The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie

By Earl F. Bargainnier | Go to book overview

Chapter IV

Plot

... there is only one known way of getting born, there are endless ways of getting killed.

Dorothy Sayers

The whole test is, can the thing be done? If so, the question of whether it would be done does not enter into it.

John Dickson Carr

"Those chaps are certainly hard to please. If you plunge straight into murder they say the story starts well but tails off. If you keep the fireworks until the end they say it's a slow beginning. If it starts well and finishes well they say it sags in the middle. Difficult."

"Why not keep the tension up all the way through?"

"Then it's melodramatic."

Andrew Garve, The Cuckoo-Line Affair

The Aristotelian structure of Golden Age detective fiction, so well argued by Dorothy Sayers and W.H. Auden, is the central fact of the genre's plot. That plot goes through a series of peripeties, beginning with the commission of a crime and ending with that crime's solution. The simplest plot outline of any detective story is: the murderer kills a victim; many are suspected; the detective investigates, reveals the murderer and absolves the innocent. Though this basic plot allows for seemingly infinite variety, it is always present beneath whatever external covering the author chooses to give it. Essentially, Golden Age detective fiction consists of plot as discovery. It attempts to understand a crime which has occurred. Raymond Chandler quotes Mary Roberts Rinehart as having once remarked that mystery fiction is "two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to have happened." 1 The difference between the two is the question which the plot discovers: what really happened? The answer to that question involves not only who, but where, when (opportunity), how (means), and why (motive). Each of these can be a source of deception, providing one or more peripeties.

The author of detective fiction manipulates clues and misdirection to control the plot of discovery and to outwit the reader's ability to forecast the peripeties. As Christie said, "You start with the wish to deceive, and then work backwards." 2 Since

-144-

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The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Gentle Art of Murder - The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie *
  • Contents *
  • Preface 1
  • Chapter I - Golden Age Detective Fiction: an Introduction to Christie's Genre 4
  • Chapter II - Setting 21
  • Chapter III - Characters 38
  • Chapter IV - Plot 144
  • Chapter V - Devices, Diversions, & Debits 167
  • Chapter VI - Theme 190
  • Chapter VII - The Achievement of Agatha Christie 199
  • Notes 205
  • Bibliography 210
  • Index of Characters 223
  • Index of Novel and Short Story Titles 227
  • Key to Documentation 230
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