When the body of a young woman is found in the library at Gossington Hall, everyone assumes old Mr. Bantry has been keeping a mistress. But Mrs. Bantry tells her friend, Jane Marple, "Arthur isn't like that . . . . He's just, sometimes, a little bit silly about pretty girls who come to tennis. You know, rather fatuous and avuncular. There's no harm in it." I assumed poor old Mrs. Bantry was deceiving herself, which is what Christie wanted me to do.
Soon the police are questioning another wealthy old man, Conway Jefferson, who met the murdered woman at the hotel where she worked as a dance hostess. He explains that his son and daughter were killed in an accident years earlier and that he didn't want their spouses to have the burden of caring for him. Therefore, he says, "I got more and more fond of Ruby. I decided, gentlemen, to adopt her legally. She would become, by law, my daughter."
Miss Marple tells the police she believes Jefferson, and says she knew another old man, Mr. Harbottle, whose sister was called away to nurse a dying relative. In her absence, Harbottle began treating the maidservant as his companion. Miss Marple explains, "People said things, of course, but I believe there was no familiarity of any kind. It was simply that the old man found it much pleasanter to have a young, cheerful girl telling him how clever and amusing he was than to have his sister continually pointing out his faults . . . ."
Not content to give one example, Miss Marple tells a similar story about a "Mr. Badger" and goes on to cite the legend of King Cophetua and the beggar maid. Near the end of the book, a butler says he's seen many older men "adopt" younger women.
Christie's reason for piling up all these examples becomes clear when Mrs. Bantry begs Miss Marple to expose the murderer. Otherwise, she says, people will always assume her husband had an affair and killed to cover it up. Her husband will be shunned, will become lonely and depressed, and will die too soon. False assumptions are deadly.
I admire Christie for choosing to explore a relationship that is usually assumed to be sexual and for coaxing the reader along toward believing it isn't. The Body in the Library gives us a puzzle---How did the body get into the library? Who wanted it there? And why?---and a solution. It also delivers a powerful theme.
Many times I've heard that for the reader of Agatha Christie it's all about the puzzle---figuring out who done it. Undoubtedly she was a genius at making it hard to guess who the murderer is. The reader awaits the final scene in which the great detective says, "therefore it could only have been _____." The puzzle solved by the brilliant deduction is a formula for success as proven with Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot.
But I'm discovering other delights as I get around to reading some of Christie's novels for the first time. They are full of social satire---riffs on the fashions and fads of her day. Though they reflect the rigid class system of her society, they occasionally cast doubt on the fairness of that system. And there are reflections on human nature as profound as I've seen anywhere.
I've just finished reading The Body in the Library, the second of Agatha Christie's books featuring Miss Jane Marple. In my next few blog posts I'll give details of the delights I've discovered there.
But, I promise, I won't reveal who done it.
The de Young Museum has an exhibit through August 12, 2018 celebrating the machine age as reflected in American Art of the 1920s and 1930s. These steel gates, for instance, once marked the entrance to corporate offices in a skyscraper in New York City. Elsewhere the exhibit features paintings of things such as the internal workings of a mechanical watch done in a style called precisionism.
The machines are still around, but the cult of the machine has been replaced by the cult of electronics. We used to speak of "electronic music," but today it's rare to hear music that is not somehow made electronic, if only by being run through a PA system. Video games gave us visual tools that are now being incorporated into fine art, as I experienced yesterday at The Museum of the African Diaspora. Their exhibit, "Digitalia," allows the visitor equipped with a smartphone or iPad to look through the device's camera and see additional images invisible to the naked eye.
It's hard to imagine the cult of electronics will pass as the cult of the machine did, but perhaps that's beginning to happen. David Sax's book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, was published two years ago.
Michael Connelly's latest book runs over 100,000 words by my estimate. Agatha Christie's novels typically run less than 70,000 words. So the present-day bestseller is half again as long as the bestseller of the early twentieth century.
