Category Archives: Writers

Agatha Christie – drama queen

KEPT THEM GUESSING Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976), author of over 100 crime titles.

A Writer’s first lesson in dramatic tension.

WHEN I was around six years old, mum bundled me and my siblings into the back of our station wagon and took us to the Inverell drive-in cinema. We were already asleep, so I don’t remember the start of the movie.

Much later I woke up, not because there was a particularly loud scene up on the big screen, but because it had gone uncharacteristically quiet. To a high-pitched, menacingly subtle soundtrack, figures, in the half-darkness, were focussed on some terrible task.

The movie was Sidney Lumet’s 1974 production of Agatha Christie’s iconic 1934 mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express. The onscreen figures were an array of 1970s movie stars. Silent. Deadly. Determined.

It was a powerful dose of dramatic tension for my young mind.

At the end of my final school exams, I picked up a Christie novel for the first time. It was By the Pricking of my Thumbs (1968). What attracted me was the cover illustration by Tom Adams – a cracked doll’s head with only one staring eye – an image dripping with the same dramatic tension.

Written very late in Christie’s career, this book is one of her ‘Tommy and Tuppence’ Beresford stories, the married amateur spies who aged with the author, and whom she used to give voice to much of the change her own generation faced across the 20th century.

They were never as famous as Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, but the Beresfords took readers on adventures in the 1920s, through the espionage-rich 1940s, and featured in the last mystery story Christie ever penned – Postern of Fate (1973).

Heavy on atmosphere, By the Pricking of my Thumbs is a spooky page turner with plenty of sins of the past coming back to haunt the residents of a hidden-away village in England.

After months of research for exams, a murder mystery was exactly what I needed. It suited my propensity to dig up the past in my own home town, exploring the attics of old homes and the secrets they evoked.

COVER STORY Tom Adams’ cover illustration for Agatha Christie’s 1968 mystery By the Pricking of my Thumbs.

I began to spot Adams’ Magritte-like covers in the second-hand shops and book markets, and soon had quite a collection. There have been plenty of Christie cover artists, but I don’t think any have become quite so renowned for the job. Adams’ covers are masterpieces of illusion, with painterly, stylistic references running throughout.

Agatha Christie was a great exponent of plot, probably one of the greatest. Her use of the ‘slow reveal’, particularly in her most famous storylines (And Then There Were None in particular) made up for other skills she lacked as a writer.

She undoubtedly suffered from over-exposure and publishing fatigue – for most of her career her work was sold annually as a ‘Christie for Christmas’. The sheer volume of her storytelling (well over 100 titles altogether) saw her create an oeuvre which has so far been unmatched in the crime genre.

Christie’s own life held mysteries of its own. In December 1926 she disappeared, leaving clothing and her car at a lonely place near her home in Berkshire. A nearby lake was searched to find her body. The newspapers were all over the inexplicable story of the popular crime writer who seemed to be the victim of foul play.

Eleven days later she was discovered at Harrogate Spa in Yorkshire, a great distance for someone who’d left her transport and spare clothes. Whether the entire incident was a publicity stunt or the result of a nervous breakdown linked to her husband’s infidelity has never been fully explained. Christie herself never wrote about it.

“She’ll always be remembered for leaving us wanting more about those 11 mysterious days, where dramatic tension left the realm of fiction for a fortnight.”

Vanessa Redgrave played Agatha Christie in the movie Agatha (1979), based on this affair. Redgrave’s performance goes a long way to unravelling the truth of a woman faced with abandonment and loss, who just goes away for a while to sort her head out. Dustin Hoffman played the newspaper-man who helps her do so. It’s an artful script by screenwriters Kathleen Tynan and Arthur Hopcraft, assisted by the complete absence of Christie’s own account of the same events.

What I really admire about Christie’s work is how well her dramatic tension translates to the screen. In the right hands, the results are iconic – Murder on the Orient Express (screenwriter Paul Dehn) and Death on the Nile (screenwriter Anthony Shaffer) are perennially popular big screen productions, renowned for their ingenious plots and memorable characters played by screen giants. The original books have sustained more than one screen adaptation, none of which cancels-out the others.

But sometimes, the results are only passable. Stewart Harcourt’s adaptation of By the Pricking of my Thumbs became a kind of unintentional mash-up under the banner of the Marple ITV series in 2006, when Miss Marple was planted into the storyline to assist Tuppence Beresford unravel the mystery.

It was a great shame, not only because Tuppence was rendered a rather lacklustre detective’s assistant (despite the excellent casting of Greta Scacchi and the fact that Tommy and Tuppence had starred in their own ITV series in the past – Partners in Crime in 1983), but also because Christie’s storyline was unrecognisable in the second half.

Don’t muck around with plot when adapting for the screen is the lesson I suppose. Nuances can be altered, of course, but the course of events? Never. Christie’s skills in atmosphere and dramatic tension rarely wavered, even in her less popular works. They are a gift to screenwriters.

And the ultimate lesson she left for posterity? Well, that’s easy – she’ll always be remembered for leaving us wanting more about those 11 mysterious days, where dramatic tension left the realm of fiction for a fortnight, and possibly transformed an emerging writer into a storytelling giant. Perhaps her publishers always suggested she stay silent on the subject?

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

E. M. Forster – literature’s god of love

BARED IT ALL Edward Morgan Forster, 1911 portrait by Roger Fry.

A Writer’s first hero.

FROM the moment I saw the trailer for David Lean’s 1984 adaptation of his A Passage to India during an English class, I became a sucker for the literature of Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970).

