Agatha Christie and the Art of Writing

by Michael S. Collins


[Warning – Whilst efforts to be maliciously spoiling have been kept to a minimum, there will be the odd spoiler ahead. Of course, the writer is curious about needing a spoiler warning for things that are older than his parents, but is reminded of the time he was told off online for giving a spoiler to Hamlet, a mere 400 plus years after its first performance! So, be wary. ]

Agatha Christie stands, to my mind, as one of the finest writers we’ve ever had. A controversial opinion, you might say. But Michael, she was a crime writer! So? Genre ghettos mean nothing to talent: HG Wells stuck mostly to Sci-Fi and there’s no denying his greatness. Indeed, crime being one of the more open genres to the happy hack, to stand out from the vast pack by merit and to last nearly a hundred years as a best seller is to mean as much as to have one literary novel praised by academics.

I return to Christie’s writing time and again. As a writer myself, it is said that everyone has their own novel inside them. I’d like to rephrase: everyone has their own crime novel inside them. I tried mine years ago and was asked all kinds of highly technical questions on why I hadn’t followed current police procedure within it by an editor whose knowledge was several floors above mine. But it is not just the nature of the crime which brings one back to Christie. Her novels are like templates on how to write successful, unwittingly written textbooks on success, and I find you can never get quite enough of them.

In fact, just the other night I re-started A Murder is Announced, one of my favourites. It is a Miss Marple (her favourite detective) story about a murder being declared ahead of time in the local newspaper, so naturally the entire village pop round to the destination announced at that time, and wouldn’t you know it, someone is murdered. It is a tale equally amusing and tragic, a tale of quiet people all too real, with their human frailties. It also contains one of the most charming yet heartbreaking early examples of a character with dementia in British fiction.

Anyhow, I have read this tale... at least fifteen times in my life. The way the characters all get to breathe, the way the humour exists in the characters responses but not getting in the way of the plot, and how the whole thing works as a plot exercise are vital learning experiences for the novice to take on board. And yet, last night, as I was reading, I spotted something which had been hidden from me all this time. Without telling you who, as it is too good a novel to waste the first experience on in an article, Christie actively gives away who the murderer is in their very first appearance. Not only that, their very first sentence of description. And not only have I never picked up on this in years – I certainly didn’t pick whodunit ahead of time on first reading – but I’ve never seen this spotted in two decades of reading people writing ABOUT Christie. In a world where people think they’ve written perfect mysteries, only to utterly M. Night Shamalyan-it (surely that phrase exists?), that ability is rarer than gold dust.

It’s also not a rare occurrence within Christie’s novels. Take her famous novel with the ever changing name, And Then There Were None. (Originally it was named after the Ten Little Sailors poem, which has changed its name several times via being utterly politically incorrect since the 1940s.) The story is famous, but I’ll be succinct for those who are yet to arrive there. Ten strangers are duped into showing up at an Devonshire island, where we find out that not only are all ten accused of having been potentially murderers in their past, but that the mysterious owner of the island house, Mr Owen, is missing in action. A storm prevents departure to the mainland, the murders start, and it swiftly becomes clear the only people on the island were our ten characters... so one of them HAS to be the killer. As an example of psychological crime fiction, it’s hard to beat. As a guilty pleasure multi-death novel, it’s also one of the better. And it has a solution which I am sure took most by surprise when they first read it.

"No wonder Agatha Christie's latest has sent her publishers into a vatic trance. We will refrain, however, from any invidious comparisons with Roger Ackroyd and be content with saying that Ten Little Niggers is one of the very best, most genuinely bewildering Christies yet written. We will also have to refrain from reviewing it thoroughly, as it is so full of shocks that even the mildest revelation would spoil some surprise from somebody, and I am sure that you would rather have your entertainment kept fresh than criticism pure." Maurice Richardson, Observer, 5 November 1939

And no, I’m not spoiling who that island dispatcher is. However, it is amazing on re-reading how openly in your face Christie makes their potential guilt, only to have you putting it to the back of your mind. The art is in the deception, but there is no deception in the art. We do not have what I call the US TV solution, where it seems every week some nameless character in the opening scene disappears for two ad breaks and then is revealed as the villain in the last three minutes. That type of thing is quite popular, seemingly, but has never appealed to me. I prefer it when, if there is to be mystery, one can at least look back afterwards and see how the thing has been put together. Time and again with Agatha Christie, I am left wondering how I didn’t see the solution – it usually seems such a logical explanation of what has transpired that all my hamfisted attempts to guess beforehand seem as amatueresque as they were. The weak writer tries to hide his mystery by never mentioning them, like the writer who has an elephant in the room but never mentions the elephant. [The writer Hal Duncan once went on a hilarious tangent on Twitter about that very thing in bad fiction, actually.] It’s very difficult to seed in a natural solution without giving the game away ahead of time. I know. I’ve tried it. That Christie succeeded time and again is to her eternal credit.

I do know one person who knew whodunit on Soldier Island though. My dad. When I asked how, he told me his cunning secret: he read the last page first!

This ability to hide in plain reminds me of reading Evil Under The Sun for the first time. Much to my great foolishness, I had watched the David Suchet TV version first, and so had knowledge of whodunit. (A nasty murder, this one.) Even so, with two chapters to go, a clever piece of misdirection had me even questioning my own pre-knowledge of what was going to happen. Who I knew was the murderer wound up being the murderer, as history dictates, but the very fact I knew this and still had the glimmer of doubt in my mind speaks of a supreme writing talent.

There have been scientific studies into why Christie has such a resonance with the book buying public. (She is the best selling novelist of all time, with around 4 billion books sold since 1920, and second only to Shakespeare worldwide.)

"The study by neuro-linguists at the universities of London, Birmingham and Warwick shows that she peppered her prose with phrases that act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction. 'Christie's language patterns stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain,'' The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie's writing literally unputdownable'." Dr Roland Kapferer, in the Sunday Times, 2006 (as rubbished by Ben Goldacre of Bad Science)

There was much research, and even a documentary looking into this. I suspect the only science involved in Christie’s novels involved her own background, as a volunteer nurse during the First World War and apothecary. (Hence that knowledge of so many poisons!) Whilst the idea of her hypnotising millions via word choice is a bit farfetched (and as I note, Goldacre ripped the pseudo-science to shreds) at the heart of it, what we have is a writer whose every word is vital in getting the story across. And that is a sort of science in itself, I guess.

In our modern writing, we writers tend to follow Stephen King’s rules on economy of language (distilled from Orwell). Every one of those rules were followed by Christie from the start, ninety-three years ago. She seemed to spend weeks thinking her words over in her head before putting pen to paper, and her notebooks make fascinating a study of the writers mind at work. Even her tricks, like use of notebooks and avoidance of Dictaphones, are worthy to modern writers. Hers is a career and catalogue worth a million How to Write self help novels, and I can’t recommend her writing enough.

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