob Lopresti's  or John  Floyd's flower-bed than mine. But I have no shame.

Neil Schofield's Big Quiz Question:

Can you find the connection between Agatha Christie and Ray Bradbury?
Clue: Think North of the Border.

Either pathetically easy or fiendishly difficult. You pays your money…
No prizes for a correct answer. Except the knowledge of a job well done.

26 January 2012

A Few Reasons I Prefer Mysteries to Literature




by Deborah Elliott-Upton
As a person who believes we start to die the moment we stop learning, I decided to take a class on literature. I am reading selections by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. It's not that I have ever read these authors; it's just that my personal tastes run toward Christie, Spillane and Chandler. Still, to learn is to grow and I am certainly not ready to die.
In deciphering the meanings behind the sybolism within these author's works, I am not what the teacher expects of her students. The second day of class she asked if we were alone in a room with Hitler and knew for a fact all that he would do to the world and we had a gun, would we kill him. She knew my name and I sat on the front row, so she directed the question to me first.
I said I would have no problem killing Hitler. She was a bit taken aback and after several other students agreed with me, she said, "My other classes always say they couldn't shoot an unarmed man."
I silently wondered if my fellow students were mystery buffs like me. Of course, since I am not alone and armed in a room with Hitler and completely sure he would try to take over the world, we'll never know if I could actually commit murder and pull that trigger. But, that wasn't her question. If I find a way to time travel and have that opportunity, I'll let you know the outcome. (That is, if the world hasn't changed so drastically that neither of us are here to discuss those actions at this particluar time and place on the Internet.)
My opinions on symbolism are not necessarily that of the instructor and obviously not shared by most literary authors according to the grades on my last quiz. I don't necessarily believe that is a bad thing. I am merely tracking clues to find another answer, one that may not be ones looking for the obvious. I feel a bit like bumbling Columbo who seems to be asking questions that don't make any sense, but do lead to another corridor, albeit not the one expected.
That's one of the thing I like about mysteries: there is an obvious point made by the story's end. It isn't shrouded in symbolism; it simply is a bad guy caught or at least recognized as the bad guy. In most cases we know should he show up in another book, he will be chased down by our hero for his criminal activity.
Crime doesn't pay in most mysteries. That sets mystery stories apart from literary works, too. In literature like life, anything can happen. A mystery novel's probability is it will end with someone being tagged as guilty and going to jail or paying his debt to society with his life. Real life and literature isn't as neat and tidy. I like tidy.
In mysteries, you never turn a page expecting to see more and find the story has ended abruptly and without tying up all the details into a nice, satisfying package. If the detective hasn't bound the criminal to face his judgment by the end of the book, it better be that he managed to escape from the authorities grasp ala Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs or Moriarty in a Sherlock Holmes story and not that they simply didn't deduce who the culprit could be.
So, why am I taking a series of workshops on literature? Because I love to discover more about good storytelling from every angle. I want to learn from masters whose works lived long beyond them. I want to see if I can learn to do a better job figuring out their intent through the mysterious methods of symbolism.
If I had my druthers, I'd want to be Agatha Christie instead of Ernest Hemingway any day. Maybe it's because I'd enjoy y work being discussed for its clever clues more than what think I meant in a storyline. Maybe it's just because I wouldn't look so great in a mustache and beard.