Agatha sets a Cozy example


Agatha Christie, whose books bring in handsome royalties 43 years after her death.

When I was shortlisted for Britain’s Debut Dagger in 2010, I flew to England to attend the awards ceremony in Harrogate. I spent 10 days in the Old Swan Inn, the same hotel where Agatha Christie holed up for 11 days after her mysterious disappearance in 1926. Thus began my love affair with Christie, the Queen of Crime Fiction.

Today, 43 years after her death, Christie is still a best-selling author. Her books alone bring in more than £5 million in royalties every year, then there are royalties from her plays and the movies that are based on her novels.

Her novels, collectively, have sold more than four billion copies. And Christie is the world’s most translated author; her fiction has been released in more than 100 languages. There is also a continuing output of books about Christie. She is not just a literary figure; she’s a cultural phenomenon.

But Agatha Christie did not invent the detective story. That was done by Edgar Allan Poe. His “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published in 1841. Then came Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White in 1859, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887. 

Poe and Conan Doyle established several conventions for the detective novel:

  • the brilliant, eccentric detective.
  • the less-brilliant associate who narrates the story.
  • bumbling police officers.
  • the Power of Reasoning that’s used to solve the mystery.

Christie rose to fame during the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, the era of classic mystery novels released between the First and Second World Wars. They were written by Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey.

But Christie was not an instant success as an author. She completed her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, in 1911. She shopped it around, only to receive rejection after rejection. It was never published. Her second novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was rejected six times before it was published by Bodley Head in 1919.

What makes Agatha Christie’s stories stand out?

  • She’s considered the greatest PLOTTER in fiction writing. Her books are puzzles, an advanced form the board game Clue.  Yet Christie was upfront with the fact that she often had no idea who her Killer was when she began a novel. She relied on the clues she created, just as her reader would, to piece together a solution to the mystery. But doesn’t this sound like a pantser, rather than a plotter?
  • She also created two memorable characters: Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple.

A lot is known about how Christie wrote from the notebooks she kept. We know that she liked to plot her crime stories from the MURDER itself.

  • She planned the type of murder, the Killer, and the motive.
  • She factored in the various suspects and their motives.
  • She pulled readers in different directions with clues, red herrings and double bluffs.
  • She relied heavily on dialogue to vary the pacing and heighten suspense.

We also know that she disliked Poirot. While many readers love her larger-than-life Belgian private investigator, Christie grew to dislike her literary creation intensely. She once called him a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.” Maybe that’s why she killed him off in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. The novel was written 35 years before her death, but it was only published in 1975, shortly before she died. And The New York Times gave Poirot a front-page obituary!

Given her feelings for Poirot, it must have been a relief to write about Miss Marple, the spinster who spent her entire life the village of St. Mary Mead. Miss Marple is a dramatic departure from the detectives of Poe and Conan Doyle. Her wisdom is feminine. She relies on her knowledge of the domestic sphere and close human relationships, on intuition and common sense. With Miss Marple, Christie does not turn her back on the spinster stereotype: that old, unmarried women are nosy and spend their time eavesdropping. Rather, she embraces it and expands upon it.

Miss Marple shows us that Christie inherited as much from Jane Austen as from Conan Doyle.

The Miss Marple mysteries—12 novels and 22 short stories—mark the beginning of the COZY sub-genre, and modern Cozies follow standards developed by Christie.

  • no graphic sex, swearing or violence.
  • an amateur sleuth
  • a closed community.
  • a charming setting.
  • a satisfying resolution.

Think about how closely today’s cozies follow these hallmarks!

Those of you writing cozies may want to follow elements of Christie’s formula with the novels you’re writing.

  • Set up. Christie’s novels open by establishing the world her characters inhabit—usually a well-ordered closed community (and the community doesn’t have to be an English village; in Murder in Mesopotamia, the small community is an archeological dig in the Middle East). Christie uses a lot of description in her setups, and this gradually drops off as dialogue and interaction between characters take over. You’ll want to go lightly on description for today’s readers.
  • Murder occurs. Christie usually waits a fairly long time to bump off her first victim. The murder in Death on the Nile occurs half-way through the book; Murder in Mesopotamia, a quarter of the way through; Endless Night, two-thirds through. For Christie, the murder had to be built up to; it wasn’t the beginning of the story, it was the middle. She’s skilled at hooking her readers and building suspense with other crimes and goings-on before the first murder takes place.

But you may not be able to hold readers’ attention as well as Christie, and you could risk losing your readers if you don’t have something exciting up-front.

  • The First Victim in Christie’s novels is often an unlikable character, often a rich, nasty old person who enjoys taunting his heirs that they wish him dead so they can collect their inheritances. And the old coot is usually right about that. Or the murder victim may be an outsider who no one in the community knows or cares about—as in A Murder is Announced and They Do It With Mirrors. This means that these First Murders don’t touch readers’ hearts. A SECOND murder later in the book usually kills off a nice, blameless character who just happens to know too much.
  • The Narrator. The best-known Christie narrator is Captain Hastings, the “Dr. Watson” to Hercule Poirot, who narrates several—not all—of the Poirot stories. Miss Marple only narrates one short story, “Miss Marple Tells a Story,” because she does not usually enter the story until later in the book.

You’ll need to decide who will narrate your novel. This will be a crucial decision for you story.

  • The Sleuth. Miss Marple was Christie’s reprieve from working with Poirot. She’s an elderly busybody, yet she is extremely likeable. Make your Sleuth likeable—this is essential for Cozies, although other sub-genres can have seriously bent protagonists. Give Sleuth flaws, but flaws that don’t offend the reader. Miss Marple is the village busybody, but readers love her.
  • Sleuth’s Motivation for getting involved. Why does the Sleuth get involved? As a private investigator, Poirot is usually called upon for help. Miss Marple isn’t officially in the investigation business, but she is often called upon for help as well. In 4:50 from Paddington, The Body in the Library and Nemesis, by friends. In A Murder is Announced, her reputation has grown and police Inspector Craddock involves her.

BUT it’s often just Marple’s curiosity that pushes her into action. In A Caribbean Mystery, another guest at the resort starts to tell her the story of a man who got away with murder more than once, only to break off his tale when he realizes other are listening. When the storyteller is murdered in his room that night, Miss Marple is on the trail.

Give your Sleuth a good reason to get involved, more than just curiosity—such as wanting to protect a friend who is the prime suspect in the investigation. Your Sleuth will also need a goal that will propel her on.

  • Keep your Sleuth on Track. Once the Sleuth has a goal and decides to act on it, she launches into the main part of the novel. She interviews multiple suspects with motives. And she attacks any obstacles that get in her way.

And don’t let other characters do your Sleuth’s work. Christie got away with it in 4:50 from Paddington. Miss Marple was elderly and her strength was failing, and she had a young friend, Lucy Eyelesbarrow, work at the manor house near where she believes a murder took place. Lucy uses golf practice to search the grounds, and eventually finds a body hidden in the stables. In The Body in the Library, Miss Marple ultimately solves the mystery, but she is not always the driving force of the investigation.

Christie got away with this, but you won’t. Keep your Sleuth front and centre, always driving the investigation forward.

  • The Villain. The best mysteries have well-rounded villains, not cardboard characters, with backstories, motives, and plans for the future. And in Cozies, villains are often likeable characters. most of Agatha Christie’s are. And she must have mistrusted the medical profession because there are a good number of killer doctors in her mysteries. Your Villain needs to be smart, but not as smart as your Sleuth. And don’t reveal the Villain’s identity until the end.
  • Suspects. Christie often used the “Closed Circle of Suspects” literary device—a limited number of suspects, each with the means, the motive and the opportunity. In other words, one of the people in the closed fictional community is the murderer. No character in Christie’s novels should be considered exempt—not even a child, the narrator or the Sleuth!
  • Subplots. A good novel often has a subplot—or two. In Christie’s mysteries, the main thread is the murder. A second thread is often a romance OR a suspicious-looking character—not the murderer—who has a vendetta against the group or one of the other characters.

But don’t let your subplot compete with your main story. If it does start to compete, you probably have another novel that you’ll need to develop separately. And no sex scenes in those romantic subplots, please!

  • Clues. Christie provides clues, but she doesn’t always play fairly with her readers. She was skilled at misdirection. Red Herrings—misleading clues—are her best device for confusing readers. The challenge for readers is to separate the real clues from the Red Herrings. The real clues are often given at the beginning of the book, but are so underplayed it’s easy to miss them. Christie often used the word “interesting” to describe a clue with little relevance, but she never used this word referring to a vital clue.

Another trick is the Double Bluff, an attempt to deceive the reader by saying exactly what she will do—knowing that the reader will assume she’s bluffing. An example is the first suspect, who is ruled out early in the story (Murder in the Vicarage) but who turns out to be the Killer after all.

And Christie sometimes withholds vital information. The solution is often part of the Backstory, and the Reader is not privy to this until close to the end of the novel.

And sometimes everything is exactly as it appears.

