Showing posts with label Agatha Christie. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Agatha Christie. Show all posts

Thursday, February 23

English vs American Murder Mysteries

English vs American Murder Mysteries

Sorry this post is late! I’ve been working on my next book. This post is sort-of, kind-of a rough draft of a chapter for that book. So—as always!—your feedback is most welcome. :-)

I’ve been mulling over the question of what distinguishes an English murder mystery from an American one.[3] So, while I have a few ideas of my own (I’ve been a voracious reader of murder mysteries since the 9th grade), I did research.[5]

I LOVE Margaret Atwood’s writing, it’s so fluid, so alive. So I’ll let her take center stage and sum up some of the differences between an English and an American murder mystery:
“Their [American] world was fast-paced, sharp-edged, and filled with zippy dialogue and words I'd never heard pronounced—slang words like "gunsel", fancy words like "punctilious." This was not the Agatha Christie sort of story—there were fewer clues, and these were more likely to be lies people told rather than cuff buttons they'd left strewn around. There were more corpses, with less importance bestowed on each: a new character would appear, only to be gunned down by a fire-spitting revolver.”[4]
Yes!!! I love Atwood’s writing, it has bite. You feel it, it’s rhythm.

Another person who has weighed in on the basic difference between English and American murder mysteries is W.H. Auden. In his wonderful essay “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict,”[2] Auden defined the whodunit as:
“The basic formula is this: a murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies.”
I’ll come back to this in a moment. Right now let’s look at what, according to Auden, is the progress of the major events in a murder mystery:

Peaceful state before murder
False clues, secondary murder, etc.
Arrest of murderer
Peaceful state after arrest

Let’s Talk Character

And, while we’re at it, here (see below) is how Auden thinks of the progress of events that pertain to characters who are NOT the murderer. They may be guilty of something, but it’s not the murder under investigation.

False innocence
Revelation of presence of guilt
False location of guilt
Location of real guilt
True innocence

In other words, at the beginning of a murder mystery the innocent seem guilty (and the guilty seem innocent).

In addition, there is what Auden calls a “double reversal.” Have you ever read a murder mystery where you’re sure someone—call them Dan—committed the murder then something happens, the detective discovers some clue, one that makes it SEEM as though Dan couldn’t have done it? Then, at the end of the book, in the big reveal, it turns out Dan is the murderer? That’s a double reversal and, when done right, can be very satisfying for the reader.

I’ll come back to this progression later, perhaps in another post, but I wanted to include it here because I think it could provide someone with a valuable framework.

Now let’s continue our discussion of what an English murder mystery is and what it isn’t.

What an English Murder Mystery Is Not

As Auden points out, his definition excludes the following kinds of stories:

A. Readers Know Who the Murderer Is

In some murder mysteries readers know the identity of the murderer from the outset. For example, one of my all-time favorite murder mystery TV shows was Columbo. (It seems the writers of Columbo called it a “howcatchem” rather than a “whodunit” or “howdunit.”)

Not that no English mystery can be a howcatchem, but I believe it would be odd for a certain kind of English murder mystery—the cozy—to be a howcatchem, and I'm focusing on cozies. I’ll also, in a later post, discuss what I see as a subgenre of the murder mystery, the locked room mystery.

B. The Identity of the Murderer Isn’t the Focus of the Story

This point often applies to thrillers and caper stories. Recall that in a thriller the identity of the murderer often isn’t the focus of the story. Yes, there is an investigation, yes the detective gathers clues and decodes them, but catching rather than unmasking the killer is the ultimate goal.

In a caper story the question is: Will the group of theives be able to do it? Will they be able to pull off the perfect crime? That’s not to suggest that an element of mystery isn’t involved. For instance, there’s often a mole, a double-agent, in the group. The identity of this person is a mystery, but one that is usually solved before the climax.

How an English Murder Mystery Differs From Other Kinds of Mysteries

The Essential Function of the Detective

English Murder Mystery

Auden influenced my thinking about this. He held that the essential function of the detective was to restore justice—restore balance—to a community after the peace, the norms of the community, was violated. This is one reason many cozy mysteries take place in small close knit communities: a monastery, a rectory or the country estate of landed gentry.

The ultimate purpose of the sleuth was to mend the community's structure of social and moral values.

P.D. James, in her book Talking About Detective Fiction, argues that:
"The differences between the hard-boiled school and such Golden Age writers as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Michael Innes, are so profound that it seems stretching a definition to describe both groups under the same category. If the British detective story is concerned with bringing order out of disorder, a genre of reconciliation and social healing, restoring the mythical village of Mayhem Parva to prelapsarian tranquillity, in the United States Hammett and Chandler were depicting and exploring the great social upheavals of the 1920s—lawlessness, prohibition, corruption, the power and violence of notorious gangsters who were close to becoming folk heroes, the cycle of boom and depression—and creating detectives who were inured to this world and could confront it on their own terms."

American Murder Mystery

American murder mysteries tend to be darker, much darker. The detective has given up on bringing balance to society. Given this, why does the detective bother to do what he does? Is it all about the money?

Not at all. In the American murder mysteries (though the motivation does vary) the detective solves the mystery and brings the murderer to justice (because either of his own personal internal will of ethics or because he has formed an emotional attachment to a person involved in the case. In short, the case has become personal for him. Just as no one needs anything as high sounding as a code of ethics to defend a loved one, so these detectives may have no code. They may, in fact, be what most of those in society think of as bad guys. But, still, they protect their own.

The Significance of Society

English Murder Mystery

Auden writes, “Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand restitution or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest.”[2]

As P.D. James says, the location of a typical British mystery is much like the world she was born into. She writes:
As I was born in 1920 it was an England I knew, a cohesive world... It was an ordered society in which virtue was regarded as normal, crime an aberration, and in which there was small sympathy for the criminal; it was generally accepted that murderers, when convicted, would hang...”
Accordingly, cozies (also known as ‘Country House mysteries’) were generally set in small interwoven communities and typically took the many interrelationships of such a community as a key theme.

American Murder Mystery

The American murder mystery is much darker. There is no sense of the detective striving to bring balance—justice and fairness—back to the community. In fact, sometimes the detective labors knowing that either this WON’T happen or that it will make the society MORE chaotic.

Closed versus Open Society

English Murder Mystery

In the English murder mysteries all the suspects come from a—to use Auden’s phrase—closed society.

This means that, in an English murder mystery, right from the get go we know who could have, and who could not have, committed the murder. In an American mystery we have our suspicions—perhaps we know certain characters are involved—but we don’t have the certain knowledge that one of a list of characters is the murderer.

This is one of the conventions of a cozy mystery. I would go so far to say if this isn’t the case, if the reader doesn't know who could have committed the crime, then the story in question cannot be a cozy mystery.

American Murder Mystery

In an American Murder Mystery the society usually isn’t closed although the reader does often feel the culprit is either one of the named characters OR one of the named characters is involved with the crime, although not the killer and one feels perhaps they were coerced. In this sense, the American murder mystery is a bit like the thriller.

