I’m working my way through some Agatha Christie right now and noticed something that bothers me a great deal. I’m reminded of a movie I saw some time ago. It’s called Murder by Death and it’s a sharp and absurd parody of murder mysteries featuring imminent British actors playing thinly veiled parody versions of well-known (in 1976) fictional detectives. There is a murder and all of them try to solve it using the modus operandi established in the literature. In the end, one of the main characters calls out all of the detectives for the annoying faults in their literary counterparts. The Agatha Christie parody pair was accused of holding back information so the readers could never solve the mystery. I thought this was pretty unfair.
The works of Agatha Christie are credited as the third most published in the world (the Bible being first and the works of Shakespeare being the second). She wrote 80 or so novels and plays and is famous for her contribution of two literary detectives – the well-traveled Belgian Hercule Poirot and the cloistered British Victorian spinster Jane Marple. I’ve seen a lot of adaptations of Christie’s works, particularly of the Poirot mysteries (although interestingly enough the author preferred Miss Marple and grew to really hate Poirot). My view of her work was probably biased due to my familiarity with the adaptations. I had, in fact, read none of her novels when I saw Murder by Death.
Mystery writers in particular have a difficult time with the principle of Chekhov’s Gun. Ideally a mystery novel will have a plot complicated enough that the reader can’t figure out who is the perpetrator of the crime but all the clues have been scattered through the book completely enough that the reader can think back on everything and realize everything they needed to know to solve the mystery was in fact presented to them. Achieving this delicate balance is very difficult and one of the reasons I don’t write mystery novels. While there is a lot of exposition/description in mystery novels, it’s still not easy to hide Chekhov’s Gun, as it were. Here’s an actual example from an actual mystery novel (not actually Christie’s work).
The detective is investigating a murder, and one of the motivations he’s investigating is if anyone stood to inherit a significant amount of money if the victim died. The detective has read the will, and the text states he noted that the will was type-written and that the letter “A” appeared to be slightly offset. Later in the book the detective visits the office of a suspected lawyer and the text describes the room – the leather chair, the file cabinets, the desk, and the typewriter on the desk that has an offset letter “A.” I immediately realized that the typewriter and the offset letter “A” were critical clues just because the mention of the offset “A” in the will and the suspect’s typewriter struck me as very deliberate. It turns out I was right, too.
Maybe if I was as famous as writer as Dame Agatha Christie, I’d try to get away with breaking some of the basic conventions of writing. However, given how much these two instances annoyed me, I don’t think I would. So as not to spoil anything, I won’t name the titles or use proper names. In the first story, a group of people are investigating some murders. The story is told in third person, so I assumed the narrator was omniscient. This may have been my own fault, but I took everything that happened in the story as a complete account of what actually was happening. But at the end it turned out one of the main characters was the murderer and the only reason I couldn’t figure that out was because the third-person narrator was not omniscient – the author was deliberately withholding information. That really annoyed the hell out of me, but I thought perhaps I should just pay more attention. After all, there’s a lot neither Poirot nor Miss Marple state until the big reveal.
Bait and Switch:
I picked out another novel which I knew featured one of her two main detectives. This one was told in first person, so I of course assumed the narrator was limited since that is the convention of using first person (although there are ways to bend the rules). The story proceeds as told from the perspective of the main character. And then it turns out the main character is in fact the murderer. That really made me mad. I had no reason to assume the main character was not telling the truth and was leaving out information. That is not something I’ve come across before. There wasn’t even a framing device to give me a hint, like, for example, the main character had written down an account of the events and that’s what I was reading. In that case, it would have made sense for the main character to leave out information since s/he was intending for the account to be published and obviously wouldn’t state outright s/he was the murderer. And confessing everything at the end would have made sense too since the murderer was caught and knew there was nothing to hide. But no, I just felt cheated.
The TV adaptations I’d seen had removed this frustrating bait and switch. The writers adapting the material made sure Chekhov’s Gun was on display instead of deliberately hiding it to have a twist ending. I wonder if the writers of those adaptations had also felt cheated when reading the novels and realizing the account that had been presented as the truth was actually a convenient lie. Now that I think back on Murder by Death and the accusation of withholding information leveled at Agatha Christie, I don’t think it’s unfair at all. It’s pretty spot on, at least for some works. Bad form, Dame Christie, bad form.
Also, if you’re a mystery fan, check out Murder by Death.