THE DOCUMENTS IN THE CASE: Christie and Clues

All good things must come to an end, as the Tuesday Night Bloggers bid a fond adieu (for now) to Agatha Christie. I know she will grace my own blog many more times. One of these days, I might follow in the footsteps of my friend, Matt Christenson, who wrote about every Christie book in his wonderful video blog here  – (although ultimately he had to stretch it out to several years.)

For my last entry on Christie, I thought I would take a lighthearted and VERY SPOILERISH look at the way Christie spread clues throughout her mysteries. As a writer with a well-deserved reputation for surprise endings, the author was adept at presenting a clue to her readers, shoving its supposed significance down our throats and then turning the whole thing around until the clue pointed in the opposite direction. And then it would turn around again…….Let’s take a look.

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(above) POIROT GATHERS THE SUSPECTS TOGETHER

PHYSICAL CLUES

Physical clues figured prominently in Christie’s early work. The first cases of Hercule Poirot, a former police officer, are almost procedural in nature. In A Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot (and Christie’s) first case, he brings his investigative case with him to examine Mrs. Inglethorpe’s bedroom, the scene of the crime, (map provided, of course) where he finds the following: a small purple dispatch-case, with a key in the lock, containing mysterious papers, a scrap of green material in the bolt of the connecting door, a tray with a small saucepan containing a quantity of dark liquid, an empty cup and saucer containing the dregs of cocoa, a scrap of burnt paper bearing the letters “…ll and” on it in the fireplace, (significant because the weather had been too hot for a fire), the crushed fragments of a coffee-cup, a splash of candle grease on the writing table, and a dark brown stain on the carpet.

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More clues emerge as the case progresses. With the exception of poisons, with which Christie had a strong familiarity due to her work in World War I as a hospital dispenser, the author wasn’t particularly keen on detailed forensic investigations. There is no drawn out examination of the evidence in her books; instead, Poirot seems to derive an immediate understanding of every clue’s significance and then withholds his explanation until it will have its most dramatic effect in the telling.

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Like most mystery novelists of the 1920’s, Christie’s clueing combined physical evidence with testimony from suspects and witnesses. Poirot would withhold the true significance of a button or a buckle, the absence of something that should be there, or the presence of something that shouldn’t, from the police until he had had a chance to speak to all the persons involved. A perfect example of this can be found in an examination of the passenger’s luggage in Death In the Clouds: Christie lists every item found in every suitcase, at which point Poirot claims to know the identity of the killer. He can’t say anything yet because the truth seems impossible (and also because we’re only on page twenty-four!) until he has talked to everyone on the plane.

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More evidentiary fodder was found in police interviews, which Poirot was usually invited to sit in on. A major part of the novels of Freeman Wills Croft and Ngaio Marsh, interviews provided proof of motive and helped establish or tear apart alibis. This was fine when the suspects numbered four, as they did in Cards on the Table. But in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, the numerous relations, guests and servants of the Lee family numbered over twelve, and that novel’s middle section suffers from the same tedious quality found in Marsh’s lesser novels, before Christie rights herself with a stunner of an ending.

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VERBAL CLUES AND BEHAVIOR

At first, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd seemed to continue this straightforward tradition: a village setting, the murder of a noted citizen, physical evidence found in and around Ackroyd’s study, as well as interviews with the dead man’s family, friends and servants. But what Christie began to exercise here is a remarkable facility to play around with common language. She banked on a reader’s instinctive reading of – and lack of attention to – ordinary conversations and descriptions. In doing so, she shattered the established conventions of fair play. Yet, the most careful reader, upon examination of Christie’s text, will see that she has played totally fair with her audience and has still managed to turn a fairly ordinary case into a classic of mystery fiction.

