“To engender empathy and create a world using only words is the closest thing we have to magic.”
— Lin-Manuel Miranda
“To engender empathy and create a world using only words is the closest thing we have to magic.”
— Lin-Manuel Miranda
A few weeks ago, I was asked to introduce the Bigfork Community Players’ production of “Murder on the Nile,” Agatha Christie’s stage play based on her book, Death on the Nile. That got me thinking about Dame Agatha’s continued influence on readers and writers. The play is great fun—different from both book and movie—and it was a delight to be a part of the show for a night. My comments:
I’m Leslie Budewitz, author of the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in a fictional version of Bigfork, and the Seattle Spice Shop mysteries.
When Karen Koler asked me to join the fun tonight, we chatted a bit about the play, and our amazement at how widely read – and watched – Agatha Christie remains today.
And that got me thinking about Agatha Christie and her continued influence on mystery writers and readers.
For many of us, her books were the gateway into adult literature. When we’d had enough of Nancy Drew, we gravitated naturally to Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and my favorites, Tommy and Tuppence. I still remember buying my first Agatha Christie, a paperback, in a dime store in Burlington IA when I was ten or twelve. With my own money. I read it by the pool and begged my mother to let me go back and buy more.
Agatha Christie was born in 1890 and died in 1976. She wrote 75 novels, not all of them mysteries, 100 short stories, more than a dozen plays – some based on her novels, and two autobiographies. She was also a prolific diarist. I’m pleased to have won two Agatha Awards, named for the great lady herself, for nonfiction and best first novel. The year I was nominated for Best Nonfiction, one of the other nominees was John Curran, a Brit who’s written two books looking at her secret notebooks, where she sketched out her plots and character ideas, and occasionally wrote the first drafts of her short stories. Her books are still bestsellers, and her plays still draw crowds.
Because she was first and foremost a tremendous storyteller. John Curran attributes that in part to her unconventional education. She also had a tremendous curiosity about the world. She traveled widely with her mother, with her first husband, an army officer, and with her second, an archaeologist. Those trips inspired several novels, including Murder on the Orient Express. Her trip to Egypt was no doubt the spark for her 1934 short story called “Death on the Nile,” featuring Parker Pyne, one of her lesser-known detectives. She then expanded it into the 1937 novel, featuring Hercule Poirot, and later adapted it for the stage as Murder on the Nile, making significant changes along the way.
She wrote what are typically called traditional or cozy mysteries, where a murder happens in a discrete, defined community, and has a deep ripple effect. The murder disrupts the community, and a surprise – even though one happens in every book. The murder must be solved not only for justice to prevail, but to restore the community, and help the individuals get their lives back on track – something we’ll see in this story.
She also created highly memorable detectives. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are instantly recognizable. They’re both intriguing, he for his experiences, and she for her astuteness despite her apparent lack of experience. That nosy village woman lurks in many of us, and she’s the inspiration for so many modern amateur sleuths, including my own.
Both Miss Marple and Poirot were typically outsiders, although Miss Marple did occasionally investigate an incident in her own village, St. Mary Mead, and that outsider status gave them the ability to see things and make connections others – including the police – couldn’t see. That’s very much an element of the modern traditional mystery, as is the counselor or sounding board role that each often played.
Some of her secondary characters feel like cliches now, but I think that’s the result of time and imitation. She did a brilliant job giving her minor characters the telling details that made them come alive. She also used our assumptions about certain types of characters against us, such as our belief in the innocence of a caring doctor or a devoted child.
We also love her intricate plots. She often recycled plots, or wrote variations of them, which the very prolific can do. The mystery writer Robert Barnard wrote that she could use the same trick a second time – and still fool us. She hid clues in plain sight, and she was a master of the red herring. In fact, we’ll see tonight how she used misdirection to make us think one thing while something entirely different was going on.
She was daring, as anyone who’s read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd will remember, but I won’t say anything more, for those of you who haven’t read it yet.
I admire her ability to create a world. Tonight, we’ll feel ourselves part of the group on the cruise, and feel the friendships and tensions that develop. She had an uncanny eye and ear for the subtle conflicts between people, and as one writer friend pointed out, her subtle hints of inappropriate sexual obsession were way ahead of time. Morality is a recurring theme in her work.
