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Dissecting Christie Part 3

This week, we take a look at how Agatha Christie used description of place to set the scene and reveal character in The Crooked House.

Chapter 2

I returned to England on a soft grey day in September. The leaves on the trees were golden in the evening light. There were playful gusts of wind.

Chapter 6

Sleuth describes Magda’s parlor.

We passed through it into a rather surprisingly spacious hall. It was furnished with restraint – well-polished dark oak and gleaming brass. At the back, where the staircase would normally appear, was a white paneled wall with a door in it. (…) We went through the doorway on the left into a large drawing room. It had pale-blue paneled walls, furniture covered in heavy brocade, and on every available table and on the walls were hung photographs and pictures of actors, dancers, and stage scenes and designs. A Degas of ballet dancers hung over the mantelpiece. There were masses of flowers, enormous brown chrysanthemums and great vases of carnations.

Sleuth describes the library.

It was a big room, full of books. The books did not confine themselves to the bookcases that reached up to the ceiling. They were on chairs and tables and even the floor. And yet there was no sense of disarray about them. The room was cold. There was some smell absent in it that I was conscious of having expected. It smelt of the mustiness of old books and just a little beeswax. In a second or two I realized what I missed. It was the scent of tobacco. Philip Leonides was not a smoker.

Sleuth describes Clemency’s apartment.

The walls were painted white – really white, not an ivory or a pale cream which is what one usually means when one says “white” in house decoration. They had no pictures on them except one over the mantelpiece, a geometrical fantasia in triangles of dark grey and battleship blue. There was hardly any furniture – only mere utilitarian necessities, three or four chairs, a glass-topped table, one small bookshelf. There were no ornaments. There as light and space and air. It was as different from the big brocaded and flowered drawing room on the floor below as chalk from cheese.

The bedroom with its twin beds and white coverlets and its simplified toilet appliances reminded me again of a hospital or some monastic cell. The bathroom, too, was severely plain with no special luxury fitting and no array of cosmetics. The kitchen was bare, spotlessly clean, and well equipped with labour-saving devices of a practical kind. 

Then we came to a door which Clemency opened, saying: “This is my husband’s special room.” This was an intensely personal room. There was a large roll-top desk untidily covered with papers, old pipes, and tobacco ash. There were big shabby easy-chairs. Persian rugs covered the floor. On the walls were groups, their photography somewhat faded. School groups, cricket groups, military groups. Water-color sketches of deserts and minarets, and of sailing-boats and sea effects and sunsets. It was, somehow, a pleasant room, the room of a lovable, friendly, companionable man.

Sleuth describes Brenda's parlor.
Its proportions were the same as the drawing room on the ground floor below. There were colored cretonnes, very gay in color, and striped silk curtains. Over the mantelpiece was a portrait that held my gaze riveted – not only because of the hand that painted it, but also because of the arresting face of the subject.

Chapter 14

Sleuth describes the drawing room.

It was a woman’s room, exotic, soft, shut away from the rude blasts of outside weather. It was not a room that a man would be happy in for long. It was not a room where you could relax and read the newspaper and smoke a pipe and put up your feet. Nevertheless, I preferred it to Clemency’s own abstract expression of herself upstairs. On the whole I prefer a boudoir to an operating theatre.


Christie's amateur sleuth in The Crooked House commented on the rooms as he discovered them. There was very little description of place from chapters 15 through 26. Only as much as was needed to place a character in a chair, etc.

Christie's method was spare and to the point. She used the different living spaces to reveal character. This is a technique you can use in your story. What do your characters' personal spaces say about them?

Next week, we'll look at the planting and payoff of clues in The Crooked House.

Dissecting Christie Part 2

Christie was a very competent mechanic. Her mysteries were linear stories with multiple, credible suspects. She did an excellent job of pointing the finger.

When it comes to describing characters, she was a minimalist. Writers are advised to avoid the laundry list, but she used it to good effect.

We view most of the characters through the filter of the point of view character, the amateur sleuth, as he meets each person for the first time. He notes their basic appearance and his first impression.

Chapter 1

Sleuth describes his fiancee Sophia.

I liked everything I saw. The dark crisp hair that sprang up proudly from her forehead, the vivid blue eyes, the small square fighting chin, and the straight nose. I liked the well-cut light-grey tailor-made, and the crisp white shirt. She looked refreshingly English and that appealed to me strongly after three years without seeing my native land.

Chapter 3

Sleuth describes himself.

“I shall figure in the reports you get. Five foot eleven, brown hair, brown eyes, dark-blue pinstripe suit, etc.”

Secondary character describes the Victim.

“Funnily enough he was attractive. He’d got a personality, you know. You could feel it. Nothing much to look at. Just a gnome – ugly little fellow – but magnetic – women always fell for him."

