Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Cold-case file

A fat volume about a short Belgian came my way yesterday, and its first story prompted some reflections on the continuing freshness of Agatha Christie. Hercule Poirot's Casebook purports to include every story Christie wrote about the vain and brainy Belgian, and its first story, "The Adventure of `The Western Star'," contains as economical a summing up of events as has ever graced a tale of investigation.

Christie frames the opening as a light-hearted exchange between Poirot and his sidekick, Captain Hastings, about the identities of a woman glimpsed from Poirot's window and of the small parade following her. The casual dialogue between two intelligent men passing the time of day gives the basic information the reader needs about one of the story's key figures. At one graceful and entertaining stroke, Christie carries out the detective-story writer's task of conveying chunks of information without bringing the action to a halt.

That problem has tested the inventiveness of crime writers forever, and picking out various authors' solutions is an entertaining pastime for crime-fiction readers. Think of Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes' lectures to Watson about the perfect obviousness of impossibly difficult problems can come off as preachy information dumps. A detective story necessarily entails the enumeration of great piles of facts, and Conan Doyle was still groping his way toward integrating this task into the basic job of telling a tale.

Dashiell Hammett saved his fact-dumping for the ends of his stories, in those great, breathless, pages-long recitations that were subjects of parody by Woody Allen, among others. Or think of the byplay between officers at meetings during police procedurals. What are they but artful attempts to liven up the necessary job of conveying masses of detail? Even though she wasn't writing about police, Christie had that basic job down pat more than eighty years ago.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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