Monthly Archives: January 2012

Murder on the Orient Express

I don’t know, but I would guess that this is Agatha Christie’s most famous book. The Wikipedia article lists a string of allusions to it in other works, and at least four dramatisations of it. Raymond Chandler used it (although without naming it) as an example of how not to write a murder mystery (like he would know! …. oh, wait.) (Sidenote: I’ve never read Raymond Chandler, other than skimming that essay and then getting annoyed at his attack on Agatha Christie. What should I start with?) And I’ve been going through an Agatha Christie phase for the last few weeks – we watched an episode of Poirot over Christmas (The Clocks) and since then I’ve wanted to go on a Christie-reading binge, as well as watching versions of her works: Witness for the Prosecution, a number of other episodes of Poirot (whatever I can get my hands on, really), and the all-star film version of Murder on the Orient Express.

One of the Poirot episodes I watched was also Murder on the Orient Express, and by sort-of coincidence I watched it fairly soon after watching the 1974 film version.  I was worried that I’d spend the whole time comparing the two, but I didn’t. I was very impressed by how differently they treated exactly the same material. Oh, sure, they made changes to the book (documented in Wikipedia, among other places – I won’t go into them here). But what interested me the most was how differently Albert Finney (1974) and David Suchet (2010) played Poirot, without many (if any) of the words changing.

A lot of that is because of the framing structure for each film. In the 1974 feature release, the film starts with the background for the case – the Armstrong kidnapping. It is a blatant, obvious, deliberate comparison to the Lindbergh kidnapping, with Colonel Armstrong even being a near lookalike of Charles Lindbergh. This film is much more about the case, about the puzzle. Not that Poirot isn’t important, but character development is not a factor – plot is. As such, a lot of time is spent establishing the suspects in the beginning – watching them all get on the train – and with the interrogations.

The Poirot episode, though, becomes almost entirely about Poirot. It starts with Poirot doing his classic explanatory accusation for an unnamed case – but this time one of the suspects shoots himself in front of everybody. This rattles Poirot, and he starts to wonder if his methods are still worth using. Not the methods he uses to solve the case, of course, because he still gets the right answers, but his methods of revealing the culprits. This is continued when he witnesses the stoning of a pregnant, unwed woman in Istanbul – bringing up issues of local/cultural justice versus absolute justice. The themes of redemption and justice are very much on Poirot’s mind as he boards the train.

All the details of the interrogations and the case are the same (mostly – again, Wikipedia has some of the variations) but the focus is not on the case itself. Instead, almost everything points to the themes of redemption and justice. Does justice provide redemption? Can you redeem yourself without justice being served? And whose responsibility is it to provide justice and redemption? What happens if the systems to provide justice and redemption fail to do so?

It was fascinating for me to watch such two different performances, and to see how the editing and script choices, and the framing scenes, made the exact same story turn into such very different films. The ending is still the same, the result is still the same, but in the 2010 episode of Poirot, Poirot is such a very different character by the end – he’s doubting everything about what he does and what he stands for. In the film, there is no doubt – Poirot is just doing what he does best, solving a mystery.

They’re both well worth watching, and my craving for Agatha Christie hasn’t faded yet….

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Filed under Crime/Mysteries, Drama

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

A few days ago, I finished reading The Help. I can’t imagine that there are many people reading this who haven’t at least heard of it – I know at least three people who regularly read this are the ones who recommended it to me, at various times – but just in case: In 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman, an aspiring writer, decides to write about the lives of the black maids working for her circle of friends.

But even that is somewhat wrong, because it gives far too much agency to Skeeter and not enough to the maids. It is, after all, 1962, and the Civil Rights Movement is in full swing. The women might not see themselves as having much power at the beginning, but they certainly do by the end. Skeeter’s project wouldn’t have worked without the cooperation of the maids – and everyone involved knows it.

The shifting of power is a major theme in this book. At the beginning, the world is run by Hilly, a local politician’s wife and Skeeter’s “best friend” – and one of the coldest employers in town. She has the power to make or break anyone, from the black maids and their families to the white women who, for some reason, look up to her, fear her, and follow her every mandate. She struggles to maintain her power throughout the book, isolating everyone who dares to cross her until you’re a little bit surprised that she has anyone left to boss around. At Christmas, I watched “The Flint Street Nativity”, a comedy special about a children’s Christmas program, and there was a character there that Hilly really reminded me of. This character was the leader of a trio, and constantly pronounced social doom on one or the other of her friends in the form of “Come on, we’re not talking to her anymore.”  This lasted until the two friends got wise, and one said, “Let’s talk to each other…and not to her.” I really wanted someone to do that to Hilly: if they all stood up to her, her power would cease.  (Of course, that’s essentially what Skeeter’s project, and its eventual publication, did, even if that wasn’t its original goal.)

The most obvious people in the book who start off with no, or limited, power are the maids. They’re black in a society ruled by white. They’re poor in a culture ruled by money. They’re women in a world ruled by men. Their jobs hang on the good will of the white women, and punishment for any infraction is not limited to firing, but can include exile and/or incarceration. At one point, they talk about the possible consequences of sharing their stories, and imminent death – a very real possibility in the South in the early 60s – is by far the least of their concerns.  By the end of the book, they’ve realised that sharing their stories has given them their own power. Their jobs may be the same, but because everyone in Jackson now knows what their treatment has been, many of them are stronger then before. They are certainly less afraid, and that in itself is a major improvement for their lives.

