By Elaine Viets
I’m starting my sixth Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery by returning to my comfort read, Agatha Christie. After all, she’s sold a billion books in English and another billion in foreign languages.
Why read an author who’s been dead for nearly 45 years?
Because her writing is timeless. I still learn from her. Here are three ways:
(1) Agatha Christie’s character descriptions are superb.
Even the most unimportant characters are carefully described.
In Death on the Nile “smooth-footed, deft-handed waiters ministered” to Hercule Poirot’s table, serving him an excellent meal.
And while the butler didn’t commit this murder, his brief appearance is memorable:
“A few minutes later she was being ushered into the long stately drawing room, and an ecclesiastical butler was saying with the proper mournful intonation, ‘Miss de Bellefort.’”
I love those phrases –”an ecclesiastical butler” “with the proper mournful intonation.” I can almost hear him intone her name.
(2) Agatha Christie finds fresh ways to describe series characters.
It’s tempting for series writers like myself to repeat the same descriptions of our main characters, book after book. But we have to be careful. Readers are smart enough to recognize boilerplate.
Here’s Agatha’s description of Hercule in After the Funeral. This is the 29th mystery in the Poirot series, but she still comes up with a new description:
“There were no curves in the room. Everything was square. Almost the only exception was Hercule Poirot himself, who was full of curves. His stomach was pleasantly rounded, his head resembled an egg in shape, and his moustaches curved upwards in a flamboyant flourish.”
Hercule is talking to Mr. Goby, an expensive operative who acquires outre information. Here’s Agatha’s clever description of a nondescript operative:
“Mr. Goby was small and spare and shrunken. He had always been refreshingly nondescript in appearance and he was now so nondescript as practically not to be there at all.”
Mr. Goby has to deliver a long list information that could have been quite dry. But Agatha livens it up with a funny bit. Here’s how Mr. Goby gives his report to Poirot:
“He was not looking at Poirot because Mr. Gobi never looked at anybody. Such remarks as he was now making seemed to be addressed to the left-hand corner of the chromium-plated fireplace curb.” He delivers his first round of information that way.
For the second batch, Mr. Goby “shifted his gaze to an electric plug socket.”
The third burst of info is given while he “winks at a lampshade.”
And finally, Mr. Goby finishes his information “by nodding his head at a cushion on the sofa.”
Mr. Goby never appears in this book again, but Agatha has found a good way to make what could have been a boring recitation of facts entertaining.
(3) Agatha Christie knows how to skip esoteric discussions that can bog down a scene.
Hercule is back at that fine dinner, and the host says, “‘You will enjoy your dinner, Monsieur Poirot. I promise you that. Now as to wine–’
“A technical conversation ensued, with Jules, the maitre d’hotel, assisting.”
Agatha also uses this technique to avoid repetitious dialogue from scene to scene.
That’s how I prep for my newest novel. I don’t call it procrastination, though Agatha has some 80 books and short stories.
What do you do before you start your novels?
A Star Is Dead – “witty dialogue and well-defined characters” says Publishers Weekly – sold out of its first printing. Buy it here: