How to write 5,000 words

PeninsulaHotelTea
Photo Credit: Peninsula Hotel, Chicago

Tea. And bribery. These are the two secrets to successful novelists, as proven by a study of one writer.

After plying myself with tea and biscuits, I rewarded myself with 20 minutes of BBC’s Poirot and Marple episodes for each 500 words.

I hope it works tomorrow, too.

Advertisements

The Mirror Crack’d by Agatha Christie

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side by Agatha Christie

A bold, clever murder spirals into desperate measures. 

A clever Agatha Christie that’s lamentably too short, The Mirror Crack’d is almost like two stories. One is the classic mystery and the other is a dissertation of sorts on growing old, especially after WWII.

Set closer to the 1950s, Miss Marple is far less mobile and relies on the help of the annoyingly kind Mrs. Knight. Mary St. Mead is modernising, but not always for the better, as the townhouse style development shows. Like the last Poirot case, Miss Marple is definitely struggling with the physical indignities of growing old while her mind is still razor sharp.

The mystery itself is extremely clever, a classic Christie, where golden age Hollywood meets 1950s England. An innocent woman is poisoned by mistake when a beautiful, tragic actress was the intended victim. Who tried to kill Marina – her apparently devoted husband? The cool young secretary almost certainly in love with the husband? Or one of a slew of jilted lovers, ex-husbands or cast-off children?

This wasn’t my favourite book by Christie. My main complaint is how short it is – we don’t get as much chance to really dig into motives and personalities. The stakes could’ve been raised and the characters better explored with more length.

But there’s always the brilliant puzzle, so painfully obvious in retrospect, to buoy an otherwise decent read.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

monogramA modern homage to Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

Writing under the Agatha Christie name, Sophie Hannah has crafted an immensely complicated murder. The premise is fantastic – a woman tells Poirot not to prevent her death at the same time that three people are murdered in an elegant London hotel, monogrammed cufflinks in their mouths.

Recounting this story is a detective named Edward Catchpool, modeled after many companions who do not understand Poirot. The main difference being Catchpool’s feelings are treated with equal weight to the murder plot. So we learn a lot about Catchpool’s fear of dead bodies, which made his chosen profession of homicide detective rather odd.

The three odd deaths are soon traced to a village tragedy, but Poirot and Catchpool struggle continuously against a parade of partial truths and side characters. During the final denouement, things twist around repeatedly and confusingly. Yet even when the entire story comes out, it remains slightly convoluted.

The main plot was genius. I would’ve loved a little more period detail, and a dash less moaning in Catchpool, to find it an utterly delightful Christie. The addition of the subplot felt unneeded and I was surprised by Catchpool feeling even a slight moral dilemma about the murderer.

A solid addition to Christie’s canon of works, I look forward to trying the next one.

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

A classic locked room mystery featuring a bold, devious murder in mid air.

Somehow an old woman is murdered on a flight from Paris to London in plain view of several passengers. What might have passed as a death by wasp sting is foiled by the presence of Hercule Poirot.

Mr. Poirot is not just any detective. To most mystery readers, Agatha Christie is legend. Arguably her most treasured creation is Hercule Poirot, a short Belgian with a beautiful mustache and a penchant for truth and absolute symmetry. In this case, Poirot is one of the suspects (although not very seriously) when a murder is committed behind his back.

The murder by exotic blowpipe is so boldly, imaginatively executed that the Chief Inspector Japp is positively insulted. And yet, despite Japp’s insisting it to be mere luck, our favourite OCD detective Poirot says we must judge the end result. It is a successful murder.

This time Poirot is not accompanied by the sweet Hastings, who is a chivalrous bundle of passion and kindness, a Watson-like figure. Instead we have a French detective who believes in the psychological elements of a crime, unlike Japp, yet even he begins to doubt Poirot at times.

Despite Poirot’s frequent cry of ‘the grey cells’ and his disdain for rushing around, he does just that in this book. He follows and questions suspects, persuades them to do things for him, hunts for evidence, and generally gets so involved that it’s impossible to determine who he’s after. This one kept me guessing until the end.

Sometimes cozy murderers are sympathetic, especially when the victim turns out to be a blackmailer. But this murderer is pretty well heartless and ruthless, without even a shred of conscience…

England in the 1920s, mysteries and more

As an avid mystery reader, I’m a huge fan of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and many other excellent 1920s mysteries. The “Golden Age” of mysteries is my favorite era. They combine plot driven books that are suspenseful without being terrifying with an intellectual puzzle to be solved and character driven stories that focus on people.

Writing a book in this era requires a great deal of research if you want to create an immersive world. The 1920s is nearly a hundred years ago now. You need to preserve historical accuracy like names, landscape, clothing, social norms, technology, economy, vocabulary and even how they thought based on their age and experience. But while you want your protagonist to be utterly of their time, you also need to balance this with changing world views and norms.

England is difficult when you consider social classes, World War I (the Great War) and colonialism. There were many things changing in a good way like women’s right to vote and worker protection laws from the new Labour Party, but it was also a dark time with another war looming and many still living in abject poverty. Another challenge is that the immediate past of the protagonist (such as their parents’ upbringing or the era they lived in) also plays a part in their beliefs, so I found myself digging into the late 1800’s as well.

While I appreciate the Golden Age novels giving us a stimulating puzzle to enjoy and often a privileged world, they only sometimes explore social injustices. I’ll give examples where I feel they do call for change more than we might realize. But I still feel we owe a debt to those who suffered not to gloss over their pain even as we stay optimistic in a changing world.

I decided to share the research I’ve been doing, which books have been invaluable and thoughts about murder mystery books set in this era. Hopefully this will help anyone interested in the 1920’s in England, writing or reading mysteries, or just general interest in that period.