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.

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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.

Crossing the Horizon by Laurie Notaro

cover87970-medium.pngIncredible true stories of the women who dared to fly, fighting for a spot in history.

Inspired by true events, Crossing the Horizon is the heartbreaking and lovely story of women fighting for a spot in history against tremendous odds. In the 1920s, before Amelia Earhart made history with her solo flight, each of these women wanted to be first.

Elsie was the fierce daughter of an English peer who was sucked out of a plane during a loop maneuver and managed to hold on to a wire until the pilot could land. Mabel was the beautiful cigar girl who married into wealth, determined to be first. Ruth was the epitome of the new American girl – brave, cheerful and feminine – saving her beauty pageant earnings to learn flying.

Despite a few bits being dry, the stories captured me and I soon fell in love with Ruth and Elsie. Frances Grayson wasn’t one of the main characters but her exploits were included. I found Mabel to be spoiled and whiny, but I cried as I read about Ruth and Elsie’s daring flights. Inspiring and delightful!

Thanks to NetGalley for the 30-day ebook loan.

The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

secretA simple murder turns into a twisted case of witchcraft, abduction and evil.

4 years after arriving to run a pub in the tiny and tight knit village of High Eldersham, Mr. Whiteman is inexplicably murdered. Constable Viney, a young’un who never dealt with worse than a drunkard, is suddenly confronted with a knifed man drenched in blood.

Poor Viney is hopelessly outclassed. While waiting for his superiors to arrive, he downs a pint and makes an effort to investigate. But luckily for him, Scotland Yard is called in and Inspector Young soon arrives.

I was a little sad not to have ‘met’ ex-policeman Mr. Whiteman other than the briefest mention at the beginning. The author captures character vignettes extremely well and Whiteman is the sort of jovial, good-natured person I’d get on with pretty well.

It soon becomes clear that High Eldersham is very odd and doesn’t care for outsiders. So why then did they tolerate Whiteman so long? And why kill him now?

The story takes a bit of a supernatural turn and Inspector Young soon calls in his “intuitive” friend Desmond Merrion. Mr. Merrion is a bit of an expert in the supernatural and agrees that something is up.

The book descends into an occult darkness that feels almost Sherlockian. It is difficult to tell how an entire village is involved from uneducated farmers to the wealthy Sir William and his pretty daughter Mavis, odd Mr. Hollesley in love with Mavis, and the cynical Dr. Padfield.

Whether truly supernatural, the plot is most certainly evil. Inspector Young and Mr. Merrion almost lose everything trying to uncover the devilish conspirator…

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.

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…

Murder Fantastical by Patricia Moyes

A delightfully eccentric family’s refusal to sell their estate ends in murder.

What starts out as a deceptively simple murder in a tiny village proves to be a fantastically clever plot. The beloved Manciple family is eccentric to an almost unbelievable degree – even as you fall for them, you can’t help but wonder if they know far more than they let on?

All the aunts and uncles have returned to the ancestral home to vet a newcomer, the fiancé of beloved daughter Maud. But things go rather awry when the borgeouis neighbor (and successful bookie) who wouldn’t take no for answer is shot in the driveway.

Is it murder? Chief Inspector Tibbet is called in because the local policeman Sir John is too obviously a friend of the family. The head of the household, Major Manciple (who is a far cry from the stereotypical bluff major), helpfully compiles a list of suspects, motives and means for Tibbet.

But things are far from simple. Even though the plot of the victim to buy the house is fairly obvious, the story has far more depth than I expected. Vague characters like the ex-Bishop of Bugolaland and the ninety year old Aunt Dora are suspicious in their vagueness, while the Major’s darling wife Violet seems incapable of murder.

And the main characters provide so much fodder to unravel! An emotional gun-toting but pacifist ex-Major. A beautiful, vunerable and oddly remote daughter. A jealous, handsome and intelligent fiancee. A loud-mouthed boorish son who inherits his father’s business.

When a second death occurs, Tibbet is forced to work very hard and the plot plunges through so many twists that it is difficult to keep straight. When the denouement comes, in true Agatha Christie style everything clicks into place. You realize the meaning of many little oddities you had noticed without noticing. You curse yourself for a dunderhead and stand amazed at the author’s brilliant mind…

The only weakness in this highly enjoyable book is Tibbet’s wife. She’s not a bad character but she lacks Tibbert’s charm and she seems to play a very thin role. She comes in more at the end but seems to be a narrator for the plot while Tibbet’s away.

But don’t let this discourage you. This is a classic British mystery that pays homage to the greats, yet with a rare hint of something different. Even while you feel good has triumphed, it is not without a high cost, and the characters defy the typical endings you imagine for them.

One character seems to sum it up quite well – “You needn’t imagine I’m going to fit into your cozy little happy ending.”

Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Naive young Archer Newland falls for a disgraced countess, the cousin of his fiancée.

This 1920’s novel starts with the innocent Archer Newland happily involved in his theories of marriage. He’s a well connected and well-to-do bachelor at the prime of his life in a New York that loves white men. Archer has everything.

The opera where Archer announces his engagement to the beautiful young May should have been his triumph. But although he’s only aware of a disquieting feeling, it foreshadows his misery.

Archer is exquisitely aware of all social customs and becomes the family’s advisor for helping the Countess, Ellen Olenska. Poor Ellen is a bit of a fallen woman – raised by eccentric parents who allow her to wear black at her coming out and to marry a foreign count.

After her escape from this abusive relationship, she returns to America as something damaged yet grown larger because of it. She is an enigmatic and seductive creature who no longer fits into the acceptable box for a woman. Equally pitied and blamed for her downfall, she ends up unwittingly destroying Archer’s happy ignorance.

Archer is obviously intelligent and cultured, but he holds society’s rules as a sort of happy religion. Without even trying, Ellen reveals every foible and hypocrisy. The things he held so dear he is forced to see clearly. He grows beyond their confines and falls in love with Ellen. She’s something passionate and genuine in a world of artifice.

But then there’s her cousin May, the young girl he is engaged to. He has always pictured May as a blank canvas he intended to paint. The irony is that May’s sweet nature may be indifferent to his attempts to form her.

Watching Archer struggle is like trying to remove superglue from your fingers. It is ultimately futile – you might get one finger free but then you’ll get it stuck to something else. I get the feeling that Edith Wharton was enjoying Archer’s innocence even as she used it to torture him.

The ending could be argued to be Archer’s peace with the world, his acceptance and maturity. Or is it merely showing us that Archer has been and always will be a coward?

Black Plumes by Margery Allingham

black2bplumes

An exquisitely constructed post-war mystery that keeps you guessing.

Another classic and delightful Allingham book. Instead of her usual detective it is narrated by the very charming young Frances. She’s desperately trying to tell her regal grandmother that the family gallery is going off the rails fast. The chapter culminates with a dramatic scene featuring a slashed painting and a seemingly simple argument that will descend into murder.

Why is Frances’ brother-in-law so furious when she turns down his friend, an unctuous and slimy little man? Why is her half-sister such a miserable, terrified wreck? When a murder occurs, they all know someone in the house is a killer. Despite the police presence no one feels safe, perhaps because the police are there as much to arrest as to protect.

There are a veritable feast of suspects and Frances is hard pressed to keep her cool. Could it be her own hysterical half-sister, the victim’s unhappy wife? Or perhaps Frances’ new fiancé, the artist whose painting was slashed and who wants to marry immediately so they can’t testify against each other? Even her beloved and regal grandmother, whose mind slides in and out of focus, could be using her age as a clever cover.

The book is seen through Frances’ uncertain and troubled eyes – Allingham uses this device brilliantly. We follow along with Frances, tortured by the conflict between her conscience and her sense of loyalty. The Scottish detective Birdie keeps his own counsel, so along with Frances we wait and listen to what clues drop, hoping to uncover the truth and protect the ones we love…

Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham

traitorA brilliant mystery – how does a man with amnesia unmask a national conspiracy?

I fell in love with Albert Campion on the TV series, but years ago I really disliked The Affair at Black Dudley (the first Campion). I don’t know if it was just bad book timing, but after reading Traitor’s Purse I feel I have been missing out!

This is one of her finest books according to many and I can see why. The book plunges straight into the plot – a man wakes up in a hospital, overhears that he’s killed a policeman and will hang for it. He makes a dash for it, physically and emotionally weak, all the while desperate to remember what conspiracy he was about to unmask. His only clue is the number 15.

And if that plot weren’t enough, the writing is beautiful. Campion struggles to fake his way through situations, wondering if each person he meets is the shadowy villain. We see his newly discovered love for a woman he’s already lost and his haunting terror that he will not be in time to prevent a national tragedy.

Swinging wildly between a creature of primitive emotions and an uppercrust man of intelligence and manners, we can’t help but wonder which is the real Campion? Will the two halves of his fractured mind meet in time to save England?

I was fortunate enough to get a version by The Folio Society, a London publisher who republishes old classics in utterly gorgeous bindings and with stunning illustrations. Anyone who loves books should own at least one folio edition.

The Tomb of the Honey Bee by L.B. Hathaway

honeybeeA feisty 1920s sleuth solving a crime through glamourous London, Sicily and Egypt.

Posie is a feisty private detective in 1920’s London. She plunges dangerously into situations without always thinking it through and they often go awry, but she makes it up in pluck.

In book #2, Posie is in the throws of heartache and finds herself helping a ravishing and broke peer, Violet, whose explorer brother has gone missing. And she’s being paid in extraordinarily expensive honey. Potential suspects include the other brother, a drinking wastrel of money, his wealthy and jealous wife, a highly suspicious valet and a unrequited-love-crazy mystery writer.

A great setup and the book’s highlight is Posie’s international jetsetting to interesting places. The killer here is a different kind of crazy ruthless and manages to do a fair amount of destruction for a comparative amateur.

An enjoyable series and I’m distinctly interested in the next books!