The Detective and the Police

American Mysteries

It’s also telling, I think, that in American Mysteries the detective is often a loner, a private investigator who does not enjoy good relationships with most of the people on the police force. Perhaps one of them is kinda-sorta his friend, but even that is tenuous. Most police would just as soon lock him up and throw away the key.

And that’s another thing. American detectives, especially of Noir fiction, are usually male.

Perhaps this has changed in the last couple of decades, what with Eve Dallas (a fictional detective created by J.D. Robb, pen name of prolific writer Nora Roberts), Kinsey Millhone (a fictional character created by Sue Grafton for her alphabet murder mysteries) and last but surely not least Dr. Kay Scarpetta (a fictional medical examiner created by Patricia Cornwell).

English Mysteries

There isn’t as much to say about the relationship between the British detective and the police. Probably because the relationship is generally placid! And why wouldn’t it be? The detective is well heeled, knowledgeable, affable (if a little quirky) and generally quite happy to let the police take credit for solving the crime!

One of Agatha Christie’s less famous sleuths, Miss Marple, often had a more antagonistic relationship with the police, at least at first. They saw her as a meddlesome little old lady who couldn’t do anything for the investigation other than muck it up. As Miss Marple helped them prise apart the many delicate threads of the case, their attitude changed.

But, at least in Miss Marple’s case, the police were always fair in the sense they gave Miss Marple a fair shake. When she proved herself they, sometimes grudgingly, accepted her help and, often, thanked her at the end. This is perhaps the most significant difference between English mysteries and their American counterparts: in the hardboiled variety the world isn’t fair and this is reflected in the detective’s relationship with the police.

Often the local police despised the detective and even if the police believed he could help them solve the crime the police would have rejected his help. In fact, sometimes the police are corrupt and do not wish the crime solved!

The Private Life of the Detective

American Mysteries

Another difference between British and American mysteries is that in American mysteries—and in contemporary stories generally—the private life and loves of the detective are an important part of the story.

English Murder Mystery

I’m not saying that this disregard of the private life of the detective is true for ALL cozy’s, though I have found it to be true for most.

That said, in many contemporary cozy’s, those where the protagonist often owns her own business (a bakery perhaps) and has an on-again off-again relationship with the unbelievably gorgeous deputy, that this relationship isn’t an important B story. But it’s not the visceral, gut wrenching, demon-exploring scrutiny that can occur in the more American variants of the murder mystery.

The Temperament of the Detective

English Murder Mystery

And this brings us to what might be the single most important difference between American murder mysteries and English cozies: cozies are light and bright. As a general rule, nothing irredeemably bad happens to anyone in them except for the murder victim(s). Even then, the victims are often horrible people the townspeople had oodles of reasons to want dead.

Cozies are read as a diversion, as an escape, as a mental exercise.

That said, there are notable exceptions to this. I’m reminded of P.D. James’ wonderful character Adam Dalgliesh. He is tortured. Truly bad things happened to him and James’ other characters. And James wrote books that were classic English cozies.

To sum up, I think the generalization that British sleuths are emotionally muted in the sense that they are rarely frightened, that they are rarely themselves victims of crime, that they outwit the criminal rather than the reverse and that, taken collectively, they are a rather courageous lot, is more or less accurate.

American Murder Mystery

As Margaret Atwood mentioned, American detectives are at home on the mean streets, perhaps because they are more violent and know how to punch and jab and kick. Myself, I can’t imagine either Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple doing anything like that!

Commonalities Between English and American Mysteries

What is common between the genres? Both rely on suspense to drive the story forward.

Categories of Crime Fiction

The way I’ve been using the word, a whodunit is any crime story where a crucial element of the suspense, the mystery, is who committed the crime. In this sense, all of the following categories are whodunits.

The Categories:

Cozy mystery
Locked room mystery
Historical murder mystery
Hardboiled murder mystery
Police procedural murder mystery
Forensic murder mystery
Legal thriller

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That’s it for now! I’ll have another post for you tomorrow and to catch up, another one either Saturday or Sunday. Until I talk to you again, good writing!


1. The Roots of American & British Crime Fiction, by Seonaidh Ceannéidigh.

2. “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict,” By W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden.

3. Here I talk about British and American mysteries but could just as easily have talked about softboiled versus hardboiled mysteries.

4. “Mystery writer,” by Margaret Atwood.

5. A note on terminology. The way I’m using the words, “whodunit” is ambiguous between English and American murder mysteries. To my mind the essential characteristic of a whodunit is just what the name suggests: The focus of the story—the story question—has to do with who committed the murder. As opposed to, say, how the murderer committed the crime or whether and how the murderer was caught.

Friday, May 23

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery, Part 2 of 2

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery, Part 2 of 2

This discussion of how to write a murder mystery is a continuation of my last post (see: How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery). In that post I talked about:

- The qualities of a terrific detective
- The importance of personality, character, strengths and weaknesses, and relationships
- The setting/arena
- The inciting incident
- Clues, what kinds there are and how to use them
- Character solutions vs forensic solutions

Today I'm going to conclude by examining:

- Other characters such as the murderer and the victim
- Open versus closed mysteries
- The importance of fair play

What follows is from Lee Goldberg's wonderful article, How To Write A Murder Mystery.

Other Characters

Lee Goldberg writes:

"I always begin developing a book the same way – I come up with an “arena,” the world in which our story will take place. A UFO convention. Murder in a police precinct. A rivalry between mother and daughter for the love of a man. Once I have the arena, I think about the characters. Who are the people the story will be about? What makes them interesting? What goals do they have, and how do they conflict with the other characters?"[3]

Putting this in point form:

- What makes these characters interesting?
- What are their goals?
- How does each character's goal (or goals) conflict with those of the other characters?
- How do these goals create obstacles for the hero/main character/detective?
- How do the other characters help the reader understand the setting/arena?

The Murderer

"Once I figure out whom to kill, and how, and of course why, then I start asking myself what the killer did wrong, or what he overlooked, that will lead to his undoing."[1]

- Who does the murderer need to kill? 

I find that, often, the first victim is the person the murderer needed to kill. But there are notable exceptions. Agatha Christie often broke with convention and used her readers' expectation against them (for example, Murder in Three Acts, The A.B.C. Murders).

- How does the killer do it?

What is the murder method? An arcane poison? Or a normal poison that no one can figure out how it was administered? Locked room mysteries also fall into this category. Or perhaps (and this is truly diabolical) the victim is forced to kill him/herself (A Study in Pink, Se7en). 

- Why does the killer need to kill?

P.D. James once wrote that "All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love."[4] True. We could also say that:

- The murderer wants to prevent certain information from coming out about him, information that would radically transform his life in ways he would hate. 

- The murderer wants to take revenge on someone because they radically transformed her life in ways she hated.

- The murderer wants to radically transform his life into something (he thinks would be) infinitely better. And so on.

- What did the killer do wrong? What did he/she overlook?

It seems axiomatic--at least in fiction--that every killer, no matter how intelligent they are or how well planned the crime, will make at least one mistake. With Agatha Christie, often the killer's mistake was trying to be clever and trying to pull the wool over Poirot's eyes. But this was a trap. Poirot assumed the guise of a silly foreigner and so invited the proper English people of his day to underestimate him. His quirks, his foreignness, was, in a way, his disguise.

What the killer did wrong, what he/she overlooked, has to be something the detective could discover, as well as something that plays to his/her strength. There are countless examples of this, but what comes to mind immediately is the episode of Sherlock entitled The Great Game

Sherlock Holmes is wonderful at noticing minutiae and bringing together diverse threads, strands, of information and, from them, creating a synthesis that yields the answer (usually the 'ah-ha' clue triggers this epiphany). The graphical way the show's writers/producers/director have used to illustrate the information Sherlock notices (words suspended in air) works brilliantly and adds another dimension to the storytelling. (Sorry. Sherlock is one of my favorite shows and I tend to rhapsodize. Moving on.)

The Victim

Lee Goldberg writes:

"And then I ask myself the big questions—who gets murdered, how is he or she killed, and why? Is it an 'open' or 'closed' mystery?"

Putting this in point form: 

a. Who gets murdered?
b. How are they killed?
c. Why are they killed?
d. Is it an "open" or "closed" mystery.

Let's take these one at a time:

a. Who gets murdered?

Lee Goldberg doesn't have a lot to say about the victim, so let me draw on a point I made--I borrowed it from W.H. Auden--in Writing a Murderously Good Mystery: The Importance of The Murder Victim.

W.H. Auden, self-confessed addict of English-style whodunits, believed the following about the victim:

i) All your characters should have a reason to want to kill them.

ii) All your characters should have some sort of change in feeling for the victim after they learn of their death. 

For example, a character who loathed the victim might feel guilty for wanting her dead; or perhaps just worried that her (widely known) sentiments about the victim will make her the detective's primary suspect.

The important thing to keep in mind, though, is simply that the victim's death must be a catalyst for that most important aspect of storytelling: change.

b. How are they killed?

Susan Spann advises us to kill our characters with style: 

"In real life, people get run over with cars, shot with pistols, and decapitated with ancient swords. (THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!!) In fiction, anything is fair game if you can explain it. Take down your victim with all the creativity you can muster. Pufferfish poison? Absolutely. Shuriken to the face? You’ll see it in one of my novels."[5]

Here are the results of my google-foo:

- Death by Egyptian curse
- Death by puffer fish poison
- Death by ricin
- Death by caffeine
- Death by puppets
- Death by robot
- Death by milk (In honor of Mr. Monk)

c. Why are they killed?

I've already talked, in general terms, about motives. Here we're interested in specifics. We want to know why, within the context of the story, this character was done away with. 

Let's say that there are two broad reasons why people murder: 

i) People murder to radically transform their life in ways that they think they would like.

ii) People murder to keep their life from being radically transformed in ways they don't think they would like.

In other words, folks murder because they want good things or because they want to avoid bad things. But that's general. To put meat on those bones (or tofu, if that's your preference) we need to know what the murderer wants, what he desires. And to know that we need to know what his strengths and weaknesses are. 

I talked about this last time in regards to the hero, but it applies to the murderer as well.

d. Open vs Closed

Lee Goldberg explains the terms "open mystery" and "closed mystery" as pertaining to the readers/viewers knowledge. If the reader/viewer knows the identity of the murderer from the beginning then the mystery is open. On the other hand, if the reader/viewer finds out about the identity of the murderer at approximately the same time the detective unveils his/her identity, then it's closed.

Goldberg adds that whether a mystery is open or closed is determined by the series concept. For example, in a Columbo episode the viewer usually[2] knew the identity of the murderer from the beginning. Cracker, Death in Paradise, Midsomer Murders and scads of other TV shows are examples of closed murder mysteries. Diagnosis Murder--one of the shows Lee Goldberg both wrote for and produced--had both open and closed murders.

Trying to decide which kind of structure will work best for your tale? Lee Goldberg writes that:

"An open mystery works when both the murderer, and the reader, think the perfect crime has been committed. The pleasure is watching the detective unravel the crime and finding the flaws you didn’t see.

"A closed mystery works when the murder seems impossible to solve, and the clues that are found don’t seem to point to any one person, but the hero sees the connection you don’t and unmasks the killer with it."[1]

The Importance Of Fair Play

"In a true whodunit, the reader enjoys the game as long as you play fair. That means that all of the clues, including the 'Ah, ha!,' have to be shared with the reader at the same time that the hero finds them."[1]

Never withhold clues from your readers. They need to find out about all clues at the same time as your detective.

The detective can't receive crucial information 'off-screen,' the reader needs to see the detective finding everything. Now, that doesn't mean that the detective has to explain the significance of the clue to the reader. Generally that's kept back for the final reveal.

It can be tempting to hide clues from the reader because then it's easier to keep the reader in the dark, it's easier to keep them from guessing the identity of the murderer before you want them to. It is also a sure-fire way to make your readers mad as aggrieved hornets and you don't want that! 

How To Play Fair

What's the trick? How do we give readers all the facts and keep them from guessing the identity of the killer? Lee Goldberg writes:

"Obviously, you want to distract, trick, and manipulate the readers and make it as hard as possible for them to solve the crime, but you can do that without keeping important information from them. You just have to be artful about turning their attention away from it, to get them to focus on the wrong things.

"As the author, you have a real advantage. You are the control voice in The Outer Limits. You control point-of-view, in essence the camera through which the reader is seeing and interpreting the world. For instance, if in your story the detectives are focusing on what’s in the room where a murder took place, talking about each item in detail, tracing the history of each piece, that’s what the reader will be thinking about, too, and not the real clue that you are distracting them from: what’s not in the room."

An example of distraction.

I watched an episode of Diagnosis Murder the other day. In this episode, Murder with Mirrors, the killer was a magician and the victim was killed by their own trick. 

The victim was handcuffed and dropped into a tank of water. He was supposed to use a lockpick, given to him by his accomplice onstage, to pick the handcuffs and free himself. The problem: the key didn't fit the cuffs. 

Most of the show was spent trying to figure out who had access to the key and who had a motive to swap the real key with a fake one. The problem: no one who had a motive had the opportunity to switch keys. 

The solution: The killer hadn't swapped the key, he'd swapped the handcuffs! The viewer was so busy wondering who had access to the key that they didn't realize someone could have, instead, swapped the handcuffs. At least, that was the hope. As soon as the detective, Mark Sloan (played by Dick Van Dyke), realized this, the case was solved.

In summary. I apologize for quoting so much of Lee Goldberg's article, but it is a terrific article that anyone who wants to write a murder mystery should read. Again, that's How To Write A Murder Mystery by Lee Goldberg.

Further Reading

- Here are other articles I've written about how to write a murder mystery.
- Writing Nero Wolfe, by Lee Goldberg

In this article Tod Goldberg, Lee Goldberg's brother, talks about why he decided to do the novelization for Burn Notice and what the experience was like:
- Burn Notice: The Novel (Tod Goldberg), by Tod Goldberg, Special to The Times 


2. I say "usually" because in at least one episode the viewer was tricked into thinking they knew the murderer's identity when they didn't. For example, Double Shock and Last Salute to the Commodore.

4. Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James

5. 25 Things You Need To Know About Writing Mysteries, By Susan Spann, over at Chuck Wendig's blog (I wrote a post about Susan Spann's post, How To Write A Murder Mystery.)

