#217: Depth, Discovery, and the Detective Novel, via Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie

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Worry not, I have no intention here of spoiling anything about Death on the Nile ahead of spoiling everything about it next month, but I’ve just reread it in preparation for that and some thoughts came out of it that I’d like to get down here for posterity.  Also, having tackled Australian and American authors for the 1937 Crimes of the Century, it struck me that I should probably go for the English-speaking trifecta and take on the most English of English Detective Novelists, too, for completeness if nothing else.

I went through something of a drought of decent novels recently — something Death on the Nile brought to an end, as I enjoyed it much more second time around — and while this concentration of disappointment was somewhat irritating to endure it has given me a kind of perspective on what I expect when I read this type of book, or at least what I look for in my reading.  At the risk of besmirching vast swathes of detective fiction, I’m going to define it through the two terms I’ve used in the title of this post: Depth and Discovery.

Defined loosely, depth for me is essentially “how much more is going on than what simply appears to be happening”, or “how much a particular action or event adds to the plot of the novel”.  If, say, a character suddenly displays unforseen aptitude at swimming and there is a chapter in which they out-swim another character — let’s say in a race — in order to humiliate them or prove their previously-doubted worth and so rise in esteem in the eyes of others, but is never referred to again, this has a minimal depth in providing a sort of leg-up for that character.  If there is a point later in the book where prowess at swimming suddenly becomes important, that previous display achieves more depth by enabling the plot to continue.

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Oh yeah, I went there…

Or if it instead transpires that the crime under investigation requires someone who was able to swim a certain distance in a short time, depth is added by the fact that the character above will come under suspicion for said prowess, with that esteem now being turned against them.  If additionally it turns out that the person who was beaten in that above race was actually the criminal, and allowed themselves to be beaten so as to direct suspicion elsewhere…well, then we get even deeper still.

In short, the more a particular event or action contributes to the plotting of a novel, the more depth it provides.  And the more of these events a novel has, the more depth the book possesses overall.  In this sense, we hope that all novels of detection will posses some depth — ideally there’s a fair play element where we are forced to reconsider the importance of an event or an object, or perhaps several in consort, which then gives a previous chapter or passage new significance (it was at least in part as recognition of this idea that I named this blog in the first place…).  Not all detective novels do this, though, and, even if you’re not completely aware of when it is happening, it’s fair to say that we as readers get a good sense of when it isn’t.  It is all too easy to pick out the longeurs where an author is spinning their wheels to introduce the next character or bring on the next event — to get everyone down to the swimming pool so the butler can be shot in the library, or engage in some hilarious shenanigans with the deaf old maid.

Now — and take a moment to calm yourself here, Brad — I’d say that the first chapter of Death on the Nile has virtually no depth to it at all.  In fact, there’s so little depth, I’d argue that you could start at the beginning of chapter 2 and be no worse off (not only that, it also detracts from the discovery, which we’ll get into shortly).  Christie is indulging in the classical GAD trope of introducing the characters we’ll be spending the next 200-odd pages with, but in fact we simply get a potted history of some engagements and marriages and the loose association of some characters to others, all of which is then covered again once we’re in Egypt in chapter 2 onwards.  In itself this is a fairly standard approach, but given that the first chapter is around 10% of an already not underlong book — 25 out of my 251 pages — it’s curiously lacking in necessary content.  Be honest: how much would this sort of chapter amaze you come the end of Murder on the Orient Express (1934)?  It’d blow my mind there, but really adds nothing here.

16360Compare it to, say, the opening of Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) where the actions of one character, and one line in particular, are thrown into sharp relief given the eventual outcome of that plot.  The same basic tropes of introduction are employed, but this time it becomes clear at the end that we were already wading into deeper waters from the very outset.  In fact, the impossible nature of the murder therein lends itself to depth perfectly, as do impossible crimes in general, and I’m now in a cart/horse confusion as to whether my love of impossible crimes came for a longing for depth or vice versa.  But, unarguably, the reflection that is part and parcel of the impossible crime is redolent of the depth I’m talking about here, whichever way I first approached it.

Discovery, then, is exactly what it sounds like: how much do we find out along the way?  If in chapter 1 I’m introduced to Jimmy Scrambles, private investigator, who is told he has a case following an heiress who fears for her life…fine.  But if the book then goes on to try to make Jimmy Scrambles into a suspicious character from someone else’s point of view — perhaps implying that he might be the cause of the threat — only for him to reveal his true cause halfway through…well, for me as the reader, there is zero discovery in that: I knew who he was from the start, and have disregarded him as a threat for the entire time.  This can be turned around on you, naturally — maybe he is the person making the threats, and worked himself into a position to get this job so that he could more easily threaten from behind his professional smokescreen, or something (there’s a reason I’m not an author…) — but equally we can be told too much at times.

Christie is equally guilty of this again in chapter one of Death on the Nile, and again there’s no need for it.  The solicitor Jim Fanthorp is sent along on the trip after his employer learns that Andrew Pennington is out there with millionaire heiress Linnet Doyle.  Virtually his first action once he appears on the scene is to commend Linnet’s caution in reading the papers Pennington is trying to get her to sign, causing Pennington to pack up and abandon the process.  It is clear at this stage that Pennington is an object of suspicion and Fanthorp a protecting influence, because of what we know about his presence there from chapter 1.  Without that, this could simply be played as Pennington’s irritation at an outside interruption, or at least be allowed some doubt as to who is behaving questionably…but instead, the doubt and consequent discovery here is removed.

