"Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle."
- The Duchess of Malfi
My pal Carole back in Baltimore recommends the latest BBC adaption of Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse. A cursory search turns up the following, that the book it's based on was influenced to some degree by a contemporary of Christie's named Dennis Wheatley. He was a successful popular novelist at the time, his best-known book being The Devil Rides Out.
Wheatley, whom I've never read, wrote thrillers with a supernatural twist - Satanism, black magic, the paranormal - none of which he apparently put much credit by. He was a sometime acquaintance of Aleister Crowley, and published him at one point, but he doesn't seem to have taken him too seriously. The interesting thing, to me, is the idea of using supernatural themes, whether it's demonic possession or a ghost story, as a counterweight to the rational or the orderly.
This surfaces in Christie, in John Buchan, and in Conan Doyle, to pick major names. Holmes remarks more than once, phrasing it slightly differently, that once you eliminate the impossible, what's left, no matter how improbable, is what happened. The Hound of the Baskervilles generates a lot of its electricity by suggesting the otherworldly - is the dog a physical presence, a phantom, a psychological monster, the manifestation of some past buried evil: a curse, in other words? Kipling fools with it, Robert Louis Stevenson works similar earth, sowing dragon's teeth.
Conan Doyle caught a great deal of ridicule, later in life, for his embrace of spiritualism. Harry Houdini famously disabused him on any number of occasions, but Doyle's enthusiasm wasn't dented. It's an odd irony, we think, that this onetime student of Joseph Bell's (the model for Holmes), the careful exponent of logical argument and defining your terms, trusts a false premise and falls into further delusion. A reversal of the Holmes method, to allow a conclusion to affect your view of the evidence.
Agatha Christie was a master of psychological horror, before it was even recognized as such. Daphne du Maurier comes close, but by the time Rebecca came along, the genre was established. The effect that Christie manages, and almost without fail, is to make you doubt the convention of the narrative. In other words, she gives you the building blocks, using much the same method as Dorothy Sayers or Ngaio Marsh, but you begin to mistrust the design, that in fact the pieces can be assembled in quite the opposite order, or the story turned back to front. Her last published novel, Sleeping Murder, puts all three elements into play, the frisson of the paranormal, the psychological night sweats, and a narrative at right angles to itself.
The story turns on buried memory, and the tension between whether it's actual or imagined. When the weight of memory breaks through the firewall of post-traumatic stress, the "sleeping" murder comes out of hiding. The uncertainty lies in whether you think the heroine is haunted, perhaps literally, traumatized by some childhood nightmare, or just plain nuts. Any one of the three will serve. Christie is entirely at home with these Gothic fugues, and even the confident and resourceful presence of Jane Marple isn't in itself enough to shake your sense of dread. Christie of course contrives a deeply spooky reveal, and you want to go around the house afterwards turning all the lights on.
There's something enormously satisfying about this class of mystery, and the Brits seem to manage it better than anybody else. Christie, like Sayers or du Maurier, and P.D. James, for that matter, is writing novels of manners, often brittle and generally bad - the manners, not the novels. In some sense, they're comfort food, but the best of them leave you uneasy. The era between the wars, seen at a comfortable distance, seems not so far off or foolish. The ghosts are real enough.
25 March 2020
24 September 2013
by Dale Andrews
Like the previous stories I have been fortunate enough to place in the pages of EQMM, my latest story, Literally Dead, is an Ellery Queen pastiche. Since it is written, as close as I can make it, to the style of Ellery it is a “fair play” mystery -- that is, all the clues are there, but are hopefully presented cleverly. Sleight of hand is at the heart of all golden age fair play mysteries. While interest in this genre may have waned somewhat in recent times, mysteries premised on obscure but solvable puzzles have been with us a long time, at least since the days of Poe and Doyle. But the genre really hit its stride in the middle of the twentieth century.
|a Detection Club dinner|
Do your promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?The members of the Detection Club went on to establish rules of fair play that, by and large, have governed the writing of fair play detective stories ever since. The most important of those rules is that every clue necessary to solve the mystery must be revealed, in advance, to the reader.
