Dear Ms Christie…

When we were first married, and before the offspring arrived and used up our money, the Old Boy and I lashed out and bought the Agatha Christie collection. That’s right: all her stories gathered together in a delightful, hard-cover set. Not realising we were immediately reducing the value to “just another lot of old books”, we got rid of the dreadful plain white paper dust-jackets. The black hard covers, with gold and red trim, looked smart, sophisticated and – yes, I’ll say it – had a semi-academic je ne sais quoi air about them as they perched on our bookshelves.

Dear “fluffy” Miss Marples is all lace, lavender and buttery cup-cakes until she figures out you’re the murderer and then watch out! Monsieur Hercule Poirot, (a Belgian, not a Frenchman) with his waxed moustaches and his hearty self-admiration seems to be a dandified figure of fun until you realise his beady little eyes don’t miss a trick. Her characters are called Colonel Arbuthnot, Major Blunt, Carstairs, and  Lady Astley. So very English High Tea, old Victorian hotels, lunch at the Savoy and trains.

For the last four years the collection was on loan to a friend who had been quite ill. She’s an “Aggie” fan and being able to lose herself in vintage Christie was a much-needed distraction. We were happy to leave them there because, quite frankly, we were grateful for the room it left on our bookshelves. The books finally found their way home last week. In celebration, I picked one at random to read. It was a Poirot mystery and had all the usual elements: dead body, wrongly accused man, baffled police, etc. But, as I read I made a dreadful discovery. Agatha Christie, the Grand Dame of Crime/Mystery novels, the toast of the Who-dun-it world, really wasn’t such a good writer. (Excuse me while I let my mind have one more bout of boggling! O.O)

I can just imagine how it would go these days if she submitted her first book to an agent: Dear Ms Christie. Your point of view is all over the shop. You jump from head to head and back again a disconcerting number of times within the same chapter, without any break to show that your narrator has changed. Your dialogue often hangs in space, without any beats to anchor it in time or place. You need to work on “show not tell”. You aren’t consistent in your use of “said”. He said/ said Robert/mused Colonel So&So/Reginald uttered… Just stick to “said” and keep it after the name. No one these days says, “said he”. There is a surprising abundance of servants, yet your choice of names for them are severely limited. Every second parlourmaid is called Annie. Who the heck these days, apart from the queen, has a parlourmaid? What is a parlourmaid? The police are always buffoons totally baffled by the crime, always arresting the wrong man, in spite of being equipped with forensic science and years of experience catching villains. Yet your strange little Frenchie, or the dithery old lady, can figure it out at the drop of a hat pin. Many of your stories aren’t long enough for a novel. Some are novellas and others are glorified short stories. Unfortunately novellas and short story collections are no longer big sellers. A novel should be at least 80, 000 words or more. I wish you all the best for the future, and recommend you consider doing some sort of writing course, either on-line or in a recognised tertiary institution.

And yet, in spite of all the short-comings and the fact that they are hopelessly old-fashioned in setting and world-view, there is still something in an Aggie novel that draws you in. How did the body end up in the tea-chest? If he didn’t do it, then who could it have been? What clues is the author giving me that I’m missing? How can a character be so absurdly pompous, fastidious and irritating yet still be so likeable? How can I look at white-haired, sweet-faced, dithery old ladies in the same way, ever again?

Her books aren’t great literature. They could have done with some serious editorial work. And yet, in spite of the shortcomings, as an author she was a rip-roaring success. Her books are still loved all over the world. What is her secret? She’s a damn fine story-teller. That wins, every time.

 

 

 

11 Comments

  1. Mark
    Aug 25, 2012

    Hi Wendy, Aggie might have been a damn fine story teller, but so are you 🙂

    • Wendy Noble
      Aug 26, 2012

      What a fine discerning gentleman, you are Mark. 🙂 Thanks for your kind words.

  2. Carol Preston
    Aug 19, 2012

    Perhaps this suggests that a good story will last longer than the latest ‘rules’ of editing?

  3. Carol Preston
    Aug 19, 2012

    Perhaps it suggests that good stories will last longer than the latest ‘rules’ of editing?

    • Wendy Noble
      Aug 26, 2012

      Hopefully, Carol, the latest rules will enable us all to write clearly and succinctly. Of course, one of the clues that a story is indeed “great” is that it lasts beyond the generation in which it was told.

  4. Paula Vince
    Aug 18, 2012

    I avidly read her mysteries in my teens as my mum had a huge collection. I can understand why we modern writers get confused at the outset when we find out all these things about head hopping, telling rather than showing, hanging dialogue etc, having patterned ourselves after Dame Agatha and similar authors. It’s so obvious that a brilliantly evoked setting and a plot that keeps us turning pages does cover many writing faux pas. I’m sure many books with impeccable POV, well-crafted dialogue and all the rest aren’t half as enjoyable because the lack the essential that her books had; awesome story lines.
    I love this post. I may even share it. Thanks for the thoughts, Wendy.

    • Wendy Noble
      Aug 18, 2012

      Thanks, Paula. Literary style has moved on since Ms Christie’s day, and the rules have changed. It had been so long since I’d read any of her books that I’d forgotten the technical side of her work. However, as you said, her books had awesome story lines and that covers a multitude of sins. In today’s publishing climate, she wouldn’t get away with them…and neither will we. 🙂

      • Ken Rolph
        Aug 21, 2012

        What do you mean “get away with it”? Surely the point of the Internet is that anyone can write anything and put it up to be read. It just lives or dies according to who reads it. It’s only the official publishing class that sets the rules and makes judgements.

        • Wendy Noble
          Aug 21, 2012

          Well, you’ve got me there, Ken. I was thinking “traditional publishing”. I do think, however, that if one is striving to write well then one should seriously consider the issues of point of view, dialogue and so on. You’re right that these days anyone can publish anything they desire and all they need is a willing audience. However, I would hope that writers who take their work seriously, would endeavour to continually improve and to write as beautifully, as clearly and as well as they can. If there are no standards to uphold, eventually all literature will be reduced to text-speak. And, yes, that’s a bad thing.

  5. Terry Williams
    Aug 11, 2012

    On the final weekend of the games our own Wendy Noble storms home with a Gold Medal performance in her pet event. In true Anna Meares fashion, Noble critiques a literary legend and wins the applause of her fans and the admiration of the nation. “This one is for Terry!!” said Wendy. (or should that be “she said”) (or maybe Wendy Squealed…This one’s for Terry.) Whatever!!!!! She writes a good blog.

    • Wendy Noble
      Aug 11, 2012

      I couldn’t have done it without the support of the fans back home. 🙂

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