Spot the Mistake #2

The Cuckoo’s Calling is about the death of a model, Lula Landry. A good part of the subplot concerns her life in the public eye, which the photo manages to convey brilliantly: the cameras surrounding her, above her head; the set of her shoulders; the vulnerability in depicting her in nightwear.

A slightly smaller part of the subplot concerns her attempt to find her own identity: as a young woman growing up, working in an isolated profession; as an adopted child; as someone of mixed race heritage trying to get in touch with black culture, struggling against the family who had tried to wash her identity white.

The Cuckoos Calling

Yes…about that last one…

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The Big Four (Flaws in Christie)

Detective fiction plots are a little bit like clockwork. Sub-plot whirrs into sub-plot whirrs into sub-plot into Resolution, intuition into clue into deduction, multiple cogs spinning and clicking to produce one final resounding tick.

Only sometimes they get it wrong. Only a little bit wrong, but a little bit of dust in the machine that clogs up the mechanism and then it all suddenly doesn’t make any sense. One thought of ‘hmm…’ springs into the reader’s mind and the entire edifice comes crashing down.

Reading a writer such as Christie, these are pretty rare; to take a lesser writer to task for common mistakes would be a little unsporting. For this reason, these posts will deal exclusively with the good works of Christie in her heyday: the ones we remember and cherish, not the ones we prefer to forget or just think ‘eh?’ For all their inconsistencies, Elephants Can Remember or Passenger to Frankfurt will not be dealt with here; as will cases such as Peril At End House where an ‘inconsistency’ is acknowledged and dealt with in the text.* And so, Five Minute Mysteries is tackling the greatest of them all at the height of her powers to show one thing: how damn difficult writing a good detective story is.

Obviously, spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

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COUNTDOWN

4: After the Funeral

After the Funeral

 

After the Funeral is one of the lesser known but most underappreciated Christies. Written fairly late, it has the darker tone of late Christie in its setting, a Britain ravaged by the wars and idyllic dreams of teashops and old family houses lost for good, yet keeps the whip-sharp characterisation and plot of the best. It’s rare, perhaps unique, in being a country-house murder that knows that age of the country-house is long-gone.

We begin the story with our introduction to the Abernethie family, before the war self-made millionaires with a big house and children playing in the garden. Fast-forward thirty years, and all but one of the Abernethie children is dead and their grandchildren have moved on. The family gather one last time for the funeral of the head of the Abernethie family, Richard, who died peacefully in his sleep…we assume, until his sister Cora, the last of the original Abernethie children, perks up her head and speaks:

“But he was murdered, wasn’t he?’

Cora Lansquenet, nee Abernethie, was a gawky child who always spoke at the wrong moment, now grown into an overweight, ungraceful woman who always speaks at the wrong moment, so no-one at the gathering pays her too much attention until, a few days later, she is found by her companion, her head smashed and very dead. Enter Poirot.

At first, the case seems impenetrable. There would be reasons to kill Richard Abernethie, but no-one can find any evidence to prove murder. If Richard Abernethie was not murdered, then why kill Cora, a batty old lady who lived alone with a companion and spent her days buying old paintings at charity sales? The answer is one of Christie’s most ingenious.

1. Cora was killed, not for her money, but for something valuable in her possession: an unrecognised Vermeer, bought at a charity sale and left as a gift to her paid companion, Miss Gilchrist, who battered in her employer’s head in order to get enough money to found a genteel tea-shop. (It is one of the more darkly amusing Christies).

2. The Cora who made the comment at the funeral of Richard Abernethie, the comment that began the suspicion that Richard Abernthie was murdered and so threw suspicion away from the murder of Cora Lansquenet, was…not in fact Cora Lansquenet but her companion, Miss Gilchrist, dressed up.

This in itself is not too implausible (and there’s a far more egregious use of this device in Christie yet to come). None of those present at the funeral were close relatives, all close relatives being dead; Cora had changed from a skinny girl into a heavy woman, and only her easily-mimickable mannerisms were the same. Miss Gilchrist being able to pass herself off as Cora makes sense, but what she says while in disguise does not.

By suggesting that Richard Abernethie was murdered and then allowing Cora’s body to be discovered, Miss Gilchrist essentially begins a murder investigation. This is exactly the sort of thing that a sensible murderer does not want. Either they convict the wrong man, and someone, somewhere keeps looking. Or, more likely, without a plausible culprit, the case remains open and, as Miss Gilchrist admits, she remains under suspicion for the rest of her life. The big burning question is this: Why allow Cora’s murder to be discovered at all?

