Saturday, April 16, 2011

And Then There Were None: An Examination of Mystery Stories

Over the past year I have begun to engross myself in detective fiction.  I began reading the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, analyzing his keen analytics from the perspective of Dr. Watson.  Arthur Conan Doyle had a structure to each story.  For the unpatient reader, the massive amount of dialogue could have become tiresome, but for me, it excited me.  Who was the perpetrator?  How was Holmes going to solve the case?  What was Doyle going to think of next?  These I enjoyed, short bursts of mystery and detection, that like any finite reality left me wanting more.

I had in my possession during that time on my iPod, then iPhone, a free ebook I had obtained from the vast collection of beyond copyright materials in the library of the iBook store.  For a set of mysteries stories, it has a curious name, The Innocence of Father Brown.  I had long heard of Chesterton's brilliance with these stories about a detective priest, and finally, gave into reading short stories on the small iPhone screen, a novel experience I tell you.

I must tell you this curious desire to read mystery novels is not just a fancy of bored seminarian, for bored I am rarely not.  It is rather for two reasons, enjoyment, for mystery fiction keeps one riveted and is always seeking justice, and secondly, research, because one day I, a simple blogger and seminarian, wish to write detective fiction.  More on this desire later, and back to Father Brown.

Chesterton took a decidedly different turn with his Father Brown stories.  They were written by way of different narrators unlike the retelling done by Watson alone.  Father Brown was a completely different character than Holmes.  He was unassuming, humble, religious, and sometime in the background of the story.  He pops out when it is time for said mystery to be solved and has all figured out like a contemplative monk who speaks only when necessary during grand silence.

Finally, I get to Agatha Christie.  I must say first her introduction to me was by way of a stageplay of her famous Mousetrap performed by my highschool's drama club.  I loved it.  I was riveted by the characters and the story so much so that I took it as form in my one and only screenplay, if it can be called that, written for a film project for a high school speech class.  Since, that time I was always interested in her work but had slothfully never read it.  A few years ago in browsing through the Blockbuster stacks, pre-Netflix, of course, looking for an enjoyable to pass the time a friend and I came across a film named Murder on the Orient Express, with a cast of actors of the likes of Sean Connery and Ingrid Burgman.  It was a film version of one her Poirot detective novels.  I thoroughly enjoyed the mystery and detection.  It was solved by a competent and brilliant detective.

During my aforementioned research I came across a club, that connected the two previous authors.  They imaginatively called themselves The Detection Club.  Chesterton was their first president.  They wished to provide good detective fiction among all the dross and such coming out in those days of the early 20th Century.  I found on the American Chesterton Society's website some essays, under his title Murderer, he had written on detective stories.  Amongst those essays he outlined some do's and don't of writing detective stories.  One of the main ones is this: the culprit should always be known to reader, the culprit should not be introduced as a new character at the end of the story/novel.  I found this true of both the Fr. Brown and Holmes stories as well as Murder on the Orient Express.  He also stated that those who die are people that we should actually care about in some way.  They should not just be straw people.  Their deaths then have no great meaning and impetus to solve the mystery is lessened much.

This now brings me to my current place of reflection, Agatha Christie's brilliantly written And Then There Were None.

WARNING: There are SPOILERS if you continue regarding the work mentioned above.  If you have not read said work, I suggest that you read a different blogpost, or purchase said novel at your local bookstore, ebook store, or audio book store (I suggest for the third commercial enterprise).

Now I must say I did not read it.  I listened to it, via audiobook.  It was a very compelling listen.  It came to life.  Christie introduces all the characters as they are traveling to a mysterious island.  All invited as house guests.  Not all by the same person.  She immediately creates mystery.  Having never read the story I nonetheless knew its premise and its basic conclusion, not only from the title of the novel, but from hearing it from other places.  All were going to die.  When the ten little indian poem was introduced, I then understood how each person was going to die.  I wondered who is going to be last?  Who is the culprit?  Christie strayed though from the formula.  There was no official "detective" like Holmes, or Fr. Brown, or Poirot.  There were just amateurs, some more experienced than others, but all amateurs, nonetheless.  Furthermore, with ten characters it became rife with red herrings, only relieving doubt when they were murdered.

At the end of the story, all ten were dead and the mysterious Mr. Owen was not revealed.  There appeared then an epilogue beginning at the Scotland Yard.  I figured, finally, there would be real detective work and all would be figured out.  Unfortunately, all Christie gave us were nearly competent policemen, who couldn't figure it out.  All this time I was thinking: she broke the golden rule.  She's going to bring the culprit up from thin air.  After the "detective" work there was no answer and I thought, "You bastard.  You're not going to solve it!  You're going to leave it up in the air!  You can't do that!  It negates the whole story, turns it into a waste of time.  You can't end totally unresolved with no clues for the reader figure out."  Was it one of the ten?  Can we trust that it was?  Was it one of the final three?  Was there actually someone else on the island, who hid too well?  It couldn't be a ghost.  That would break another cardinal sin of mystery fiction.  Then, there was the final letter from Judge Justice Wargrave explaining everything.  I should've know from his name.  I had thoughts because he was leading the whole "investigation." He was guiding.  By being in front of everyone, he was eluding suspicion.  I suspected him most of all, until he was killed.  Then when the other four died.  I was left wondering.  Was there another person?  The letter was cruel and inviting.  I did not like waiting to the very end to find out.  To see how the mystery unraveled.  It wasn't unraveled by a brilliant detective, but by the culprit himself.  It took the sting out of justice.  Justice.  Justice Wargrave.  How ironic.

I learned a few things about mystery fiction from this.  Create characters you can feel for.  I connected with Vera and Lombard.  I didn't want them to die.  I wanted them to live.  Apparently in the film versions, they do.  But it was perfect to kill them, even because we felt for them, because of the nature and power of the plot.  It was so well put together.  It was nearly impossible to decipher without the letter.  I also felt by the end that I despised the cold, tortise-like demeanor of Wargrove.  For ample reason did Christie move the reader in that way giving slight clues as to who the perpetrator was.  She did that with great effect for Emily Brent.  Few would have sided with her quiet self-righteousness.  She was perhaps the best red herring.  Even better than the kind, rattled doctor.

Second, Christie provided the best example of having the culprit right in front of the reader.  All knew Wargrave.  He was the very first character that was introduced.  Christie broke a rule that is in no rule book per se.  She rather played with the expectations of the reader.  The first character usually introduced is the protagonist.  She flips it around and introduces the killer with the first lines of the book. Ingenious.  He''s right in front of everything, and yet ultimately unreproachable until his letter confession.

1 comment:

jd chandler said...

I love your blog. I am a big reader too and I appreciate having reviews from real people to help me choose my books.

I recently published my first book as an eBook. I am looking for reading bloggers to read and review it. Here is a link to MUD BAY

If you are interested in reading/reviewing it please let me know your email address and I will send you a copy at no charge.