Call me Hercule Poirot because I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out who killed Mr. Ratchett.
Right now I’m about 200 pages into Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and, despite the fact that this book would never make it onto the bestseller lists if it were published for the first time today, I’m enjoying the hell out of it. Go ahead and strip away the extra words! Delete the fluffy paragraphs! Scratch the flashbacks and backstory! Pare the story down to its naked bones, present it as it is (a closed circuit murder mystery), and charge forward at the fastest pace possible.
Reading this amazing Agatha Christie novel has got me to thinking about how much fiction has changed in the last 80 years. While I’m loving the book, and Agatha Christie is certainly a literary treasure, I can’t help but think about the fact that Murder on the Orient Express would not succeed in today’s book market. The book is a pure plot vehicle without any of the extra frills that make today’s novels great. Sure, the characters are defined well on the surface – they’re the best 2D characters I’ve read in a while – but what are their motivations, their backstories, the things that make them tick? All of that is left out.
Not to say that that’s a bad thing. Leaving out some of the extra crap serves this book well. Christie presents the story exactly as she intended it – a murder mystery – and the entire goal is to figure out whodunnit. How exciting! You get to rip through 53,000 words (so short!) in one or two sittings and simply enjoy her masterful puzzle.
For writers I think there’s an added bonus, in that it teaches us about how to drive a book forward using just one aspect of our arsenal – plot. It’s like a writing 101 book that teaches you the different elements one by one.
If you want to learn characterization, or theme, or-setting-or-dialogue-or-whatever, look elsewhere. But if you want to just focus on plot today look no further than this book. As the story peels itself open, every layer advances the murder mystery without any extra or wasted words.
Still, though, if this was presented to an editor today they would probably say something along the lines of: “Great mystery. Love the Plot. But this is just the skeleton! You have to really flesh all this out for it to be a truly great book.”
But here we are, 80 years later, still reading and enjoying Agatha Christie’s novels (And Then There Were None, anybody?). It makes you wonder if there is still a place for these short hyper-focused-on-one-element stories in today’s reading culture.
I guess the classics are classics for a reason (I’m kind of stretching the definition of classics here to encompass all books pre-1950), though I have to admit that my repertoire is a little lacking in this area.
What are some good books you’d recommend to a friend that would fall under the ‘Classics’ category? Which is your favorite? Which do you think we could learn the most from?