Photo credit: "241" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, April 16

How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?

How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?

In previous posts I've written about Stephen King and how his prose possesses the almost magical quality of being able to draw me into his story world. (See: Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul.)

King gets me to care so deeply about his characters, to identify with them so fully, that even though I'm scared to death and half convinced a decomposing mummy has taken up residence under my bed (it's just waiting for me to stick an unprotected foot over the side), even so, I can't stop reading.

Lately, though, I've been reading less of the King of Horror and more of the Queen of Crime. In a previous post (How To Write Like Agatha Christie) I mentioned that Christie's books have sold 4 billion copies, making her the best selling novelist of all time. (see also: Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules and How To Write Like Agatha Christie: Motifs)

What's her secret?

Of course she didn't have one. There is no piece of writing wisdom that, if whispered over an open grave at the exact moment of the vernal equinox, will transform one's prose into the equivalent of catnip for readers. Not even if it's spoken in latin. (More's the pity.)

No, but Agatha Christie did have a bit of Stephen King's magic. She had the knack of making her characters interesting, companionable. She had the knack of making us care about them, for making it matter to us whether they were murdered or falsely accused.

I've always liked Christie's characters, they have always felt like the sort of people I would enjoy spending an evening with--well, most of them. Since one of these wonderfully charming people is a cold blooded killer I doubt I could ever become too comfortable!

The Opening Paragraphs of Murder at the Vicarage

Let's take a look at the opening to the first Miss Marple mystery, The Murder at the Vicarage. This book was published in 1930, four years after Christie's great success with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In fact, Christie acknowledged that the character of Caroline Sheppard was a prototype for Miss Marple.

Vicarage was written in first person from the perspective of--you guessed it--the vicar. Here's how it begins:

"It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage. The conversation, though in the main irrelevant to the matter in hand, yet contained one or two suggestive incidents which influenced later developments.

"I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) and on resuming my seat I remarked, in a spirit most unbecoming to my cloth, that any one who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.

"My young nephew, Dennis, said instantly:

"'That'll be remembered against you when the old boy is found bathed in blood. Mary will give evidence, won't you, Mary? And describe how you brandished the carving knife in a vindictive manner.'

"Mary, who is in service at the Vicarage as a stepping‑stone to better things and higher wages, merely said in a loud, businesslike voice, "Greens," and thrust a cracked dish at him in a truculent manner."

1. Early Character Development

Christie gets right to it. Although the murder doesn't occur for another five chapters she wastes no time letting her readers know what kind of book they're reading. She even gives us a broad hint about who is going to die and, for good measure, teases us with the idea that the murderer will turn out to be the vicar, or at least that he will be suspected of the crime. But he isn't, though it does get things off to a quick and interesting start.

Also, in that first paragraph we're told that the current scene contains "one or two suggestive incidents which influenced later developments." Right off the bat, the reader is busy hunting for clues and asking themselves which are the important bits and which are the red herrings.

2. Light, Witty, Tone

One thing that jumps out at me immediately is the tone of the passage. It's light, witty, tongue firmly in cheek. 

Christie pokes a bit of fun at the vicar, letting the reader see him as an old curmudgeon with a not-so-hidden soft streak. Dennis teases the vicar and then Christie effortlessly points the camera at Mary. In the same gently mocking tone we are told she is "in service at the Vicarage as a stepping-stone to better things" and then we are shown that she is an abominable housekeeper (she "thrust a cracked dish at him in a truculent manner"). 

Further, all the things Christie shows us are character traits which are connected to significant threads in the story itself. Mary's abominable housekeeping (and the vicar's wife's even more abominable housekeeping) is connected to at least one major clue and sets up one of the main sources of conflict between the vicar and Griselda: her unsuitability for the life of a parson's wife. 

Griselda's unsuitability--or, rather, his unsuitability for her--leads the vicar to worry she is having an affair, but everything is tied up nicely in the end when Christie reveals that much of Griselda's odd behavior is due to the fact that she has been keeping a secret: she's pregnant! And very nervous about how her husband is going to take the news. Of course everything is tied up at the end with a bow and the soon-to-be parents are happy as blissful clams.

3. Opens With Action

In the first few paragraphs there are no descriptive passages. We aren't told what color the wallpaper is or about its design. We don't know what anyone is wearing and we don't know what any of the character's look like. 

But we do know the important bits. We have a decent, though rough, idea of what each character's character is (I wish there was a more graceful way of saying that!). It is as though, with one or two strokes of her brush, Christie brought these characters to life. Not, perhaps, in the same way Stephen King does in, say, The Shining, but that's fine. Personally, I find it difficult--though (disturbingly) not impossible--to imagine King writing an English cosy. 

Colonel Protheroe, the character who will be the victim, is mentioned in dialogue so, naturally, there's no description of him. Nevertheless we learn everything about him we need to know: he is so impossible to deal with that even a man of the cloth would dearly love to stick a carving knife in him.

4. Intimate

Agatha Christie's tone is intimate. Inviting. Wry. She writes:

"I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) [...]" 

In a first person narrative the protagonist speaks directly to the reader, but this isn't always glaringly obvious. In that aside to the reader--"remarkably tough by the way"--it feels to me as though the vicar took a break from his narrative, leaned close to me, and whispered a companionable warning about the quality of the beef. 

Here we have not just a narrator speaking to a reader, they are gossiping. And it feels intimate and personal. That's the sort of thing a friend, a companion, would do. And that's the sort of thing--these little intimate peeks inside a character's soul--that draws me, as a reader, into a story. That sense of character, that sense of ... for lack of a better term ... aliveness

This is something I've noticed about Stephen King's prose as well. I'm going to blog about it in the next few days so I won't go into it in depth here, but if you have a copy close at hand, take a look at the first few paragraphs of The Shining.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

Back? Good. That first line: "Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick," is shockingly intimate. It is as though we can read Jack's mind (it is almost as though, we too, have the shining). This tells us not only about the person Jack Torrance is speaking to, it tells us a lot about Jack Torrance himself. 

(I would argue that King's first sentence is a lot like Christie's aside about the quality of the beef. Both are intimate, private, remarks make by characters who are reaching beyond the page to connect with you.)

As I reread those initial passages of The Shining I kept thinking, yes, Mr. Ullman isn't the warmest, nicest, person in the world, but there's really nothing wrong with him. Yes he probably looks down on Jack as a mere functionary, but, really, that's how Jack sees himself. What one word seems to sum up the Jack Torrance of those early passages? I'd say: angry. And that's one of the themes of the book, perhaps the dominant theme: Jack's anger and how he deals--or doesn't deal--with it.

Okay, I'd say that's enough for now. In the future I want to analyse two other books by Christie, their openings, in an attempt to pick up clues as to how she wove her spell. Will there be a common thread? Stay tuned!

Posts about Stephen King:

Photo credit: "Belvedere Castle" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, April 7

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery: The Murderer

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery: The Murderer

W.H. Auden writes that the test of a good detective story is twofold:

a) The reader must be surprised when the sleuth reveals the identity of the murderer.

b) The reader must believe that "everything he has previously been told about the murderer is consistent with his being a murderer."[1]

An excellent test! Also, it highlights an important point: a murder mystery is primarily about the murderer. Not the sleuth, not the sidekick, not even the victims. After all, it is the murderer's desire, his goal, that drove him to kill.

