Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Murder most refined

In other news, guess which hugely popular book turned 75 this month?

I’ve been asked to do a short feature about Agatha Christie for The Hindu. This is a bit daunting because it’s been at least 15 years since I read the last of her books, but it’s always nice to revisit something like Murder on the Orient Express. It’s such a good example of Christie’s talent for taking a vicious murder and spinning a genteel, homely whodunit out of it. The premise of this book – a victim with 12 stab wounds, a snowstorm that prevents anyone from entering or leaving the train, thereby narrowing the list of suspects to the people who are on board – is inherently claustrophobic, threatening and unpleasant, but in her hands it becomes a refined mystery where Hercule Poirot’s deductive powers have the reader gripped and reassured at once. And where even the murderer, once unmasked, is likely to be ruefully courteous rather than dangerous. They don’t write them like that anymore.

P.S. Some of my favourite Christies, not that anyone asked: Murder in Retrospect (the first Christie I read), And Then There Were None (original, politically incorrect title Ten Little Niggers), Crooked House, Taken at the Flood, Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Appointment with Death. Incidentally the last two involve large families and the killing of an elderly person whose domineering personality gave many different people motives for murder. (Both books also end on a comforting note for the reader,
confirming the uprightness of all the likable characters and allowing the basic fabric of the family to stay intact. Perfection!)

29 comments:

  1. 12 people and 12 stabs on victim's body . You Do the math !

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  2. Hi Jai I presume it is for The Hindu Literary Review. I cannot wait to read your piece. Meanwhile, I got hold of Tehelka's fiction special and been relishing each one of those stories.

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  3. How's the Lumet movie version of 'Orient Express'? Have neither read the book nor watched the movie.

    I read my first Christie after having read a great deal of Sherlock Holmes and found it anticlimactic. Found Poirot and his methods a little slow and dim-witted compared to those of Holmes. Also, I felt Conan Doyle to be a better writer than Christie.

    One can argue that Christie must be savoured for the sheer ingenuity and complexity of her very English murder plots. Well, I'd any day prefer a Wodehouse over a Christie in this regard. His plots are every bit as ingenious and English as those of Christie and he also happens to be a much superior writer.

    My favourite Christie - Murder in Mesopotamia, a whoddunnit i read twice in quick succession in my early teens.

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  4. Krishnan: no, it isn't for the LR - it's for a smaller space, and it isn't going to be a particularly "literary" piece. More like a HarperCollins initiative to publicise a reissue of the book.

    Shrikanth: The film is fun, but mostly as a star-gazing exercise. Back in 1991, it provided me with my first sightings of Lauren Bacall, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and John Gielgud among others.

    His plots are every bit as ingenious and English as those of Christie and he also happens to be a much superior writer

    Well, yes, but how good were Wodehouse's murder plots? Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind reading a Psmith-meets-Poirot book!

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  5. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd??
    The first and the best A.C. wrote- of course the "first" might have influenced the second.

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  6. Quirky Quill: yes, I should have included Roger Ackroyd in my favourites list too. But it wasn't her first book - that was The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Check the list.

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  7. Looking forward to the piece. Christie, IMO, was at her best in Ten Little Niggers and Orient Express. * SPOILER ALERT* Ackroyd was brilliant, but there is more than adequate literature which holds the view that she broke one of the main canons of whodunit writing by making the murderer the narrator. *END ALERT* I dunno why, but I thought Death in the Clouds (the Poirot story involving the victim being killed on a flight) was brilliant. As were the Marple stories. And the Tommy and Tuppence ones...

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  8. Jai,

    I would love to hear your comments on the Tehelka "EXCESS" issue. Is it possible for you to scribbles a few lines on each story?

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  9. there is more than adequate literature which holds the view that she broke one of the main canons of whodunit writing

    Aaren: yes, I'm aware of that - but then these "canons" do keep changing with time, which isn't a bad thing.

    I liked Death in the Clouds too - the modus operandi involved a dentist's gown, right? And there was a cute little diagram of the seats in the airplane.

    Anon: no, thanks - the idea doesn't appeal to me, and even if it did there would be a minor conflict of interest since I helped put the issue together.

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  10. "Well, yes, but how good were Wodehouse's murder plots?"
    What exactly do you mean there?

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  11. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is special..right up there with Crooked House. Takes me back to school.. I feel ancient suddenly..

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  12. plummy: I meant that the short story "The Butler Couldn't Have Done It" - the one where Bertie discovers Jeeves lying in the study with a knife in his back - wasn't as adeptly plotted as Christie's best work.

    Gaurav: start rereading. You'll feel younger. Worked for me.

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  13. christie has long been the comfort food of books for me :)
    I thought evil under the sun was one of her better books...

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  14. I dont really like the Poirot books so much, but I have a weakness for the Tommy and Tuppence books. I think N or M must be my favourite.

    I also like her 'Come, Tell Me How You Live', which I enjoyed very much, and remember thinking that the style was very un-Christie!

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  15. Is there actually murder in a PGW story? Or even blood?

    Are we saying that Christie doesnt compare with Doyle for murder plots, nor with Wodehouse for inegenuously English plots? But as a combination of both, there is no peer?

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  16. Are we saying that Christie doesnt compare with Doyle for murder plots, nor with Wodehouse for inegenuously English plots? But as a combination of both, there is no peer?

    plummy: who is the "we" you're talking about? I haven't been saying any of these things, though I agree that Christie isn't in the same league as Wodehouse as a writer.

    My earlier comment about Wodehouse writing murder stories was a joke, but I'm sure you already knew that!

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  17. Jai, you just caused me to snort loudly (in office!!!), not because of the excellent blog post, but the your comment-reply above. Your irritation is so palpable!

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  18. "We" is used quite commonly in that context to imply you? I thought you might knew it. Over-estimation. Sorry.

    Radhika, "we" might have better standards for choosing things to snort at, I see. Not to worry. Nothing wrong with having lower standards.

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  19. Alas, it would seem young Plummy doesn't have the sense of humour that his venerable namesake did.

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  20. 'And Then There Were None' was one amazing book.

    The best Agatha Christie i have read. They really dont write that sort of stuff these days.

    Except maybe Michael Crichton.

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  21. Well, old jabberwock, young plummy could level the same charge at you, if you can see this objectively, you know.
    I guess it might be beyond your levels of maturity to do that. You can try, though.

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  22. plummy: no, you're right, it probably is beyond my level of maturity. I'll do my best though - thanks for the lesson.

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  23. tsk Jay..just ignore the young 'un, do!

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  24. "Alas, it would seem young Plummy doesn't have the sense of humour that his venerable namesake did."


    At the risk of sounding extremely arrogant (and annoying plummy further), who is this venerable namesake? Which movie/play/book/story did he feature in?

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  25. Anon: Plummy (or "Plum") was a nickname for Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.

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  26. Hey, thanks. I had no frigging clue, that Wodehouse was called Plum/Plummy.

    Also, the "arrogant" in my previous comment was actually meant to be "ignorant".

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  27. Amazing bit of synchronicity, this. I got an update about this post of yours through my feed aggregator at the precise moment that I was listening to an old BBC radio dramatization of the Murder on the Orient Express. I just HAD to stop and mention it :)

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  28. eyefry: yes, I love it when that happens. Have experienced quite a few similar things in recent times.

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