Learning Mystery from Miss Marple

murder at the vicarageOne of my current reading projects is to explore more mysteries.  Every good story has a bit of mystery in it, after all, and the murder whodunnit is sort of the ultimate, pure unadulterated form of the mystery.  So I started by checking out Agatha Christie, who many tell me is the master, and read Murder at the Vicarage, the first of her Miss Marple novels.  The basic plot is:  dude gets murdered at the vicarage in a small village full of gossips.  Almost everyone had a motive for killing him, and two people even confess to the crime right away.  Miss Marple, an “old maid” and a gossip who’s an exceptionally observant student of human nature, shows up local law enforcement by being a better detective than any of the detectives.

Christie’s title of the Queen of Crime is well-earned, and she’s one of those writers you can learn a lot from reading, just to see how she does what she does.  Here are just a few of the tidbits I learned from my first audience with the Queen:

  • Make it clear lots of people have a motive to commit the crime right away.  For bonus points, do this before the murder even happens.
  • There doesn’t necessarilly need to be lots of “action” (e.g., shoot-outs, fist fights, etc.) to create suspense.  A series of conversations (or interrogations) can create quite a bit of suspense, so long as each conversation builds the tension and adds some new layer of complexity to the story.
  • The villain needs to have a fairly complicated plan for the mystery to be interesting.
  • It is *really* appealing when the crime is solved by a nontraditional hero, such as the “gossipy old maid.”  For bonus points:  Have the “official” authorities look down on the hero even as they bungle everything, up until the very end.

In other news, my writing-cation continues to go well.  Up to 14,000 words or so, and just might hit the 20k mark by Monday, if I can get past a stumbling block or two…

Thoughts on District 9

Saw District 9 the other day and I think I liked it. It’s one of those movies that takes a while to sink in, that requires some marinating before you can really be sure how it tastes.  The clearly-cool thing about it is that it’s totally different from any SF movie ever made.  It has a certain gritty realism to it that makes it compelling and, at times, appropriately horrifying.  I love the central premise of aliens being refugees on earth, facing all the prejudices that humans tend to have, even when it comes to things that are much less alien than, well, aliens. 

The movie combines a gritty documentary realism with a more standard Hollywood narrative – which is understandable, since it is a Hollywood movie after all. But as the movie progressed it shifted more and more toward the Hollywood end of the spectrum, which was less interesting to me and also felt a bit clunky at times. I also generally liked the choice of South Africa as a setting, but the depiction of the Nigerians felt like it strayed into a colonialist view at times.  E.g., do we really need subtitles for Nigerians when they’re speaking English?  Despite those disappointments, overall it’s an engaging movie charting new territory for scifi on the screen.

The novel is progressing very well – I’ve written a total of about 4,700 words since I started the marathon four days ago, which puts me only a few hundred words behind schedule.  I’m skipping around quite a bit, jumping ahead to the parts that are clearer in my mind or that come to me with a burst of enthusiasm.  Which has been working well, because then it’s fairly easy to go back and fill in the gaps.

700

Wrote another 700 words today, bringing the mini-writing marathon total up to 1,400 on Day 2.  I had to spend a bunch of the day taking care of medical appointments and other errands, which slowed me down quite a bit.  At some point I’ll need to make up a day’s worth of words, but that feels very do-able since so far I’ve only been able to actually do a couple of hours worth of actual writing each day.  But I can feel my momentum gaining. I’ve started to enter that mode where my critical brain is okay with just writing, getting the words down on paper, willing to save the finessing for another day.