Qualities of an Interesting Murderer

1. The murderer must be a worthy adversary for the sleuth.

Storytellers want their audience to think the sleuth is clever and resourceful. This means the storyteller must show him being clever and resourceful. But the only way to do this is to pit the sleuth against an opposing force--the murderer--who is every bit as clever and resourceful as the sleuth. 

When the protagonist fails (as he/she inevitably will at some point) we understand that they were up against someone brilliant. If the murderer isn't clever then when the sleuth fails ... well, that's just embarrassing! 

Also, when the sleuth finally solves the mystery and unmasks the murderer it means  more because the antagonist was clever. So clever, in fact, that only your sleuth could have brought him/her to justice.

2. The murderer should act from motives of self-interest.

No inexplicable desires or drives, please. Not in a cosy. The murderer must have an easy-to-understand motive. P.D. James in her wonderful book, Talking About Detective Fiction, writes:

"All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing, and love."

3. The murderer could have a deep psychological wound.

I think there are, roughly, two kinds of murderers. Criminal masterminds like Professor Moriarty and garden variety criminals who poison their great aunt so she won't discover they've embezzled all her money. Generally, Agatha Christie portrayed the latter as weak and, possibly, evil. That works for me. 

Which isn't to say that these person-next-door criminals didn't have awful things happen to them which left wounds. I'm sure they did. But I doubt that any wound could explain committing murder. But wounds do something else: they humanize. And that's good because we want round murderers not stick figures like Dr. Fu Manchu.

Murderers like Moriarty, criminal masterminds, are generally  brilliant and calculating. It isn't so much that they have a deep psychological wound which explains their behavior but that some event or series of events radically transformed them into what they are. 

An event or ability. In the TV show Sherlock, Moriarty is portrayed as a brilliant psychopath, almost as clever as Sherlock himself. But his oddess is--or so I thought--explained by his brilliance. He is so smart that he views ordinary humans as ordinary humans view ants. He views himself as a different, and clearly superior, species. Just as many humans wouldn't bat an eye at killing a moose or deer so Moriarty wouldn't hesitate to kill a human if it was in his interest to do so.

Sleuths and Psychological Wounds

I know this question was about murderers, but I'd like to answer it for sleuths as well. Although this may be seen as heresy, I don't believe that all sleuths need to have a deep psychological wound. Especially if one is writing in something of the style of the (English) golden age mysteries, those set between the wars. (Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers are just two of the many authors whose works fall into this category.)

Agatha Christie's sleuth, Hercule Poirot, though excessively fastidious and saddled with a taste in clothes and facial hair that could be comically old-fashioned, did not have a deep psychological wound (and the same goes for Miss Marple and Sayers' sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey). 

Contrast this with Sherlock from the TV show of the same name. Now that is a character with a deep psychological wound. One of my favorite lines from that show is from the first episode of the first season, A Study In Pink:

Sherlock Holmes: "I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high functioning sociopath. Do your research."[4]

And then, again, in the last episode of season three: His Last Vow:

Sherlock Holmes: "Oh, do your research. I'm not a hero, I'm a high-functioning sociopath."

I would argue that the original Sherlock Holmes did not have a deep psychological flaw. Yes, he was different—quirky—but nothing on the order of the Sherlock Holmes portrayed (brilliantly) by Benedict Cumberbatch. 

And it works. Sherlock is, hands down, my favorite show and I'm not alone. It enjoys a 9.3/10 rating over at IMDb and a 9.1 user score over at  

But Poirot is popular as well. Agatha Christie is, after all, the world's third best selling novelist and the most popular mystery writer of all time.

Whether to give your sleuth a deep emotional flaw might depend on the kind of murder mystery you intend to write. In a cosy it is the sleuth's ratiocination that takes center stage. We are concerned with logic; as Poirot would say, it is all about order and method.

On the other hand, in a hardboiled detective mystery such as "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett, or Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep," the logic of the crime is downplayed in favor of the sleuth understanding how the city, the police and the gangsters operate. That, and the sleuth's ability to take a punch as well as give one. In keeping with the setting, these sleuths are darker and more flawed.

4. Make the conflict personal.

Make the conflict between the sleuth and the murderer personal. Make the murderer want to taunt the sleuth. Make the sleuth willing to take crazy risks to catch the murderer.

If the murderer is caught then his/her life is over, perhaps literally, but if the murderer gets away with it, what then?

Yes, not being able to solve the puzzle or, worse, offering up an incorrect solution--being foiled by the murderer--could not only ruin the sleuth's reputation (assuming he cares) but send an innocent person to prison. And that is something the sleuth must care about. I think that's a large part of what separates white hats from black hats.

5. Show that the murderer is one depraved, sick, puppy.

For most of the story the antagonist is going to wear a mask. Underneath the mask they are getting more desperate and their sickness, their desperation, escalates.

One way we could show this is by escalating the number of murders, their violence, as well as the murderer's reckless daring.

6. Let your antagonist win occasionally.

Your sleuth needs setbacks. He needs strong opposition to battle against and, so, occasionally, he's going to fail. Often this happens at the midpoint. The sleuth--or the sleuth's helper--thinks they know who did it. But they're wrong. Often the suspect is found dead, killed the way the other victims were.

7. Show the killer's true face at the end.

The murderer is a cold-blooded killer. She has taken the lives of those she knew, perhaps even those she loved. And she did it for personal gain. She's not nice, not ordinary, perhaps not even sane. But for most of the book she has hidden in plain sight and has acted like everyone else. Now we get to see her as she really is. We get to see the murderer's contempt for those around her, for those who counted themselves as her friends.

Although there is a lot more that can be said about qualities the murderer should, or could, have; qualities that would contribute to making him or her an interesting character, one a reader would love to hate, that's it for today. In the next episode of this series, How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery, I'll talk about the second most important character in a murder mystery: the sleuth.

Here are the links to the previous articles in this series:


1. "The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict," by W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden over at This article is from the archives and was originally published in Harpers magazine in 1948.
2. "Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel," by Jonathan Crow over at
3. "A Plot Begins to Take Shape," by Margot Kinberg over at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist ...
4. This line is from the episode, "A Study in Pink," from the TV show Sherlock. Episode written by [].

I also drew from my previous articles:

Photo credit: "Taking A Fence" by Ian Sane under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, April 3

How To Write Like Agatha Christie: Motifs

How To Write Like Agatha Christie: Motifs

Today I examine certain structural elements of Agatha Christie's murder mysteries. Specifically, I look at two things. First, how soon the initial murder tended to occur and, second, a common plot device; namely, a way she diverted suspicion from the murderer early on in the story.

This is the third and last instalment of my series on Agatha Christie--though, that said, I've had so much fun writing these articles I'm sure I'll blog about her, and the secret of her remarkable success, again. In case you want to read them, here are links to the first and second articles:

The Murder Tends To Occur Later In The Story

As I mentioned in my first post, though many (perhaps most) murder mystery authors have a corpse turn up within the first few pages it was not uncommon for Christie to hold off introducing the first murder until well into the second act. 

