Monday, October 26, 2015

The Start of a Great Writing Career

"I did not deceive you, mon ami. At most, I permitted you to deceive yourself."

Hercule Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

Ninety–five years ago this month, Agatha Christie published the first of dozens of mystery novels — "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" — and introduced the world to one of its most enduring literary detectives, Hercule Poirot.

Christie wrote her first novel during World War I, published it in 1920, then neatly took things full circle 55 years later with "Curtain," a novel she wrote during World War II and brought Poirot and his sidekick Hastings back to Styles for their final case together.

As I have heard the story, Christie's career as a writer began a decade before "Styles" was published — when she was recovering from influenza at her family's home. Convalescence bored her, and her mother suggested that she try her hand at writing. Agatha resisted, saying she didn't think she could. Her mother observed that she had never tried, then left briefly and returned with a writing exercise book. By the following evening, she had finished her first story, a tale of "madness and dreams" that Christie herself, after re–reading the unpublished manuscript half a century later, said showed "the influence of all that I had read the week before" — which had "obviously" been D.H. Lawrence — although a biographer called her story "compelling."

Well, regardless of the merits of the story, it is beyond dispute that it launched an astonishing career. Christie has been dead nearly 40 years, but "The Guinness Book of World Records" recognizes her as the world's best–selling novelist of all time, with more than 2 billion copies of her books having been sold. Her estate claims her novels are behind only the works of Shakespeare and the Bible on the list of the world's most widely published books.

For years before her first book was published, Christie treated her writing as a hobby — like embroidery — but that hobby was preparing her for her life's work.

That tale she wrote while recovering from the flu may have been her first writing effort, but it was "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" that was her first to be published.

It wasn't the first Christie book I ever read, but I immediately recognized something in her writing that was drilled into us when I was a journalism student in college. For lack of a better term, call it the Joe Friday technique — Just the facts.

Christie let her characters speak for themselves. She resisted the temptation to suggest what the characters ought to be saying or to explain to the readers what the characters intended to say. She had the wisdom to let the characters' statements speak for themselves.

It was an element that often made for her best novels. She allowed the readers to reach their own conclusions (which were often wrong) based on what the characters said. Characters often said things that were self–serving and misleading — as they did and do in real life. Readers who reached conclusions based more on the evidence than a witness' testimony usually fared better.

If Christie received any criticism for her initial work, it was that she was perhaps a bit too clever. Critics were virtually unanimous in their verdict that it was a clever plot — but, as one critic complained, there were too many clues in "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" that had the effect of canceling each other out. At times it may have been too clever for its own good.

Of course, there were plenty of red herrings in Christie's books, as there are in any good mystery. I have never tried to write a mystery, but I suppose it is tempting to connect the dots for the reader, to explain what is relevant and what is not.

I know it was often tempting in my work as a reporter to connect the dots for people, but I was guided by advice from my news writing professor, a fellow who worked for the New York Times for many years. He told me to give the readers the facts, the statements that others made, the evidence that was presented and let them make up their own minds.

That, I think, was the secret to Christie's fiction–writing success. Novelists write about the worlds they create; reporters write about the world that already exists. But the key to success for both is to let the readers reach their own conclusions.