Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Favorites - Agatha Christie's Five Little Pigs

One of the great things about Agatha Christie is that liked to use plot formats as a challenge to keep things interesting for herself.  She wrote novels almost the way great short story writers would write short stories, each an experiment in concept or story-telling.  She did this not only with standalone books like Ten Little Indians, but also in her series work.

Some of these little experiments are real gems, though many are forgotten. I only recently stumbled across the Poirot tale, The Five Little Pigs.  I think this story deserves to be better known, but I suppose the charm of the story is more intellectual than most.

It's the story of a cold case.  Sixteen years earlier, a woman was convicted of murdering her husband.  She herself died in prison soon after the conviction.  Now her daughter, who had been a tiny child at the time of the murder, comes to Poirot and asks him to look into the case.

The subsequent story is almost like a dossier.  Poirot interviews all the investigators and lawyers, then the five principle witnesses of the case (the "five little pigs"), and then has each of those five principles write a first person account of the murder.  Then he visits them each again with a follow up question.

The interesting thing about this story is that what we get is the same story told over and over again 15 times, by 10 different people.  And each time, we see deeper into the story, and the lives of the characters.  And each of the witnesses, separately, give us a view of the others; how they were then, how they are now.

So it starts as a plain puzzle story, intriguing intellectually but cold emotionally, but by the end, you drawn into the lives of these characters, caring at last for them all, wishing that this would be like Groundhog Day and that the end of the story could change if only the characters could learn from the revelation.

Perhaps that description makes the story sound better than it is, though.  Certainly this isn't high literature.  And the characters, as with most Christie, are stylized.  But I think her sharp psychological insight into motivation and evil is at its prime here, and she has a lot of fun using them as red herrings too. I certainly came to care about even the most disagreeable of the characters, which is, imho, a feat.

See you in the funny papers.


Unknown said...

I love reviews of old books. I've never personally read Agatha Christie, but I've heard much about her writing. I'd be interested to take a look at this, as I've seen this type of style previously, and would like to see how well she pulled it off.

Thanks so much.

The Daring Novelist said...

Hey Mike,

Most of my reviews will be older books and movies. A lot of them have been out of print and are new to the reader. (Heck, some will STILL be out of print, but you might find them somewhere.)

Hard to say where to start with Christie, but I think The Five Little Pigs wouldn't be bad. The main problem might be that she knew her audience pretty well. Sometimes she created red herrings specifically to trip of the expectations of old readers, and a new reader might guess the ending more quickly.

But that's always going to be a problem with the most puzzle-oriented "Golden Age" mystery writers: they had an audience who was very sophisticated at mystery tricks, and so they often wrote double and triple tricks to fool them, which might not fool newer readers.