Agatha Christie and Sexual Abuse

Agatha Christie gave me the courage to include a currently-risky idea in Fatal Score

As I’ve mentioned before, I am not as widely-read in my own genre as I should be. The category ‘Thriller’ is a subset of Suspense, which is in turn a subset of Mystery. So I set out to read some contemporary and classic mysteries. My prior post covers several contemporary works. 

I’ve just finished Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, widely considered to be one of her best. It’s also the best-selling mystery of all time. 

It makes one understand why she is so important to the genre. The book was published in Britain in 1939 under the title Ten Little Niggers, taken from the minstrel song that structures the plot. It has been published in the United States under a couple of titles (including a substitution of ‘Indians’ for the n-word, which probably worked fine in 1940 but is surely suspect today). The edition I read uses the last line of the song. Which brings us to fashion, which is to say, what is considered good form at a point in time.

Clothing fashion moves quickly. I always thought writing fashion was far slower. But even eighty years ago, writing fashion was quite different than today.

Today, authors are encouraged to minimize the number of named characters to reduce confusion. By my count, Christie has twenty. We are taught not to switch character perspective (point of view) often. The exception is the Romance category, which tolerates rapid POV change (derisively known as head-hopping). Christie would give a heavy-breathing romance novel a run for its money. In dialog, we are told not to lead with ‘he/she said’, because we end up with a string of them. Christie does it all the time.

The point for me is, after all that, And Then There Were None is a ripping good story. Clean structure set up by the poem. By the second death, every reader knows what’s going to happen and has hints as to how. The technique issues quickly become irrelevant to the reading of the story.

I mention all of this because I got a surprising response from one of my (female) beta readers of Fail Deadly. In the story, Weezy is captured and tortured to force her to keep a secret. The torturer is a man, and when he gets the opportunity (when his female boss is not around), the torture is sexual. The beta reader said, “I would not read this. No agent will accept it.” The gist of the argument was that the tenor of the times will not allow it, particularly as written by a man. Too sensitive; too toxic. 

Unfortunately, the despicable acts are important to character arc, so I’m presented with a conundrum. Weaken the story or risk rejection and censure?

Emboldened by several other female beta readers and my editor, I finally concluded that the bones of the story override the sensitivity of the times. Hope I’m right.

Books — Part II

Last time, I wrote about some literary fiction I’ve read during my hiatus from writing my fourth novel. I figured I had too much material for one blog post, so I made the somewhat arbitrary distinction between Literary Fiction (always intoned with those capital letters) and mysteries (always lower case). I really do hate the distinction. There are fine writers in both groups, and the distinction seems foolish to me. Here are some mysteries I read both for enjoyment and edification:

Dark Sacred Night (Michael Connelly) Harry Bosch, one of the great detective protagonists, works with Renee Ballard, a Los Angeles detective. This is a police procedural at the detail level. Connelly makes the details work for the story, giving a realistic picture of how a detective’s day might actually play out, with all the high points and frustrations rolled in over the story line. Both Connelly and Alex Lettau (below) have a challenge most writers have difficulty overcoming: the technical lecture. Ballard the cop speaking directly to Bosch the former cop would say something like, “LT’s gonna need a DD5.” Both cops … but few if any readers … would know what that means. Sometimes, details are unnecessary, a reality I need to remember. Connolly handles the problem nicely … the narrator steps in and gives reader a line of succinct definition. Just enough to answer the reader’s “huh?” Lettau provides more detail, and repeats definitions so reader will be sure to know the precise etiology of the disease he’s discussing. Balance is the issue, and I can see some rewrite coming in my stuff.

Yellow Death (Alex Lettau): I’m always looking for stories similar to mine. Agents want ‘comps’ to give an idea of what kind of book yours is. In that spirit, I picked up Yellow Death, which has some similarity to the plot of the story I’m writing now, Fatal Cure. Yellow Death is written by a doctor, and the plot detail shows it. The main characters are medical professionals … doctors, epidemiologists, public health officials … and there are a lot of them. Most would speak to each other in medical dialect, leaving most readers scratching their heads. The detailed medical terminology gives an air of authenticity to the story, a good thing. But Lettau stops and explains his terms almost every time a technical conversation occurs. That slows plot development, and the idea of imminent catastrophe (five days!) needs the plot to move quickly. A learning experience for me, since my series leans toward technical jargon.

The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell):  Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, is surely one of the great British mystery writers. I said in my review that reading it reminded me of watching a tree sloth make its way slowly along its arboreal path. That wasn’t meant as an insult; the slow ballet of the tree sloth is beautiful, and its slowness allows appreciation of each movement. Vine’s plot moves that way.  I did have a difficult time keeping attention on the reading. The slow, slow, slow development played a part, but I didn’t particularly like the main characters. Learning in detail the inner workings of the mind of a person you don’t much like is a job of work.  Lesson learned. Characters don’t have to be likeable, but they do have to be interesting. Fine writing, but I struggled to finish.

One Mississippi (Steve Ulfelder): I admit to bias for Ulfelder, who was my teacher in a marvelous seminar on mystery writing several years ago and was nice enough to review my first book. That said, this new series featuring Arch Dixon and his unlikely sidekick Kevin Day looks really great. Ulfelder has just the right touch of gritty detail when he’s taking us through the underside of Boston. Ulfelder reminds me that a great protagonist is usually one or two steps away from being a villain, or at least an incompetent. I have some work to do there.  Ulfelder is also master of the sentence fragment to punch up tension and keep the story moving.