Agatha Christie and Dario Argento: playing fair in crime fiction

Profondo Rosso.

Heads-up: this post doesn’t contain spoilers, I don’t think, but does discuss the mechanics of structure and plot.

Although The Grave Digger’s Boy is a wintry psychological thriller very much in the contemporary style there is one very old-fashioned thing about it: it plays fair with the reader, as per the rules established by the mystery writers of the golden age.

I’ve mentioned Hillary Waugh before. He’s best known as the author of what is arguably the first police procedural novel, Last Seen Wearing, published in 1952, but also wrote a manual of crime writing that was my bible as a teenager.

In Mysteries and Mystery Writing he discusses at length the conventions that emerged in the 1920s through the works of writers such as Agatha Christie and S.S. Van Dine, as recorded by Ronald Knox in 1929.

Here’s an edited version of the list:

  • The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  • All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  • Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  • No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  • No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  • The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  • The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  • The ‘sidekick’ of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  • Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

They were in some ways a reaction against earlier writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, in his Sherlock Holmes stories, frequently sprang surprises on readers, resorted to imaginary poisons, or the intervention of previously unmentioned animals.

If Agatha Christie had written, say, ‘The Speckled Band’, she would have felt obliged to mention at the outset of the story that Grimesby Roylott kept snakes, which Conan Doyle did not.

Adherence to these rules encouraged the development of ingenious tricks amounting to a literary version of the misdirection techniques used in magic – putting clues in plain view but in such a way that the reader’s eyes don’t settle on them, announcing a clue here while letting of a flash-bang there, and so on.

After a while, though, readers got wise.

If there were any cakes with almond around, you knew cyanide would be involved.

If anybody’s face got ‘obliterated’, you knew the victim wasn’t who everyone supposed it to be.

Solutions became tortuous, playing fair by the letter of the law, but going against the spirit, especially in so-called ‘locked room’ mysteries, so that readers once again began to feel short-changed.

The rules, which were never really rules, remember, were eventually overturned by hardboiled crime writers such as Raymond Chandler. They were more concerned with mood and character than games or puzzles. Here’s what Chandler wrote in his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’:

I suppose the principal dilemma of the traditional or classic or straight deductive or logic and deduction novel of detection is that for any approach to perfection it demands a combination of qualities not found in the same mind. The coolheaded constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace, and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing board. The scientific sleuth has a nice new shiny laboratory, but I’m sorry I can’t remember the face. The fellow who can write you a vivid and colourful prose simply will not be bothered with the coolie labour of breaking down unbreakable alibis.

As a teenager, I was a Chandler obsessive, and came to dismiss Christie.

Growing older and wiser, though, I’ve come to appreciate her artistry and to be less impressed by the dazzle of Chandler’s prose.

Dame Agatha was a brilliant technician and the best of her books have the lightness of P.G. Wodehouse laid over a cast iron structure.

And others have since shown that fair play certainly needn’t mean a lack of atmosphere or art.

Dario Argento, the Italian filmmaker most famous for the bloody and stylish supernatural thriller Suspiria, started out making gialli – a type of crime movie which typically features black-gloved killers picking off victims one after the other in gruesome ways.

Despite sharing some DNA with slasher films such as Halloween or Friday the 13th, the best giallo also draw on Agatha Christie and other classic mystery writers.

Argento’s Profondo Rosso, or Deep Red, is simultaneously the most beautiful and unnerving of all the giallo and the fairest crime story ever put on film. I certainly had it in mind while working on The Grave Digger’s Boy. (I can’t say more without spoiling both my book and Argento’s film, which I highly recommend.)

My novel isn’t an Agatha Christie – nobody gets stabbed with a knife made of ice in the library of a country house; there’s no rounding up of suspects in the drawing room at the end – but I do think a reader who is really paying attention will be able to work out ‘whodunnit’.

Good luck!

You can pre-order The Grave Digger’s Boy for 99p right now. It’s out on Monday 19 August.

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