To double-check this, I looked up where the first murder falls in a few of Agatha Christie's novels. Here's what I discovered:

(1920) The Mysterious Affair at Styles: 14%
(1923) The Murder on the Links: 8%
(1924) The Man in the Brown Suit: 9%
(1926) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: 1%
(1927) The Big Four: 6%
(1928) The Mystery of the Blue Train: 30%
(1930) The Murder at the Vicarage: 15% 
(1931) The Sittaford Mystery: 9%
(1932) Peril at End House: 34%
(1933) Lord Edgware Dies: 20%
(1936) Murder in Mesopotamia: 24%
(1937) Death on the Nile: 46%
(1941) Evil Under The Sun: 23%
(1944) Towards Zero: 48%
(1950) A Murder Is Announced: 13%

The percentage indicates how far into the novel the first murder occurred. If I were doing this scientifically I would list all of Christie's 66 mystery novels. As it is, from this far-from-random sample, the average percentage is 20%. It seems that, on average, Christie waited until the end of the second of the three acts to bump off her first victim.

It seems as though the more Christie wrote the more comfortable she became with delaying the first murder, sometimes even until the middle of the book!

Her reasoning for this? For Christie, the murder was the culmination of the murderer's plot and so needed to be built up to. It wasn't the beginning of the story, it was the middle; the first part belonged to the murderer (though his/her identity was hidden from us) while the second belonged to the sleuth. 

It's a trade-off. Risk losing your reader by not providing something exciting up front or risk losing them because they don't care enough about the characters for it to matter one was snuffed out.

A Common Plot Device: The character whose life appeared to be in danger was really the murderer.

Although this doesn't happen in all or even the majority of Agatha Christie's stories it does happen in quite a few. (Spoiler warning.)

a. The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

The victim, Emily Inglethorp, dies of strychnine poisoning and her husband Alfred Inglethorp, a man many years her junior, is immediately suspected. He will benefit financially from her death and he was seen purchasing strychnine in the village. Poirot, though, proves that Alfred could not have purchased the strychnine and the suspicions of the police settle elsewhere. However, it was Alfred Inglethorp who, along with Emily's companion Evelyn Howard, killed his wife.

b. The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

When Colonel Lucius Protheroe is killed the first suspect is his wife, Anne Protheroe. Lawrence Redding, her lover, confesses to the murder (we are led to believe he did so because he thought Anne was the murderer and wanted to protect her). Then Anne Protheroe confesses (ostensibly to protect her lover, Lawrence). However, after many entertaining twists and turns, we find that Anne and Lawrence are, indeed, the murderers.

c. Peril at End House (1932)

This is one of my favorite and, I believe, best plotted, Poirot mysteries.

Shortly after Poirot meets Magdala "Nick" Buckley he comes to believe that someone is trying to kill her. But, really, Nick has planted false clues to give Poirot that impression. Her goal is to prevent her prize possession, End House, from going to reck and ruin. To this end she murders her cousin, Maggie Buckley, to gain access to a fortune the girl recently inherited. This plot is complicated by several factors, not the least of which is a drug smuggling ring. But Poirot unravels this knotty problem and arrives at the truth.[1] 

d. Lord Edgeware Dies (1933)

When Lord Edgeware is found dead in his study his estranged wife, Jane Wilkinson, is immediately suspected of the murder. After all, she had come to his house the night before, announced herself, and visited him in his study at around the time he was killed. 

The problem: Jane couldn't have killed him because she had a cast-iron alibi: at the time of the murder she had been at a dinner party with thirteen other people. Poirot believes the true killer hired a master of disguise to impersonate and incriminate Jane. The plan went wrong because the mastermind hadn't known Jane was going to be at the dinner party. 

In the end it turns out that Poirot was correct but he'd gotten it the wrong way around. The killer had hired an impersonator to pretend to be Jane, but that person was Jane herself! While everyone thought she was at the dinner party she had actually been murdering Lord Edgeware.

e. Three Act Tragedy (1935)

The murderer, Sir Charles Cartwright, tests his method of murder at his cocktail party. He puts poison in a cocktail and then watches as a random guest, Reverend Babbington, drinks it and dies. Although Cartwright does his best to get Poirot to suspect murder, since no poison is found in the glass, the Reverend's death is ruled to be due to natural causes. 

Emboldened, Cartwright (wearing a disguise) uses the same method to kill his lifelong friend, Dr. Bartholomew Strange. His motive: Love. He wanted to marry Hermione Lytton Gore (called "Egg") but was already married to a woman he could not divorce. The only person who knew this was Dr. Strange.[2] 

Here are a few other novels where Christie used this motif:

f. Death on the Nile (1937)
g. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)
h. Towards Zero (1944)
i. The Hollow (1946)
j. A Murder Is Announced (1950)
k. Ordeal by Innocence (1958)
l. The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (1962)
m. At Bertram's Hotel (1965)
n. Curtain (1975)

3. The Reveal

Though I don't believe it was unique to Agatha Christie, it was a mark of her stories that all the suspects gathered together, at the end, to await the sleuth's dramatic unravelling of the case. The sleuth generally did three things:

a. Recounts all the clues and reveals whether they were irrelevant, a red herring, or genuine.

b. As the sleuth recounts the clues he exposes the secrets of all those gathered. Perhaps this is a kind of payback for everyone lying to him! 

c. The sleuth unmasks his hidden adversary, the killer, and turns them over to the police. (Occasionally the killer will kill himself rather than be apprehended and hanged.)

Now, as their evil deeds are laid bare, the murderer shows his/her true face. Where before they seemed sweet and caring now they show themselves to be self-involved and contemptuous of others.

Agatha Christie's Plot Devices

At some point in the future I would like to write another post--or series of posts--on the plot devices Agatha Christie used. In the meantime, here are a couple of excellent articles on the subject:

Thanks for reading!


1. As in A Murder is Announced, Christie uses nicknames vs real names to set up a vital clue early on.
2. Another motif in Christie's stories (this is evidenced in A Murder is Announced as well) is that often the murderer is forced to kill someone they love dearly in order to obtain something they love even more.) 

Photo credit: "Ghost..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, March 26

Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules

Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules

Today I'm continuing with the second part of my two part series on how to write like the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. Today I want to look at three things:

1. Agatha Christie the rebel
2. Christie's story structure
3. The reveal

I feel that each of these elements contributed not only to her astonishing success but to the uniqueness of her work.

By the way, my title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I truly don't believe there was a secret to Christie's success; no formula exists for reproducing her phenomenal achievements. That said, I do believe that part of her success was due to her willingness to flout the conventions of her craft and risk the ire of critics as well as her peers.

(Note: Though I did try to get through all these points, I only made it through the first. As a result this article is actually part two of a three part series.)

1. Christie did the unexpected, even the forbidden

There is a story making the rounds that Agatha Christie was nearly thrown out of the Detection Club because she so thoroughly and regularly broke their rules of fair play in writing, specifically her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. According to the story it was Dorothy L. Sayers (then club president) who cast the vote that saved her from the disgrace of expulsion.

