Friday, September 23, 2011

Dwelling on Things With Agatha Christie

I've been reading some Christies lately, and I've noticed something that I really enjoy about Christie which I worry about in my own work, to the point of avoidance:

She dwells on things.

The detectives will discuss the evidence endlessly. Question a witness in detail. Go over the same clues, and same information multiple times... and it's never boring. Not with Christie. And the fact is, that's what I read Christie for.

Which isn't to say I never get bored when some other authors do it. Good gracious, I know I've seen it done badly. I must have, because I worry about it endlessly in my own work. But do I worry too much? I think I need to study Christie a little closer and figure out why it works for her. And maybe see if I can put my finger on times when it doesn't work.

I haven't gone off to study it yet, but I have some theories:


In Murder At The Vicarage, we get the Vicar, and Miss Marple, and the vicar's wife, and Inspector Slack, AND various suspects, AND Colonel Melchett all theorizing and giving opinions on the same info. When new information enters the scene, it thunders through the whole group of them and they all get to weigh in thoroughly... and their examination and reaction to it is a study in character from first to last. We may not get new information about the clue, but we do get a fuller picture of the characters.

In the Sittaford Mystery, which I'm reading now so I can only talk about the beginning, we learn about the characters and situation in one way, and then after the crime, the detective enters, and we learn the same information over again as he questions people and looks at things. Some tidbits are new information, but most of it is stuff we already know. But we learn it from new people, and bare facts become humanized, etc. Which makes it interesting the way gossip is interesting.

So character is an important factor in keeping it all entertaining. But I think there has got to be another reason.

For one thing, I have noticed the same tendency to go over information again and again in Perry Mason, and frankly neither the TV show nor the books are particularly great about character development. Further, the parts that can really enthrall me can be the courtroom bits where the lawyers lay out strategies and repeat information and play games with it.

Ratiocination (i.e. Thinkin')

Deductive reasoning is supposed to be what the traditional puzzle mystery is all about. And for all the Sherlock Holmes personified the ratiocinative detective, he tended to hold back the actual thinking parts from us. We had to sit passively and watch him be smart.

But as the mystery novel blossomed into its golden age, the writers started to let us in on the thinking. We become one with the process -- as wrapped up in the investigation as the characters are. Such stories are not about being mystified, they're about having a knotty problem and going after it in a competent way. So the clues themselves are interesting.

And in those cases, the puzzle is not just a MacGuffin -- it's what drives the actual drama of the story.

I love MacGuffins, and I have nothing against a story being driven by something other the mystery (as with romantic suspense, or spy comedies, for instance) but if they are, the writer has to be more careful about dwelling on the dry facts.

Next week I'll probably do a post on a related topic -- pacing the reader with the detective. It can be good to let the reader get ahead of the detective once in a while, and vice versa.

See you in the funny papers.

(Illustration from the cover of The Green God by Frederick Allen Kummer, 1911 -- original artist was probably R. F. Schabelitz, though often the cover designer was different and uncredited.)


ModWitch said...

I'm no Agatha, but I write books where characters spend a lot of time talking about each other. With feedback from a developmental editor, I've been tending to do less of that in the current WIP - but I was reading through yesterday, and realizing I'd swung too far the other way. Part of the appeal of my books (I think!) is the closeknit community, and how they all react to particular happenings. I've yet to find a writing book that says it's a good idea, though :-P.

a said...

Christie's stories are like two mints in one: you get the logical puzzle to unravel, and you also get to unravel the puzzle of personality -- or many personalities.

The Daring Novelist said...

Modwitch: that was the first thing that struck me about your first book. "Hey, this is all exposition and... I _like_ it."

Azarimba: that's why she's the queen of crime!

Hunter F. Goss said...

I used a variation of what ModWitch does in my own book. Information is revealed through the eyes of different characters, using both conversation and their internal dialogue. I also use a ‘Rashomon’-inspired structure where narrative moves from one character to another. Some events are related wholly from a second POV, while at other times there’s just some overlap when situations change rapidly. It was one of the ways that allowed for variable pacing as the story unfolded.

The Daring Novelist said...

I'm actually going to talk about that on Friday, when I talk about some of Christie's short fiction.