Ah, the writer’s life. A cozy study, an apple by your side, with an occasional bloody corpse to liven the day.
While Agatha Christie did not write a how-to book on writing classic murder mysteries, she did leave us with Ariadne Oliver, the apple-munching, highly opinionated author of works such as “The Affair of the Second Goldfish” and “The Cat It Was Who Died.” While she based some of her mannerisms on herself, Oliver is much more willing to put herself out into the public sphere:
She wrote chatty (if not particularly grammatical) articles on “The Tendency of the Criminal”; “Famous Crimes Passionnels”; “Murder for Love v. Murder for Gain.” She was also a hot-headed feminist, and when any murder of importance was occupying space in the Press there was sure to be an interview with Mrs. Oliver, and it was mentioned that Mrs. Oliver had said, “Now if a woman were the head of Scotland Yard!” She was an earnest believer in woman’s intuition.
In addition to being a marvelous foil for Hercule Poirot, Oliver also gave Christie a chance to vent some of her feelings about various aspects of the writing life, such as her famous vegetarian Finnish detective Sven Jherson (when a boy asks her “Why a Finn?”, she answers honestly “I’ve often wondered”).
So in the process of writing “The Complete, Annotated Secret Adversary,” I compiled a page of advice and observations Oliver made about her chosen profession, then boiled down the top seven items that all writers might benefit from, or sagely agree with.
1. “I don’t care two pins about accuracy.”
Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favourite Labrador, Bob, good-bye, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the do was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing, I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic, and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more. (“Cards on the Table”)
2. “You see a fat woman sitting in a bus eating a currant bun …”
Poirot: Is it perhaps not true to say madame, that you do put people in books sometimes? People that you meet, but not, I agree, people that you know. There would be no fun in this.”
“You’re quite right,” said Mrs. Oliver. “. . . It does happen that way, I mean, you see a fat woman sitting in a bus eating a currant bun and her lips are moving as well as eating, and you can see she’s either saying something to someone or thinking up a telephone call that she’s going to make, or perhaps a letter she’s going to write. And you look at her and you study her shoes and the skirt she’s got on and her hat and guess her age and whether she’s got a wedding ring on and a few other things. And then you get out of the bus. You don’t want ever to see her again, but you’ve got a story in your mind about somebody called Mrs. Canaby who is going home in a bus, having had a very strange interview somewhere where she saw someone in a pastry cook’s and was reminded of someone she’d only met once and who she had heard was dead and apparently isn’t dead.” (“Hallowe’en Party”)
3 “Idea? I’ve got any amount of ideas.”
“In fact, that’s just the difficulty. It always is my difficulty. I can never think of even one plot at a time. I always think of at least five, and then it’s agony to decide between them. I can think of six beautiful reasons for the murder. The trouble is I’ve no earthly means of knowing which is right.” (“Cards on the Table”)
4. “What really matters is plenty of bodies!”
“If the thing’s getting a little dull, some more blood cheers it up. Somebody is going to tell something—and then they’re killed first! That always goes down well. It comes in all my books –camouflaged different ways, of course. And people like untraceable poisons, and idiotic police inspectors and girls tied up in cellars with sewer gas or water pouring in (such a troublesome way of killing any one really) and a hero who can dispose of anything from three to seven villains single-handed.” (“Cards on the Table”)
5. “What can you say about how you write books?”
“What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up. I can’t imagine why everybody is always so keen for authors to talk about writing. I should have thought it was an author’s business to write, not talk.” (“Dead Man’s Folly”)
6. “Do you believe in the value of truth?”
“Of course I believe in the truth,” said Rhoda, staring.
“You, you say that —- but perhaps you haven’t thought about it. The truth hurts sometimes —- and destroys one’s illusions.”
“I’d rather have it, all the same,” said Rhoda.
“So would I. But I don’t know that we’re wise.” (“Cards on the Table”)
7. “I’m too busy writing or rather worrying because I can’t write.
“That’s really the most tiresome thing about writing – though everything is tiresome really, except the one moment when you get what you think is going to be a wonderful idea, and can hardly wait to begin.” (“Pale Horse”)
More of Mrs. Oliver’s observations can be found here.