Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mixed POV approaches-- Agatha Christie

From Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie: 1939

Luke was just restoring some final order, replacing things in their place, when he suddenly stiffened and switched off his torch. He had heard the key inserted in the lock of a side door. He stepped across to the door of the room he was in and applied an eye to the crack. He hoped Ellsworthy-- if it was he-- would go straight upstairs.

This shows the continual shift Christie uses from a 19th C sort of omniscient (where we the reader are outside the character, seeing what he does but not "doing it with him"):
Luke was just restoring some final order, replacing things in their place, when he suddenly stiffened and switched off his torch. 

To a 20th C deeper third, where we are inside the character, perceiving what he perceives ("heard") and feeling what he feels ("hoped"):
 He had heard the key inserted in the lock of a side door. He stepped across to the door of the room he was in and applied an eye to the crack. He hoped Ellsworthy-- if it was he-- would go straight upstairs.
This is an effective technique and still used in mystery novels. It subliminally puts the reader into the viewpoint of the sleuth (or villain, sometimes) while reasserting the distance (outside, omniscient point-of-view) needed to evaluate and analyze all the evidence in the book (including what the sleuth doesn't know or misinterprets).

In Murder Is Easy (originally titled "Easy to Kill," btw), Christie uses a "pro-am" sleuth. He's a retired police inspector (from "the Mayang Straits"-- it's an area in Manipur, a peninsula in Eastern India), but out of his depth with the sophistication of British villains, who are, I'm sure we can agree, the most elegant of all. So we can see the pro at work from the omniscient angle, but the uncertain amateur (who is also falling in love, about which more later) through the single-third-person interior viewpoint. We feel both his certainty and his uncertainty, and have much better sense of how just plain difficult it is to figure out the

This book apparently came after several books featuring her impeccably correct sleuth, Hercule Poirot, who is never uncertain and seems to have no inner issues beyond a distaste for British weather. We don't really need an internal view into Poirot as he's not hiding much of himself. (In fact, several of the Poirot short stories are narrated, Dr. Watson-like, by a friend of his.) Luke, however, isn't just a "detecting machine" (you can tell I'm not a big fan of Poirot as a character, though I like the mysteries in those books). He's a young man, long exiled from his homeland and now returning, rootless, almost friendless, and most important, falling in love-- and all this shapes how and why he bothers to detect, especially as all the murders could plausibly be regarded as accidents.

What the more interior "single-third" viewpoint gives us is Luke that man, ruled by this new emotion-- falling for a woman he's unsure of and might not even like (I'm doing this in my Regency CSI series, and I can attest it's a difficult dynamic to describe). What we see is not Poirot's almost ruthless efficiency, but an amateur's repeated mistakes. (He's always fingering the wrong people!) Christie's use of omniscient (usually when he's sleuthing and gathering clues) allows us to judge whether or not he's right. And we have to notice that several times he's wrong. What the single-third deep viewpoint gives us is the reason he's so often wrong: From inside Luke, we participate in his biases and his impulses.

His first real suspect is Mr. Ellsworthy, the local antiques dealer. While the shopkeeper has been in the village for years, he's very much an urban character, and out of place here. He is (probably-- Christie is always a bit muddled when it comes to sexuality in general) homosexual, and Luke's instinctive distaste leads him to suspect the innocent Ellsworthy. From inside Luke (the single-third passages), we get a good sense of the first-half-century straight man's horror of the alternative. (We also get that muddled mid-century view from Christie-- Ellsworthy is not gay so much as generally "abnormal, perverted, depraved" (she uses all those terms, along with stage villain-type hysterical giggles, a "prancing and mincing" gait, and -- no joke-- slightly green hands... just plain devilish... inhuman). He practices witchcraft and Satanic rituals, of course. And it's assumed that he also abuses women sexually-- that is, he's portrayed as all that is perverse. This isn't, of course, a sympathetic or accurate rendition of any alternative sexual identity, but rather an expression of the horror Luke is feeling towards "the other".

So it's not a stretch to see Luke pretty soon fastening on Ellsworthy as the killer. Ellsworthy's supposed perversity would account for the seeming randomness of the murders (nothing seems to unite them except proximity)-- after all, an abnormal inhuman satanist wouldn't need any real motivation for murder!

Luke doesn't really discard this suspicion until he turns his attention onto another suspect. Again, this choice is influenced by his inner reality. He has fallen in love with Bridget, and naturally hates the rich, powerful, and unpleasant man she is going to marry (Lord Whitfield). It's no stretch for him to start suspecting Whitfield, who does have the suspicious trait of having employed most of those who died (and most of the village, it must be said-- he's very rich). While of course Luke's view of the man is colored by jealousy, it's also psychologically apt-- Whitfield is indeed a very large and destructive toddler who wants attention and demands immediate gratification, and can't stand opposition.

When we are sequentially inside and outside of Luke, we can understand his interpretation of something Whitfield confides (that he was once engaged to a lady in the village, but it was broken off because a pet bird he loathed "had its neck wrung"). Luke assumes-- because of his resentment of Whitfield, who gets whatever he wants, including Bridget-- that Whitfield was careless confessing to killing the bird. In fact, if Luke hadn't been so ready to think the worst about his rival, he might have noticed how careful Whitfield was to put that in the passive voice ("the bird was killed," not "I killed the bird"). From the outside, we notice that he jumps to this conclusion that Whitfield is a killer, and thus THE killer. From the inside, we understand why Luke makes this mistake (Whitfield is his rival for Bridget). We are able then to both judge him from the outside and empathize with him from the inside. (He does eventually figure it out, just in time to rescue Bridget from the real murderer.)

I'm going to try to be more analytical as I re-read the other books, and watch for this omniscient/single mix, or one or the other. My hypothesis is:
  • The "professional" books (the Poirot and Miss Marple ones) will have mostly omniscient, mostly outside the "sleuth" character and presenting action also from the perspective of the other characters (like "Sanctuary" gives the POV of the vicar's wife who discovers the body as much as that of Miss Marple solving the crime). The omniscient here recognizes the irrelevance of the interior lives of these professional sleuths (I know Miss Marple isn't paid for it, but she's professional in her skills).
  • The "pro/am" stories (where the sleuths are as much amateur investigators as professional, like Luke and Tuppence and Tommy) will have more back-and-forth between the exterior analysis level and the interior emotional level. In fact, this will provide a lot of the conflict and complications to the mystery-- solved not by the objective application of observation and logic, but through making emotion-based mistakes which lead the sleuths deeper into the mystery.
  • And in the books with the true amateurs, like Bobby and Frankie in Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, we see mostly from inside, from their own limited and emotionally charged perspectives.  Their ability to solve the murder will come more from their intuition as much as their observation, and they will rely much more on empathy and instinct ("I knew he was a liar!") than on logic.

Thoughts about this? Examples that support or don't? (Also I should look at The Man in the Brown Suit, with its somewhat clumsy use of "objective" or camera-eye perspective in the first scene, where the victim "stars".)

List of Christie's books, dated. From

Agatha Christie - The official information and community site

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