Year of Mystery Novels, Part 3: Murder on the Orient Express

Murder_on_the_Orient_Express_First_Edition_Cover_1934

As I pointed out when I started the series, I was woefully ignorant of the mystery genre. I picked up Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express from the library. Something surprised me about it. It was far along in a row of books that all looked the same. This is actually the 10th book in the Hercule Poirot series of detective novels.

The general setting of the novel is quite good for creating tension. First off, Christie introduces the main characters very early and gives them all motivations/suspicions for committing the crime. This set me up as the reader to believe it could be any of them.

Note how different this is from the first two mystery novels I read this year, in which one person was the prime suspect, and then as new evidence came to light, the prime suspect would switch out from under you. I enjoyed Christie’s style much more.

The setting ramped up the tension, because the murder happens on a stopped train due to a snow issue. This heightens the tension because without knowing who did it or why, anyone could be next. I mean, they’re trapped on a train with a murderer! How great of a premise is that?

The overall execution I liked much better than Sherlock Holmes, because the plot focused on solving the crime. Holmes felt more like a character study with the mystery as an afterthought.

The prose style of the novel felt very dated. Description was pared down to a minimum. Sometimes all you had to go on was dialogue. I almost took a picture of the book open where there were no dialogue tags or exposition at all on either page. It’s like reading a play where the person speaking isn’t identified.

Outside of that one issue, I ended up really enjoying this one. I saw the appeal of the mystery novel as a genre for the first time. It was straight up fun to try to figure out who did it and why. And the end was…pretty surprising.

Spoiler Warning: We’ll dig in to the details a bit more now. You are warned, though, this book has been around for 100 years and there are many adaptations for film, tv, and stage, so if you haven’t been spoiled yet, I doubt you’re planning on reading it anyway.

The first major twist is that the identity of the victim comes into question. A note is left that seems to identify the victim as a man who killed a girl but got off on a technicality (he was travelling under a false identity). This is an interesting twist, because it shifts everything you thought you knew, including the dead victim, who shouldn’t be able to influence the story.

Part II is highly structured. Each chapter is a single scene with a sole suspect. We get evidence pointing toward each of them. But at the same time confusing, strange things pop up about previous suspects.

I could see some people finding this to be too rigid a structure, because it doesn’t flow like a normal novel. Instead, we get episodic chapters. But I liked the approach, because there are so many characters, this structure lets you keep track of each one separately. It actually reminded me of playing a game of “Clue.” As the reader, you have to keep thinking through the logical consistencies, inconsistencies, and possibilities.

Part III then walks you through these logical steps to connect the dots in places you’ve probably missed. This part reminded me a bit of how Sherlock Holmes works. It focuses a lot more on the deductive genius of Hercule Poirot.

The end result is a little disappointing. Poirot concludes that everyone on the train is in on it. This explains a bunch of strange coincidences, like everyone on the train randomly having strong ties to the girl who had been murdered.

But on further reflection, the ending wasn’t as disappointing as I originally thought. They would have gotten away with it if Poirot hadn’t randomly been called back to London. The only people on the train would have been people in on the crime.

Poirot has used his great mind to come up with a plausible alternate way the murder could have happened in which the murderer gets off the train. This is what he presents to the authorities, and it adds an interesting layer to the ending in which we have to judge whether he did the right thing by taking justice into his own hands.

 

 

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Year of Mystery Novels, Part 2: Mystic River

For my second mystery novel of the year, I decided to do Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I know this was a really famous movie when it came out, but somehow I went into this not knowing anything about the plot or mystery at all. I highly recommend this to anyone who can manage it.

I really should have started the year with this one, because it blew me away. It could very well end up being one of my favorite books I read this year. It also clarified for me what I didn’t like about The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Mystic River has incredible depth to it. The atmosphere of the neighborhood plays a big role. Each of the characters have a history with the others. In the first few pages, we get a horrific scene that carries on thirty years later to create guilt and pain between two of the main characters.

The characters are all deeply flawed, and one of the best parts of the novel is to see how small mistakes can escalate quickly into terrible, life-changing moments through perfectly understandable overreactions.

This is what the Sherlock Holmes novel was missing. Mystic River is first and foremost a novel with subplots and tension and a bunch of moving parts contributing to the plot. The Holmes novel was a mystery first and maybe character study next. The “novel” part was more an afterthought.

Let’s move on from these vague descriptions to some of the takeaway lessons. There will obviously be spoilers from here on out.

It takes 150 pages to get to the discovery of the dead body. Before this happens, Lehane carefully sets up a bunch of scenarios. It’s unclear which, if any, will turn into the main mystery of the novel.