Anticipation is part of discovery, it’s true — you can spring a surprise on your reader, of course, but if there’s some basis behind it then you’ll have a better effect — and arguably there’s a case of Christie establishing the possibility for “…trouble” with the elderly Marie van Schuyler, but even in the liberal, anything-goes 1930s it’s unlikley that “…trouble” means “a tendency to shoot people” — we are asked to be suspicious of this woman, to expect some depth to come of her presence, but her involvement adds no real intrigue to the plot.  Without this potential being raised in the first chapter, there would be much more potential for her as a character, and the eventual discovery of her particular malady would hold more weight.

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“I’ll give you ‘trouble’…”

I have read an astonishing number of novels in the last few years where this discovery is completely undercut by authors revealing far too much far too early.  Indeed, the complete absence of depth or discovery at times makes me wonder whether anyone even uses an editor any more (one professionally-published book that I’ve read this year — published in the last 24 months, and you’ll get no more from me — doesn’t need any of its first third; now that is scandalous).  A bit of time establishing character and setting is one thing, but if you don’t have a plot (and, yes, I’ve been over this not once, but twice) then what the hell are you doing writing genre fiction?  And, of course, the two concepts are so intertwined that it’s almost an achievement to negate both of them to such an extent…

Tastes and reactions differ, of course, and Christie provides a decent amount of depth and discovery once the murders start (yay!), including some great foreshadowing of what would have been touchy subjects at the time, but that opening chapter is a mystery to me.  Aside from providing what has perhaps become an expected trope of the time — something that also tripped up poor Jonathan Latimer — this doesn’t seem at all in keeping with Christie’s dense and dazzling puzzle plots that were ten-a-penny at this time in her career (a mere year either side of this she wrote The A.B.C. Murders, Murder in Mesopotamia and Cards on the Table (1936) and then Appointment With Death and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) — five books most authors would kill for, even though I don’t rate CotT at all…).  But I’m at least grateful for the contrast it has provided in making these ideas clear to me.

As for the book itself…well, those details shall have to wait until next month.  Though there’s not a huge amount of 1937 in it, I have to say, and it feels remarkably free of gadzookery from a modern perspective.  Though there is the gorgeously obscure proclamation “And somebody was BF enough to write a big J on the wall”…any suggestions?

~

I submit the cover at the top of this post for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Revolver.

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24 thoughts on “#217: Depth, Discovery, and the Detective Novel, via Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie

  1. So we are distinguishing mystification with genuine clueuing here? I have to tell you, when I talk about depth in novels, it doesn’t usually have a lot to do with the relevance of swimming to a storyline but OK, i see what you’re doing … 🙂 Looking forward to the book getting a proper work out next month!

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    • I supose this is slightly beyond clewing because that simply provides a single function — namely being able to draw a line from the crime to the perpetrator. Certainly something previously dismissed that then becomes relevant if used in clewing achieves depth through this, but I see it as more than “this clue and this clue and this clue taken together mean that you must be the one to’ve killed her”.

      If anything, the clewing here is actually a bit dicey, though there is depth to be found in certain events. Unpick that and you’re onto what I mean!

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  2. Thought provoking post as ever JJ. Glad you enjoyed this book more second time round. If I didn’t have such a looming TBR pile this is definitely a book I would like to re-read again, as I don’t remember having issues with the first chapter, as I thought it set us up for a twist upon a twist.

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    • That’s distinctly the impression I got, as well, but it doesn’t seem to add anything beyond a hint at a plot poin that’s never properly unveiled until very late in the day anyway (and certainly not a fair-play aspect). Weird.

      Though I’m sure Brad will correct me and point out the 18 things I’ve missed…

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      • The “J” on the wall refers to Jacqueline de Bellefort, the only person on the ship with a 100% foolproof alibi. The person who tried to incriminate her based on her huge motive without understanding that she had no opportunity is referred to as a bloody fool.

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          • I can’t find the phrase. What chapter? Although I have the Fontana Books edition, so I figure mine would be the same. Is the line attributed to Colonel Race? It would be something he would say, and maybe they were being nice to faint-hearted old lady readers???

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          • Doesn’t matter; given that my DotN is the same edition as Death in the Clouds that contains the racially dated sentiment, I’ll assume it’s just Race — as it is indeed he — being over-subtle.

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  3. Okay, there’s no way I can respond to this in the comments section without co-opting the whole shebang! So . . . you asked for it, fella! The discussion begins in March! Give me a little time, and I will fashion a response to this over at my place!

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  4. Pingback: PROLOGUE TO A THROWDOWN | ahsweetmysteryblog

  5. Regarding BF, I wonder whether Agatha Christie herself used the short form or she used the full form and the censorship was done by the publishers.
    In the French translation “was BF enough” is translated as “commis la naïveté ” (committed the naivety).

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  6. Pingback: The Plague Court Murders – The Green Capsule

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