  • The Midpoint comes half-way through the novel, a scene that changes the direction of the plot. It could be new information, or a new understanding by the Sleuth. The Midpoint is often a setback called a Reversal, and all clever plots should have reversals. The Sleuth realizes she was going in the wrong direction and has to come up with a new plan. In Christie’s novels, the Midpoint is often the Second Murder, as in A Murder is Announced.
  • Cause and Effect. Remember that all the action, all the Sleuth’s progression toward the Climax, builds, not randomly, but through cause and effect.
  • Climax. At the Climax, the Sleuth confronts the Villain, usually with words rather than weapons in Cozies. Many of Christie’s Climaxes involve a Big Reveal, a scene in which Poirot or Marple gather all the suspects together, list the clues and the red herrings, and then reveal the murderer. There’s usually COMEUPPANCE in these gathering scenes, with the Sleuth publicly embarrassing characters who have secrets.

BUT occasionally Christie’s Sleuths put themselves in real danger at the Climax. In 4:50 From Paddington, Miss Marple arranges to be alone with the Killer so her friend can come in and identify him as the man she saw strangling a woman on the train. In Nemesis, Marple allows the Killer to visit her in her bedroom in the middle of the night.

  • Disguises. Christie frequently uses disguises. Characters physically disguise themselves as someone else (After the Funeral) or take on fake identities (A Murder is Announced).

Readers should also pay attention to characters who appear frail or disabled; they’re often not. And characters whose lives appear to be in danger should be looked at closely. Also, pay attention to scatter-brained characters; they’re prone to make off-handed remarks that seal their fate.

You might want to use a few disguises in your stories.

  • Servants. Their input can be vital (Mitzi in A Murder is Announced) because they see and hear things as they blend into the background. But Christie’s servants are rarely killers, although killers sometimes disguise themselves as servants. Characters in modern Cozies may not have servants, but there may be other characters who blend into the background in their worlds: waiters, shop clerks, letter delivery people, hydro workers.
  • Social Issues. Understanding Christie’s historical period is essential to appreciating her stories. Her characters speak about the changing social classes, the arrival of immigrants in their villages, and the heavy taxation in England after the First World War. Christie pokes fun at her countrymen who have trouble coping with social change, and at the landed gentry whose privileged world is upset by the corpse in the library or on the lawn.

Racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia also turn up in Christie’s books. I like to think she intended this as part of her satire of the insular English: their obsession with their gardens, their cucumber sandwiches, and the status quo. Here’s the narrator of Murder in Mesopotamia’s initial take on Poirot: “I knew he was a foreigner, but I hadn’t expected him to be quite as foreign as he was.”

After the Second World War, many American readers were not amused by Christie’s characters’ views on ethnic or religious differences. Her publishers received letters, including one from the Anti-Defamation League. Her agent probably figured that these letters would seem ridiculous to her; in any case, he didn’t forward them to her. He simply gave Dodd, Mead, her American publishers, permission to delete any potentially offensive references to Jews or Catholics or Blacks. She apparently didn’t notice the changes.

You’ll probably want to explore social issues in your novels, but remember—as Christie did—your aim is to entertain, not to preach. As Samuel Goldwyn once said, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union. All I want is a story.”

  • Resolution. Once the conflict is over and all the ends are tied up, show readers what your fictional community is like now that order has been restored to it. Thrillers can end at the Climax, but Cozy readers want to see how these characters are doing once Evil has been vanquished. Not pages and pages, but enough to give readers a satisfying ending. And remembers that Endings are what readers take away with them…and talk about. A satisfying ending will sell your book to other readers.
  • Humour. Humour is a big part of today’s Cozy mysteries…and this goes back to Christie’s mysteries. Her stories are shot through with sly humour. The comedy is there to tame the evil.

In 4:50 from Paddington, a corpse is found in the stable on a great estate. The family’s grandson, Alexander, and his friend come tearing up to the stable on their bikes hoping to see it.

“Oh please, sir, do be a sport,” Alexander says to the police officers. “Here’s a murder, right in our own barn. It’s the sort of thing that might never happen again. Do be a sport, sir.”

“Take ’em in, Sanders,” Inspector Bacon said to the constable. “One’s only young once.”

  • Series. Cozies today are often part of a series, just as Christie’s were. Today we have Elizabeth Duncan’s Penny Brannigan mysteries, Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy cat series, the late Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman mysteries, and many more. Publishers and readers love a series. When you have a popular leading character, you’ve already sold your next book.

As you can see, Christie’s mysteries, even the Miss Marple mysteries, do not always fit snugly into the Cozy mold.

  • The murders often occur later in the stories than we like to see today.
  • Christie didn’t always play fairly with readers in providing clues, etc.
  • Miss Marple doesn’t always have a good reason to get involved in the investigation.
  • Miss Marple sometimes lets other characters do her Sleuth’s work.

But keep in mind that Christie was breaking new ground when she wrote her mysteries. And she could get away with a lot just because she was the famous Agatha Christie.

You, however, can’t.

(From an address to Sisters in Crime Toronto, Sept. 19, 2019.)

About rosemarymccracken

Rosemary McCracken is a Toronto-based journalist and fiction writer.
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