Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Writing techniques-- assorted: Christie and omniscient and interior point-of-view

From Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie: 1939

Luke was just restoring some final order, replacing things in their place, when he suddenly stiffened and switched off his torch. He had heard the key inserted in the lock of a side door. He stepped across to the door of the room he was in and applied an eye to the crack. He hoped Ellsworthy-- if it was he-- would go straight upstairs.

This shows the continual shift Christie uses from a 19th C sort of omniscient (where we the reader are outside the character, seeing what he does but not "doing it with him"):
Luke was just restoring some final order, replacing things in their place, when he suddenly stiffened and switched off his torch. 

To a 20th C deeper third, where we are inside the character, perceiving what he perceives ("heard") and feeling what he feels ("hoped"):
 He had heard the key inserted in the lock of a side door. He stepped across to the door of the room he was in and applied an eye to the crack. He hoped Ellsworthy-- if it was he-- would go straight upstairs.
This is an effective technique and still used in mystery novels. It subliminally puts the reader into the viewpoint of the sleuth (or villain, sometimes) while reasserting the distance (outside, omniscient point-of-view) needed to evaluate and analyze all the evidence in the book (including what the sleuth doesn't know or misinterprets).

In Murder Is Easy (originally titled "Easy to Kill," btw), Christie uses a "pro-am" sleuth. He's a retired police inspector (from "the Mayang Straits"-- it's an area in Manipur, a peninsula in Eastern India), but out of his depth with the sophistication of British villains, who are, I'm sure we can agree, the most elegant of all. So we can see the pro at work from the omniscient angle, but the uncertain amateur (who is also falling in love, about which more later) through the single-third-person interior viewpoint. We feel both his certainty and his uncertainty, and have much better sense of how just plain difficult it is to figure out the

This book apparently came after several books featuring her impeccably correct sleuth, Hercule Poirot, who is never uncertain and seems to have no inner issues beyond a distaste for British weather. We don't really need an internal view into Poirot as he's not hiding much of himself. (In fact, several of the Poirot short stories are narrated, Dr. Watson-like, by a friend of his.) Luke, however, isn't just a "detecting machine" (you can tell I'm not a big fan of Poirot as a character, though I like the mysteries in those books). He's a young man, long exiled from his homeland and now returning, rootless, almost friendless, and most important, falling in love-- and all this shapes how and why he bothers to detect, especially as all the murders could plausibly be regarded as accidents.

What the more interior "single-third" viewpoint gives us is Luke that man, ruled by this new emotion-- falling for a woman he's unsure of and might not even like (I'm doing this in my Regency CSI series, and I can attest it's a difficult dynamic to describe). What we see is not Poirot's almost ruthless efficiency, but an amateur's repeated mistakes. (He's always fingering the wrong people!) Christie's use of omniscient (usually when he's sleuthing and gathering clues) allows us to judge whether or not he's right. And we have to notice that several times he's wrong. What the single-third deep viewpoint gives us is the reason he's so often wrong: From inside Luke, we participate in his biases and his impulses.

His first real suspect is Mr. Ellsworthy, the local antiques dealer. While the shopkeeper has been in the village for years, he's very much an urban character, and out of place here. He is (probably-- Christie is always a bit muddled when it comes to sexuality in general) homosexual, and Luke's instinctive distaste leads him to suspect the innocent Ellsworthy. From inside Luke (the single-third passages), we get a good sense of the first-half-century straight man's horror of the alternative. (We also get that muddled mid-century view from Christie-- Ellsworthy is not gay so much as generally "abnormal, perverted, depraved" (she uses all those terms, along with stage villain-type hysterical giggles, a "prancing and mincing" gait, and -- no joke-- slightly green hands... just plain devilish... inhuman). He practices witchcraft and Satanic rituals, of course. And it's assumed that he also abuses women sexually-- that is, he's portrayed as all that is perverse. This isn't, of course, a sympathetic or accurate rendition of any alternative sexual identity, but rather an expression of the horror Luke is feeling towards "the other".

So it's not a stretch to see Luke pretty soon fastening on Ellsworthy as the killer. Ellsworthy's supposed perversity would account for the seeming randomness of the murders (nothing seems to unite them except proximity)-- after all, an abnormal inhuman satanist wouldn't need any real motivation for murder!

Luke doesn't really discard this suspicion until he turns his attention onto another suspect. Again, this choice is influenced by his inner reality. He has fallen in love with Bridget, and naturally hates the rich, powerful, and unpleasant man she is going to marry (Lord Whitfield). It's no stretch for him to start suspecting Whitfield, who does have the suspicious trait of having employed most of those who died (and most of the village, it must be said-- he's very rich). While of course Luke's view of the man is colored by jealousy, it's also psychologically apt-- Whitfield is indeed a very large and destructive toddler who wants attention and demands immediate gratification, and can't stand opposition.

