Sunday, 19 April 2015

Christopher Bollen on his Love Affair with Agatha Christie and her Influence.

Today's guest blog is by author Christopher Bollen. A journalist and editor he is currently Editor at Large of Interview Magazine.  He currently writes about Art, culture and literature. 

I’ve always considered Agatha Christie something of my gateway drug into the life or writing and reading. Until about the age of eleven or twelve I probably read about as much as the average Midwest American kid back in those days when even cable television seemed a rather monotonous landscape until the sitcoms and dramas of prime time. My bibliographic diet consisted of a few books here and there interspersed with assigned texts from English class. But my parents were big readers and there was a family preference for murder mysteries so I eventually smuggled a Christie to my room and began what quickly became a full-fledged addiction. I simply didn’t stop on Christie once I started. Hercule Poirot was my initial superhero of choice—his mysteries always possessed that rarified sense of cosmopolitanism or foreign intrigue: one could jet off to Egypt or Mesopotamia or encounter a range of suspicious urbanites in the mannered row houses of London. But I fell for Jane Marple, too, working out her puzzles and leaps of inductive reasoning behind the lace curtains of St. Mary Mead (and even Marple occasionally traveled, as she did on a forced sick-leave vacation in A Caribbean Mystery). It was Christie, through her majestically prolific career totalling nearly 100 books, who simultaneously opened up the world for me in her pages as well as made it navigable, solvable, and linked by the same passions and desires for wealth and power and maybe a shared taste for blood. I was a pre-pubescent super-fan, a mini Christie in training, and it was in my attempt to emulate her that I began to jot my own ferociously juvenile short mystery stories in pencil (so I could erase) double-spaced on blue-lined notebook paper. By the time I became a teenager other writers and genres finally broke the spell. But I attribute that early kernel of a lifelong reading and writing fascination to the Queen of Crime (in a country, it’s worth noting, where we didn’t have royalty; she was the only Queen I really knew).

When I was finishing my first novel Lightning People in 2011, I began searching for the premise and structure of a next novel. I was fixing the final edits in a small seaside village on the far North Fork of Long Island called Orient—a disturbingly innocent-appearing country hamlet connected to the rest of the country only by a tiny thread of causeway. On that visit, it dawned on me that Orient would be an ideal setting for a series of terrible crimes. As a “literary novelist” we are so often and incorrectly told to avoid genre writing, that it doesn’t allow for that mercurial, inchoate sensibility that defines a piece of writing as a work of art. (You occasionally run into this tired criticism against plot: “life doesn’t have a plot, why should literature?” to which I always want to respond, “yes, in fact, life does have plots! Many, and some are quite ruthless.”) One of the joys of getting older as a writer is that you acquire a little more confidence in your own predilections and interests, you trust them, and I quickly began fleshing out a murder mystery set in the sleepy village of Orient. Agatha Christie instinctively became a model for me. For one, Orient is by its very geography a closed-off community, isolated from the rest of Long Island, and that made it very similar to Christie’s brilliant remote estate mysteries (probably the most superior of these being Ten Little Indians where the characters quite literally cannot escape the island). Also, I remembered how riveting it felt to tear through one of her whodunits, contemplating each character as both a curious, distinctive individual and as a potential double agent. The reader isn’t passive in a Christie: she or he interacts, trying to work through the logic, in the possibility that they could also solve the crime. It’s shadow boxing, and Christie lets us punch.

Orient, for me, is a very American novel. In fact, one of the key issues I wanted to explore in its pages is the failure of the American Dream and the way that these communities we have set up and lionized as ideals have reached their expiration date. There’s a feeling of foreclosure to that once invincible dream of perfection in a house, a neighbourhood, a family, happy photographs set on the windowsill against a mowed lawn of Bermuda grass. It is, ultimately, its own sort of fiction. In the States we have our own homegrown mystery models, and a cursory expectation would be that an American archetype would have served as a better vehicle than a British one to explore the rough roads of the American Dream. Ours are largely of two varieties: the noir-ish private eye (Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade) or the more recent police procedural (Richard Price). But here’s the catch that sold me on Agatha Christie as the ultimate exemplar: I didn’t want an outside detective with a lot of street smarts and cool to be the protagonist. You never see the community under its own skin if it’s just a case of a detective coming in cold without any connection to the people being investigated. That structure certainly makes the writer’s work easier: a murder occurs in the first chapter and the detective goes to the scene and begins the search. In other words, the chessboard is already set up and all the writer needs to do is make the first move. Instead, I wanted amateur detectives, locals with particular insights into this village, to be the ones doing the solving. The tough part about that decision is that I had to actually set the board up in the early chapters before I began moving the pieces. But the payoff, I believe, is that the reader invests in those characters as thinking, feeling individuals with something very real to lose by the unfolding events. Philip Marlow or Sam Spade or a lieutenant on the homicide squad has nothing besides pride or a job at stake if they don’t solve the crime. Moreover the entire universe is refracted through the detective: no character ever outshines Marlow.

Christie, on the other hand, and a few others from the Golden Age of British mystery writing (and even latter-day writers like P.D. James), understood that a compelling mystery was a communal activity. Yes, Poirot was a private detective too, an outsider in his own way, but Poirot was also a flawed character, capable of absurdity, and Christie never allowed him to completely overtake the scenario. Jane Marple was embedded; she was an observant set of eyes to the churches and manors and dress shops not far from her windows. Christie was an inveterate chronicler of class, character, communal dynamics, and the tricks and trades of real lives burdened with real consequences. That’s what makes her novels such insightful dioramas of society. Gore Vidal, in a 2011 interview, said this of Christie: “I like Christie because I thought she was a great naturalist — those are real villages she writes about — and it’s fascinating. I used to like to read not for the mysteries but I read her for the characters.” He’s correct. But he goes astray with his next sentence. “They are of no use to an American writer, but anyway they are very nice to read.” They are of every use. If Orient works at all, it’s because I studied and mined Christie’s naturalism.

Orient by Christopher Bollen is out now (Simon & Schuster, £16.99)

A trailer for Orient can be seen below.


As summer draws to a close, a small Long Island town is plagued by a series of mysterious deaths - and one young man, a loner taken in by a local, tries to piece together the crimes before his own time runs out.  Orient is an isolated hamlet on the North Fork of Long Island - a quiet, historic village that swells each summer with vacationers, Manhattan escapees, and wealthy young artists from the city with designs on local real estate.  On the last day of summer, a teenage drifter named Mills Chevern arrives in town.  Soon after, the village is rocked by a series of unsettling events: the local caretaker is found floating lifeless in the ocean; an elderly neighbour dies under mysterious circumstances; and a monstrous animal corpse is discovered on the beach not far from a research lab often suspected of harbouring biological experiments.  Before long, other more horrific events plunge the community into a spiral of paranoia.  As the village struggles to make sense of the wave of violence, anxious eyes settle on the mysterious Mills, a troubled orphan with no family, a hazy history, and unknown intentions.  But he finds one friend in Beth, an Orient native in retreat from Manhattan, who is determined to unravel the mystery before the small town devours itself.

You can find more information about the author on his website.  You can also follow him on Twitter @Christobollen

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