Lawrence Block, recalling the beginning of his career writing paperback originals in the 1950s, says he learned that 60,000 words is a standard length for a novel. Today some publishers of mysteries require at least 80,000 words from a first-time author.
Why? Do mystery readers have more leisure to read longer books? That seems unlikely. Are stories more complicated, requiring more pages to work through all the twists and turns of the plot? Probably not.
Here's a clue: Connelly's latest is really two novellas and a short story (labelled "Part I," "Part II," and "Part III") packaged as one big book and called a "novel."
Some speculate that the traditional publishing industry needs to charge $30 for a hardback in order to pay all the costs of bringing the book to market, and that readers are willing to pay that much if they get a lot of pages for their money.
If so, Ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks may be the best vehicle for the traditional mystery novel of 60,000 to 70,000 words because the costs of production and distribution are so much less. The ebook can sell for around $2.99, and the paperback for $10 to $12. The revenue to the writer can be more than with a hardback from a traditional publisher.
I was having coffee in the Potrero Hill neighborhood one day when I looked across the street and saw Golden Gun Investigations above Bloom's Saloon. My first thought was that someone had put those words and that phone number on the window as a spoof of San Francisco's private eye culture.
After all, private investigators usually don't advertise themselves as guns for hire. Also naming anything "Golden" is an obvious choice in a city created by the Gold Rush and defined by the Golden Gate.
But apparently there really was a Golden Gate Investigations. A little Googling revealed its address was more recently in another neighborhood. A little more Googling revealed that they are now out of business.
That means the owners of the building decided to leave the name on the window anyway. For that we thank them. The inscription adds character, though the neighborhood is not short on that commodity.
I like to think the new tenant occasionally wears a trench coat and a fedora and stops downstairs for a shot and a beer on a foggy night.
But not really. The shiny brass plaque by the entrance reads, "This house, built in 1881, was once occupied by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle." San Francisco Plaques seems to have the definitive explanation. It cites Doyle's memoir, which describes the author's trip to this address in 1923 while he was staying at the Clift Hotel downtown. He visited the office of a doctor who shared his interest in spiritualism. Thus he "occupied" perhaps a room or two of the house for a few hours.
They also note that "a publicist who once owned the house is responsible for placing the plaque." This is a classic publicity stunt: implying more than it claims and staying just this side of an outright lie. I don't know why this owner wanted to publicize his house, unless it was to boost its value on the real estate market.
Clearly the publicist knew that people are fascinated by places where authors lived. I confess that during all the years I lived in Philadelphia, I never made it to the house where Edgar Allen Poe lived for a while, even though the National Park Service does its usual superb job of making it available. However on a trip to London, I did go to Maresfield Gardens to visit the house to which Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna fled from the Nazis during World War II. It was fascinating to see all his personal items scattered around his study and, of course, the original psychiatrist's couch.
When I walk downtown to the Mechanics Institute Library I go right by this apartment building. The brass plaque by the entrance tells the passerby that Dashiell Hammett lived here from 1926 to 1929 during which time he wrote Red October, The Dain Curse, and The Maltese Falcon.
It also says he occupied the apartment on the top floor at the northwest corner of the building. That would be the corner you are looking at in this photo. So you can see the windows he looked out of while trying to think of which word to use in whatever sentence he was writing at the moment.
I've inhaled my share of private-eye novels, and I'm aware that Hammett pretty well defined the American version of that genre. But I haven't read everything he wrote, so I hardly qualify as a fan. Believe me, there are folks in town who can recite the years in which the various editions of his novels were published.
But one of my all-time favorite novels was written by Hammett: The Thin Man. I'll admit I was introduced to it by the marvelous film version starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. The novel is much darker than the film. I imagine it ranks pretty low with hard-core Hammett fans because it's about an amateur sleuth, but that's why I like it.
So, yes, I think it's cool to walk on the sidewalk where Hammett came and went everyday for a few years, during which, I imagine, he thought of himself as a guy trying to tell a story someone would want to read. Maybe that gives us something in common.
And, by the way, if you come to town, I'll tell you where you can see his typewriter on display.