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The Conjuring Tricks of Agatha Christie

Outset Image Conjuring Stacks Edit
To commit a successful murder must be very much like bringing off a conjuring trick.
Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger

Written by Boze Herrington

Spoiler alert: This feature contains spoilers for the following titles, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, A Murder Is Announced, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, 'Murder in the Mews', and 'Dead Man’s Mirror'.

Agatha Christie’s success as a novelist is sometimes mistakenly attributed to the clever twists that punctuate the ends of her more famous books. This over-emphasis on twist endings—which would turn Agatha into the Golden Age version of a Rod Serling or an R. L. Stine, churning out ludicrous surprises merely to astonish readers—obscures her skills as a dramatic novelist, which places her in the ranks of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. From the beginning of a book to its end, Agatha knew how to tell an exciting story in the most dramatically compelling way possible.

Because Agatha devotes the first quarter to a third of most every novel to meticulously introducing the characters and setting up the story, she keeps the reader engaged by doling out heavy doses of foreboding so that the story acquires an ominous feel even when relatively little is happening. It’s not uncommon for the narrator or another character early in one of Christie’s novels to suddenly come down with a terrible feeling, as if something dreadful were about to happen. This sense of foreboding often takes the form of an inexplicable intuition because, objectively, said character has no rational basis for feeling this way. It is a dramatic technique to let the reader know that dark and disturbing things are afoot, a way of saying gently, have patience and keep reading. Near the beginning of The Mysterious Affair at Styles Hastings is walking across the lawn when he glimpses a man who makes him frightfully nervous. "Just for a moment," he says, "I had a premonition of approaching evil." Whenever Christie needs to end a chapter on a note of suspense or irresolution but isn’t yet ready to introduce a new revelation or plot point, she may have a character, usually Poirot, express a sense of being in grave danger, or a sense that some other character, sympathetic to the reader, is in trouble. The reader’s pulse quickens irresistibly, even when we can see the trick being pulled, for Christie is the literary equivalent of a stage magician who always succeeds in getting us to feel the emotion she needs us to feel. When combined with the technique of raising an unanswered question in the reader’s mind, the act of suggesting that a sympathetic character is endangered effectively hooks the reader before we’re even aware we’ve been hooked.

"Micro-tension" is a term coined by editor and author Donald Maass to describe the subtle undercurrents of conflict that exist between and within characters in a story. For Maass, micro-tension is the heart and soul of drama; he finds a direct correlation between the literary skill of a novelist and the amount of conflict they’re able to squeeze into a narrative. Micro-tension doesn’t have to be overt—fists flying, voices shouting and blood flowing—in order to be dramatically compelling. It can be something as simple as one character expressing skepticism towards something another character has just said, or a character having an internal disagreement with herself about whether to follow one path or another. Agatha Christie’s characters are always at odds with themselves and each other; she seems to have painstakingly engineered the cast of each novel for maximum tension. In A Murder Is Announced, Dora Bunner annoys everyone by being hysterical; Phillipa, the assistant gardener, transparently harbors secrets she’s refusing to give up; Mitzi, the cook, picks fights with seemingly every other character; the hapless Inspector Craddock meets with resistance when he attempts to conduct interviews. But micro-tension also manifests on a beat-for-beat level, weaving itself into the dialogue (even between putative allies) and interior hesitations and indecisions of the characters. When the reader is introduced to Pilar in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, we find her wondering, "Would it be all right? Would she be able to accomplish what she had set out to do? Surely—surely—she had thought it all out so carefully…" We’re compelled to keep reading both because we want to know what she’s planning and whether her inner uncertainty will resolve itself into conviction. Lack of resolution in a story propels the reader onward. Christie's protagonists experience these premonitions with clockwork regularity in the opening chapters of her books, even when there's no discernible reason for it. The reader embraces these wholly irrational intuitions because, even if they defy logic, they make for good storytelling and give us a pleasurable shiver.

Thumbnail Hercule P Christmas

The structure of a whodunnit is broadly familiar to most of us, but there’s an emotional architecture underlying the narrative that is less apparent. Towards the end of the book there’s typically a growing sense of uncertainty, mystery and danger which is only dispelled by a moment of striking clarity that restores truth and order to the moral universe of the story. For Christie’s characters, that moment of clarity often comes in a drawing-room scene in which the detective gathers all the suspects together and reveals, not only the identity of the murderer, but all the interlocking secrets that each character has been keeping from every other character in the course of the story. These revelations provide a shift in perspective that changes the reader’s emotional stance toward the events that have taken place. It helps to think of them not as “plot twists” (all the attention paid to Christie’s famous twists has been its own form of misdirection) but as moments where a truth that has been concealed suddenly comes into focus. The result is an experience for the reader that Rian Johnson (director of Knives Out) describes as a feeling of uplift, a sense of being lifted out of your chair by the revelation. Where a more typical novel shows the hero or heroine changing incrementally as the story progresses, what changes in the course of a mystery is the hero or heroine’s (and the reader’s) level of understanding. Think of it like a room that is slowly flooding with water until, at the moment of final clarity, the entire room is filled. Poirot pieces the truth together in increments before laying out the full truth at the end. And all of Agatha’s famous misdirections, large and small, are in the service of that final hair-raising moment where we flash back to the events of the killing to understand how, and by whom, and to what purpose.

In the Poirot short story 'Dead Man’s Mirror', for example, we learn that what we thought was the sound of a bullet being fired was in fact a paper bag being struck by the murderer, who had already killed the victim some hours ago, to give herself an alibi for the time of the killing; in 'Murder in the Mews' we learn that what initially appeared to be a murder made to look like a suicide was in fact a suicide made to look like a murder by a vengeful woman hoping to frame a man for the killing; in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas we learn that what sounded like a dying man’s hellish screams was in fact a long pink bladder, slowly deflating like a balloon, designed to mimic a man screaming in the hopes of tricking the police into thinking the murder had only just taken place when in fact it had taken place an hour before. The book builds inexorably to a moment of catharsis whose strength is proportional to the strength of the misdirection; the greater the uncertainty and confusion surrounding the investigation, the more satisfying the moment of clarity when all sins are at last brought to light.

About the author

Boze Herrington is a ghostwriter and aspiring mystery and middle-grade novelist who lives in Texas. His work has been featured in the Atlantic, the Guardian, Nerdist, and Lit Hub. He runs a popular books-based Twitter account, @sketchesbyboze.

Outset Image Murderinthe Mews
Murder in the Mews containing four short stories from Agatha Christie, featured on Karen Mabon's Queen of Crime scarf

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