When we are sequentially inside and outside of Luke, we can understand his interpretation of something Whitfield confides (that he was once engaged to a lady in the village, but it was broken off because a pet bird he loathed "had its neck wrung"). Luke assumes-- because of his resentment of Whitfield, who gets whatever he wants, including Bridget-- that Whitfield was careless confessing to killing the bird. In fact, if Luke hadn't been so ready to think the worst about his rival, he might have noticed how careful Whitfield was to put that in the passive voice ("the bird was killed," not "I killed the bird"). From the outside, we notice that he jumps to this conclusion that Whitfield is a killer, and thus THE killer. From the inside, we understand why Luke makes this mistake (Whitfield is his rival for Bridget). We are able then to both judge him from the outside and empathize with him from the inside. (He does eventually figure it out, just in time to rescue Bridget from the real murderer.)

I'm going to try to be more analytical as I re-read the other books, and watch for this omniscient/single mix, or one or the other. My hypothesis is:
  • The "professional" books (the Poirot and Miss Marple ones) will have mostly omniscient, mostly outside the "sleuth" character and presenting action also from the perspective of the other characters (like "Sanctuary" gives the POV of the vicar's wife who discovers the body as much as that of Miss Marple solving the crime). The omniscient here recognizes the irrelevance of the interior lives of these professional sleuths (I know Miss Marple isn't paid for it, but she's professional in her skills).
  • The "pro/am" stories (where the sleuths are as much amateur investigators as professional, like Luke and Tuppence and Tommy) will have more back-and-forth between the exterior analysis level and the interior emotional level. In fact, this will provide a lot of the conflict and complications to the mystery-- solved not by the objective application of observation and logic, but through making emotion-based mistakes which lead the sleuths deeper into the mystery.
  • And in the books with the true amateurs, like Bobby and Frankie in Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, we see mostly from inside, from their own limited and emotionally charged perspectives.  Their ability to solve the murder will come more from their intuition as much as their observation, and they will rely much more on empathy and instinct ("I knew he was a liar!") than on logic.

Thoughts about this? Examples that support or don't? (Also I should look at The Man in the Brown Suit, with its somewhat clumsy use of "objective" or camera-eye perspective in the first scene, where the victim "stars".)

List of Christie's books, dated. From

Agatha Christie - The official information and community site



Monday, August 25, 2014


Cadfael maps and other info from Luca Polo. I found the dating of the novels very helpful!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A play manuscript with Christie's revisions. Notice the meticulous changing of dialogue to make a line more specific to that speaker. I love the uniqueness of Christie's characters' surnames: Angkatell! I am reading one story with the "Unkertons".

Source: Lucius Books archive of Christie-ana.

Agatha Christie's writing process

Agatha Christie was interviewed by the BBC in 1955 about her writing process:

Agatha would spend evenings in the company of friends or family, and would sit and knit, with her mind seeming to be elsewhere. And it was - she was thinking about her next storyline, mapping out the plot from start to finish.
By the time she sat down to write the book, it would all be done and dusted inside her head.
Snippets from the interview with Agatha provide an insight into how she went about her work.
Agatha was self-taught, which meant she spent much of her childhood at home - and that's when she began writing.
In the interview, she said: "I found myself making up stories and acting the different parts. There's nothing like boredom to make you write.
Some of Dame Agatha's books in the library
Some of Dame Agatha's books at Greenway
"So by the time I was 16 or 17, I'd written quite a number of short stories and one long, dreary novel. By the time I was 21, I had finished the first book of mine ever to be published, the Mysterious Affair at Styles.
"I'd sent it to one or two publishers who didn't want it and eventually it went to John Lane. About a year later, I heard it had been accepted. Well, that's how it began."
The rest, as they say, is history. Agatha Christie - whose family home at Greenway, Galmpton, has been gifted to the National Trust - became one of the most prolific writers ever.
In another clip from the interview, she gave us further insight into how her stories were transferred from her head onto the page.
"What is your method, they (my friends) want to know. The disappointing truth is I haven't much method. I type my own drafts on an ancient faithful machine I've owned for years.
A commemorative bust in Torquay
A commemorative bust in Torquay
"No, I think the real work is done in thinking out the development of your story and worrying about it until it comes right. That may take quite a while. Then, when you've got all your material together, all that remains is to find time to write the thing."
Dame Agatha churned out books in rapid fashion, as she explained: "Three months seems to me quite a reasonable time to complete a book, if one can get right down to it.
"On the other hand, plays I think are better written quickly. Writing plays is much more fun than writing books. You haven't got to bother about long descriptions of places and people or deciding how to space out your material.
"You must write pretty fast, keep in the mood and to keep the talk flowing naturally. I prefer to write a play as a play, that is rather than to adapt a book.
"The only reason I ever did that was because I didn't care very much for what happened when other people tried to turn my books into plays. So in the end I had to do it myself."

Christie: Psychological insights

Agatha Christie (especially the post-Freudian era between the wars) had a fascination with psychology, not just of murderers, but of the victims and suspects too. Here's a general observation about gender:

"...He went straight home, he says, but evidence was called to show that he did not reach his farm until a quarter to seven, and, as I have mentioned, it is barely a mile away. It would not take a half an hour to get there. He forgot all about his gun, he declares. Not a very likely statement-- and yet--"
"And yet?" queried Mr. Quin.
"Well," said Mr. Satterthwaite slowly, "it's a possible one, isn't it? Counsel ridiculed the supposition, of course, but I think he was wrong. You see, I've known a good many young men, and these emotional scenes upset them very much-- especially the dark nervous type like Martin Wylde. Women, now, can go through a scene like that and feel positively better for it afterward, with all their wits about them. It acts like a safety valve for them, steadies their nerves down and all that. But I can see Martin Wylde going away with his head in a whirl., sick and miserable, and without a thought of the gun he had left leaning up against the wall."

A generalization, certainly, but it accords with my experience. Discharging worry and emotion seems to free women, but has an oppressive effect on men.

BTW, the editing in these cheap old Christie paperbacks is quite good. I suspect that she delivered a very clean copy and didn't like editors fussing much with her prose. And of course, she'd have the power to dictate the level and quality of editing she received! Would that we were all so fortunate.

Agatha Christie paperback discovery

Greenway: Agatha Christie's own house on the River Dart. Just below the house, above the river, is the boathouse, scene of the crime in Dead Man’s Folly.

I'm in Canada, at Stratford, and the house where I'm staying has an extensive collection of old Christie paperbacks (25 cents price!). I just came across a story ("The Shadow on the Glass") which takes place at a house called Greenways. It's in The Mysterious Mr. Quin, a collection of stories. This might be one of those sleuths like Parker Pyne that didn't "catch". There's sort of a co-sleuth, an old society gentleman (one of her sort-of gay characters) Mr. Satterthwaite, whose gift is his ability to recall events in great detail and emotional realism: "a little bent, dried-up man with a peering face oddly elflike, and an intense and inordinate interest in other people's lives. All his life, so to speak, he had sat in the front row of the stalls watching the various dramas of human nature unfold before him. His role had always been that of the onlooker. Only now, wiht old age holding himi in its clutch, he found himself increasingly critical of the drama submitted to him. He demanded now something a little out of the common" (1). 

Mr. Satterthwaite is the narrator of the stories, and his friend Mr. Quin always happens by accidentally when there's a mystery afoot and figures out the significance of what Mr. S narrates.

I'm continually impressed with the ornate ease of Christie's prose. She's so much better a writer than I imagined-- another 20th C woman writing in the genres (actually, she created the genre :) and writing fluently, smoothly, even innovatively. Gee, could it be she's been discounted because she's a woman, and wrote a whole lot, and wrote stuff regular people liked to read? 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

I've always thought that the Cadfael series had as a major
theme the beauty and rightness of young love, that Cadfael would do just
about anything (including lying and stealing) to protect the young
lovers. That attitude shows him to be able to -- within a fairly rigidly
rule-bound system (both the society and his monastic order)-- choose his
own path, to choose a value above obedience, and also, despite
monasticism and celibacy, to connect to the life-giving force of romance
and sex. Ellis Peters is such a graceful writer, she was able to show him
being almost gooey (my term :) about his young-couple friends, while
maintaining his necessarily sleuthly distance.

Murder mysteries are so much about death (of course), but what I've
always loved about Cadfael is that stubborn connection to life. Then
again (I love the Cadfael books devotedly, so get a bit gooey myself),
that echoes the other major contrast of the sacred and the profane, the
profane being the human-- the interactions with the other monks and
priests, the town beyond the walls, the civil war raging beyond that,
Cadfael's own checquered past.

I'm not sure anyone did better than EP at finding the teeming sensual
life within the mystery setting.

Alicia (who must now embark on another re-read....)