Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Why Christie is a mystery to me, and other stories

I want to ramble a little about crime fiction because, though I'm no expert, I've got a bee in my bonnet about something and it needs to be outed. I'm just going to take the plunge: I don't like Agatha Christie.

Phew, it's out. First off I should make it clear that I've never read Poirot, only Miss Marple, and even then, only one of them. I should probably widen my Christie horizons but I'm not sure now whether I'll bother: after all the hype I was expecting her to be great and, frankly, I was disappointed, for one main reason: The Plot. "What?" you cry, indignant, "is she crazy?"

A friend of mine once told me that she loves Agatha Christie's mysteries so much because you can never tell how they're going to end. Good talent for a crime writer, I thought, I'll give it a go. And then I discovered that the reason you don't know what's going to happen (and I'm taking A Murder is Announced as the blueprint here) is that she plucks some bizarre twist entirely at random from thin air and plonks it in at the end - I could do that, for goodness' sake. Kudos for fashioning an intricate plot which weaves off in eighteen different directions, leaving the reader on the edge of their seat dying to discover the culprit (again, no pun intended), but flummoxing everyone at the end by bringing something totally bizarre and new to the table at the last minute? Doesn't work for me. And then everyone goes, 'Oooh, I never thought of that' - no, of course you didn't, there's no way anyone possibly could have, because it doesn't have anything to do with the entire rest of the novel.

Now, I don't want to be all hatin' up in Agatha's grill, and I'm open to suggestions for any other of her novels that are more satisfying in their conclusion. But I also wanted to laud the praises of some crime writers I do like, because there are many, and it's a pretty cool genre.

I'm a big fan of Italian crime fiction, namely Andrea Camilleri who writes the Inspector Montalbano series. They're set in Sicily, but it's heavier on the lifestyle, the weather, the mentality of the island, than on Cosa Nostra clich├ęs. Great mysteries too, and with endings that make sense. Another one I've come across is Carlo Lucarelli, who's more serious and more political, it seems, but those Italians do write good crime. As my rather-prone-to-national-stereotyping father once said, it's the only thing they know how to organise. Oh, and for some meatier Italian sort-of-crime fiction, you cannot go wrong with Niccolo Ammaniti's The Crossroads.

At this point I feel I have to mention something that came to my attention recently: staying with friends who have more books lying around in overflowing shelves than you can shake a stick at, I was directed to the section 'literature without integrity,' where I found the first volume of The Mike Hammer Omnibus by one of the great 20th century American crime writers, Mickey Spillane. Leafing through, I'm afraid for me it was the kind of narrative that goes in one ear and out the other and just doesn't stick, so I didn't even attempt it, but I wanted to share this:

"She twisted away and there was a loud whispering of cloth and the gown came away in my hands. She went staggering across the room stark naked except for her high-heeled shoes and sheer stockings. She rammed an end table, her hands reaching for the drawer, and she got it open far enough for me to see the gun she was trying to get at.

I had mine out first."

Racy stuff, if you ask me, and it nearly tempted me to read on, but I just couldn't, as my crime fiction standards have in the last month been raised to great heights by the superb Patricia Highsmith. Ripley Underwater (I didn't even start the series at the beginning) is a masterpeice of characterisation, and one of many, I'm sure. Ripley's an evil, slimy, cunning, murderous bastard with a beautiful wife who innocently knows nothing of his misdemeanors, and yet I was on his side the whole time, egging him on, against my better judgement, going 'Come on Tom, don't get caught, for goodness' sake,' to myself. This is all testimony to the woman's genius. There are some pretty horrific scenes involving a dredged up corpse (that horrid word, dredged, says it all really), but the plot's just so exciting and the characters' minds so fascinating that you don't want to stop. (And just as an afterthought, in terms of film, I know there's been a Hollywood blockbuster version and all, which I haven't yet seen, but if you want to gen up on some classic French cinema while experiencing possibly the best casting decision ever made in the history of the movies, check out the 1960 film Plein Soleil, based on The Talented Mr Ripley, with Alain Delon).

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