While this is a terrific story, I doubt it ever happened. (Since this is off topic, I'll put my reasons for disbelief in footnote 9, see below.) The reason I mention the story is because the tale nicely illustrates an essential truth about Christie's work: she wasn't afraid to break rules or flout conventions. For example, although I doubt anyone wanted to expel her for it, she did likely break the rules of the Detection Club more than any other writer. [11]

Let's take a look at each rule of the detection club (these seem to have been less like rules and more like ethical guidelines) and see whether, and how, Christie broke it.

(Spoilers ahead)

Rule #1: "The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know."

Famously, Agatha Christie broke this rule in her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. That book is told by the killer who is acting as Hercule Poirot's assistant--his Watson--in the case. Further, it is told using the first person, so one does know the innermost thoughts of the narrator/killer. 

This certainly didn't seem to hurt the book! This is from Wikipedia:

"It [The Murder of Roger Ackroyd] is one of Christie's best known and most controversial novels, its innovative twist ending having a significant impact on the genre. The short biography of Christie which is included in the present UK printings of all of her books states that this novel is her masterpiece. Howard Haycraft, in his seminal 1941 work, Murder for Pleasure, included the novel in his "cornerstones" list of the most influential crime novels ever written. The character of Caroline Sheppard was later acknowledged by Christie as a possible precursor to her famous detective Miss Marple." (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

Not satisfied, in 1967 Christie broke the rule again in her critically acclaimed Endless Night.

Rule #2: "All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course."

Off the top of my head, The Idol House of Astarte and Dead Man's Mirror violated this rule. Yes, the final solution didn't involve anything supernatural but the supernatural wasn't ruled out until the very end. That is, a supernatural explanation wasn't ruled out as a matter of course but, instead, seemed to be taken seriously. (Also, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb)

Rule #3: "Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable."

Christie had a lot of fun with secret rooms and passages, but (as far as I can recall) nearly always used them as a red herring, something the murderer used in an attempt to throw the sleuth off the trail. For example, Three Act Tragedy and Peril at End House. However Christie did use them more seriously in The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly.

Rule #4: "No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end."

I don't think Agatha Christie broke this rule. 

Rule #5: Do not use stereotyped boogymen. [This is my paraphrase of the original rule.]

Just last night I re-watched the BBC's excellent adaptation of Cards on the Table which breaks rule number five, a rule which I take as saying that one must not use fictional stereotyped boogymen like Fu Manchu. One's villains (in this case Mr. Shaitana) must be three-dimensional. 

In Cards on the Table Christie subverted the stereotype. Though I have never read a book that Fu Manchu appeared in, it seems he was, fundamentally, the kind of character who killed people and did all sorts of dastardly deeds. Christie cleverly subverts that stereotype in Cards my making Mr. Shaitana do the completely unexpected--he arranged for his own murder. This is made plausible by the psychological state of the man and what he hoped to accomplish by the act.

(Future me: In an earlier version of this post I had written that Shaitana killed himself. A keen eyed reader pointed out that wasn't true. And that's correct. Shaitana set up a little drama with the intention that one of his guests would kill him and then he drugged himself because he didn't want to feel the dagger as it was slipped into his body. Shaitana did, in a sense, commit suicide, but, still, he was murdered.)

(August 2021 Note: In the above I had mixed together the excellent television adaptation of Agatha Christie's Cards on the Table with Christie's equally excellent book. In the book, Shaitana does not anticipate that one of his guests will kill him, that only happens in television adaptation (Poirot, Season 10, Episode 2) staring the wonderfully talented David Suchet. Thank you to all those who pointed this out.)

Rule #6: No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

Though I have to say that Christie didn't always play fair with the reader--in at least one of her stories I swear there was no way a reader could have guessed the solution--I can't think of a book of hers in which this occurred. (Can you? If so, please leave a comment.)

Rule #7: "The detective himself must not commit the crime."

Christie shattered this rule more than once. She did this first and most spectacularly (as we have seen) in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but also in Endless Night

Rule #8: "The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover."

I think Christie tended to play fair with this. Her detectives shared all their clues with the reader, but almost never shared the inferences drawn from them, except at the end.

Rule #9: "The 'sidekick' of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader."

As we have discussed, Christie shattered this one in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Rule #10: "Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them."

I think Christie played fair with this. One of the books she used this idea in (though they aren't, strictly speaking, twins) with great effect is A Murder is Announced.

Agatha Christie's Score: How much of a rule breaker was she?

What is Agatha Christie's score?

Rule 1: Broken
Rule 2: Broken
Rule 3: Subverted
Rule 4: Kept
Rule 5: Subverted
Rule 6: Mostly kept
Rule 7: Broken
Rule 8: Kept
Rule 9: Broken
Rule 10: Kept

(By "subverted" I mean that while Christie technically broke the rule she still played fair with the reader. By "broken" I mean to indicate that, strictly speaking, she did not play fair.)

Well, 4 out of 10 isn't bad! (grin) So she broke the rules more than she kept them, but she did it intelligently, creatively and with wit.

Thanks for reading and I promise to wrap up this series in one more post. (Perhaps not the next post--I think I'll blog about something else next time--but soon.)


1. "The Writing Style of Agatha Christie," by
2. "Agatha Christie - Her Method of Writing," over at
3. "Agatha Christie,"
4. "Random House employees get $5,000 bonuses, thanks to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’," by Caitlin Dewey over at The Washington Post.
5. "Fifty Shades of Grey,"
6. "Creator: Agatha Christie,"
7. "Mystery Tropes,"
8. Some accounts have the Detection Club forming as late as 1930. Either way, however, my point stands.
9. First, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926 and the murder club didn't start up until 1928.[8] Presumably the other authors had read, or at least knew of, Agatha Christie's work and wouldn't have invited her to join if they so disapproved with her methods.
     Second, Dorothy L. Sayers became president of the Detection Club in 1949, 23 years after Christie published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I find it difficult to believe that it took (at least) 23 years for the members to become so incensed at the flouting of their rules that they clamoured to expel her. 
     Third, in the documentation I have read about Christie and the Detection Club [link to post on murder site], the members--especially by 1949--seem to have been in awe of Agatha Christie so I doubt any of them would have demanded her removal.
     But, I could be wrong. As they say, life is stranger than fiction. If anyone has any concrete information about this please do leave a comment or use my comment form to contact me privately.
10. The oath and initiation ceremony of the Detection Club. A-Z Challenge – Rules of the Detection Club (circa 1929), by elegsabiff over at Quite Contrary.
11. S.S. Van Dine also formulated a set of rules. See: Twenty rules for writing detective stories.

Photo credit: "Breaking the rules" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0. The original photo is "Chicken Run" by Alison Christine under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, March 25

How To Write Like Agatha Christie

How To Write Like Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time and one of my favorite authors. I've spent many a night curled up in front of a roaring fire, cocoa close at hand, reading and re-reading her now familiar tales. 

Although no one can write exactly like she did--and who would want to? The goal of each writer is to develop their own voice--time and again I have wondered about the secret of her success. I'm not suggesting she employed any sort of formula, but I believe that there were certain elements, certain characteristic regularities, to her work that may have contributed to her phenomenal success.

