Happy New Year everybody!
This time of year calls for reflection on the past, followed by the making of resolutions to guide us into the future. One of the hardest resolutions for a follower of GAD fiction to make is to stick with the times, and for me that is doubly difficult when it comes to technology. Ironically, my first 2018 obsession comes about from the lucky confluence of two separate things: the instruction of my Angels and the modernization of Apple products, which always causes me trouble.
Regarding Apple: every time it “improves” a laptop or a tablet or any of its devices, it completely alters the way you do things, like download music. I used to be able to slide one of my CDs into a computer, access the music on iTunes, and then transfer it to my iPod. Voila! All my music was now portable, suitable for long walks along the shore.
But everything I own got old and died. Now laptops have no built-in CD player, and my carefully cultivated playlist of thousands of songs was lost three MacBooks ago. I finally figured out that I could put together playlists on YouTube and stream that through my phone, but it’s a cumbersome process, and I have to zap away commercials before every song.
Enter Bradley’s Angels. This is a group of four of my favorite teaching colleagues, vibrant women in their 30’s and 40’s who keep me both young and sane on and off the job. It used to be three – Jessica, Natalie and Shoshana – with whom I bonded on a teacher’s workshop in Vegas. There we ate at one fine restaurant after another and vowed that we would continue our epicurean adventures when we returned. I called them my Angels, after the TV series, Charlie’s Angels, and even after we adopted Jinna because she’s awesome, the name stuck, at least in my mind. We all traveled to Chicago a few summers ago and ate like queens, and last summer we revisited Vegas as a last dying gasp of summer before work reared its ugly head again!
These four women have technology down cold: they Uber everywhere, they can pay restaurant bills through an app . . . in short, the world is literally at their fingertips. With them, I feel as helpless as a baby and as old as the hills, but they do sometimes manage to upgrade me from ignorant to novice status.
For the past year, Shoshana and Jessica have been going on and on about podcasts. It sounds like old-time radio to me, but they swore by it. Shoshana told me that, as a devotee of crime, I would particularly enjoy many of the programs that had been created. She even went so far as to grab my phone and download a podcast app. Technical noob that I was, I promptly forgot about it.
Until yesterday, that is, when I was briskly walking and having to stop every three minutes to zap out a commercial from the music I was listening to. I took a look at that podcast app icon and I thought, “Isn’t there supposed to be a program about Agatha Christie?” I did a search, and up popped All About Agatha. And I was hooked!
Here’s the thing: I know there are millions of people who like some of the same things I like, but having a really good, really deep, conversation about these shared favorites is a difficult thing. When I was going through my Dickens phase – and that took about ten years because his novels are mammoth – a colleague and I traveled into the city each month to meet with the Dickens Appreciation Society. William and I wanted to really grapple with the labyrinthine plots, the socially compelling themes, the clash of mawkishness and mirth, and the all-around blast that one has journeying through an epic by this man who somehow created works of genius even though he was paid by the word.
The Society wanted to eat cookies and gush. The cookies were often good (this was before I went gluten-free), but the conversation palled every time. William and I finally gave up: he went off to each Latin at a private school, and I moved on to read Jane Austen.
Finding others who find richness in talking about Agatha Christie is frankly even more difficult. The only group in the city that talks about crime fiction sticks with the modern authors. The Agatha Christie group on Goodreads faithfully chooses a book each month, but the on-line “discussions” are sort of like those from the Dickens Society . . . without the cookies. And the Agatha Christie pages on Facebook seem to flee from argument or controversy. I mean, there really is a lot to say about this woman’s books, if only people want to say it.
So when I flipped to the first episode of All About Agatha, I didn’t quite know what to expect. The podcast is hosted by Kemper Donovan and Catherine Brobeck, two young self-professed Christie nerds. Five minutes into their premiere, where they discuss – naturally – Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I knew I had found a home away from home. After listening to only three episodes, I am an unmitigated fan!
Kemper and Catherine’s plan – I hope they don’t mind my using their first names; they seem like friends already – is to discourse their way chronologically through the 66 mystery novels Christie wrote. Since this involves re-reading the books and watching the various film and TV adaptations, which they also discuss, they give themselves some breathing room by devoting episodes here and there to short stories.
Based on their talks on Styles (which occupied two episodes) and The Secret Adversary, the hosts’ format goes like this:
FIRST: Kemper recites, in two minutes or less, a brief synopsis of the novel. You should know that this podcast is for dedicated Christie fans who have already read the book in question – all secrets are laid out on the table for dissection. (I am plotzing here! That’s Yiddish for “getting all goose-pimply!)
SECOND:The two discuss everything about the book: the mechanics of the plot, including the murder plan, the clues, and the detection of the murders; the characterizations, with emphasis placed on the detectives; the setting and tone; the autobiographical connections between the author and people/events in the book; and on and on. They get very, very detailed about tiny points, which is every nerd’s dream, isn’t it? And they are free with their opinions throughout, delivered with a modicum of humorous snark and a whole lot of goodwill. These two clearly adore Christie, but they don’t worship her. They are perfectly happy to pick at a flaw or a weakness. Sometimes I agree with one or the other, and sometimes I don’t. But just hearing two people have such an in-depth discussion about my favorite mystery writer is sheer heaven.
