Wednesday 27 February 2008

Nothing new?

It’s desperately difficult to be truly original when writing a novel, no matter how hard one tries. There are a few landmark books that do seem to pass that test of originality – yet, on closer inspection, doubts may set in.

One example is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The ingenious solution caused outrage (misplaced, surely) when the book came out in 1926. Yet Christie had made a gesture towards the same plot device in an earlier book, The Man in the Brown Suit. And later in came to light that Anton Chekhov, no less, had written a book with a similar twist called The Shooting Party, back in 1884.

Christie’s And Then There Were None is another all-time classic. But the idea of a closed circle of characters trapped by a mysterious adversary had been done before – by the husband and wife duo Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, in The Invisible Host.

And then there is Kenneth Fearing’s masterly The Big Clock, twice brilliantly filmed. The idea of a man being set to investigate himself was used later, by Derek Marlowe in A Dandy in Aspic. But now it seems, from an article by David Ellis in the latest issue of CADS, that the basic plot was used earlier, by Bruce Graeme, in a book I'd never heard of before, Not Proven (1935.)

There are all kinds of similarities that can be found in superficially very different books. The device in Christie’s The ABC Murders has often been used, for instance by writers as different from her as Ed McBain and Lee Child. But this is definitely not a sign of lack of originality, in my opinion – it’s a challenge for any writer to breathe new life into an old idea, and very satisfying when it comes off, as it did when McBain and Child spun their own variations on the basic theme.

For what it’s worth, I think it unlikely that Christie had read either The Shooting Party or The Invisible Host when she wrote those masterpieces that have some resemblance to the earlier books. Different people frequently come up with the same idea at different times (and, when it’s a topical idea, often at much the same time.) Incidentally, The Shooting Party is rather enjoyable, and well worth seeking out. As for The Invisible Host, I’m hoping to read it soon.


Maxine Clarke said...

The only one of Agatha Christie's novels that I thought was an outrageous cheat on the reader was "murder on the orient express".
The book of hers (and I have read them all) that still has left the greatest impression on me, but whose title I cannot remember, is the one set in ancient Egypt. I read that aged about 9, and had sleepness nights thereafter. But I was strangely compelled by the murder mystery concept - the combination of puzzle and danger proved curiously addictive.

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

I think a wonderful twist on the
_And Then There Were None_ theme
was accomplished by your colleague
Jo Bannister, in _The Lazarus Hotel_. The setting was a hotel under construction, and the isolated space a penthouse on the top floor. Bannister is a very talented writer.

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, Raymond Chandler had exactly the same view of 'Orient Express': 'only a halfwit could guess it'!
The Egyptian book is 'Death Comes as the End.' I share your liking for it, because Christie shows rather well the universal human personality traits. Many Christie buffs tend, I think, to under-estimate this one.

Martin Edwards said...

Elizabeth, I met Jo once at our mutual publishers but I had no idea she'd written a modern 'And Then There Were None.' I shall have to look out for it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information, Martin and Elizabeth. I might buy And Death Comes as the End to see if one of my daughters would like it (they both like historical novels). And I've added the Lazarus Hotel to my 100-plus Amazon shopping basket! (I have about 300 real books to read in my house also...)

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, there is quite a good audio book version (abridged) of Death Comes as the End as well. We listened to it on a holiday drive and the story is well suited to audio.

j. morris said...

You perhaps also know that the Ackroyd device was anticipated in a bizarre novel by Leo Perutz called "The Master of the Day of Judgment." Again, it seems unlikely Christie would have read it.

Martin Edwards said...

John, I'm fascinated. Can you tell me more about this book, which I must admit I've never heard of?

j. morris said...

Sure, glad to. (And I'm putting a private feather in my cap for knowing about a book that you -- one of the most erudite mystery writers on the Web -- haven't read!)

Perutz was born in Prague in 1882, wrote in German, and died in Israel in 1957. I can't find a German/Czech publication date for "The Master..." but the English translation came out in 1921. I have a hardback Boni reprint from 1930 that calls Perutz "widely known for his bizarre mystery stories" but I doubt it.

Anyway, "The Master..." is not a formal detective story, but rather an atmospheric psychological study of neurotic intellectuals, centering on a mysterious death. The narrator begins by telling us, "I have omitted nothing, suppressed nothing. Why should I? I have no reason for hiding anything."

I guess it's remotely possible to "spoil" Roger Ackroyd still, so I'll say no more, but you get the point, I'm sure. "The Master..." is rather overwritten and just plain annoying at times, but fascinating as a precursor, not only to Christie's book but to "psychological mysteries" in general -- and John Franklin Bardin in particular.

I hope you can locate a copy...well worth a read.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks very much for that info, John. I shall hasten to Abebooks right now! You mention Bardin - he's someone I really like. The premise of The Last of Philip Banter, for instance, is terrific.

Anonymous said...

I have a much-thumbed "three in one" of Bardin (green Penguin edition) at home - it has survived many purges of books.

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, I have (I think) the same edition. Without checking, my recollection is that it was edited by Julian Symons, a great Bardin fan, and someone who pointed me in the direction of many wonderful books through his great study of the genre 'Bloody Murder'.