Friday, November 12, 2010
Dead Stuff, Dying Things
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie, Collins Crime Club, 1939
Confession (I may have said this before): When I was younger, I labored under the delusion that Agatha Christie was some boring shit old people read. I pictured this gray haired ancient lady, like a wispy version of Jessica Fletcher, sitting with multiple cats on her lap as she picked away at her typewriter writing foolish little mysteries.
Then on a whim, back when I worked my night shift job and listened to far more audiobooks, had far more time to "read," and was far more willing to take chances on picking up titles at random (freedom can make you brave), I picked up a Christie novel. Murder on the Orient Express. Not a bad choice.
The plotting was tight, the narration was excellent, and I was hooked. I have since listened to scads more Agatha Christie books, but the funny thing is, I never really sat down with one in my hand and read the thing. My wife and I may go extra rounds after the bell over whether or not listening to an audiobook can be considered reading, and I may swear up and down that it is, but my actions have spoken pretty loudly in the past. Things I'd idly put on while painting a fence, cleaning the house, processing criminal background checks, these are, a lot of them, not things I would sit for hours uninterrupted doing. They were diversions, not the great literature that demanded my attention
So, to be quite honest, I haven't read or listened to an Agatha Christie novel in quite some time. With her earlier work moving slowly into the public domain and my shiny new iPad gizmo at hand, I decided I'd begin hunting down various Christie novels. I tend to find some lighter reading to fill the latter two months of the year, a sort of collapse of my habits of typically reading dense Germanic philologists, Olde English texts in the original, and runes, and so comic books and the kinds of things still published in pocket paperbacks fill the wintery time of the year.
Luckily, this novel fell to hand. The provenance of the epub version is of little interest save that in the beginning, I wasn't sure it was legit. The paragraphs seemed so short, the use of exclamation marks seemed a bit promiscuous, the sudden introduction of ten characters in one go confused and alarmed me. Was this the careful and well-plotted novelist I'd come to love
I settled down to reading, though, and eventually made sense of things, going back and forth to reassure myself who all these people were. Oh, for the buttery tenor of David Suchet with his gift for accent and characterization! He'd have sorted out these island vacationers and given me something to grasp. What we have are eight guests, very quickly sketched as they arrive for a vacation on an island purchased by their host, a mysterious Mr. Owen -- eight guests and husband and wife staff for a total of ten.
And through the course of the novel, Ms. Christie will bump off every last one of these blighters through various means, roughly following the course laid out in the classic (and hideously racist) nursery rhyme. Rather quickly on arriving, after their first meal, the ten hear a phonograph played which accuses each of the island visitors of being a participant in more or less murder. I say more or less because in each case the circumstances would have proved difficult to prosecute: a weak child heir is encouraged to swim out too far, medicine isn't retrieved in time, scornful righteousness leads to suicide, and so on
It seems our guests have been invited to the isolated island under false pretenses, their host having justice in mind, not law but justice. Almost immediately after the record, the first victim falls. We progress from there. What becomes the challenge in such a novel is how to keep the murderer off screen, how to misdirect the reader. As a reader you can choose one of two tacks, it seems.
You can puzzle your puzzler until it grows sore trying to match wits with Dame Christie, and most certainly lose (the tack I take despite my awareness of how I fail as a detective). Or you can simply relax and let the ingenious plot unwind (the tack of a friend of mine). The trick of the first tack to take in this case is that suspects are rather decisively eliminated as the book progresses and you are forced to re-evaluate what you've read previously. At first all the islanders believe that they are hunted by someone external to their party; in time, they come to see the murderer is one of them.
No one seems likely to be the murderer, all of the guests seem likely to be the murderer, and by the book's end I still found myself certain that there had to be a hidden hidey hole for the murderer who would turn up in the book as our fifth-act malefactor. Christie makes good use of her motley characters to keep the plot lively and moving briskly along. Power blocs form and collapse, partnerships are riddled with suspicion, and no one can be relied on, either through confronting their own demons or their sudden death.
It seems when you read a mystery that you do not look to see the author tackle character development, great themes touching on the difficulty of human existence, or social injustices to be addressed. You seek a book that is as distracting an entertainment as any action thriller, but you also seek a puzzle constructed in such a fashion as to tax your mental capabilities.
In this way, it turns out, that mysteries are exactly the kind of escapist fiction I should have been reading all along during my youth when vampires, accursed houses, and other things that go bump in the night claimed my attention. While a ripping good werewolf story might have kept me up all night, first reading, then listening to every creak of an old house settling, a murdered banker with nine decent suspects in his killing would have itched a very specific part of my brain long earlier.
Turns out Agatha Christie isn't for the old fogeys after all. If only I hadn't waited until I was almost an old fogey to find out.
Posted by The Critic at 11/12/2010 12:10:00 AM