Only yesterday my buddy JJ, on his insightful blog site, InsultingAgathaChri-, oops, I mean, The Invisible Event, celebrated the 110th birthday of his favorite author, John Dickson Carr – an author, I might add, whom I also count among my favorites. Among his many moments of praise for the Locked Room Master, JJ asserted the following:
“There is a density in Carr’s plotting that few ever matched — even Christie, who was never much of a hook-writer in her plotting (maybe Peril at End House, Hickory Dickory Dock, and…something else; the joy in Christie is not so much the setup as how it plays out from conventional beginnings) suffered longueurs in many of her books — and there was incident and intrigue aplenty to be found.”
Now, JJ and I are dear friends: I took all the photos at his quinceanera, and he staked me a loan so that I study to be a goatherd. So there’s a bond here that stretches way back. But when a blogger confuses matters of taste with matters of quality, well, them’s fighting words, pardner. (JJ’s gentle admonition to my protestations that “I should not get my knickers in a twist” only fanned the flames of my rage.)
Being the erudite, compassionate scribe that I am, however, I let this slight roll off my back (JJ, if you’re reading this, don’t open the anonymously sent smallish brown package wrapped in plain brown paper and reeking slightly of camphor which should arrive in about six days . . .) and I began to think: Christie and Carr are two of my favorite authors because both are masters of obfuscation and misdirection, yet they arrive at similar amazing results in wholly different ways. You really can’t mistake one for the other in terms of style, plot or atmosphere, so it’s understandable that some fans might prefer Carr or Christie for those elements that distinguish them, despite the fact that both of them, to paraphrase Cole Porter, “do do that voodoo that they do so well.”
I have never been one to claim that Christie does a certain thing better than Carr does; she just does it differently, and I like her more. But I have always maintained that one thing Christie really mastered is the narrative hook. Thus, it puzzled me that JJ would refute this. In getting ready to argue back, I first asked myself: what exactly is a hook? What forms does it take, and how does it work? And more specifically, how does it work for Christie and Carr?
On her site helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com, K.M. Weiland offers this thought:
“Readers are like fish. Smart fish. Fish who know authors are out to get them, reel them in, and capture them for the rest of their seagoing lives. But, like any self-respecting fish, readers aren’t caught easily. They aren’t about to surrender themselves to the lure of your story unless you’ve presented them with an irresistible hook.”
Wikipedia defines a hook as “a literary technique in the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that he or she will keep on reading. The “opening” may consist of several paragraphs for a short story, or several pages for a novel, but ideally it is the opening sentence.” If a mystery reader is not hooked by the end of chapter one, chances are he will peek at the solution and then put the book down forever. In fact, the website Writers to Authors suggests, with some credence, that in this modern age of short attention spans:
“You don’t have time to build up to your main point any more. The days of long entry exposition are gone, the reader wants to know why they should spend their hard earned cash on your book and the hook — if done correctly — can be that reason . . . More than likely, an editor is going to be the first person to read your story and they are just looking for a reason to put yours down. They have hundreds of entries to go through so placing that beautiful scripted hook in yours and getting them drawn in quickly is crucial. But how soon or how far into the beginning should the hook be? The sooner, the better! Actually if you can place your hook in the first line of the first page that is great and you are well on your way to having that first reader — the editor — thumbing the next page and the next as they ask themselves “What happens next?”
A number of factors contribute to hooking a mystery reader, including the author’s name, the title, the illustration on the cover, the blurb on the back or inside cover, and, of course, the text itself. Let’s examine the effect on the reader:
The author’s name goes a long way toward hooking me. The need to purchase that “Christie for Christmas” meant that I own – and have read – Passenger to Frankfurt and Postern of Fate with no questions asked. Were these reading experiences interminable? Of course! But the name “Agatha Christie” was emblazoned in letters above, and as big as, the title. So I read them. (Only once – never again.) And if I saw a title on the bookstore shelves by Carr that I had never heard of, the excitement blazed up in me and I grabbed it. My familiarity with the product associated with the author was enough to ensure a sale.
The title doesn’t have that much of an effect on me. Both Carr and Christie mostly created titles that plunged us directly into the genre (Death on the Nile, The Problem of the Green Capsule), while some referenced the classics (Taken at the Flood, In Spite of Thunder), and a few were just plain odd (The Hollow, The Crooked Hinge). One is more likely to find an element of humor in some Carr titles (He Wouldn’t Kill Patience) or an element of horror (The Three Coffins, The Demoniacs). I imagine that some first-time readers, upon examining the bibliography of either of these prolific writers, might select a book by its title. But this doesn’t explain why someone would first break bread with Christie over, say, Third Girl or At Bertram’s Hotel, as some fellow bloggers claim to have done to their dismay. More likely, accessibility and not title choice prompted these rash and unfortunate decisions.
Cover art is a matter of taste, but there’s no denying that a well-designed book jacket may attract the visually inclined. The influence of geography, culture and the era is unmistakable, as these contrasting editions of Carr’s Death Watch prove.