Before we turn our attention to this, though, let's take a quick look at Agatha Christie's accomplishments.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie's novels have sold 4 billion copies making her the best-selling novelist of all time. Since her books have been translated into over 100 languages she is also, to date, the world's most-translated individual author. [3]

That kind of success is difficult to grasp! Christie's best selling novel--And Then There Were None--is also the best selling mystery novel ever with 100 million in sales. To put that in perspective, the 50 Shades of Grey series has sold 100 million copies to date. Those books did so well that "Random House CEO Markus Dohle" awarded "$5,000 bonuses to every member of his staff, from top editors to warehouse workers."

Even though Christie passed away in 1976 her influence has not waned. Just last year her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd "was voted the best crime novel ever by 600 fellow writers of the Crime Writers' Association." [3]

So! Hopefully I've whet your appetite. The question is: How (apart from hard work and luck) did Agatha Christie write books with such universal appeal?

The Structure of an Agatha Christie Murder Mystery

I'm in the midst of writing a series that discusses the building blocks of a mystery novel (victims, sleuth, murder, and so on) so I don't want this post to cover territory I've already gone over. As a result, I'm going to concentrate on only those aspects I feel are characteristic (though perhaps not unique) to Agatha Christie.

- Setting
- A, B, & C Story
- Murder (Inciting Incident)
- The Psychological Method
- Trickery
- The Unexpected
- A Unique Structure
- The Reveal


These points about setting aren't unique to Christie but they are so important that I think they bear repeating. If you're writing a cosy (and cosy's are the kind of mystery I'm focusing on) then the setting needs to be:

a) closed, and
b) something that provides a contrast

I go over these points in detail in my article, The Importance of Setting In Writing A Murderously Good Mystery, but, briefly, you want a setting that will exclude the possibility of a character from the outside coming in and committing the murder and, also, you want to maximize the disruption the murder will create in the society. For example, the murder of a presidential candidate on the eve of the election, one executed somewhere public such as a parade route, would cause a lot of disruption to society compare to, say, the murder of a John Doe in an alleyway in a crime infested part of town.

Main Plot & Subplots: The A, B & C Story

In "The Writing Style of Agatha Christie," Evelyn Hepburn writes that Agatha Christie generally has two main threads in her books. One thread involves the murder while the other, a subplot, "involves a psychological trickster: a character that intentionally creates fear and chaos for the other characters. Usually this character is not the one that committed the murder, as this conclusion would be too obvious; rather, it is an individual with a hidden vendetta against the rest of the party." [1]

As soon as I read this I thought, "Yes! Why hadn't I noticed that?" 

Myself, I think Christie often (though not always) had three distinct threads interwoven throughout most of her plots. Let's call these the A story, the B story and the C story.

A Story --> the murder (the whodunit)
B Story --> a romance
C Story --> a touch of evil

The A story is the main story, the story of the murder. The B story is a subplot that includes one of the main characters in a romance. The C story is another subplot, one about a character who has malign intentions toward one of the other characters. These intentions aren't related to the murder--perhaps this is suspected but, in the end, the 'touch of evil' character will not be intimately connected with it.

Yesterday I watched a BBC program based on Christie's Greenshaw's Folly. In that story (the BBC version at least), the main story was the 'touch of evil' plot. A mother (Louisa Oxley) and her young son flee her abusive husband. Miss Marple put them up for a night and then found the mother a job at Greenshaw's Folly where, of course, a number of suspicious deaths occur. Throughout the story, the young mother is terrified that her husband will find her and take her son away. Louisa thinks she sees her husband's face several times, peering in at her through a windowpane.

In Greenshaw's Folly the main subplot involves the murders and continues to grow in importance until around the 75% mark where this subplot and the main plot dovetail.

The second subplot is the romance that is slowly developing between the main character, Louisa (who, interestingly, is not the sleuth), and her object of romantic interest, Alfred Pollock. Since Louisa is, technically, still married the romance itself is downplayed but Alfred is shown to be an excellent role model for her son and a steadfast friend. It is a rocky romance, though, since Alfred is suspected of the murders and, were it not for Miss Marple, he would have hanged for them.

One thing that I like about Agatha Christie's stories is that, while her sleuths are strictly celibate, many times there is a (very mild) romance between two of the characters. Though other authors do include a romance in their mysteries or thrillers, I appreciate the way Christie intertwined this romance with the main thread of murder, making the outcome of the romance dependent on finding out who the true murderer was.

The Murder (Inciting Incident)

Many of the murder mysteries I read (and watch) have a relatively short interval between the start of the story and the murder. Not so for Agatha Christie's books. She often had an extended interval between the first character walking on stage and someone getting knocked off.

I found this over at

"Author Filibuster: Christie novels tended to have long Start to Corpse times, something which she was occasionally criticized for. She used the first chapter of Towards Zero to respond to these criticisms by having a character deliver a lengthy speech on how a murder is the culmination of a murderer's plot rather than the instigating point, and thus should come as late in the book as possible." [6]

Received wisdom these days seems to be that one should get to the murder as soon as possible, but a late start certainly did work for Christie. 

The Psychological Method

Hercule Poirot often refers to his "little grey cells." This harkens back to the idea that a true detective needs nothing more than the facts and a comfortable armchair to solve a case. Though Poirot fits within this tradition, Christie added a twist: the psychological method. 

It wasn't through facts alone--the overturned candlestick in the bedroom, the list of toiletries in the bathroom cabinet, etc.--that the murderer was discovered, it was also through a deep understanding of human psychology. In Christie's later books Poirot holds that certain types of crimes are committed by certain types--certain psychological types--of people. 

In contrast to other detectives (notably Monsieur Giraud of the Sûreté in Murder on the Links), Poirot arrives at the identity of the murderer by looking at two things: a) the nature of the victim and b) the psychology of the murderer. (Hercule Poirot, Wikipedia)


Poirot--and to a certain extent Miss Marple--wasn't beneath using deception if it would help him unravel the psychological puzzle before him. To this end, Poirot sometimes got people to talk to him by giving out false or misleading information about himself or his background. (Hercule Poirot, Wikipedia)

Also, HP would make himself seem more foreign or vein to make other characters underestimate, or even despise him. As their estimation of his ability lowered so did their guard and they often let slip something they never would have if they thought he was an upstanding, competent, member of English society.

Poirot would do things Hastings (the Watson) viewed as very un-English, like rummaging through a woman's belongings without her permission and reading her love letters to find a clue.

I thought I was going to be able to get through this material, but there's no way! I want to talk (briefly) about Agatha Christie doing the unexpected, even the forbidden, and what the result of that was. Finally, I want to share certain points about the structure of Christie's novels that were, if not unique, characteristic of many of her works. 


1. "The Writing Style of Agatha Christie," by
2. "Agatha Christie - Her Method of Writing," over at
3. "Agatha Christie,"
4. "Random House employees get $5,000 bonuses, thanks to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’," by Caitlin Dewey over at The Washington Post.
5. "Fifty Shades of Grey,"
6. "Creator: Agatha Christie,"
7. "Mystery Tropes,"

Photo credit: "Dubler" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.