9d26b7a9373c3dc26385aaa2d7b4827a-196x300        If the dying message is a trademark for Ellery Queen and the impossible crime the venue of John Dickson Carr, Christie’s use of language and eye for detail earned her the title of mistress of misdirection. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, despite its plethora of suspect interviews, contains some wonderful examples that either throw the reader off the scent, as in the questioning of the butler about which date a visitor arrived, (the important clue has nothing to do with the date or the visitor) or pass most readers by through subtle weaving of important information into ordinary descriptions that we all tend to skim . . . to our peril! I could throw my head back and laugh at the many readers I know who missed the all-revealing clue in that book!

This is not to say that Christie denied readers their physical clues. In 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express, the train is so crammed with evidence that Poirot can’t help but smell a rat! Ultimately, one physical clue does begin to give the game away, but the case is ultimately solved through observation of the passengers’ words and behavior.

MissMarple_JoanHickson    Four year’s earlier, Christie had introduced her spinster sleuth, Miss Marple, to the public in Murder at the Vicarage.  Despite having limited access to physical evidence and police inquiries due to her amateur status, her approach to crime-solving was much more psychological, as she based her assessments of suspects on people she knew at home in St. Mary Mead. She still had a remarkable facility for explaining physical clues, like the notes left by Colonel Protheroe or Mr. Hawes, but she could solve a case just as easily by understanding anomalies of character, such as why a woman would set forth through the village without a purse.

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Miss Marple’s handling of different clues is brilliantly portrayed in A Murder Is Announced. To be sure, there is an abundance of physical evidence to be examined, but the author is especially adept with tricks of language here. In fact, she practically shouts the solution to the skies over and over again, expertly banking on the fact that nobody pays much attention to matters of spelling and grammar. Here, she employs a technique often found in her books – the “clue list”: at a certain point during an investigation, the detective enscribes a list of words or phrases that are sure to baffle everyone around them. Here is Miss Marple’s list from A Murder Is Announced: “Lamp, Violets, Where is the bottle of aspirin?, Delicious Death, Making enquiries, ‘Severe affliction bravely borne’, Iodine, Pearls, Letty, Berne, Old-age pension.” The police assume that the old lady is dotty, but the list is, in fact, an outline for the truth. Only at the end does Miss Marple explain what each item means!

Christie’s implied warning to her audience was simple: read the text carefully! She could slip the most stunning clues in the middle of casual conversations where readers were more likely to hurry along and miss the significance. Two wonderful examples of this technique occur in Toward Zero and After the Funeral. In the first instance, a dinner discussion seems so inconsequential as to encourage readers to dismiss it, yet, carefully read, it incriminates a heretofore unsuspected character. In Funeral, Poirot inserts himself in the Abernethie home precisely in order to listen to the suspects talk, figuring that murderers are so vain they can’t help incriminating themselves through careless conversation. The scene where Richard Abernethie’s heirs fight over his belongings is a beautifully written set piece. While readers focus on the relationships displayed both humorously and melodramatically through the family’s bickering, a major clue is tossed off that, once again, incriminates a killer.

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(above)  THE READING OF THE WILL

One last type of behavior deserves special mention. This is “the significant look,” a way that one character stares within sight of a witness in a way that garners special attention. Christie uses this technique frequently, yet with dazzling variance.  In Death Comes As the End, Satipy looks behind her on a hill and sees . . . a ghost? She reacts in horror before plunging to her death! In A Caribbean Mystery, Major Palgrave looks over Miss Marple’s shoulder and sees . . . a murderer? He clams up and is murdered before he can explain to Miss Marple what he saw. And in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Marina Gregg looks over a guest’s shoulder and sees . . . something so horrifying that she refuses to tell what it is, despite the fact that her silence may be endangering her life. In the first book, an entire household is nearly decimated before Renisenb realizes what Satipy saw. In the latter two books, Miss Marple knows that the truth behind that special look will reveal the truth behind three murders.

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I have a clue that you will all begin to read Christie with greater care. In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed this month of Christie Mania and look forward to returning to her work in the future. Tune in next week as the Tuesday Club Bloggers begin a discussion of that great American author and detective – Ellery Queen!

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