And who can argue against Agatha Christie’s luck when Tom Adams was commissioned to design her covers.Honestly, though, in the U.S. all we needed was Christie’s name on the cover to guarantee sales. And the Tom Adams covers were hard to find when I was growing up, so I made do with far inferior designs by Pocketbook and Dell.
I have to admit: I am all about the blurb. I love checking out the back or inside front cover of a mystery to whet my appetite before I purchase it. The well-written blurb has hoodwinked this reader many a time, so I know the power of this marketing tool. I threw out a question on Facebook to writers on the Golden Age Detection page and learned that the author themselves is often asked to supply the blurb, but often an editor insists on writing them or engages in a back and forth with the author to create the best blurb possible. One responder quoted Stephen King on this very question: “Whatever your editor suggests, they’re right!”
Let’s examine the back cover blurbs for one of my favorite novels by each author: first, here’s the one for Christie’s After the Funeral:
“When Cora Lansquenet is savagely murdered with a hatchet, the extraordinary remark she made the previous day at her brother Richard’s funeral suddenly takes on a chilling significance. At the reading of Richard’s will, Cora was clearly heard to say, “It’s been hushed up very nicely, hasn’t it . . . But he was murdered, wasn’t he?” In desperation, the family solicitor turns to Hercule Poirot to unravel the mystery . . . “
And now here’s the back cover blurb for my favorite Carr mystery, He Who Whispers, from the Langtail Press edition (which this cover is not):
“Outside the little French city of Chartres, industrialist Howard Brookes is found dying on the parapet of an old stone tower. Evidence shows that it was impossible for anyone to have entered at the time of the murder, however someone must have, for the victim was discovered stabbed in the back. Who could have done it? And where did they go? When no one is convicted, the mystery remains unsolved for years until a series of coincidences brings things to a head in post-war England, where amateur sleuth Dr. Gideon Fell is on the scene to work out what really happened.”
Reading these, I can understand why author David Marcum told me today, ”I don’t read cover text or reviews any more ever. I learned the hard way . . . (that) it gave away 80% of the plot, including all of the big along-the-way reveals and surprises.”
Both of the blurbs above introduce a fair amount of plot to the prospective buyer in an informative if mundane way; the reader would be much better served with either novel to ignore the write-ups and just read the books. But people love those spoiler-ish coming attractions at the movies for the same reason: they want a guarantee that they are going to like something they are about to invest time and money in. Significantly, both blurbs mention the detective to lure fans of Poirot or Dr. Fell. Still, I wonder if the tag line under the title – “An Hercule Poirot Mystery” or “A Case for Dr. Gideon Fell” – would have served the purpose without spoiling the plot!
Which brings us to the text itself. If there is a general pattern to be found with the start of either author, Christie is more likely, as JJ puts it, to spin intrigue “from conventional beginnings” while Carr likes to start in medias res or at the end. Let’s look at the first chapters of the same two novels. The opening of After the Funeral introduces us to the Abernethie family through the eyes of the elderly butler who is taking care of them after the patriarch’s funeral. We are given a good look at several generations of the family, of both their inter-familial relationships and of the tenuous position of the mansion now that death taxes are about to rear their ugly heads . . . all before daffy Aunt Cora drops her bombshell. A lot of information is given to us, but with warmth and humor – and then something deliciously off shakes everything up.
The start of He Who Whispers has its share of charm too but also a more mysterious and unsettling atmosphere, as the young hero attends a meeting of The Murder Club at the invitation of Dr. Fell himself . . . except there’s no sign of the good Doctor or any of the other club members. Only the guest speaker and another newcomer are present – and the speaker insists on giving his lecture about an old, unsolved impossible murder, one that will have enormous repercussions on the lives of these three.
The approach into the mystery and the tone of the writing are quite different for both novels, but each manages to hook us into a fascinating mystery. If you demanded I pick which of these novels work better, I simply could not do it. After the Funeral hinges on a wonderful reversal and one of the best motives in all of mysterydom! But He Who Whispers packs a much deeper emotional punch and left me gasping at the end for completely different reasons.
This is not to say that Carr can’t be prosaic and Christie can’t be sensationalistic. Appointment With Death opens with a statement: “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” To pique our interest further, Hercule Poirot himself overhears these words in a hotel in Jerusalem. He states to himself that he will remember that voice when he hears it again, and we just wait for the moment when this statement is proven correct.
Carr’s The Burning Court opens normally enough with a man journeying home from work on a train. He’s feeling happy because his beautiful and loving wife is waiting for him, and he has money and a good job in publishing. Yet Carr weaves in certain details to warn us that things might not be as normal as they seem, such as the fact that the book in the man’s valise is a manuscript about murder trials or that a couple of odd things had happened at work today or that the local undertaker was so mysterious or that his friend Mark’s father had died or gastroenteritis recently. Even asserting the normality of this trip becomes a moment of retrospection at the beginning of a long and terrifying journey:
“Such, baldly stated, are the facts. Stevens now admits that it is a relief to state facts, to deal with matters that can be tabulated or arranged. It must be emphasized, too, that there was nothing unusual about the day or the evening. He was not stepping across a borderland, any more than you or I step across it. He was simply going home.”