I’d been ambivalent about the drab Penguin Modern Classics edition, but the sight of Judy Davis as Adela Quested, scrambling down the dry slopes of the Marabar Caves, bloodied by thorns, pith helmet rolling in her wake, dislodging rocks (and an ensuing British panic) gripped me into attention.

We had our toes dipped into the ideas of Bloomsbury and the racial overtones and class structure of Empire.

Merchant Ivory did the rest, with their iconic production of A Room with a View in 1985. Through their lens Forster’s English hypocrites and heroes came to life.

“Forster had a greater vision of love between two men than his contemporaries. One or two of them may well have been jealous.”

The icing on the cake was the word which I spied in the blurb of the edition of Maurice that my enthusiasm for Forster had garnered me at Christmas. The word, of course, was inescapable when describing that work.

I wonder now if it was the first time I ever saw the word in print? Only whispered around the schoolyard, it had, by that time, been uttered louder at the peak of the AIDS crisis in the mid 1980s.

But here, on the reverse of Forster’s posthumously published story of Maurice Hall and his gay sexual awakening, it brought a wave of validation.

I recall waiting for my family to register the word. Had my mother seen it when she purchased the book? Had my brother sneered about it when she gave it to him to wrap up for me?

When nobody mentioned “homosexual”, I took that as tacit approval.

I subsequently devoured all Forster’s novels. My favourite moment was starting Where Angels Fear to Tread when alighting my train to university, only to be flawed by a classic Forsterian-surprise-death before reaching the next station, just six minutes down the track. What great ignition for a story!

On summer holiday, during my first year in the United Kingdom, I came across a collection of Forster’s short stories at a hostel in Cornwall.

The inclement weather saw me feast on them, immediately hit by one in particular – Other Kingdom. The Irish Home Rule theme of this story went right over my head, but the gusto of the young Irish protagonist (Evelyn Beaumont), brought my consciousness to a standstill, while I tried to capture her, as did all the other characters in this shining example of Forster’s storytelling skill.

I agreed with Iris Murdoch, in that “I loved Miss Beaumont, because she bamboozled a pack of bores.”

Being a film school student, I had big plans. The biggest became my obsession to bring Other Kingdom to the screen.

I adapted it into an approved screenplay at the behest of the owners of Forster’s work (King’s College Cambridge) and tried for some years to tout it around the funding bodies, to no avail.

The central mystery of what happens to Evelyn Beaumont when she escapes from an ill-fated marriage into a dour English family could not be explained even by Forster himself, let alone by a potential screenwriter in a pitching session.

It wasn’t for another decade that I really understood my attraction to the story, when I realised a deep-seated wish for a solution just like Evelyn’s. I admired her escape in the light of my own need to find a way out of the life I was leading.

In the wake of my coming out, Forster continued to deliver. My second reading of Maurice brought the searing grief and triumph of his gay protagonists back to haunt my recovery from the death of my partner five years later, because Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder loved, no less ordinarily than any other couple.

Forster’s long-unpublished epilogue to Maurice was the heartbreaker. Anyone seeking to understand this novel should read Forster’s exploration of what happened to his characters, for it is no elemental conundrum like that of Miss Beaumont in Other Kingdom.

Forster’s trusted friends who read the drafts prior to 1933 suggested the epilogue be cut from the final manuscript, but I get the distinct impression they were baffled by Forster’s unsullied vision of Maurice and Alec happily ensconced as woodsmen, living rough, fused by the heart, and happy, despite their accidental discovery by Maurice’s unsettled sister Kitty.

Forster had a greater vision of love between two men than his contemporaries. One or two of them may well have been jealous.

Forster left as much written material about his childhood, his career, and his relationships as any biographer would ever need. Trouble is, few have used this resource – the ‘sexuality issue’ undoubtedly the main obstacle.

The finest work on Forster is Wendy Moffat’s A Great Unrecorded History. This study has done more to debunk the myth of Forster as simply a class-conscious comic novelist who stopped writing in 1924, than anything which came before.

PERFECT PANIC Adela Quested (Judy Davis) flees in David Lean’s screen adaptation of Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’.

Forster earns hero status from this writer for protecting his great love, policeman Bob Buckingham, from the criminal courts while he, Bob and Bob’s wife May lived-out a three-way relationship from 1930 until Forster’s death in 1970.

He earns it for politely, and with humour, pointing out the hypocrisy of those in positions of power and privilege in his literature.

He earns it for writing himself onto Hitler’s ‘hit list’ of authors with his WWII broadcasts exploring the axe of Nazism as it threatened to fall onto the neck of civilisation.

He earns it for not killing himself, despite as much cause for depression, isolation and marginalisation as Virginia Woolf cited.

He earns it for creating the archetype of the lusty English Gamekeeper. Long before D.H. Lawrence’s Oliver Mellors’ trysts with Lady Chatterley, Forster’s Alec Scudder hunted his way into Maurice Hall’s bed, and his heart.

And he earns it for diarising himself as he was, warts and all, and sometimes that meant writing about actual bodily warts.

For gay men, Forster’s humanist document on the entire life of a homosexual man will endure as a record of emerging and practical homosexuality which may well come to eclipse his novels.

E.M. Forster might not have physically embodied a Love God, but with his pen, in the shadow of the Oscar Wilde trials, he carved a place in history as a Titan who turned from the affairs of men and women, to those between men and men. His publishers must have hated him for it.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.