Dame Agatha and the Body in the Library

Mystery writer PD James found her output "astonishing". Queer as Folk creator Russell T Davies thought her remarkable enough to include her as a character in his revival of the beloved Doctor Who series. And, oh yes--she’s also the best selling author of all time. No small feat for a woman with no formal education. I'm talking about the demure Dame Agatha Christie, writer of more than eighty books and plays, not all of them mysteries.

I tend to go on Christie binges, reading three or four titles in a row then putting her aside for a while. Truth is, I don’t want to run out. I turn to her when I want good fun, a bit of entertainment and common sense. She’s a delight when she’s good, a wonder when she’s great, and at the very least amusing--or tedious, depending on your outlook--when she is neither.

She was frequently brilliant, yet not above publishing dreck. (And happy to admit it, if only in her private diaries.) She was not a literary stylist and her characters can at times be downright annoying. Her true brilliance lies in baffling her reader's attempts to solve her crimes, with endless variations in so doing. It's sometimes possible to figure out the "who" of her whodunits, but it's close to impossible to figure out the how and why, even when the clues are laid out before our eyes.

You can't read just one Christie title and categorize her. If I were to create a Christie primer, these half dozen titles would be indispensable: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (both Christie's and Hercule Poirot's first appearance), The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (a classic, possibly her most audaciously brilliant work), And Then There Were None (also brilliant, though less likeable because none of the characters is sympathetic), Crooked House (one of Christie's favourites among her titles), Three-Act Tragedy (see my note below), and Curtain (Poirot's last, and perhaps most surprising case.)

Fans of the soft-spoken Jane Marple will note I haven't mentioned any of her books here. That's partly because I've read more of those belonging to Poirot, but also because I am less astounded by her cases, however much I enjoy her sly character.

Here's a roundup of titles I've read recently, with a possible rating from one to four stars.

Cat Among the Pigeons (1959) (**)

This is one of those hybrid Christie novels--half-mystery and half-thriller--which don't completely satisfy either genre. It's from what I call her late-middle period--post-war, but pre-sixties--where she seemed for a while to have become bored with writing. Some of her books from that period take on a rote quality, though the genius isn't completely missing. In a diary entry in the 1930s, she claims to have got tired of Poirot, calling him an "ego-centric creep", and uses him less well. In this case, he pops into the story's latter third to solve the crime without doing much other than uttering an occasional comment on morality. The plot involves a trio of murders at an all-girls school in England. This is preceded by a revolution in an imaginary country called Ramat, and involving a secondary plot about missing jewels. The story is further marred by unnecessarily having too many characters to keep track of, though the solution, as usual, is delicious.

The Body In The Library (1942) (**)

A somewhat more cohesive effort, this story features Miss Jane Marple, that quietly observant spinster whose understanding of human nature serves her well in her frequent forays into accidental sleuthing. Christie intended this as a parody of mystery genre cliches, thus the book's title. When a dancing girl turns up strangled in the library of an English gentleman, he claims to know nothing about her. His wife, a friend of Miss Marple's, cannily invites Jane to do some sleuthing on her own. A second body turns up not long afterwards. Apart from Marple, none of the characters is really compelling, and the book feels quickly tossed off, as though Christie couldn't wait to be finished with it. The story is further marred by having not one but four professional sleuths investigating the murders, though we know Marple will solve it. Sorting out the police inspectors gets tiresome, and the solution to the murders feels a bit arbitrary.

Murder at the Vicarage (1930) (***)

An early Christie, and the first to employ Miss Jane Marple, that diligent do-gooder with the pessimistic outlook on her fellow human beings. This is clearly a book Christie put a good deal of thought into, as all the loose ends tie up ever so neatly in a rather impressive way. A much-loathed magistrate is murdered in the vicarage at St Mary Mead. Suddenly everyone in the vicinity comes under suspicion for one reason or other. It takes Marple's all-seeing eye and quick wit to put the pieces in place, which she eventually does to good end. Plenty of fun characters and outrageous quips.

Three Act Tragedy (1934) (****)

An early Christie mystery featuring Inspector Poirot, which The New York Times called "Uncommonly good." I agree. By now, Christie has got very adept at her variations on a "locked room" murder. This is one of her best. The writing is smooth and the mystery is tight, though she drops her clues liberally throughout. It has the added attraction of a colourful, headstrong female character nicknamed "Egg." Poirot is already on the scene when a mild-mannered clergyman is poisoned at a cocktail party. At first, he can discern no motive and thus has no lead to follow. When at last he grasps it, he's shocked by its audacity. You will be too.

