Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Stuff I Read: Agatha Christie: Times Change: Politics: ARGH!

My draft on Christie's Politics sucks. It's all over the place and I hate it and I'm tired.

Ah, the hell with it. I'll stick it up, and over the next week I'll tweak it until it has a semblance of cohesion.

Agatha Christie wrote in her present. Considering her career spanned more than 50 years, that's no mean feat.

People will always suffer jealousy and greed. People wronged will desire revenge until the end of time. If a crime writer writes merely about the passionate crimes, changing with the times isn't that difficult. Just alter the language and throw in some new technology.

Christie, however, wrote some crimes that were very political.

Now, Christiephiles everywhere know about her espionage stories. Tommy and Tuppence Beresford did a whole heap of those (N or M? being a particularly good one). This is about the murder mysteries Christie's detective solved that churned up motives (for murder or otherwise) of a much grander scale.

It's interesting that when the first Poirot book came out, The Great War was just ending. The Ottoman Empire was destroyed. When was the last time before then that an Empire had gone down? Has there been one since? A war like no one alive had seen before. For first time, people were recognizing the damaging effect immense violence can have on individuals and countries.

She reflected it. In Captain Hastings, invalided out of the service, in tragic characters such as Alexander Bonaparte Cust, who suffered from severe PTSD. In Poirot himself, who began life in England as a refugee, aided by an elderly Englishwoman's generosity towards the small, brave country of Belgium.

Not long before World War Two kicked off, Christie's characters were discussing the rise of fascism and the fear of socialism. In The Labours of Hercules, and American mentions a new political party taking Germany by storm and mentions casually that those people "are just crazy". "Just crazy" dropped bombs on England not long after.

In “One Two Buckle My Shoe” the murderer’s motive is the protection of England, of the World. He sees the threat of the two extremes (personified in the two young Arrogant Jerks) and kills for survival. For his own survival, and for the survival of the Financially Conservative political standard he knows and understands.

“Hickory Dickory Dock” takes place in 1955. It’s about a bunch of grad students living in a hostel. Subversive stuff happens. It’s drug dealing and murder, but since one of the young women is American, people worry she’s going to go McCarthy on them.

When the sixties rolled around, the Cold War was going on. Poirot shakes his head at the thought of nuclear war in “The Clocks”. He does not want to discuss the bomb. Christie’s detective was very old, and very tired.

Kind of like the chick writing this post.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Stuff I Read: Agatha Christie: Same Story, Different Title

Many people have said that there are no more original ideas. All writers are just rehashing the same stuff. Could be true. It depends on how broad you’re willing to be. Are going to break it into Man v. Man, Man v. Nature, Man v. Self? If you are, then...yeah. Nothing is original.

Some of my favorite pieces of literature aren’t that original in concept or execution, but they are great examples on how to do things well. Christie had several examples of how to do something well all over again.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Towards Zero: kind, elderly Spitfire brutally murdered while her house is full of guests. Two of the guests are a couple struggling with a dissatisfying marriage.

Appointment with Death, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas: controlling, sadistic parent murdered and there’s a plethora of suspects because all of the kids are elated to finally be free from said parent’s tyranny.

The Case of The Perfect Maid, The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge: One woman plays two characters so a crime can be committed, and the superfluous person (the criminal) can disappear.

The best and most obvious example are the short stories The Mystery of the Spanish Chest and The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest. Baghdad was published first, then she tweaked a few things (Hastings in in one version, absent in the other) years later. But it’s the same story, and it's good both ways.

Jane Marple herself began as a supporting character from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (favourite favourite favourite). Christie liked the character of Caroline Sheppard so much that she tweaked her a bit and made a whole series around her.

She also nods to Arthur Conan Doyle (I might do a “Stuff I Read" on him sometime). In The Big Four (don’t confuse it with ACD’s The Sign of Four) Poirot brings in his more intelligent “brother”, Achille to help. One needn’t look far to find the influence - Sherlock’s uber genius brother Mycroft Holmes.

Poirot speaks of having admiration for Arthur Conan Doyle, though not particularly his creation of Holmes in The Clocks. Poirot claimed that Holmes’ genius was merely attuned observational skills, such as he himself possessed.

In Christie’s autobiography, she said of the Poirot stories "I was still writing in the Sherlock Holmes tradition - eccentric detective, stooge assistant, with a Lestrade-type Scotland Yard detective.” It’s formula. One that works.

Agatha Christie never claimed she was a font of originality. She admitted (through Aridne Oliver, in Cards on The Table) that she recycled all the time. We can see in her characters that she gave the same person different names and settings more than once. No apologies. She made characters that entertained and plots that made you think, but not think too much and she gave you a sense of satisfaction at the end.

Demand more from other writers and other genres, but from Christie, be happy with pretty damn good.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Molly and Poppy


It seems like yesterday that I got the phone call from my Mom telling me about Molly.

The first visit to their house without her was surreal. I kept looking around the floor (corgis are low to the ground), kept listening for the click click click of her nails on the linoleum. It was very difficult.

This past Easter we went to my parents’ house and met another dog. Another corgi who bears a strong physical resemblance to Molly. She’s the same color, through she’s smaller and her ears are longer and more on the side of her head than up on top.

Her name is Poppy.