The task of actually revealing all of those clues in advance can be a thorny one. After all, one cannot do it in too obvious of a way. Often, describing a clue in a manner that conveys its full importance to the reader can amount to revealing too much, a too-easy tip to the ultimate solution. Moreover, some clues are simply difficult to describe in narration. The description may bog down if embodied in the detective’s first person narrative or the third person narrative of the author, or the clue itself may be difficult to "show" to the reader. As an example, a typewriter may have telltale discrepancies, such as cuts in some letters, that will allow the detective to tie a message to a specific machine. But how do you fairly show this in the context of a narrative? Or another example -- how do you show one important aspect of a newspaper article -- do you highlight it by presenting it alone, or do you risk boring the reader by presenting the entire article, none of the rest of which is relevant?
There is a simple solution to all of this, although the solution requires a degree of author control that is unavailable in most publishing venues. But the solution is still there -- if the author has the means, he or she can simply include all of the clues in their entirety along with the narrative. Like most simple solutions this one is not at all simple to put into practice. But it has, nevertheless, been tried. It’s interesting to take a look at two different attempts, separated by about 75 years.
|Dennis Yates Wheatley|
Accompanying each mystery was a series of clues -- real clues, such as entire newspaper articles, burnt matches, strands of hair, an arsenic pill (from which, the dossier explained, the poison had been removed). And in each case the solution to the mystery was contained, at the end, in a sealed envelope. The game, then, was for the reader to examine the clues along with the narrating detective as the story progressed; the approach allowed the reader to see precisely what the detective sees, that is, the wheat along with the chaff.
The approach intrigued the reading public, but, as can be imagined, the production costs for these mysteries were inordinately high. It is reported that hair samples required by one of the dossiers were secured from European nuns. Matches were burned seriatim by employees of the publisher for inclusion in one of the dossiers. And many of the clues had to be wrapped in wax paper, and then affixed by hand with staples to the appropriate page in the final volume. Little wonder that pristine copies of the original dossiers -- with the clues still encased, and with the ending still sealed in that envelope, sell for many hundreds of dollars.
The Wheatley/Links works were re-issued in the late 1970s by Hutchison and Company Publishers in London, but even with modern technological advances the cost of publication inspired few imitators.
Between the 1970s and today advances in computer technology and computer gaming saw similar attempts to offer up not only the story but the clues -- several computer simulation games based on Sherlock Holmes stories accomplished this with varying degrees of success. But, at least to my knowledge, a full-blown attempt to harness these technological advances in the context of published literature was not attempted. Until this August, that is, when Random House published Marisha Pessl’s brilliant (there. I’ve said it) new occult thriller and mystery Night Film.
|Marisha Pessl and her great new book|
But Night Film also employs a startling gimmick -- when evidence appears in a magazine story the narrative stops and the magazine takes its place. The same is true of police reports, college newspapers, slips of paper, a CD album cover -- all are reproduced between the covers of the book. And not content with this, the book goes further -- if you read it equipped with a smartphone loaded with the Night Film app (free for the downloading) additional content appears on your phone when various pages of the story are scanned. The result is a near complete immersion into the world created by Pessl.
The Links and Wheatley mystery dossiers of the 1930s similarly wrapped the reader into the narrative, but were often criticized as being too much gimmick and too little story. That cannot be said of Night Film, which is a near perfect blend and weighs in at over 600 pages of mesmerizing story. The addition of forays into the actual evidence only serves to heighten the reader’s involvement.
You probably get the idea that I think Night Film is a sensational read. As I have said many times, I am loath to dish out spoilers in a review. So, beyond what I have said already, you will just have to take my word for it!
Oh, yeah. And when you buy it at a bookstore, or download it for your e-reader, why don’t you also pick up a copy of the December issue of EQMM!