Donovan and Brobeck make reference to a lot of valuable resources for information on all things Christie, including her Autobiography, the valuable work done by John Curran analyzing Christie’s notebooks, and various experts in the field of literature and, more specifically, GAD literature. That said, they may make the occasional mistake, as when they wonder whether or not Georges, Poirot’s valet, is a character in the books (he most certainly is) or when they referred to Curtain as Christie’s final book. (Despite Curtain’s air of finality, Sleeping Murder was published later, and both were written in the same general time with, to my knowledge, no real certainty as to which came first.)
THIRD: Then the two discuss the adaptations. (Alas, not the stage adaptations, but they are admittedly harder to come across.) One of the interesting things that came out in the second episode is that while Kemper read the books before seeing the movies, Catherine grew up watching David Suchet’s Poirot series and, more often than not, read the novel after seeing the movie. I recall at the start of his work on Christie adaptations, Agatha Christie on Screen, Mark Aldridge states:
“. . . many people’s first experience of Agatha Christie is not through her original text, but through adaptations of her work for film and television. Indeed, while I was writing this book, several acquaintances have declared themselves to be fans of Christie, only to confess later that they have actually never read a single one of her published works.”
When I read that, I was horrified. Good as many of these film versions may be, I couldn’t imagine a person defining their Christie experience on these viewings alone. Kemper and Catherine had a nice little argument discussion about this very point, and Kemper sided with me. I knew you would, Kemper! J
Again, our hosts view these adaptations through a sharp lens, never fawning on the fact that Christie is even being adapted but providing great commentary (which I have so far wholeheartedly agreed with) on the films they watch and going into fine detail about the differences between the source material and the film, offering their opinion as to whether the changes hurt or, in fact, improved on the original. And you know, relative purist that I am, I can see some great things that change has wrought, so I appreciate this aspect of the podcast to no end.
FOURTH: Catherine and Kemper end each episode by applying a rating system to each book. They assign points to five categories, with a perfect score in each being 10. These categories are:
- Plot Mechanics – how effectively rendered are the puzzle, the red herrings, and the solution?
- Credibility – here we look at outlandish plot contrivances or mistakes Christie might have made. Kemper called attention to one in Styles that I don’t think I ever noticed: how John Cavendish should have noticed something funny about the connecting door when he barged into Cynthia’s room! Or in Secret Adversary, the hosts discuss Christie’s over-reliance on coincidence. (I never heard the phrase “hanging the lantern,” you guys! See, I’m learning every day!)
- Character: the detectives: here we look at the way Christie presents her heroes and subordinates. In Styles, we get some great discussion of the relationship between Poirot and Hastings (I was with you on the bromance up to a point, Kemper) and the clear indications there of Christie’s adoration of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. In Adversary, we are all agreed that the delightful repartee and buoyant optimism of Tommy and Tuppence saves the book from its own creaky plot.
- Character: the victim and the suspects. Since much criticism has been leveled on Agatha Christie for a perceived lack of depth of characterization – something the hosts acknowledge to be a flaw in Styles – I will be interested in seeing what they think as we move along. I have always detected and appreciated more characterization in Christie’s work than some folks give her credit for, but it is definitely a skill that developed as she continued to write.
- Setting and tone: everything from the country house to the sense of a world at war, the host look at these other elements for which I think Christie has also been unfairly criticized by many.
And then, being the brave young souls they are, Catherine and Kemper tackle one last category, one I will call “period offensiveness.” God knows that there was a lot of this in GAD fiction, and Christie was no saint here either. In many of the discussion forums I frequent, people make a tacit agreement to cut the authors some slack. In All About Agatha, the hosts are not so forgiving. They list Christie’s sins in each title and create a negative score out of ten that is then deducted from the aggregate score from the five categories above. This gives them a final score for each, in what they plan as a ranking of all of Christie’s novels.
The scores thus far:
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles – 21
- The Secret Adversary – 28
Watch this site for further rankings. I can’t wait to see how their scores evolve.
The podcast premiered in September 2016, so I am a late arrival and have a lot of catching up to do. Maybe the Angels will teach me how to listen to this in my car, but right now I can picture many happy walks in the future. (Hey, I may lose a few pounds listening! Thanks again, you guys!) I offer here a link to the podcast on iTunes; all episodes are free.
They also have a Facebook page and Twitter and . . . well, they are so much more savvy about social media than I am. You really can’t not find these guys or their marvelous program. I hope it’s okay to say that I dream of one day flying wherever they are and sitting down as a guest when they discuss After the Funeral. Barring that, maybe you guys will let me treat you to coffee and a few hours of mutual geeking out, Christie-style, some day . . .
At any rate, I will certainly not let up on discussing Christie at length on this site any time soon. Anyone who wants to join me is more than welcome. And check out All About Agatha. You will not be sorry!