That’s the last time I posted on this site. But don’t think I haven’t been busy since then. Why, I’ve read the first chapter or two of nearly a dozen books, including the following:
- The Shop Window Murders, by Vernon Loder
- So Pretty a Problem, by Francis Duncan
- Charlie Chan Carries On, by Earl Derr Biggers
- Agatha Christie’s Golden Age, by John Goddard
- and two novels by a secret author for a December project a bunch of us are putting together
Somehow, I feel a post about how books begin wouldn’t interest my readers very much. I have nothing against any of the titles listed above (well . . . I reserve judgment over Goddard’s book until I have finished it). But the fact is, folks, that I seem to be stuck! I could blame work – in fact, I will! I could blame politics – the last two years have really got me down! But the blame game is a bore. What matters is that I haven’t been blog-ductive, and for that I apologize.
When I feel this way, I often turn to Agatha Christie. And the fact is, I was thirty-five hundred words into a post connecting the current “Year of the Woman” to some of my favorite female characters in Christie’s work, when I realized that I was saying nothing new or even particularly interesting. (For that, you should read my friend Kate’s recent disquisition on Miss Marple here).
Can’t read. Can’t write. Poor me. The sad fact is that now that I’m back at school, my life is out of balance. The work that I have found pretty satisfying for the past thirty years consumes most of my waking hours (teach drama by day, direct the school shows by night). And it is . . . not enough. I won’t bore you with the psychological foundations for all this; you didn’t sign up here to be my therapist (and I can’t afford your rates!) Suffice it to say that I want to read books, but I don’t have time. I want to blog and chat with my GAD friends . . . but I don’t have time. I want to play bridge, but – yada, yada, yada . . . . . .
I say all this a little shamefacedly, fully aware that most of the bloggers I love and admire here have full time jobs, families, even – gasp! – other interests. Who am I to complain? Maybe it’s just a phase. Maybe I’m going through a dry spell. Maybe I need to take a break. Maybe this, too, shall pass, and even, in some roundabout way, inspire me in the future.
Because, when you think about it, this whole concept of lives out of balance? It’s the foundation of classic murder mysteries, isn’t it? As children, we are inculcated with behavior training and problem solving skills so that, as adults, we can live reasonably balanced lives. Life never runs smoothly, and knowing how to cope with the big loads of crap life hands us – and to not sweat the small stuff – allows us to weather many a storm and still keep going. I work with many kids who never receive this training, kids for whom the home is not a haven. It’s challenging and sad, and it’s exhausting. It makes me grateful to have had a good upbringing. It also makes me too tired to read or blog or play bridge, or . . .
In real life, we shy away from conflict. Our adventures come in the forms of vacations or love affairs or extreme sports; the rest of our lives are relatively calm. Not so in mysteries, however, where troubles smack you over the head, and the worse that characters are at coping with their tsuris, the more fun we have at their expense! If we surmise that a circle of suspects in a Golden Age mystery actually represented the world at large, and the murder symbolized the violence of wartime, it stands to reason that nobody on that country weekend is going to handle their problems very well.
Almost daily, it seems that we are witness to some depraved act of violence: only this past week in California, a gunman opened fire at a country and western bar, killing a dozen people and, of course, dying himself and robbing us of both justice and answers. One of the victims had actually survived a similar horror in Las Vegas last year. His mother got on TV and said she wanted no prayers, only gun control. Doctors railed at the NRA, and the NRA railed back. And we all felt helpless. Why do these assailants strike? What are the solutions, if any, to this cycle of violence?
In novels like Christie’s Murder Is Easy or Queen’s Cat of Many Tails, we get our answers. Here a serial killer terrorizes a quaint English village and the city of New York, respectively. Well, Wychwood Under Ashe isn’t particularly flummoxed because the citizenry is largely unaware of the killer’s actions; the sense of terror is mostly felt by two or three characters and, hopefully, the reader. What both novels have in common is that the motivation for this epic attack on a community stem from the most deeply personal of human feelings and experiences. The killers are ultimately depicted as mad, although both function outwardly as contributing members of society. And they are both dispatched through the efforts of moderately intelligent amateurs like you and me.
In GAD, extreme violence is muted and/or reduced, almost literally, to a game. In Christie’s The ABC Murders, the killer challenges Poirot – and the reader – to a duel of wits, which elevates our pleasure despite the fact that people keep dying. In The Pale Horse, or in Ellery Queen’s There Was an Old Woman and Double, Double, our fear that madness will out is eased when the killers all are proven to be as sane as you and me, acting on base human instincts we can all understand. Best of all, their crime sprees are cut short and their actions explained in full.
But what to say about the criminals who carry out an impossible crime? They want to establish an alibi, or spook out the community by suggesting that the supernatural is at work, or attempt to mask murder as suicide or accident. It takes brains, massive planning, nerves of steel, and some luck to embark on this path. But isn’t somebody who lays out, and expects us to swallow, the theory that a double murder is the work of the spirit of a dead logger turned evil wendigo, or who kills a harmless old man merely as a dress rehearsal for another murder, or who murders four people, three of them strangers, in order to inherit the money of the victim they know . . . isn’t there something nuts about these people?
You don’t have to go to extremes to catch my point. With the holidays approaching, we’re all gearing up for the stress of family gatherings. Sure, most of us still find plenty to enjoy when the clan gets together. Still, attempting to maintain a constant sense of cheer with the people who know you better than anyone else is exhausting not to mention the tendency for old wounds to reopen or for your increasingly batty old uncle to embarrass you, or for your brother’s new girlfriend to create fresh troubles.
There’s violence brewing here . . . you can taste it!
So what drives Jonathan Royal in Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman or Simeon Lee in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas to invite people who can’t stand each other for a weekend and then pit them against each other? Ditto Mr. Shaitana for “collecting” murderers in Cards on the Table and basically locking himself in a room with them while four detectives wait outside for . . . what? dessert? Christ, people, we all get bored at times, but this behavior is crazy! And Royal, Lee and Shaitana are the victims!
Classic mysteries are all about non-fortuitous circumstances getting out of hand. At the start of The Hollow, Lady Angkatell rightfully frets over the guest list for her weekend in the country. Is it smart to invite John Christow’s wife when his mistress will also be there, particularly as the girlfriend excels in board games? It’s not Lucy’s fault when John’s long ago girlfriend stages a surprise entrance, but should anyone be surprised when John’s blood starts dripping into the swimming pool? Nor does Lady Tressilian of Towards Zero know quite how to put her foot down when Neville’s former and present wives show up at the same time for the holidays, along with the ex-lovers of both women. In all fairness, Lady T. is being manipulated by a killer but won’t figure this out until it is literally too late for her to do anything about it. But that’s little consolation to the woman when she is found with her head bashed in!
The killers’ plot in Murder on the Orient Express is carried out with cold-blooded precision. The amount of nerve needed to commit this crime, especially after Hercule Poirot coincidentally gets booked on the train, calls for keen minds to prevail. And yet, this plot is insane! There’s a reason I dropped my book on the ground when the truth was revealed. Think of the months – no, years – of planning that went into this. I’m having troubles enough trying to renew my passport! The same thing holds true for The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, where the motive, if not the circumstances, is essentially the same. There is a level here where the killer has got to be mentally unstable. But think of the coolness that went into this plot. Think of how the killer does not fall apart, but builds upon the plan, even to the point of dispatching two other people.
The central conflicts in the four Christie titles mentioned above are, to say the least, extreme. Past tragedies, childhood insanity, and overwhelming romantic entanglements do not figure in most of our holiday gatherings. We view these tragedies with wonder and relief. We relish the high drama and are relieved that we’re safe from it. And all this feeling is tempered by the puzzle, by the notion that this huge freaking mess will be all straightened out by the end.
Sometimes, our suspension of disbelief is sorely tested. Murder in Mesopotamia gets a lot of flack because we have a hard time believing that the victim wouldn’t be aware of a certain . . . thing! But even giving Christie the benefit of the doubt – this is1930’s puzzle mystery territory, after all – what kind of nerve would it take this killer to dedicate years to this plan? And yet Christie presents the person as essentially sane from start to finish! And yet, the initial murder plan is bald-faced craziness. And yet, the killer presents a perfect front! And yet, the second murder calls for such cruelty to a person the killer cares for!
Admittedly, what I’m presenting here serves as the perfect argument for those who dismiss the GAD genre as utter fantasy and extol the hyper-real grit of modern mystery fiction. But I love this stuff! Where else can you see human suffering exaggerated to such lengths that we read about the brutal murders of ten people on an island with a smile on our faces? Where else do we gasp with horror, sorrow anddelight when Sir Henry Merrivale reveals the method and the person responsible for a pair of lovers walking off a cliff together and ending up miles away, shot to death?
Who the hell is Justine Larbalestier?
Just as 60% of the human body is made of water, anywhere from 30 to 94% of our daily lives can be made up of tedium/ Only in a mystery do the most mundane objects and facts – the glass of water in the fireplace or the shoeprint under the window, the coffee stain on the rub or the burn spot on the parlor table, the eye color in a family’s lineage, the way a daffy old woman gets her best friend’s name wrong – all take on a life-altering significance. And what a catharsis when we as readers recognize that significance! How brilliant we feel!
And don’t we learn a lot from these fantasies? Don’t we learn to pay the closest attention to what people say and do? Don’t we learn to not take anything for granted, that if a killer has to have been able to walk from Point A to Point B we shouldn’t necessarily dismiss the man in the wheelchair? If Suspect X could not possibly have been present when the killer struck, don’t we always place him at the top of our list? We look out for sequences, for cause and effect, for any attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. It’s like math, only interesting.
When we figure it out, don’t we strut about the house, annoying our roommates, who couldn’t give a hill of beans about our triumph? And when we are totally hornswoggled by the killer and beaten by the author, don’t we learn good grace after having lost the game? In fact, isn’t this one game we’d all rather lose?
I am feeling so good right now! I don’t know why, but I feel both energized and relaxed! Grant you, I haven’t solved the problem of time management. I still feel resentful that work keeps dragging me away from all the fun that prompts JJ and Kate and the Puzzle Doctor and Jamie and Moira and Noah and Curtis and all the rest to post regularly. But I’m excited at the prospect of finishing the Loder and the Duncan! I have a plan forming in my mind to dedicate much of 2019 to an intensive reading of two authors. (More about that later.) I’ve bought a ticket to Bodies in the Library in June! (Muchmore about that later.) And I can only hope that something somewhere will inspire me to shake off these doldrums and get a piece of writing out to you sooner rather than later. You never know when or how it can happen.
I’ll keep you posted.