Skeeter – the white woman who collects the maids’ stories – is part of her own power shift, on two fronts. The first front is, of course, Hilly. This one is completely internal – Hilly doesn’t lose power as much as Skeeter realises that Hilly has no power over her. Up until the end of the book, Hilly attempts to exert her form of power over Skeeter, ostracizing her at every level. Skeeter, though, becomes so involved with her writing and the necessity of keeping her work secret that Hilly’s attempts become almost laughable to her.

The second front for Skeeter’s power struggles is her mother. Skeeter’s mother is a Southern belle of the “old school” – she was surprised and disappointed that Skeeter actually finished college with a degree instead of leaving to get married, she is horrified by the idea that Skeeter would work (again, instead of getting married), and she is constantly demanding input on Skeeter’s hair, clothes, makeup, general appearance, and activities. But, as with Hilly, Skeeter’s writing projects give her a new confidence in dealing with her mother. Her success in getting the maids to talk to her eventually reveals information about their own (former) maid, and the way her mother treated that maid. She finally gets her mother to see her as an adult, and after her mother’s death feels independent enough to leave Mississippi and pursue a career.

There are other, individual power shifts over the course of the novel – like the maid who successfully teaches her pre-school-aged charge good self-esteem mantras and stories about colour-blindness. Or the maid who uses the strength and power from telling her story to Skeeter to finally leave her drunkenly abusive husband. Or the white woman who finds the power to stand up to Hilly, and who openly declares that her maid is her friend. Plus, it’s 1962 so there’s the Medgar Evars assassination, the March on Washington, and the way that the world was changing.

I was also going to say something about the problems of writing any work purporting to show the “reality” of blacks when you’re not, but Skeeter as a character – and presumably Kathryn Stockett as a writer – becomes aware of the patriarchal tone of her first requests and does her best to fight against them. She (Skeeter) still, by the end, doesn’t really have any concept of the consequences that the maids face if their parts in the book are revealed, but the maids themselves are ready to face them – and the implication is strong that at least one or two of the employers will support the maids if Hilly and her coterie strike back.

There is a lot more in this book than just the power struggles, but this is just one blog. Next step? I suppose I should watch the film…..

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Filed under Historical

Blackout/All Clear, by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is brilliant, and in this novel set she revisits her favourite continuum (Oxford time travel: see also, The Doomsday Book, Fire Watch, and To Say Nothing of the Dog) and my favourite of her themes (chaos theory). In Blackout and All Clear, three historians go through to various points of early World War 2: one to an manor housing evacuees, one to observe the Blitz, and one to observe the Dunkirk evacuation. They are under strict instructions not to put themselves into danger, and not to do anything that could alter history. Of course, they inadvertently do (or think they do) – you can’t introduce an element into a closed system and not affect it – and fear that the timeline is trying to correct itself when their access back to 2060 gets blocked off.

Of course, now they’re all in approximately the same position as the “contemps”. They may know the details that the original timeline had, but they don’t know what, if anything, has changed, and they don’t know if anyone can or will rescue them. The parallels of terrifying, imminent danger are very well-done.

Another thing that Connie Willis does extraordinarily well is weaving in phrases and motifs so subtly that you don’t notice them until you realise their importance. She gives minor characters or overheard conversations phrases that are totally appropriate to the scene and the setting, but piled all together make a great running theme, and reassurance for the reader. Of course, that does lead to the only minor query that I have. Agatha Christie is a bit of a motif (referenced at least three times, in different ways), but would the British consistently have referred to Murder on the Orient Express as  Murder in the Calais Coach? (Wikipedia has Calais as its American title.) I trust Connie Willis’s research, but I spent a couple of  minutes trying to work out which mystery people were referring to, and was very taken aback when the title was revealed as Calais. It’s also kind of pivotal at one point, in a way that Orient Express wouldn’t have been.

My favourite theme, though, is chaos theory – something that she’s worked with before in both the Oxford series and Bellwether (which I think is my favourite Connie Willis novel). Non-linear, non-obvious cause and effect, fractals (not mentioned here, but part of the math of chaos) and the obscure consequences of something like wrapping a parcel (classically referred to as the butterfly effect) are things that fascinate me and have for years. Tracing the connections between seemingly random events is impossible except in hindsight – there are simply too many variables to keep track of, all interacting – but she weaves them together so well that the conclusions are inevitable math of chaos) and the obscure consequences of something like wrapping a parcel (classically referred to as the butterfly effect) are things that fascinate me and have for years. Tracing the connections between seemingly random events is impossible except in hindsight – there are simply too many variables to keep track of, all interacting – but she weaves them together so well that the conclusions are inevitable.Bellwether does the same kind of thing: establishing all the seemingly random events is overwhelming and the (realistic) half-sentences and interruptions are frustrating, but the clarity when chaos resolves into order is absolutely worth it.

I don’t think I would recomment this as a starting point for Connie Willis, though. The Oxford continuum’s history anand time travel laws are already well-established when this book starts, so there’s not a lot for a novice to grab on to. Start with either  The Doomsday Book  or  To Say Nothing of the Dog, but then devour these two.

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Filed under Fantasy

I’ve started a new blog

It’s called Musicians in Literature.  And it’s waaaay more specifically focused than this one. And I will still probably post on this one more. But you should check it out anyway.

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