Friday, September 30, 2011

Short Fiction Recommendations: Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie, of course, was a master of deception and revelation. The great thing about her short fiction is that she uses simpler versions of her techniques and it can be easier to study.

I've always enjoyed these stories, which are much like her novels -- good puzzles with an emphasis on psychology and character. And while I like the Poirot stories, there are two non-Poirot collections I especially remember:

Partners In Crime

This collection of short stories is the second of the five books about Tuppence and Tommy Beresford. It was the first one I read, however, and it made me fall immediately in love with these young adventurers. I was then disappointed to find that every book in the Tuppence and Tommy series was significantly different -- but I got over it. I soon realized that there was something cool about the four novels, as a set. They covered the four stages of life, youth, maturity, middle-aged, and old.

The short stories, though, are a fun off-shoot of that first novel, a light spy-thriller mystery. It has been a long time since I read them, and I doubt they are brilliant mysteries so much as they are great characters, but all I remember is that after I'd read them I was starved for more Tuppence and Tommy. Partners in Crime is available for Kindle -- and like most Christie books, priced at about standard paperback price.

Thirteen Problems (or The Tuesday Club Murders)

Thirteen Problems (which is actually a combination of two small collections which were very similar) is probably the finest collection of all the Christie short stories.

The series concept is simple: a group of people who meet regularly for dinner challenge one another. They each must come up with some real life experience, something they were personally acquainted with, and which seemed utterly mystifying at the time, but they learned later of the real solution. Then they take turns telling the story and seeing if the others can solve the mystery. Nobody expects that old dear, Miss Marple, to take part in the game. But of course, she's the one who solves every one of them.

Not all the stories are brilliant, and of course, they've been imitated many times since, so some of the solutions don't seem as clever as they once did. But they are good stormy night stories. My favorite is near the end of the collections: "The Affair At The Bungalow" has a clever twist on the structure of the others. (And it's better if you read it after reading at least some of the others.)

I recommend them for any reader, but I recommend them double for writers.

Told stories come in a lot of formats. For instance, when P. G. Wodehouse writes a golfing story it goes something like this:

"Golly I'm never playing golf again!" declared the young golfer, tossing his clubs aside in frustration.

"Now now," says The Eldest Member, "don't be hasty. Let me tell you the story of Gavin Plitherickhampton and I think you'll see that your situation is not so hopeless...."

It was a brilliant day on the heath (began the Eldest Member) and Gavin had been invited to play by none other than grand master Roderick MacRoderick himself...

In other words, there might be a set up scene in the present day, but once the story begins, the quotes -- and the present scene -- go away until the end. And even though the voice of the narrator remains, you are inserted into the story he's telling. (I used this technique in my Hemingway's Babyshoes story.)

But an "Armchair Detective" story has a different structure. You remain in the room where the story is being told. People interact, and ask questions, add information of their own. While the regular "told story" is built on an artificial narrative voice -- a master storytller -- the armchair detective story is built on more naturalistic dialog. The teller of the tale may be scattered, may need direction, may be lying.

It's basically an extreme version of an interrogation or questioning scene. What makes it extreme is that it's all you've got to tell the story. You can't make up for the slowness of it with an action scene. You've got to do a good job with how you handle all that boring exposition in dialog.

That's something dramatists do all the time -- since drama is made up of dialog, mainly, and is often limited in scope. But an armchair detective story is trickier than simple drama, because it isn't just that you reveal information through dialog. It's that one of the other characters (the armchair detective) must spot the solution from what he or she hears in that conversation. And although Christie set her problem up so that the teller of the story knows the solution, in many classic armchair stories, the teller is just a witness, and is completely mystified by what he or she saw.

(Rex Stout took this concept to another level with his novellas and novels about Nero Wolfe. Wolfe hated to leave his house, so he insisted that his more sociable sidekick go out and gather information and relay it to him, or to round up suspects so that Wolfe could question them from the comfort of his armchair. I may talk about him in a future installment, when I get to novellas.)

In any case, I think every writer could learn a lot from reading Christie's Thirteen Problems -- and I think every mystery writer should write at least one, if not a couple, of armchair stories, if only for the practice with making questioning scenes interesting.

That's it for this week.

This weekend, I gear up for the Round of Words in 80 Days challenge, which starts Monday. I'll post more about that (and some thoughts about the new Kindle Fire) on the weekend "Review-Preview" post.

And next week I'll talk a little more about places to find current short fiction, which is exploding all over the web, and cropping up in some unexpected places -- kind of like it used to.

See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I've got an old copy of 13 Problems on my shelf and haven't read it in an age....thanks for the reminder to dust it off!

The Daring Novelist said...

Because of this series of posts, I'm dusting off ALL SORTS of collections I haven't looked at in a long time!