Sunday, 29 November 2009

Five Little Pigs


In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran hails Five Little Pigs as the greatest of her ‘murder in the past’ plots. He suggests that it is her most impressive combination of detective and ‘straight’ novel. I agree, though I’d add that some of the books in which she focuses essentially on a creating a complex mystery are even more brilliant. But Five Little Pigs is an impressive book, with more effective characterisation than in much of her work.

Christie often found inspiration for her plots in nursery rhymes, and the ‘five little pigs’ rhyme is there at the beginning – but Curran points out that before the detail of the story took shape, ‘she had considered a different murder method, a different murderer and different suspects.’

Not until she had indulged in a good deal of trial and error did Christie come up with the scenario she eventually chose. And what a chilling scenario it is – with the culprit watching the victim die. It’s much more horrifying, to my mind, than most of the graphic torture scenes so commonly found in modern books about serial killings. I would have assumed it was Christie’s starting point for the story, but far from it.

Writers like me can learn a lot from seeing how Christie played around with ideas, trying them out for size, discarding many plot twists that had superficial appeal in favour of alternatives that worked more effectively in the particular context. It’s a reminder that writing involves endless revision – and not just once one has completed the first draft.

I don’t work in the same way as Christie, but I empathise with many of her methods. When writing The Serpent Pool, I struggled over one aspect of the story for a long time. At a late stage, a way forward occurred to me. I am fairly confident that when people read the book, that late twist will seem fundamental to the whole story. As soon as it struck me, it felt ‘right’. But I confess – it did take an awfully long time to strike me!

10 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Five Little Pigs is one of my favorite Christie novels! The end - the resolution - really is chilling, and so is the effect of the murder on the murderer. I've re-read that book many times through the years and enjoy it more each time. What a brilliant study in characters, too, at least in my opinion. Even the minor characters are well-written and have distinct personalities.

It really is nice, too, to know that Christie made some major changes with this one. Writing is an ongoing process, of course, but for a writer, it's very good to know that one of the finest crime fiction writers there's ever been went through the same kind of revising, re-thinking, and sometimes wholesale changes that we all do. Thanks for your review of this part of Curran's book.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'm wondering why I don't remember this book at all. I'd have said I've read all of Christie's books at least once. Was it ever published under another name or is it hard to find? I read her books in the late 80s. Or maybe it's just my horribly faulty memory? :) I'll have to find it now, for sure.

Martin, I'm looking forward to your twisted ending!

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, the first time I read it (age about 11) I thought it was okay, but not one of her most dazzling. As time has passed, my admiration for it has grown considerably, for exactly the reasons you mention.
Elizabeth - you are spot on, you probably know this one as Murder in Retrospect.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Yes..."Murder in Retrospect." That's how I know it. Thanks!

Elizabeth

Nicole_Hadaway said...

Oh, Murder In Retrospect - is that the one with the painter, Amyas Crayle and Caroline Crayle? That is one of my favorite Christie stories, something about the love between Amyas and Caroline, and Caro's younger sister -- the characters were so compelling I really got into the book. I didn't like the Suchet adaptation at the end -- I found they put a rather common drama at the end which took away from the intellectual and emotional ending.

cassandrajade said...

It is amazing how much time and thought goes into stories before they even become outlines. I do not know the number of times I play something through my mind, making minor adjustments, before I even start to commit anything to physical form. Mostly because if I haven't been thinking over an idea for off and on for at least a couple of months there is no way I'm ready to commit myself to writing it as chances are the idea won't work.
Thanks for sharing this post.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Nicole. Yes, that's the one. I haven't seen the Suchet version, but that final image of the murderer watching the victim die is quite stunning.

Martin Edwards said...

Greetings, Cassandra. I think it's true that working the idea of the story, and the key characters, out in one's mind in advance is often very helpful indeed. I must admit that I do it more with some books than with others, though. Maybe I've started writing one or two stories before I was truly ready to do so.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that Christie had usede the "A watching B die" trope in various other stories ...

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Anon. I had in mind the specific circumstances in which the culprit watches the victim die (to put it vaguely, so as to avoid spoilers) but having said that, I have indeed forgotten other comparable examples in her work, so please don't hesitate to remind me!