The way he does this is to give us points of view of people tangential to the potential crimes. The opening chapter is from the point of view of a childhood friend of a kid that is abducted. Next we get the wife of a man who comes home with blood all over him.

This sets up a bunch of scenarios, all of which pique the interest of the reader even if they end up not being the main crime. It’s rather clever, because the book doesn’t turn so much on figuring who did it. Instead, we want to figure out how each of these scenarios are related. It’s a much more engaging way to let the mystery unfold.

Another thing this book does well is to show the grieving of the families involved. In a more classical mystery telling we are so focused on the detective and clues that this human and emotional component totally disappears.

I won’t spoil the actual ending, but I will say that it is nice to have the crime be so believable. I don’t like when it turns out to be a complete sociopath or someone who can only be described as “pure evil.” Turn on the news. People die at the hands of others for really mundane reasons. And, wow, the final reveal in this book will leave the most coldhearted person shaken.

The pacing and tension were done really well for all the the above reasons. My only complaint is my standard one. This is clearly “commercial fiction” with how sloppy the prose style is. The first fifty pages took some effort to plod through.

Without hunting for the truly egregious sentences, here’s one on a random early page:

He’d [Sean’s father] planned the back porch here, something he and his friends threw up one blistering summer when Sean was five, and he came down here when he wanted peace and quiet, and sometimes when he was angry, Sean knew, angry at Sean or Sean’s mother or his job.

This is very typical. The sentences are fine, except at the end they get needlessly confusing and wordy. Lehane tends to use pronouns a touch too long without reminding us who it is referring to. He also conflates point of view (like in this one it’s hard to tell if Sean’s father or Sean is supposed to be the viewpoint).

Overall, I think the biggest takeaway from this novel is to keep the mystery active with scenarios and character actions. It creates a more compelling read than when information is revealed through the discovery of clues.

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 1: The Hound of the Baskervilles

Well, this series might be harder than I imagined. In retrospect, I knew this novel would not read like a modern novel, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be for me to make it through. I probably should have started with a modern page-turner to get in the proper frame of mind.

The Hound of the Baskervilles does not start with the discovery of a body or anything like that. This already broke my conception of the genre. Maybe I’ll find out this isn’t actually as common as I thought it was.

The book drew me in right away with a mini mystery. Sherlock Holmes deduces who owns a cane that was left at his office. It’s a fun little introduction and pulled me along until the man shows up.

The main mystery gets introduced: a mysterious hound seems to kill people in the Baskerville family. This dates back some time to a letter referring to the hound. Sir Charles Baskerville recently died, and there is suspicion of the hound.

Already by the third or fourth chapter I lost all suspense or curiosity. I think part of this is the small amount of exposition. A large amount of exposition can slow a plot down and make a novel feel like it’s dragging. But in this other extreme, so much of the novel was dialogue, I lost track of where they were, who was even talking, and any visualization of the scenes. It was almost like reading a play.

Another thing I found strange was how the mystery got set up. Because there is this prime suspect, the hound (also the name of the book), I didn’t feel like I was guessing who the killer was. It’s true that a mysterious man becomes another suspect early on, and we don’t actually know who/what the hound is.

So I’m curious if this is how all the mysteries I read will be set up. Will there be a big cast of suspects that keeps you guessing, or will it be a prime suspect that switches as evidence comes in. I’ve always been told the reader should feel like they could have guessed it all if they were clever enough.

Eventually a cast of suspects is introduced, but it’s a good halfway through by that point. I also didn’t have a good sense of their motivations. The only person with solid motivation ends up being the actual killer. So that was anti-climatic.

I kind of found Holmes to be annoying. I guess if you find his constant interjection of random facts to everything a fun addition to the mystery, this book could be a fun read. To me, he’s like that person obsessed with trivia who is always interrupting and going on tangents.

I guess I was a little disappointed at the lack of twists and turns. They were there, but they weren’t surprising enough to keep the flow of the book going for me. I guess it’s a bit clever that the murder weapon was a dog, but we knew that going in. It wasn’t a twist that had to be worked out.

But let’s stop with the negative. I’m supposed to do this series to learn something from the genre that I can apply to my own writing. I think one of the most interesting aspects of this is the natural/supernatural discussion. Watson believes the letter at face value, and thinks the death is due to a supernatural hell hound. Holmes unravels more and more evidence toward a natural explanation until he can make his case.

In general, this type of thing is very good for creating suspense and tension: have two characters at odds with each other, and each reiterate their belief that the world is different than the other believes. This supernatural explanation serves as a red herring. Maybe back when it was written this was more convincing, but just knowing how a Sherlock Holmes novel works told me it would be revealed as a natural cause.

Overall, I was not impressed. I’m still hopeful about finding useful patterns and really gripping reads later in the year.