On the 5th day of the Twelve Days of Christiemas, author Derek Farrell talks about the 10 things he’s learnt from Agatha Christie. Derek is the author of the Danny Bird mysteries, Death of Diva and Death of a Nobody. The latest in the series, Death of a Devil was published by Fahrenheit Press on 14 August 2017.
<WARNING: Contains some spoilers, though I’ll try to avoid naming any actual murderers>
The first adult crime fiction I ever read was an Agatha Christie (“Poirot’s Early Cases,” in case you were wondering). I was off school sick and had read everything I had by my bedside table when my dad said “Why don’t you try this; you might like it,” and a love affair that’s now coming on forty years old was born.
I’ve forgotten how many times I have read, re-read and flicked through the Christie Cannon, or how many times I’ve bought, rebought, upgraded, and reshuffled the collection, falling in love with new covers, new hardback editions, graphic novels.
You get it: I’m a bit of a Christie nut. And as a writer of novels which are contemporary but suffused with the type of structures Christie virtually invented (gather all the suspects together, commit a crime, investigate each possibility in turn, lace liberally with red herrings and subplots, gather all the surviving suspects in a room and disclose the killer. The solution must always – ALWAYS – be logical and based on nothing that the reader was not shown or which they could not have deduced for themselves.)
And so I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned – both as a reader and a writer of crime novels featuring a detective I’m proud to have had described once as “Like Poirot on Poppers.”
1/ Murder is as old as man.
Death Comes As The End (publ 1945) is one of Christie’s standalone novels featuring the murder of a rich man’s second wife, and the suspicions that then engulfs his family as it becomes obvious that a member of his household is most likely the murderer. It’s told through the eyes of his youngest daughter, is a particular favourite of mine, and is set in the Nile Valley in 2000 BC, making it one of the earliest Historical Crime Novels ever published. And she proved – with delicate scene setting and without a surfeit of “Thee,” “Thou,” and “Thine,” that you could conjure the past up and show that the evil of murder – and the satisfaction to be had in unmasking the miscreant and setting the world to rights – is as old as time.
2/The murderer should always be a ‘real’ person.
Christie gets a lot of stick from some corners for writing what are sometimes described as caricatures, but I’d have to disagree. I don’t think she always got it right – and I think she definitely got better as her writing developed – but her famous quote that “Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend,” is indicative of the effort she put into making killers who had valid motives, who weren’t just cyphers there to trigger the chase off and curl their moustaches as they chained the hero to a cellar wall and opened the floodgates.
With killers who have real motives and genuine reactions (even if sometimes far too much time on their hands, leading to rather Byzantine murderous schemes), the challenge is more gripping, the stakes somehow higher.
3/ The victim is paramount
Consequently, if you’re going to have a murder (or murderers) who are drawn as real people with real feelings and fears and desires, your victims should exist for a reason other than to be murdered. So we get the blonde on the carpet in The Body in The Library who, it turns out, had a life in front of her, had hopes and dreams and went, freely and filled with excitement, to meet her murderer. When Marple realises that this young woman was snuffed out for no reason other than greed and because the killer thought she was worthless, her righteous anger turns her into a fury. Equally, when the true identity of the victim on The Orient Express is revealed, the whole plotline shifts.
In “Hallowe’en Party,” Poirot realises that the key to identifying the killer is in understanding the boastful personality of the schoolgirl victim, and in realising that she’d been murdered to keep her from expanding on a boast she’d made of – once upon a time – seeing a murder committed…
4/ The unreliable narrator is not a new development. <SPOILER>
Christie basically invented the idea of an unreliable narrator.
In ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,’ our narrator has a far more important role in the death than at first appears, and Christie keeps the truth from her readers almost til the final line of the novel. As a writer, I love how some of Christie’s twists or tics are now essential parts of the crime writing vernacular.
5/ A locked room mystery – if done well – is one of the most enjoyable things on earth.
The locked room mystery, by the end of it’s time in the sun (if a locked room can ever be said to have been in the sun) had reached the stage where layers of unnecessary complexity were being ladled on top of the basic plot in desperate attempts to make them trickier and more impenetrable and to make the unbelievably convoluted solutions make sense.
In 1938, J Jefferson Farjeon published “Mystery in White,” a book so INSANE in it’s convolutedness that I read it (some years later, obvs’ I mean I’m old but I’m not *that* old) with a jaw so far to the floor I basically ended up with lockjaw.
That same year, Christie published “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.” It’s filled with stock Christie characters – posh people and their loyal but basic staff – and it’s got snow and a country house, and a locked room murder and I read it again every Christmas, and it gives me so much joy.
Basically, “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” is my mince pies and pudding. It MAKES the season, and it’s a locked room mystery that’s about genetics, relationships, families, greed, revenge and food.
The solution makes sense, the motives make sense, the writing is crisp and clean, and – even though it’s a little bit deranged (it’s a 30’s murder mystery; if you want social realism you’re in the wrong place), it’s a satisfying and smart book, wherein the locked room mystery is an aspect, rather than the entire purpose of the piece. And that makes it – in my eyes – a classic.
6/ The more you write, the better you get.
