How it Came About: Some time ago, when I was in Australia for WorldCon, the fabulous Peter Ball and I got to talking about our shared love for Nick & Norah, both movie and book, and he somehow got me to watch the DVD with commentary, which was actually quite fascinating. Among other tidbits about how the two authors had collaborated to produce the book, Rachel Cohn said that part of her inspiration had been Hammett’s characters Nick and Norah Charles, a rich and glamorous married couple “who solve homicides in between wisecracks and martinis” (as described on the back of the book). Cohn said she wanted to capture that sense of fun and witiness in a romantic couple. I later discovered Nick & Norah Charles had a forerunner in Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence, who don’t drink quite so much but are just as clever when it comes to both wise-cracks and crime-solving.
Favorite things and fun quotes from this triptych below the fold!
OK, so I just finished reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and it made me oh-so-angry. (In case either of the two other people who still haven’t read this 100-million-copy-selling book happen to be reading, I’ll try to leave this spoiler free.)
Simply put, no writer should be allowed to get away with writing a mystery in which you narrate from the internal point of view of all the characters and yet still manage to surprise the reader as to who the culprit is. It’s clearly cheating! And, yet, you go back and re-read the parts that made you think what you thought, and then you realize, oh, that’s how she did it, it actually wasn’t cheating after all, and then that only makes you angrier…
The technique that she seems to use again and again, to such great effect, is deflection. She puts the answer right in front of you, but arranges such a carnival all around it that you assume that can’t possibly be the answer, until, oh wait, it is. Which makes the conclusion as superbly satisfying as it is frustrating. Curse you, Agatha! And please teach me how you do what you do.
(Side note: there are also all sorts of things going on in the book around race, class and gender – some of which is conscious and much of which probably is not, but that could be a whole dissertation unto itself.)
One of my current reading projects is to explore more mysteries. Every good story has a bit of mystery in it, after all, and the murder whodunnit is sort of the ultimate, pure unadulterated form of the mystery. So I started by checking out Agatha Christie, who many tell me is the master, and read Murder at the Vicarage, the first of her Miss Marple novels. The basic plot is: dude gets murdered at the vicarage in a small village full of gossips. Almost everyone had a motive for killing him, and two people even confess to the crime right away. Miss Marple, an “old maid” and a gossip who’s an exceptionally observant student of human nature, shows up local law enforcement by being a better detective than any of the detectives.
Christie’s title of the Queen of Crime is well-earned, and she’s one of those writers you can learn a lot from reading, just to see how she does what she does. Here are just a few of the tidbits I learned from my first audience with the Queen:
Make it clear lots of people have a motive to commit the crime right away. For bonus points, do this before the murder even happens.
There doesn’t necessarilly need to be lots of “action” (e.g., shoot-outs, fist fights, etc.) to create suspense. A series of conversations (or interrogations) can create quite a bit of suspense, so long as each conversation builds the tension and adds some new layer of complexity to the story.
The villain needs to have a fairly complicated plan for the mystery to be interesting.
It is *really* appealing when the crime is solved by a nontraditional hero, such as the “gossipy old maid.” For bonus points: Have the “official” authorities look down on the hero even as they bungle everything, up until the very end.
In other news, my writing-cation continues to go well. Up to 14,000 words or so, and just might hit the 20k mark by Monday, if I can get past a stumbling block or two…