I regarded her skeptically. She’s adorable, and if she hadn’t been in Molly’s house, I am sure I would have been snuggling and cooing all over her. There she was, though. Sitting on Molly’s couch with Molly’s family, looking just enough like Molly for something to feel wrong. It would be different had they chosen another breed.

My mother began extolling Poppy’s virtues. Poppy almost never barks (Molly barked a lot and she was loud). Poppy doesn’t freak out when the phone rings (Molly thought it was some kind of terrorist). Poppy is very low key and mellow (Molly was bouncy and playful...which I loved about her). I started to get pissed off at my mother for talking as if Poppy was some sort of New Improved Molly.

I am not ready for Poppy.

Then again...she’s not my dog. She never will be. I don’t live there. I can learn to look at her as my sister’s dog, my parent’s dog.

Shortly after my sister arrived from China, we snapped a shot of her and Molly, staring into each other’s eyes. Calm, nose to nose. That photo has a place of honor among the family photos on the den wall. In the living room there is a photo of Molly, sitting up straight in our old backyard, surrounded by bright green grass and Indian Paintbrush.

My son is enthusiastic with animals, and he ran after Poppy, squawking with joy, arms outstretched. I think she was afraid of him.

I studied her for a while and then patted her head. “I do like you, Poppy.” I said.

I leaned in and she kissed me on the nose.

I’ll get used to her.

Monday, April 09, 2007

No #4.

So there was a typo I did not catch when I posted the Christie List. Oops.

Anyway, I'm going to take advantage of that error. I'm nursing a foul headache/sore throat/sinus hell thing.

Next week I'll post again. For now I am on the couch with tea. Let the toddler destroy the house if he wants to!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Stuff I Read: Agatha Christie: The Genius & The Sidekick

or: The Hastings

To be brilliant is a gift. It can also be a great handicap. Talk to a person of immense mental capability and they will tell you that they have trouble relating to average people.

I know a guy. We’ll call him Marzipan. He’s a functional genius. The people he works with are of slightly lower intelligence (in that they are bright, not brilliant). He can work with us, but he’s definitely separated from our perspective. Marzipan's brain has a greater capacity for memory. He can get irritated when someone forgets a prior statement, or piece of an argument. Also, when it takes someone a lot longer to figure something out than it took him. To work with him is admittedly frustrating at times (as likable and great at his job as he is), because he just doesn’t understand what it’s like to be one of the many.

Marzipan has always had this effortless intelligence. That’s his normal. It’s a great gift, but it’s not without drawbacks.


Throughout literature, especially the mystery, there have been Sidekicks. Sherlock Holmes had Watson, Batman had (and has) Robin. One could dismiss these characters as mere plot devices, a tired tradition of the genre. One would be wrong. The best and most clever detectives must have someone less clever at their side.

In Death in The Clouds, Fictional mystery writer Daniel Clancy refers to the concept of “The Idiot Friend”, but that’s not really accurate. Captain Arthur Hastings, Hercule Poirot’s best friend, is brave, patriotic and loyal. He is fair, honest, chivalrous and has a thing for redheads. Hastings is normal. He is not brilliant, but he’s not stupid. An ordinarily smart person who sees exactly what the criminal wants them to see. He's a thoroughly admirable personality and he’s necessary.

So much so that, even when he wasn’t present in a story, Poirot sought out someone to fill the role. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (my favourite!) Poirot meets Dr. Sheppard. Poirot compares the doctor’s way of thinking to Hastings, and decided to use him as such.

Later characters are less directly put in their place, but they are clear to a reader. The English Man or Woman. (excepting Murder On The Orient Express, which takes place in Europe...L’Associé is M. Bouc of the Sureté.) Katherine Grey in The Mystery of The Blue Train, Peter Lord in Sad Cypress, Mrs. Hubbard in Hickory Dickory Dock, Colin Lamb in The Clocks. Several members of the police in some form (Death on The Nile, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas).

Later, when author Ariadne Oliver enters his life, she fills the role (Cards On The Table, Hallowe’en Party). She’s a little more unique than Arthur Hastings. She has an intuition that Poirot greatly admires, but she is still the slightly lesser intelligence and the example of British thinking.

Like several people with exceptional cerebral abilities Poirot has an ego. A big one. He is extraordinarily conceited. Hastings often feels like he is around simply to ooh and ahh at the detective’s brilliance. I’m sure that’s a perk for Poirot (and a sure irritant to The Sidekick). Poirot did know their value to him, though. In Lord Edgeware Dies, Poirot does something rare and touching when he tells Hastings

“You are beautifully and perfectly balanced. In you sanity is personified. As in a mirror I see reflected in your mind exactly what the criminal wishes me to believe. This is terrifically helpful and have an insight into the criminal mind which I myself lack. Ca cher Hastings, I have indeed much affection for you.”

As do we, the readers. Think of Sherlock Holmes. The stories narrated by Watson are by far the gems of the collection. Who keeps Batman from being a total prick and an emotional train wreck? Robin*!

I'm not saying the Geniuses are not utterly awesome with all their good...brain...stuff. They need us, though. To ground them without weighing them down.

Yeah, that's a crappy closing statement. If Marizapan is reading this he's probably making a scrunchy face. Big if. I don't know if this blog is smaht enough for him.

*I know a solid case can be made that it's also Alfred, but this is not the All About Batman post. For my thoughts on Alfred, go here.