When I look back over my life, this really isn’t all that surprising. When I was in grade school I used to write long, LONG mystery stories loosely inspired by Walker, Texas Ranger and read them aloud to my Gifted and Talented class. In college I gained a reputation for writing Gothic mysteries with bizarre, outlandish twists (a house turns out to be alive, what??).
But I always thought of myself first and foremost as a fantasy novelist.
That began to change this year. In the series of essays I wrote to commemorate my tenth anniversary of reading Harry Potter, I realized that before they are anything else, the Potter books are elegantly constructed whodunits, Agatha Christie with hippogriffs. In January I began watching the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot and inaugurated a love affair that continues to this day. And I read a great essay by Joan Lowery Nixon in which the acclaimed YA novelist argues that mystery is far and away the most beloved genre among young adults. “Teachers and librarians will tell you,” she says, “that kids who won’t read anything else will devour mysteries.”
Partly this is because we’re compelled to finish reading a book when we find characters we love in peril. Accomplished mystery writers know how to keep the pages turning, so that we sit down to read a book and find ourselves having read 200 pages without breaking a sweat. (This is why Agatha Christie is the world’s bestselling novelist, having sold something like two BILLION novels).
But also (according to Nixon) because mystery stories traffic in primal emotions like “anger, hatred, resentment, loss, fury, the desperate need to be loved” that are at their most potent when we’re growing up and even the most minor event seems to herald the end of the world. (This is the same reason why certain types of music remain perennially popular among teenagers).
Reading that essay was a game-changer for me. I realized I’ve always thought like a mystery writer, I just didn’t know it. And since it seems like this is probably what I’m going to do with my life, I might as well study the craft and become really good at it.
So this month I watched the final six seasons of Poirot, all except for the last episode (I just couldn’t bring myself to do it!) and a couple of documentaries on the making of Poirot. I’m already writing a list of my 10 favorite episodes of the series, which has obliged me to go back and revisit some of my favorites. Suffice to say, Poirot might be the gold standard for literary adaptations, and anyone who wants to write stories (in any genre) but feels intimidated by the breadth of Christie’s writing should check out the show, which is worth a whole class in plot construction.
Other shows I watched this month were Veronica Mars and The Legend of Korra. I continue to be enamored with the former and intrigued by the latter. Both are shows that aspiring novelists could benefit from watching.
Having run out of Poirot episodes and not knowing what to do with my life, I picked up the books and started reading them. I read:
The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel, which moves at a brisk pace but shows more reliance on Holmes-ian methods of deduction than would appear in later books, where Poirot primarily relies upon his fine grasp of human psychology to solve crimes. Still, this book is noteworthy for deliberately making the murderer the character you MOST suspect.
Peril at End House, in which a woman claims she’s narrowly survived being murdered on three separate occasions. When Poirot comes to investigate, the woman’s cousin turns up dead. One of my favorite Poirot stories, this is a spookily good read.
Hickory Dickory Dock. This one is… not one of my favorites? But it made a good adaptation and has one particularly brilliant twist.
Hallowe’en Party, one of Christie’s later books from the 1960s when her powers were beginning to wane. Not one of her best, but has a terrific premise.
Other books I read this month:
Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell. Back in 2013, Rowell wrote a novel about a girl named Cath who’s writing a fan-fiction based on the Simon Snow books, a fictional series of books based on the adventures of a boy wizard. Carry On, which came out in October, is the final book in the Simon Snow series as Rowell imagines it. It brings the Harry Potter mythos into the 2010s, imbuing it with all the warmth and relational sensitivity of Rowell’s realistic YA novels. It’s a whimsical, scary, violent, gorgeous, hilarious and disturbing book.
The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson. This 2011 novel by everyone’s favorite Twitter personality is a ghost mystery involving a girl at a London boarding school, so, she was clearly catering to that Boze demographic. I started reading this book at about five in the afternoon and didn’t put it down until I had finished at around midnight. It’s that good, and luckily it’s the first in a series.
What about you? What did you read, see, and listen to this month?