Option 1: Kill Cora, apologise for not being able to make the funeral by letter, wander about dressed as Cora for a few weeks, then move. Steal the painting and open a teashop somewhere far away. Characters use this device successfully in A Murder Is Announced.

Option 2: Kill Cora. Attend the funeral, and any few-and-far between family functions, in disguise as Cora. Whilst there, explain that you’re moving to, say, the North of Scotland to paint and open a teashop but will keep in touch. Move to Scotland, steal the painting, open a teashop and maintain a double identity as Miss Gilchrist and her seldom-seen employer, the eccentric Cora Lansquenet. After a while, fake Cora’s disappearance to the South of France and remain in Scotland as Miss Gilchrist, whilst attending family functions on Cora’s behalf. Characters use devices such as these – impersonation and a hidden life in a foreign country – in Parker Pyne Investigates and After the Funeral itself.

Option 3: Kill Cora. Go to the funeral and launch a murder investigation. Then allow Cora’s body to be discovered and find that, once the case is taken over by detectives, that you are under scrutiny and not allowed to leave. Result?

It’s remarked in various Poirots, most explicitly Cards on the Table, that the most successful murderer is the one that is never caught. In all Christies the murderer makes a mistake in some shape or form, but in this one we are reminded of the lament of Mrs Oliver, Christie’s crime-writing alter ego: that, when thinking up the best crimes, the criminal has to be made to do something really stupid to allow the detective to catch him.

 

"Merci!"

“Merci!”

 

*SPOILERS!

The ‘flaw’ in Peril at End House is in fact the same as that in The Cuckoo’s Calling, except that the former acknowledges it where the latter doesn’t: when trying to cover up a murder, it is a really really stupid move to hire someone you know to be a competent detective to investigate it. It is particularly egregious in The Cuckoo’s Calling, where the murder is considered to be a suicide until the murderer himself hires a detective to investigate. The points this gains for an unexpected ending are unfortunately cancelled out by the sheer stupidity that no amount of “he’s just a really arrogant character” can ever justify.

 

 

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

rowling

The Cuckoo’s Calling

Robert Galbraith

Sphere, 2013

Bloody hell, this is good.

To some, this may come as a surprise. You can argue that, based on the Harry Potter series, that J.K.’s strengths are world-building and plot, even say that this is proved by The Casual Vacancy which, a vaguely political Aga-Saga, literally lacked the magic. So much is tied to J.K.’s name that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to judge her writing on merit alone. And we expect more of the great J.K., with eight full-length novels under her belt, than we do from a first novel from an anonymous author; there is also a lot more mileage in putting the boot into the most printed author on the planet than a never-previously published former soldier. This is more than a reaction than a review as it’s not, as a consequence, really possible to judge The Cuckoo’s Calling alone after finding out Galbraith’s real identity. But what’s certain is that this is a good novel, and a decent detective story.

‘Well that’s what I thought,’ said Strike. ‘But I’m no expert on women and their clothes.’

The links to Rowling’s real identity are subtle, and quite hard to spot: the occasional not-quite-jibes at Gordon Brown become slightly more amusing in this light, while the names have the same fairy-tale eloquence that we saw in Harry Potter. This time, the joy is that it needs explaining how the characters came by them. Watch for the explanations as they appear.

[It is worth taking some time to try and find these before you read on, but…] As well as the use of stereotypical names, such as a plain secretary called Alison and a working-class girl called Rochelle, the novel features: Cormoran Strike, named after two predatory birds, the latter of which with the obvious double-meaning, who is assisted by a secretary named Robin (and she gets a joke associated with her name in the first few pages). Lula’s useless boyfriend gets the name Duffield, while we get the best placeholder name imaginable with the designer Guy Somé (flip the words around). An extremely unpleasant film producer is given the name Bestigui (Beastie-guy). Pushing the boat out a bit, the aristocratic guardian of Lula’s secrets is called Ciara (Tiara) Porter. Lula Landry herself takes the nickname ‘Cuckoo’, which gives the novel a name and the eventual solution a metaphor.

