“I recommend all screenwriters spend time reading Agatha Christie. Just pick a sampling of two Poirots and two Marples. And just see how she does it. And see how clever she is. And see how much logical insight and brilliance is involved in designing these things, particularly in such a fashion where it works even though you are trying to figure it out while it’s happening.”
A couple weeks ago the Scriptnotes podcast repeated some excerpts of previous episodes; that quote of Craig Mazin’s comes from Episode 360.
As a public service I’ll recommend a couple Christies that I think everyone, not just screenwriters, ought to read.
First up is the classic, in more ways than one, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the third appearance of Hercule Poirot.
Christie did not yet consider herself a full-time writer, and she certainly didn’t anticipate how long-lived her detective creation would last, as she has him retired to a small village. She had already tired of her Watson/narrator, Captain Hastings, as she dispatched him to the Argentine (though she would bring him back in subsequent books). So she settled on a different narrator, who has a sister who seems to know everything that’s going on in that village; the sister would become the model for Christie’s Miss Jane Marple.
I recommended this book to a friend and her report, in part, was: “An altogether satisfying murder mystery. Gosh, Christie is good. […] Christie’s characters seem one-dimensional or shallow. I never have much feeling for them. They’re almost cartoon-like, but boy can she weave a complex and riveting tale.”
When this book came out, it was greeted with shouts of “Unfair!” from some quarters, but Dorothy Sayers defended Christie and pointed out the careful wording of certain passages. I think the book holds up well after nearly a century.
Several years later, after Christie had divorced her first husband for infidelity and remarried, she was producing two or more books every year, and she was at the height of her powers. That’s when she wrote Five Little Pigs (retitled to Murder in Retrospect in the United States, possibly a better title).
This is one of my favorites, as it deals with a murder that occurred many years in the past. The victim, a famous painter named Amyas Crale, bears more than a passing resemblance to her first husband, Archie Christie, even echoing his initials. I can’t dismiss the feeling that this may have been a very personal novel for Christie. Charles Osborne, in his book The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, describes it as “an excellent novel which happens also to be a first-rate murder mystery, more complex in structure than the majority of Poirot’s cases, and containing much vivid yet subtle characterization.”
The title comes from the nursery rhyme that begins “This little pig went to market”, but other than identifying five of the principal characters with the five pigs of the rhyme, Christie doesn’t dwell on it.
The novel begins as the daughter of the murder victim consults Poirot to ask him to find the truth of what happened and to exonerate her mother who was tried and convicted of the crime and died in prison.
Another reason I love this one is there is a Rashomon quality to it, as each of the characters recalls the events in a somewhat different way. No gimmicks in this one, the solution depends upon understanding the characters.
So there are two Poirot recommendations.
Let me think a bit about Miss Marple recommendations.
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