Compare “Postern of Fate,” the last novel Christie wrote (though not the last one published) with “The Secret Adversary,” the second book she ever wrote. Both starred Tommy and Tuppence Beresford (my favourite of all her characters), and whilst I adore both books, the darkness, the moral outrage, the sketches of the characters and the psychology in “Postern Of Fate” really highlight how simplistic “The Secret Adversary” was. Which brings us to…
7/ A Christie is for Christmas
No, not just “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.” Agatha Christie, between 1922 and 1976 published a book every single year. EVERY. SINGLE YEAR. In some years she published two. In 1934, she published three (including “Murder on the Orient Express,” and “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans.”)
The slogan ‘A Christie for Christmas’ came into existence because her publishers basically cornered the Christmas market for decades.
One can only assume her publishers based much of their Q4 earnings projections on the expected cashflow from that year’s Christie. For a writer, the message is clear: Get your rear in the chair. Get writing. Keep going. Don’t look back. And dream, one day, of having a body of work that’s a thousandth as impressive as Mrs Christie’s.
8/ A writer should be unafraid to own their creations
During the second world war, London was subject to a Blitzkrieg of almost nightly bombings and many people were evacuated to the countryside. Christie, herself, was offered an opportunity to relocate for the duration, but chose to stay in the city, and spent her days writing, and her nights in air raid shelters (an experience she’d put to use in “Taken at the Flood”) and during this period, Christie wrote like a fury, never knowing when a bomb might fall on her and end her life.
She still produced her contracted book or two a year, and still managed to write two books that would be put into a vault and remain unpublished for more than thirty years.
Those two books were “Sleeping Murder,” Miss Marple’s last case, and “Curtain,” a book which was not only Poirot’s last case, but which has a twist that has been controversial since it was first published.
The end of “Curtain,” in particular, has – at various times – broken my heart and left me in awe of an author who could have developed in twenty years of writing, a confidence and a psychological awareness of her characters to be able to attempt – let alone pull off – an ending which makes clear that there will be no more Poirot stories after this one.
Christie – notwithstanding the various ‘authorised’ attempts since her death – made it clear that she did not want her characters played around with; she did not want Poirot or Marple resurrected in 90s Las Vegas.
She owned her characters and – even if she didn’t always love them – was willing to fight for their authenticity and the authenticity of her vision.
9/ An author should be unafraid to try other forms of the art
Agatha Christie, in her career, published 75 novels, 28 collections of short stories (equating to hundreds of the brilliant little jewels) 16 plays, 2 autobiographies and 3 poems. She wrote mystery, romance, memoir and even within her mystery novels she had psychological mysteries (“Endless night’ should, I think, be hand ddlivered to anyone who says they’re about to write a Domestic Noir), comic capers, spy novels (“Passenger to Frankfurt,” a rare misfire in my eyes), social comedies and pure puzzles.
“The Moustrap,” began life as a short radio play broadcast on 30 May 1947 called Three Blind Mice in honour of Queen Mary, the consort of King George V. It opened as a stage play in November 1952. It has run, uninterrupted, ever since, and is now the longest running play in history, having played over 25,000 performances, and Christie – to her end – remained almost bemused by it’s success.
The message here, for me, is that the joy of writing – the sheer exhilaration of creation – brings it’s own pleasure, and that what happens after – posterity, longevity – is largely outside of the creator’s control.
10/ Ideas can’t be made to come, but they will come at the oddest times.
Christie, as you can imagine from the many references to her productivity above, had a very exact schedule down for the writing of her books. She allowed three months from the first word to the last, and rarely, if ever, deviated from this self-imposed deadline.
However, this was based on her sitting down with a virtually complete novel already sketched in her head and notebooks, and the time allowed for this – for the brain to make connections and suggest plot points – was unlimited, with some novels showing up repeatedly in notebooks over years as she picked and polished the plots to perfection.
She seemed to view the actual writing as being a fairly mechanical process, and saw the generation and development of ideas as being the real art, and her favourite place for the magic to happen was when doing the dishes, darning socks (though one imagines Mrs Christie darned very few socks as her career developed)or doing various other boring household tasks.
So, essentially, switching off the brain, not allowing the consciousness to badger the ideas.
She did the dishes with a notebook handy, and looking around my kitchen I can see last night’s dinner things still soaking in the sink, so I think I’d better do an Agatha, and get washing.
About the book
Danny Bird and the gang are back.
In this, the 3rd book of the popular series, life at The Marquess of Queensberry public house has returned to something resembling normality. Although his complicated love life is still in a state of some disarray, things are looking pretty rosy for Danny Bird.
Not for long…
Something horrible is discovered in the cellar, someone horrible comes to threaten one of the gang, and Danny and Lady Caroline are faced with some of their biggest challenges yet.
With local crime-lord Chopper Falzone keeping a watchful eye on his investment, Danny and Lady Caz must unmask a murderer, find some stolen diamonds and thwart a blackmailer – just another day at The Marq.
As the plot races breathlessly towards its conclusion, everyone realises that secrets, no matter how well hidden, can’t stay buried forever.
About the author
Derek Farrell is the author of The Danny Bird Mysteries – ‘Death of a Diva’ ‘Death of a Nobody,’ ‘Death of a Devil,’ and the upcoming ‘Death of an Angel’ – all published by Fahrenheit Press.
The books have been described as “Fresh,” “Moving,” “Like The Thin Man meets Will & Grace.” “Like M.C. Beaton on MDMA,” and – by no less an expert than Monty Python’s Eric Idle – as “Quite Fun.”
He’s married and lives with his husband in West Sussex. They have no cats dogs goats or children, though they do have every Kylie Minogue record ever recorded. Twice.