austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

And forever more, that's how you'll stay

Mystery novels are a pretty new genre to me, even though I usually like them. I probably should have started reading them long ago, but I started out as a science fiction fan and it usually takes a while to discover that just because science fiction likes to bill itself as the literature of ideas doesn't mean that other genres are not, in fact, dumb. Anyway, I just finished up Agatha Christie's Elephants Can Remember, a late Hercule Poirot mystery, among my audio books.

It feels odd, although I'm still overcoming my ignorance so I don't know how odd it is; the particular mystery is kicked off when mystery-author Ariadne Oliver is asked to investigate a tragedy where General Alistair Ravenscroft and his wife Margaret died, to determine whether Alistair shot Margaret and then killed himself, or whether Margaret shot Alistair and then killed herself, or whether each killed themselves, something the forensic evidence was unable to determine ... a dozen years ago. So the book follows the conventions, as I understand them, for this sort of thing, with the protagonists holding interviews and deducing whodunnit from that. Yet it's got that twist; as I understand it, those interviewed are supposed to give information honestly, to be fair to the reader, except for the person who actually done it, and the reader might be able to identify the lie from pure reasoning.

Given the central event was a dozen years old, though, and no one who actually saw the critical moment was there, the characters quite logically don't remember things perfectly, or filled in explanations for what they didn't understand from what they assumed, and so while the characters might be full of confounding information, it's not actually cheating either. It also means the book is almost proofed against continuity errors, which I imagine have to be particularly frustrating in puzzle-detective-mysteries like this: if someone says something irreconcilably incompatible with the bulk of the evidence, well, they remembered it wrong is all and that happens. (I know this isn't the only Poirot story to use this gimmick.) So I'm startled that with all the confounds --- maybe because of all the confounds --- I pinned down just what happened and why with about a third of the book left to go.

It's got the sort of gimmick I'd expect to see as a Mystery Movie Of The Week, back when they made Mystery Movies Of The Week, usually starring Mike Farrell, and which I'd watch because my mother liked watching these things and impressing us kids by identifying as early as possible who did it (Mike Farrell). It's possible I was pre-spoiled by having encountered enough mysteries with similar gimmicks. Possibly it's because the mystery wasn't that hard, and Christie was probably in her declining years; there's a lot of repetitive writing, to the point that Oliver and Poirot at one point rue the notion that elephants (who can at least in legend remember small things years later, after all) might be mentioned by yet another person.

I learned the text of this book has been used in word-analysis studies to form arguments about whether Christie was suffering Alzheimer's in her closing years, with the main evidence being the change in vocabulary depth and variety from earlier novels. I'm not sure. There is, to repeat myself, a lot of repetitive writing, although it's along the lines of characters pointing out they didn't really know the core events and it was a long time ago. And I finished the book despite knowing how it'd turn out without feeling like I was wasting my time, although also without the sense of increasing tension that the closing pages of a mystery might inspire. I'm not sorry I read it, but it felt more like extending time with enjoyable characters more than a story interesting on its own merits.

Trivia: Global industrial production of selenium is about 1500 tons per year, with about a tenth of that amount recycled from industrial waste and old photocopiers. Source: Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide To The Elements, John Emsley.

Currently Reading: Step Right Up, Brooks McNamara. It's a history of the medicine show, with enough illustrations of 19th century medicine-show minstrel acts or Indian figures that I feel uncomfortable reading it where passers-by might see me, as I can't really give out explanations of what I'm staring at these illustrations for. Mercifully, the print is large, so I can quickly finish this page and turn to the next and ... ah, yes, an extremely detailed sketch of the gastro-intestinal system. Much better.


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