Jeffrey Round is a Toronto novelist and filmmaker. His most recent book is the mystery-thriller Lake On The Mountain, from Dundurn Books. Visit: www.jeffreyround.com.

Slow Down--Turtles Crossing: On the Perils of Publishing

Jan 11, 2012

The baby has arrived. (Yay!) Well, sort of (Boo!)

Yesterday, I got word that my newest book, Lake On The Mountain, was printed. Now all I have to do is wait for it to be delivered from the printers to Dundurn's warehouse--via turtle express. There are few industries where the adage "Hurry up and wait" applies more surely than in publishing.

Let me take you through the various steps (if you have the patience, that is...)

Year zero. First, you get this fantastic idea that already looks like a book in your head. It's brilliant. So brilliant, it burns a hole right through your brain. So now all you have to do is write it. Right? Sure, go ahead.

Year one. Writing a book can take time. A lot of time. And that time varies according to your expertise and dedication to the cause. My first book, A Cage of Bones, took me five years to finish. It's a coming out story that takes place in the fashion industry in Europe. (Nope, not a horror story, despite its title.) It was an industry I was familiar with, having worked there briefly before I started writing. The research was done, but learning to craft my story took a bit longer.

Year two: Being in a rush to get published ("Hurry up and wait!"), I started contacting agents before the book was finished. To put it politely, none of them had time for a first-time author knocking on their doors with an unfinished manuscript.

Year three. I had a messy but mostly coherent script. So I started contacting publishers instead ("Hurry up and wait!"), so sure was I that they would want my book. A word to the wise: selling an unfinished book is nearly impossible unless you're Stephen King.

Year four. I had exhausted every known publisher in Canada--seems no one wanted to take a chance on a newbie. ("Hurry up and...hmmm, give up? Never!") Time to start looking at international publishers.

Year five. Once I got a publisher interested (in England of all places--who would have thought the wide world would be interested in my book?), I still had to polish and revise the book to their satisfaction.

Year six. Only then was I offered the golden ring: a publishing contract. All of which took another year, and the publication date was still a year away, and all the time I was growing older...

Year seven. Happy endings! Despite everything, my book came out and sold very well at home and abroad. In fact, it's still selling more than a decade later. Was it worth the wait? You bet!

So this recent book (my sixth) was a bit of lark, all things considered. By now, having a track record and knowing how to structure a story, it takes me less time to create and sell my work. So only three years later, here I sit, waiting to hold my new book in my hand. Okay, I guess I can wait another week. In fact, I'll have to.

On The Way

Jan 1, 2012

You've probably heard about El Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage in France and Spain. For more than a thousand years, people have walked The Way to reach the Cathedral of Compostela in Galicia, where tradition holds that the remains of St James are buried. Like me, you may not have thought a film could be made about it, but it has, and a good one. Also like me, you may have resisted reading about the Camino because of its religious overtones. You can put those fears aside.

With one smart move, Martin Sheen and his other son, Emilio Estevez, have recouped the family name. Sheen stars in, and former-Brat Packer Estevez wrote and directed The Way. As one character slyly tells another in the film, "Our children are the best and the worst of us." Say no more.

If you know anything about me, you'll know I don't promote religion or politics, the isms and schisms that divide, divide, divide. I don't like dogma of any sort. On the other hand, I will promote things I believe in. If you want to talk spirituality or human rights or good government then, Hey! I'm your guy.

The Way is not exactly drama, not exactly documentary, but neither is it mockumentary. It has no special effects, no car chases, no intricate plots, and no manufactured romances. The credits are mercifully short. In fact, it's unlike any other film I can recall. If anything, it's a mirror, plain and simple.

There is a story of sorts: a man loses his only son, goes to France to collect his body, and along the way things happen. But what's it about? you may wonder, as did I, but not for long, because you'll get wrapped up in watching. In a way, this film is a parable. It's The Wizard of Oz on a deeper level. A man has a quest, but doesn't know he has a quest, and while he walks The Way he reluctantly falls in with three companions, each of who has a quest. A Cowardly Lion, a Tin Man and a Man of Straw, if you like.

Still, the meaning of the film is up to you. You can read anything into it that you like, and it will speak to you. As one character tells another, "You walk the road for yourself, only for yourself." Because what this film is about, dear reader, is you. Only you. And so, it is beautiful.


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