Mystery novels are a tricky thing – there are so many, and so few seem to be true classics. Some lucky authors will have their whole canon bronzed and put up on a pedestal…and others will be sold in their hardback form in airports.
I’ve been on an audiobook kick again recently, and this time it’s been a cruddy mystery, S is for Silence, written by Sue Grafton and the incomparable Agatha Christie with Hickory Dickory Dock.
Grafton must have been tired by the time she got to the letter S (she was working through the alphabet), because the book is full of tedious details that are obviously not germane to the machinations of the plot – we hear quite a lot about the bad diet of the female P.I., who has a thing for sandwiches with processed meat. To be fair, there are some helpful flashbacks that we can use to contrast the statements of the suspects with what actually happened. To be unfair, I don’t care about anyone’s lunch choices, and frankly, the plot blows.
See, the guy who did it is obvious. We know it from the moment that we figure out that if the victim’s car disappeared, it had to be in some way disposed of. And we know that this guy has a cash-flow problem and a company that rents out heavy equipment for roadwork and overall construction. It’s so obvious, which is perhaps the worst insult of all in reference to a crime novel. There’s no freakin’ mystery! And we still have to hear about how great fried eggs are on sandwiches. That the P.I. doesn’t have a heart attack (and that she outruns a bulldozer) is astounding. And just a little unwelcome.
Not only that, but the book is abridged, meaning that I still haven’t figured out any concrete reason why the guy who bought the victim her annoying yappy dog must have been her killer. I can only assume he was trying to butter up the doomed woman, but there is no real connection there that would make him guilty and her dead.
(Not to mention that the flashbacks refer to a pair of high school sweethearts who are supposed to be in love, even though he really only wants to get in her pants and that he forgets to use protection, even though that same line of action caused another girl in another state to kill herself trying to abort the baby. And they still love each other after 30 years? And when she herself had to go to Colorado to have the baby, give it up for adoption, and go back home as if nothing had happened? If it were me, he would be speaking in a beautiful, sonorous falsetto. Ehrm. Anyway…)
Agatha Christie is much safer ground. She really develops the characters of her sleuths, the sorts of people you could really talk to or perhaps be gently manipulated by. Characters with intellect, curiosity, and a keen appreciation for the truth. Hickory Dickory Dock is an Hercule Poirot mystery – and for those not in the know, Poirot is a strange late middle age Belgian who uses his rather odd, curt demeanor to suss out what people truly think – and he’s not afraid to use people’s xenophobia against them.
While I am completely willing to spoil a grotty book, this one – well. I’m going to have to ruin this one, too, but a little more reluctantly. It’s so cleverly done; I always picture Christie smirking a little over her typewriter as she clacks away at her book. So I will beg her forgiveness and instead show why she has such supremacy in the mystery genre.
Like in the first book I’ve reviewed in this post, the villain shows his hand very early on. BUT – Christie gives us a series of double bluffs. The suspect is discarded. Who would be so silly as to incriminate himself? And why would anyone so outwardly callous be the murderer, so early in the story? We like a merry chase, and so we think about our other options – that is where we see the smirk float above the keys. We get distracted. Certainly the murderer must be a woman. Certainly it must have been the medical student. Perhaps the law student in the adjoining room. But no: Christie leads us in a wide circle before slamming the gate shut with a look of triumph, she played us, and we loved it.
That’s the difference: if the murderer is obvious, it’s better to throw up some quality smoke and mirrors, rather than some sad lunchmeat.