And it may well be J.K’s best piece of character yet. You could see quite a few of Rowling’s opinions of humanity in The Casual Vacancy, but it was a political novel so the audience were bored. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, her observations are secondary to the detective story, and consequently become a pleasure. The portrayal of the world of ‘models, rappers, fashion designers, druggies and illicit liasons’  is actually fairly complimentary; it’s in the portrayal of the hereditary rich that Galbraith really begins to snarl. It’s a joy to watch.
The same is true of the descriptions. Seeing the bulky ex-military Strike walking among the thin and industrious assistants of a fashion designer, we get the line,

‘Strike felt abnormally huge and hairy; a woolly mammoth attempting to blend in amongst capuchin monkeys.’

Beautiful.

‘Thread eyebrows. It’s like plucking, but with threads.’
Strike could not imagine how this worked. (Woman writing! Woman writing!)

While ‘we can tell a woman wrote it because of the descriptions of clothes’ is overstating the case, it is true that clothes are better described than Strike’s military past, which never quite rings true or seems real. Strike himself is the stereotypical tough damaged hero with money troubles, woman troubles, a streak of cynicism as long as the Thames and a heart as big as the Ritz, but he’s a cipher compared to the cast who surround him. Equally, something about Charlotte, Strike’s ex-fiancée, doesn’t quite seem right, but then she is, by design, a spectre. But it’s in the nature of detective novels that the detective isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the most interesting, as they’re the reader’s way of observing the interplay of character that culminates in murder.

Harry Potter had a bland lead because he was a normal way in to a very strange world populated by very strange characters, learning as the reader did. The Cuckoo’s Calling features the world of high fashion and higher money, not quite as odd as that of witches and wizards, but still the detective needs to be a more ordinary outsider. Strike’s past is implausible and he’s not very interesting, but he’s an inappropriate way to judge Galbraith’s skill with character. Strike’s new secretary Robin acts as the audience identification everywoman, but Galbraith makes her a very charming one and a character in her own right. If we call the city a character, then London here is not quite as well-drawn as it is in some other novels (read Rivers of London for how to do the city justice). It’s a novel set in London, not a London novel, but the sparkling bright mindset of the dying days of New Labour is brilliantly evoked.

But the rest of the cast more than make up for these quibbles: it may even be possible to ascertain Galbraith’s gender by the descriptions of women alone. Perhaps the best example of this is the depiction of selfish, generous, loving, desperate for love, loyal, untrustworthy Lula Landry, and it’s a testament to Galbraith’s skill with character that we know and understand all this is in spite of the fact that we never meet her alive. The novel could have done with more twists roundabout the middle, where we spend a long time running round London simply so (we suspect) Galbraith can spend more time with his characters. Like ever-so-many, the beginning is more interesting than the end, and the eventual explanation is a twist that we’ve seen before. Coupled with one major logical flaw that is acknowledged but not explained. But the motive, so so rarely for modern crime novels, is both logical and beautifully poetic at the same time.

Seen in light of J.K.’s other work, it’s good. It doesn’t have the imagination of Harry Potter, the political drive of The Casual Vacancy, and lacks the breadth of both. But it’s a solid detective novel, a good piece of writing and, overall, a delightful character piece. Read and enjoy.

The Cuckoo’s Calling: A Commentary , or What This *Doesn’t* Say About Rowling Or The Publishing Industry

rowling

‘Volume of production is damned important in writing [as] if you produce enough stuff regularly you’re going to wear down opposition sooner or later.’

Helen McCloy, Two-Thirds of a Ghost

The news that the millionaire, best-selling author J. K. Rowling had had a book (under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith) disappear without trace after being rejected by several publishers has caused quite a stir, during these long summer months of slow news. Talent disappearing so completely under the radar demands an explanation, and so far people seem to have come up with two: that Rowling lacks talent, or that the publishing industry is incapable of recognising it. And both these impressions are wrong.

Let’s start with the former. Whatever you may think of Rowling’s prose style, it’s undeniable that she’s a good and engaging writer. The Casual Vacancy proved this even for those cynics that thought the appeal of Harry Potter was not the plot but the world it was set in. And the reviews for The Cuckoo’s Calling seem to bear this out: as well as the now oft-quoted praise from Val McDermid and Mark Billingham, the general consensus was that the book was good. Note the reaction from Kate Mills, who turned down the book on behalf of Orion: ‘perfectly decent, but quiet…it didn’t stand out’. So, it does seem surprising that something so well-reviewed by such an accomplished author sold under 2,000 copies without any further notice. Presumably, such a work should be an immediate success, and that it wasn’t does seem to demand an explanation. But, when we compare it to the biggest names in detective fiction and their notable characteristics, perhaps it doesn’t seem like such an anomaly after all.

