Earlier in the week I was considering several topics for this blog, and was about to settle on setting. This is something I consider crucial to a successful novel, a sense of the physical location as well as psychological space of the story and its characters. But I decided to abandon the idea after coming across two other blogs on the same topic. Both were well done, and I agreed with what both writers had to say. On a whim, however, I thought to look at one of my favorite writers and consider setting from her perspective.
In the 1970s I went through all of Agatha Christie’s books, including Sleeping Murder, the last Miss Marple, published just after her death in January 1976, and Curtain, the last Hercule Poirot mystery, published in 1975. I heard the news of Christie’s death in India, and her readers there were just as saddened as any in the UK. Since it has now been many years since I last read one of her books I have forgotten some of her standard techniques.
In Curtain, Christie approaches her story in a manner that is little used today in the traditional mystery. Even though the setting, Styles, a country house in Essex, is known from her first mystery and offers myriad opportunities for describing life in a country house in the modern era, Christie spends almost no time on this beyond telling us that Colonel and Mrs. Luttrell have bought the old place and turned it into a guest house. And they’re not doing very well at it either. The narrator, the hapless Hastings, tells us a lot about his sad state after the death of his wife and the launching of his four children, but little about the scenery.
Most of the novel is told in dialogue. If the author has to set a scene with characters showing up on the terrace or collecting drinks in the game room, she does it swiftly and efficiently. Her preference and great skill is letting us hear the suspects chatting away, noticing something and stumbling over their surprise, making a faux pas and trying to conceal it, or just behaving badly.
With her focus on dialogue and the behavior of her characters, Christie doesn’t waste time creating a mood or distracting the reader with descriptions of the copse below the house or the pub at the nearby village. The book is a scant 185 pages, and yet the mystery is one that keeps the reader guessing, with plenty of clues even though we don’t recognize them as such at the time.
Crime fiction has changed enormously since the 1970s, and I’m a fan of many of the newest books. But it’s a pleasure to return to an old favorite and find myself in such competent hands.
For more about Agatha Christie and her books, go here: http://www.agathachristie.com
To read my books, go here: