Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Tyranny of Plot: Reflections on Agatha Christie

Orson Scott Card has an interesting way of analysing stories. He talks about the "MICE Quotient":

  • Milieu
  • Idea
  • Character
  • Event
Card is clear that there isn't a magic formula here: every story will mix the ingredients in different forms. We might expect fantasy, where worldbuilding is significant, to be strong on milieu; science-fiction to excel in ideas; literary fiction to emphasise character,;and the detective story to be event-heavy. Satisfying fiction, of whatever genre, is likely to be at least competent in all departments if we are to re-read it, though. Or is it?

This came into my mind when re-reading, for the first time in many years, Agatha Christie: specifically Curtain - Poirot's Last Case. If the MICE quotient is imagined as a table, Christie's would be very lopsided: only three legs to start with (Idea being almost entirely absent), and one of those--Event--much longer than the others. I wouldn't want to eat my bowl of soup off that table.

More than just about any novelist I've read, Christie is a writer of event: plot is king, to the exclusion of almost all else. Her work has dated in such a way that milieu is probably more noticeable than it was at the time: her classic "country house" mystery has a stronger sense of place now that country houses are no longer part of our cultural furniture.. A character commits suicide and Poirot says this is only to be expected because she comes of "poor stock". Captain Hastings is worried that his daughter has fallen for a bounder. Christie now, in a way she never intended, has delineated a world which no longer (and perhaps never did) exists.

At her best, Christie is masterful at plot. At least three of the Poirot stories, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express and Curtain are brilliantly constructed. (Curtain is also utterly ludicrous, but this doesn't vitiate the cleverness of the concept).

The question that Christie raises is: can man live by plot alone? Her stories give us virtually nothing but plot. Even her best-loved characters are not really characters at all: Miss Marple is a nosy old bat; Poirot, a moustache, a smattering of French words and cod-continental syntax, leavened with hypochondria and "the little grey cells". These are not characters, they're chess-pieces: at the start of every game, you know their permitted moves, and they run through them until the endgame.

And yet people still read Agatha Christie, long after more accomplished writers are forgotten. The predictability of a Poirot novel is, oddly, part of its appeal. You might or might not solve the crime yourself, but you know the wily Belgian will. And even if you aren't as bright as Poirot, you're surely one step ahead of Hastings or Inspector Japp.

You probably couldn't get away with writing this stuff today: the best modern crime writers, like Ian Rankin or Brian McGilloway, give us appreciable character development over time. You have to read the Rebus or Devlin novels in order, because the protagonist becomes a very different man as he matures. Indeed, the best of today's crime fiction is so subtly nuanced as to bear favourable comparison with more overtly "literary" work.

But in the end I can't help admiring Agatha Christie's work. She knows exactly what she's doing, and sticks to it. If publishing today is all about brand, then Christie's 80 novels are a big step on the road to how we got here. Her influence shows no sign of diminishing. Eh bien.
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Chuck said...

Now, I haven't studied and worked at writing as much as you or many of the other people who post comments on your blog, but... This post got me thinking about characters. On one level, Marple or Poirot are sort of cardboard, but on the other hand, they're not featureless---they just don't depart from certain stereotypes much. But in a plot-driven book, WYSIWIG may be sufficient. In a character-driven book, part of the hook is in how the characters are NOT exactly what you would expect from their general outlines. But if you can fill up a book with chasing murderers, there's not as much need to spend time plumbing a character's hidden depths.

I think you could have a successful book that relies heavily on character or events almost to the exclusion of milieu or ideas, but not the other way around (which is why a lot of modern fantasy doesn't do much for me).

Tim Stretton said...

Good points, Chuck. Poirot does exactly what he needs to in the context of the story. What we don't get is any kind of character *development*, either between or within books.

Taking the example of a writer we both know, one could say the same about Adam Reith (Tschai being all Event and Milieu) - but not Kirth Gersen, particularly in the later books.

I agree that concentrating on milieu to the exclusion of all else does not make for very satisfying fiction. All fantasy writers have read Tolkien, but many of them seem to have learned the wrong lessons.

I tend to be suspicious of novels which are all character; they can all too easily turn into the kind of effete literary fiction in which nothing happens. Give me some plot--an area where Agatha Christie never knowingly undersells us...