A Selection of Detective Novelists And Their Work

  • Margery Allingham (36 novels and short-story collections)
  • Andrea Camelleri (12 novels featuring Montalbano)
  • Raymond Chandler (eight novels, 23 short stories)
  • G K Chesterton (51 Father Brown stories)
  • Agatha Christie (80 novels and short story collections)
  • Wilkie Collins (two works of debatable detective fiction, a couple of short stories)
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes: four novels, 56 stories)
  • Edmund Crispin (eleven novels and short story collections)
  • Lindsey Davis (20 Falco novels)
  • Micheal Dibdin (11 Zen novels)
  • John Dickson Carr (80 novels and short story collections)
  • Dashiell Hammett (five novels, 19 short stories)
  • Micheal Innes (50 novels and short story collections under his penname alone)
  • P D James (19 novels), Ngaio Marsh (36 novels, 12 short stories)
  • Edgar Allen Poe (three Auguste Dupin stories)
  • Geoges Simeonen (over 200 novels and short story collections)
  • Ruth Rendell (60 novels and short story collections)

The astounding thing here, in so many cases, is volume*. The sheer number of works by most of the greats exceed anything you’d find in literary fiction or even fantasy: only science fiction, children’s fiction or romance novels would have a chance of coming close. The exceptions to this rule (Poe, Collins, Doyle) are intruiging in their own right: the ones with the relatively low counts are well-known because they wrote the books that defined the genre of detective fiction, and even the creator of Harry Potter can’t compete with that. Those with the large number of short stories, for the most part, began with serialisations, a painstaking but through way to crawl into the public eye. Nowadays, an author writing just one detective novel and becoming successful is very much a rarity: if you can think of an example, please leave it in the comments, because there are barely any.
For the rest, when you think of commercially successful detective authors, you don’t think of a single novel but their whole, massive, oeuvre of work – this is why Christie in particular is so easy to parody. And, despite their success, very few of the writers above, especially the ones we now think of as the most ingenious / famous, were immediately ‘spotted’ in the way people seem to assume that Rowling should have been.

The Mysterious Affair At Styles had similar reviews and similar speed in publication, yet Christie didn’t hit the big time until The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, six books and years later. Ruth Rendell was first published on her third attempt, with her novel bought for £75. The reason first editions of Lindsey Davis’ The Silver Pigs (actually her second novel) go for thousands is because the original print run was somewhere between 2,000 and 2, 500 copies. Nor did this immediately catapult her to fame: the reason why a first edition of A Dying Light in Corduba can go for hundreds. Rowling herself didn’t hit the big time immediately even after The Philosopher’s Stone was published. The number of authors who have made the jump from good reviews to good sales are very small indeed, and it takes graft. Yes, Rowling as an experienced writer is presumably more accomplished than Davies or Christie were then. But her name was unknown and so it genuinely isn’t surprising that, though those who read it liked it, word-of-mouth hadn’t had time to spread.

Because for a novel simply to be good  is not enough: success comes as much with quantity as it does with quality. The most prolific author on the list, Georges Simeonen, creater of Maigret, is perhaps the least critically acclaimed of all. The book flying off the shelves now is exactly the same as the one that Kate Mills found uninteresting. But the most important thing to note is that neither she nor Val McDermid were wrong. McDermid saw potential while Mills simply didn’t see an immediately marketable success. They were both entirely correct.

You can argue that, as the novel was critically acclaimed by those as much in the know as McDermid and Billingham  that Little, Brown should have advertised its find. But then, writing isn’t really all that difficult: sufficiently advertised, most people could (probably) make a decent amount of sales, just not enough to make it worth the while of the publishers. If a writer is good, or if a bad writer perseveres, they will probably eventually succeed. The one great pity is that Galbraith didn’t remain undercover for long enough to make a name on his own. The one consolation is that the book, unlike The Casual Vacancy, was therefore reviewed on its own terms rather than being continually judged against Harry Potter.
As for the comments saying that this proves that Rowling is mediocre, lacking enough talent to stand up to anonymous scrutiny, or that the publishing industry is so blind it can’t or won’t recognise and market talent when it sees it…they say far more about the inadequacies of the supposedly critical public than about anyone else.

*Aside from the (hopefully) irrelevant observation that that, if you want a career in detective fiction, it helps to have a name beginning with ‘c’.