Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Cue angry fans...? by Cathy Ace



Is there a well-regarded classic mystery that you’ve read and didn’t see what all the fuss was about?

I’ve struggled with this question for several reasons…most of which I’m sure you can deduce. Being disappointed by a book isn’t necessarily the fault of the author: maybe it’s just not my cup of tea; maybe the hype would have been impossible to live up to; maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood for that book, that day/week/month. Many factors can contribute. But I’m going to answer this week’s question in any case, and my answer might shock you. It shocked me!

The classic I read and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the book enormously at first reading, and still do now (though the nature of the twist in the tale makes for less impactful, though nonetheless informative, subsequent readings) but I wasn’t as blown away by the ending as my Christie-mad mother had hoped I would be.

I couldn’t understand why Mum kept asking me – it seemed like every two minutes – how I was enjoying the book. It was clear this specific book was special to her. For a while she’d encouraged me to wait before reading it; I’d merrily chomped my way through most of her Marsh and Christie collection before my teens. Then, when I finally picked it off the shelf, she couldn’t wait to find out what I thought of it. When I finished it, I told her I’d found it satisfying and I’d really enjoyed it. We talked about how clever (and annoying) I thought it was, but I could tell she was disappointed that I hadn’t liked it more.

The problem? Not the book – me. You see, I didn’t know about “The Rules”. The rules Christie helped write when she belonged to The Detection Club. The rules she went on to break. (That must have been such fun!) Maybe if I’d known what they were, I would have been more impressed by the spectacular way in which Christie used them, and broke them, to make the book work. Mum knew about the rules and was thrilled by the unexpected reveal. Christie cheated, and it worked. So, yes, while I loved the book then, and can still learn from it now, it certainly didn’t deliver the knock-out punch it could have done for me if only I’d known what “wasn’t allowed”. Christie broke a rule and did it well, drawing down upon herself the ire of many fans who’d never been tricked that way before. A triumph for the mold-maker and -breaker, Christie, and a book I still love, in spite of Mum’s initial disappointment.
Here comes the plug: The second of the WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery series, THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER, is published in the US and Canada on February 1st. Pre-ordering at libraries and bookstores everywhere NOW!

14 comments:

jvk said...

What were the rules and which one did she break? I too found The Murder of Roger Ackroyd not as engaging as many of her others. If I knew what rule she broke, maybe I will reread it and have a greater appreciation for it. jvk. P.S. I loved you on our recent Celebrity cruise!

Christopher Lord said...

You can find the rules online; my personal favorite, but only because of its timely racism: "No Chinaman must figure in the story." That doesn't happen to be the one that Christie broke in "Roger Ackroyd." But to tell which rule she did break would be to give everything away and mystery writers are like magicians; we don't tell how our friends get away with what they get away with..."Dotty Dowager" is on my swollen Kindle TBR...

Cathy Ace said...

Hello jvk - as Christopher Lord said above, I won't give away which rule was broken here - just in case it acts as a spoiler for those who have yet to read the book, but I've provided a link below which will allow you to read all the rules...originally propounded by Knox, but taken on board by The Detection Club. And I'm glad you enjoyed our time together on the cruise - me too ;-) Thanks to you, Christopher, for your timely response, and for squeezing my WISE Women #1 onto your Kindle...heads-up #2 is out in a couple of weeks!!! :-)

Cathy Ace said...

Here's a link to one of the many places online where you can read The Rules: http://www.cozy-mystery.com/blog/knoxs-commandments-the-10-rules-of-golden-age-detective-fiction-part-i.html

Catriona McPherson said...

I think that's a great case of "over-hyping" (by your mum).

Cathy Ace said...

'Tis in the nature of mums to do that, methinks, Catriona. That said, without her influence, I wouldn't have read what I've read in the past fifty-odd years so I'll forgive her. :-)

noah-stewart.com said...

I'm not sure that the Detection Club et al were taking the "Rules" as seriously as you seem to think they were ... and I think it's reasonable to suggest that we have lost the context for some of them. For instance the "No Chinamen" rule was perhaps more about making the transition from an older school of sensation fiction where Fu Manchu-like villains plotted to rule the world and ran huge secret societies. Very few people today know enough about Sax Rohmer's fiction to write a piece about why modern writers shouldn't write like that, but in Knox's time they did.
I think in general the writers like Msg. Knox were in a time when detective fiction was striving to provide a "fair play" experience and there was a great deal of discussion about what was and was not fair play. Roger Ackroyd pushed the boundaries of fair play, is all. I don't think the major or even mid-list writers of the 1920s and 1930s were paying much attention to the rules, except that they knew if they broke them cleverly, their books would sell more.

Cathy Ace said...

All good points, Noah, and well made. Knox's "Fair play" vs "shockers" Rules (of which the members of The Detection Club, like Agatha Christie, were well aware)addressed the issues of the times, in the language of the times and with the sensibilities of the times.

Marlene Ezell said...

I haven't read that particular Christie book. Now I have to get it.

Art Taylor said...

I have to dissent here a little bit--having taught The Murder of Roger Ackroyd several times in my classes at Mason. While I'll agree that the surprise ending might be overhyped (I'm guilty myself of being a little too giddy about asking how far my students have read, who's finished the book, etc.), I think the book is a truly magnificent creation. If you go through and reread many, many passages in light of the truth of the whole affair, it's amazing how often Christie is simply SCREAMING the secret page after page after page, with most readers missing it completely. The way she balances ambiguity in such cases is, to my mind, astounding--though again, I'll agree that overhyping does it no justice in that regard, and here I am again....

Bradley Friedman said...

I feel like Ackroyd reads as one of Christie's most conventional mysteries - small village, secrets uncovered - and that seems to me to be the point in regards to the ending. Mystery authors maintain an interesting relationship with their readers: it is assumed that they will establish a trusting tone as part of the game - "believe me, folks, I will not lie to you" - and the best authors DON'T lie to us. Yet Christie was accused of just that when this book came out. But, as Art points out above, she lays her traps brilliantly here, and the fact that this case seems rather run of the mill must have lulled her readers then - and now - into believing that nothing out of the ordinary will happen!

I am currently engaged in a project to read and review a series of impossible crime novels, starting with Carr's The Hollow Man (The Three Coffins). I'm a third of the way through, and I may end up loving this book by the end. But right now, it's been something of a slog. I also happen to be reading Queen's The Egyptian Cross Mystery, which, coincidentally, has a few similarities to Carr's book. It is also slow going for me! And I love both Queen AND Carr!

Christopher Lord said...

I have led a seminar on "Detective Fiction to the Golden Age" for a local literary arts organization. I used these texts: "Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter," "The Moonstone," "Silver Blaze" and "A Scandal in Bohemia," "Hound of the Baskervilles," and ended with "Appointment with Death," which has, I think, one of Christie's best denouements.

I also gave my "students" a copy of Knox's "rules."

I had them read the Christie book twice: once to experience it, and once to see how she laid down the clues. Along with that book, I think she does particularly well with "A Murder is Announced," "Evil Under the Sun," and "Death on the Nile" (all of which have made great movies or TV movies, although the version of "Appointment with Death" with Lauren Bacall is cheesy compared with the lush and fabulous "Evil Under the Sun," my favorite Christie movie).

Re: "technical" or "impossible" books like "The Three Coffins," and Christie's "Murder for Christmas" (or however it's titled) and "Death in the Air," I find those unsatisfying and would like to hear comments on ones that work, because I think that when Christie takes a dig at "They Do it with Mirrors" (or "Murder with Mirrors") she really sticks it to the technical/impossible murder writers, even though she wasn't above trying it herself sometimes...

I much prefer the slight of hand of the other books I've mentioned, or really devious ones like "Cards on the Table" or "Murder in Three Acts."

And I remain convinced that "The Moonstone" will ALWAYS be the best detective novel--ever.

Bradley Friedman said...

Christopher, we may not share the same taste in favorites, but I tend to agree with you about impossible crime books. I like a different sort of sleight of hand, the kind Christie excelled at, and I tend to get bogged down by the technical details of how someone got in the locked room or crossed the snow without leaving fingerprints. But I have deep respect for the fans of these books, so I'm exposing myself to the best of these authors.

Bravo to you for teaching Christie!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for the conversation, Bradley and Christopher. Good points about Christie and turning conventional mysteries upside down (laying the trap a little). And I'll agree about impossible crimes generally, though I've very much enjoyed the range of stories in Otto Penzler's recent anthology of locked-room mysteries--some improbably maybe, but awfully entertaining.

And Christopher, YES to The Moonstone! I need to go back and reread again.....
Art