She had wit. The same friend recalls her describing a character’s eyes as the color of “boiled gooseberries.” My friend had no idea what a gooseberry was, but the image totally painted a picture.
And she’s inspired modern day authors quite literally. There’s a mystery set a conference on Christie’s work, another hypothesizing that she wrote a long-lost play during her mysterious 1926 disappearance, and another involving a Golden Age of Mystery book club, structured like her novels. In my books, I use a Cast of Characters, as she often did, as a way to help readers remember who’s who, but also as another form of storytelling.
Dame Agatha remains popular because her stories still tell us something about human nature, and because they’re fun.
I’ll be in the lobby at intermission and after the show, chatting about mysteries – both Dame Agatha’s and my own. And I do have books and bookmarks available.
Thank you – and enjoy your trip down the Nile.
I adore Meryl Streep, and I loved two things she said in her speech accepting a lifetime achievement award from the Golden Globes.
“An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like. …
As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia, said to me once, take your broken heart, make it into art.”
What she said about the role of empathy is equally true of writers. In fact, I believe we could make a good case that practicing empathy should be a primary goal of us as humans, and that the world would be a better place as a result. And when we practice art, we grow our empathic souls. (And so, empathy in the arts is my theme for March quotes.)
Here’s a link to the full text of Meryl’s speech, from the New York Times.
(Photo by Leslie; Avalanche Creek, Glacier National Park)
[I tell beginning writers to be] “stubborn. Be tenacious. Commit yourself to the inevitability of failure. Sentences are going to fail, chapters … whole books … [P]ay close attention to [your] own life. Don’t avoid your own passions and fears. There’s a tendency, I think, to sublimate it all, or to become so oblique as to avoid entirely that which has hurt you or that which has jerked you awake at night. I know of no rule that commands a writer to be subtle at all costs. At times, I believe, it doesn’t hurt to be blunt.”
– Tim O’Brien, American novelist, b. 1946, in The Writer (July 2010)
(painting by Leslie, pastel on garnet paper)
The latest in an occasional series of books that turn my crank, and which I think you’ll like, too.
Musselled Out (2015) and Fogged Inn (2016) by Barbara Ross (Kensington Books), the 3d and 4th in the Maine Clam Bake mysteries. I love this series. Barb Ross is writing some of the smartest cozies around. Julia Snowden took a break from her career in venture capital in NYC to return to her Maine hometown to help her widowed mother, sister, and brother-in-law brink the family’s clambake business back from the brink. She’s succeeded, but not without personal peril, murder, and unexpected romance. In Musselled Out, her boss’s patience is running out, and she’s got to decide whether to stay—while investigating the death of a potential competitor, the disappearance of a local lobsterman, and the strange doings of her own mother.
Obviously, she stayed, or there would be no fourth book! In Fogged Inn, Julia investigates a death that appears to be closely linked to four couples determined to deny any connection with the dead man—or each other. Fogged Inn explores old friendships and new tensions. The author set herself two challenges—one obvious on the first page, the other on the last—and meets them both beautifully. This book is nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel, and deservedly. I’m in awe. (Next up: Iced Under, published in December 2016.)
“He has not learned the lesson of life who does not everyday surmount a
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
“To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.”
– Joseph Chilton Pearce
(Collage by Leslie)
“Go forth, the tellers of tales,
And seize whatever the heart longs for.
Have no fear.
And everything is true.
And the earth is only a little dust under our feet.”
– WB Yeats, “The Celtic Twilight”
(Turns out fear is such a player in art and writing that I had another month’s worth of ear-catching quotes.)
Time to welcome back my guest, Lisa Black, forensic scientist by day and thriller writer by night. Not surprisingly, Lisa’s become fascinated with the case of the Black Dahlia, and she uses it to tell us about the differences between real-life investigation and creating a fictional case, below. Here’s the scoop on her newest book, Unpunished, published by Kensington Books this week!
It begins with the kind of bizarre death that makes headlines—literally. A copy editor at the Cleveland Herald is found hanging above the grinding wheels of the newspaper assembly line. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner has her suspicions about this apparent suicide inside the tsunami of tensions that is the news industry today—and when the evidence suggests murder, Maggie has no choice but to place her trust in the one person she doesn’t trust at all….
Jack Renner is a killer with a conscience, a vigilante with his own code of honor. He has only one problem: Maggie knows his secret. She insists he enforce the law, not subvert it. But when more newspaper employees are slain, Jack may be the only person who can help Maggie unmask the killer–even if Jack is still checking names off his own private list.
TRUTH MAY BE STRANGER THAN FICTION…BUT FICTION IS MUCH MORE COOPERATIVE
By Lisa Black
Writing murder mysteries means I can make up everything I need to happen. Sometimes that involves juggling some logistics—actually it always means juggling some logistics—but if some plot twist is really giving me a problem, I can simply rewrite it. True crime, however, stubbornly refuses to dot every i or even consider crossing every t. Take the case of the Black Dahlia, which I have been researching for a presentation at the Sleuthfest mystery writer’s convention.
First there was the nightclub owner who ran a sort of free boarding house for young starlets. He employed them in his burlesque show where they hoped to be spotted by those elusive Hollywood agents. No red flags there, right? But according to him he had a house full of these girls, overseen by his long-time girlfriend, and the address book with his embossed name on the cover found in Beth’s luggage had been ‘liberated’ from his desk without his knowledge. Certainly none of these budding starlets ever complained of harsh treatment at his hands. But this was 1947. Women didn’t complain about much—it didn’t help, and only got them more of the same.
Then there was the control freak/charming-when-he-wants-to-be Dr. George Hodel. Though married (always temporarily; he tended to abandon wives like used razor blades) he had a habit of picking up young beauties to photograph them. As a surgeon he certainly had the means to rent a room for the killing and a car to transport the body, and for motive you need look no further than his fascination with the Marquis de Sade. Unfortunately we don’t even have an embossed address book in the way of hard proof that Hodel ever met Beth Short.
Then there’s the tall, skinny guy with a limp. Not kidding. A tall guy with a limp turns up in a number of places in Beth’s timeline and also in the narrative surrounding some other L.A. murders. But in the days before cell phone cameras made selfies ubiquitous, ‘tall, thin and with a limp’ was the most detailed description available to detectives. But this was only a year or two out from WWII, so there were probably quite a number of veterans with leg injuries. And with average daily caloric intake at near-record lows around this time, it wouldn’t be surprising if most people had figures we would envy in today’s TV-watching, corn-syrup-sweetened world. So that doesn’t really narrow it down.
Of course there’s always the mob. As in any large city they had a presence, and with a girl like Beth looking for a way into the studios it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see her cozying up to a made man at a nightclub. Unfortunately, imagination is most of what we have. Like any well-brought up girl, Beth didn’t kiss and tell. She often made reference to ex-boyfriends, even jealous ex-boyfriends, but never named names.
Then there’s Arnold Smith, aka, Jack Anderson Wilson, who supposedly sent an informant to the cops to relay his tale. This informant, unnamed in the books, said that Arnold Smith said that a guy he knew named Al Morrison told Smith, in great detail, how he had killed Beth Short. Smith, incidentally, was described by the informant as tall, thin, and walking with a limp, and detectives figured this Al Morrison never existed and served the “I’m not asking for me, but for a friend of mine” purpose. Most significantly, he knows details of Beth’s anatomy that the police never leaked. Unfortunately the cops never got to speak to Wilson directly. He would only meet the informant by chance at a bar and though the informant, with cops around him, kept waiting, Smith didn’t show. Instead he continued a bad habit of smoking in bed and set his hotel room on fire, taking his secrets into the next life.
And since the crime occurred 60 years ago, witnesses cannot be re-questioned for more details, no phone records or hotel registries have survived, and the autopsy report was never made public so we can’t even be sure what is myth and what is fact in the swirl of cyberspace language regarding the life and death of Beth Short.
No wonder I write fiction.
PS If you want to know more about the Black Dahlia murder and the evidence that exists implicating these and other suspects, come to MWA’s Sleuthfest in Boca Raton this February!
About Lisa: Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series. Find out more on her website, www.lisa-black.com , and chat with her on Twitter, @LisaBlackAuthor.
“We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for the final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us…. The transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger. We fear the very visibility without which we also cannot truly live … and that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which is also the source of our greatest strength.”
— Audre Lorde, American poet and activist, 1934-92