I asked myself if there is a certain pattern to the ways these authors open their novels. I pulled down a half dozen Carr titles from my shelf, and nearly all of them plunged me immediately into the case. In fact, most of these books began at or near the end of the story. The Arabian Nights Murder opens with Dr. Fell and his cronies sitting at a table examining the evidence of the case that has yet to unfold. The clues are placed on the table to tantalize the reader. The Hollow Man begins after the case is over and allows Carr to exercise one of his favorite tricks by making bold assertions that readers trust are true (why would an omniscient narrator lie?), but which are easy to misinterpret and send us off in the wrong direction from the start. The Mad Hatter Mystery does the same thing; so does The Nine Wrong Answers.
Other titles plunk us directly – and melodramatically – into the action. It Walks by Night sends Bencolin into a lurid setting and throws in a beheading before the first chapter is over. Dark of the Moon begins in a twilit garden in Charleston as a Southern belle sneaks out of her father’s house and engages in passionate lovemaking with her unnamed suitor, a tryst that will lead to murder! Carr is all about setting an unsettling tone from the beginning, while Christie’s openings tend to spring from more domestic situations and moods. In most of her books we first see the cast of characters – or even the detective – interacting with each other or with the environment before the inciting incident takes place. Part of the reason for this may be that Christie tends to work with a larger cast of characters than Carr, but you can also chalk it up to style, and neither one’s style, to my mind, is better, only different.
In fact The Burning Court goes about its business in a similar manner to Christie’s And Then There Were None and 4:50 From Paddington, which also begin on a train but allow us to meet and savor the persons involved before things get tense. We learn what type of person Elspeth McGillicuddy is – muddled and charming – and then she witnesses a murder in the window of the opposite train. We watch a group of strangers, all of whom we’ve learned something about, converge at the beginning of an awkward house party . . . and then Mr. Owen springs the bad news on them, and we learn a whole lot more.
This method tends to work better for Christie than her rare sojourn into sensationalism: the meeting between a master jewel thief and his fence that starts The Mystery of the Blue Train or the dying spy who stumbles into Poirot’s apartment in The Big Four make an uncomfortable fit. The jolly chap who runs into a dying man while playing golf in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is amusing and intriguing at the same time.
Now, if I happen to prefer watching characters establish relationships before a murder occurs, I still maintain that Christie offers plenty of juicy hooks to reel her fish in. I would go so far as to aver that she has created some of the best hooks in mystery fiction.
To that end, I offer those familiar with Christie’s work a chance to test their knowledge of the traps she uses to lure us into some of her best stories. It’s not a particularly difficult quiz, so I hope that as you attempt it, you – yes, you, JJ, damn your eyes – take a moment to appreciate the skill with which Christie introduces her tales.
BY HOOK OR BY CROOK, A Christie Quiz
Below you will find descriptions of fifteen Christie novel openings, followed by fifteen titles. Match the correct title to each opening. Savor them as you proceed!
- At a senior center, a sweet old lady tells a visitor that a dead infant is bricked up behind the fireplace.
- A gorgeous secretary makes tea for her boss, only to walk on him dying from poison.
- A couple awaken to hear their maid screaming that a corpse has been discovered in their favorite room in the house.
- A young woman begs a detective to prove that, sixteen years ago, her dead mother did not kill her father.
- During the Blitz, a bomb hits the London home of a tycoon, making a rich widow of his new young wife and sending his relations to the brink of ruin.
- An ad appears in the local paper inviting the neighbors to a murder that evening.
- At a séance, six people contact the spirit of a man who appears to have been murdered at that exact moment in a village miles away from them.
- A man offers to show a woman a picture of a murderer he keeps in his wallet . . . and then recognizes the killer standing over her shoulder.
- A man’s perfect secretary makes several mistakes typing a letter.
- An airplane lands and one of the passengers is found murdered in her seat without anyone seeming to have come near her throughout the flight.
- A man returns from a long journey to tell a family that the son who died in prison after being convicted of killing his mother is innocent.
- Poirot runs into a sinister acquaintance who offers to introduce him to his collection . . . of murderers.
- A little old lady tells a young man on a train that she can identify a serial killer by the look on their face before they kill.
- Onhis way home from taking a strange confession, a priest is clubbed to death in the street.
- A little girl brags about seeing a murder . . . hours before she is herself murdered.
- a. A Caribbean Mystery
- b. Hallowe’en Party
- c. Cards on the Table
- d. The Pale Horse
- e. Murder is Easy
- f. Hickory Dickory Dock
- g. The Sittaford Mystery
- h. Death in the Clouds
- i. Five Little Pigs
- j. By the Pricking of My Thumbs
- k. The Body in the Library
- l. Taken at the Flood
- m. A Pocketful of Rye
- n. Ordeal by Innocence
- o. A Murder Is Announced