Two different characters describe the victim's widow, Brenda.

“A young woman out of a tea shop. A perfectly respectable young woman – good-looking in an anemic, apathetic sort of way.”

“She’s what I call a harem type. Likes sitting about and eating sweets and having nice clothes and jewelry and reading cheap novels and going to cinema.”

Chapter 5

Sleuth describes the elderly aunt.

Along the path toward us came a tall figure walking briskly. It had on a battered old felt hat, a shapeless skirt, and a rather cumbersome jersey. … Edith de Haviland was a woman of about seventy. She had a mass of untidy grey hair, a weather-beaten face and a shrewd, piercing glance.

Chapter 6

Sleuth describes suspect Philip.

He got up from behind his table as we entered – a tall man, aged somewhere around fifty, an extraordinarily handsome man. (…) Certainly I was not prepared for this perfection of feature – the straight nose, the flawless line of jaw, the fair hair touched with grey that swept back from a well-shaped forehead.

Sleuth describes suspect Magda.

I don’t know how she gave the impression of being three women rather than one who entered. She was smoking a cigarette in a long holder and was wearing a peach satin negligee which she was holding up with one hand. A cascade of Titian hair rippled down her back. Her face had that almost shocking air of nudity that a woman’s has nowadays when it is not made up at all. Her eyes were blue and enormous and she was talking very rapidly in a husky, rather attractive voice with a very clear enunciation.

Chapter 7

Sleuth describes suspect Magda.

The titian hair was piled high on her head in an Edwardian coiffure, and she was dressed in a well-cut dark-grey coat and skirt. With a delicately pleated pale mauve shirt fastened at the neck by a small cameo broach. For the first time, I was aware of the charm of her delightfully tip-tilted nose.

Sleuth describes suspect Roger.

He was a clumsy giant of a man with powerful shoulders, dark rumpled hair, and an exceedingly ugly but at the same time rather pleasant face. His eyes looked at us and then quickly away in that furtive, embarrassed manner which shy but honest people often adopt.

Sleuth describes suspect Clemency.

She was a woman of very sharp and definite personality. She was about fifty, I suppose; her hair was grey, cut very short in what was almost an Eton crop but which grew so beautifully on her small well-shaped head that it had none of the ugliness I have always associated with that particular cut. She had an intelligent sensitive face, with light-grey eyes of a peculiar and searching intensity. She had on a simple dark-red woolen frock that fitted her slenderness perfectly.

Chapter 8

Sleuth describes Victim's portrait.

It was a portrait of a little old man with dark, piercing eyes. He wore a black velvet skull cap and his head was sunk down in his shoulders, but the vitality and power of the man radiated forth from the canvas. The twinkling eyes seemed to hold mine. …

Sleuth describes widow Brenda.

She wore black – very expensive black and a good deal of it. It swathed her up to the neck and down to the wrists. She moved easily and indolently, and black certainly suited her. Her face was mildly pretty, and she had rather nice brown hair arranged in somewhat too elaborate style. Her face was well powdered and she had on lipstick and rouge, but she had clearly been crying. She was wearing a string of very large pearls and a big emerald ring on one hand and an enormous ruby on the other.

Sleuth describes suspects Laurence and Eustace.

There a fair-haired young man of about thirty and a handsome, dark boy of sixteen were sitting at a table.

Chapter 10

Sleuth describes the suspect Josephine.

The face still had its goblin suggestion – it was round with a bulging brow, combed-back hair and small, rather beady eyes. But it was definitely attached to a body – a small skinny body. (…) She was a fantastically ugly child with a very distinct likeness to her grandfather.

Chapter 14

Sleuth describes witness Nannie.

In the doorway stood an old woman – a rather bulky old woman. She had a very clean white apron tied around her ample waist and the moment I saw her I knew that everything was all right.

Chapter 15

Sleuth describes widow Brenda.

Brenda Leonides was the first. She was wrapped in a grey chinchilla coat and there was something catlike and stealthy in the way she moved. She slipped through the twilight with a kind of eerie grace. I saw her face as she passed the window. There was a half-smile on it, the curving, crooked smile I had noticed upstairs.

Sleuth describes suspect Laurence.

A few minutes later Laurence Brown, looking slender and shrunken, also slipped through the twilight. 

* * *

It is important to introduce your characters when they appear for the first time. The level and style of introduction is up to you. Too little and you risk talking heads. Too much and you risk annoying your reader. Christie advocated just enough to get the point across.

Next week, we'll look at how she used description of place.

Dissecting Christie Part 1

For the next few weeks, we are going to dissect The Crooked House by Agatha Christie.

The first layer we're going to examine is her use of theme. In The Crooked House, Christie used a children's rhyme to illustrate the bent and twisted nature of the family involved in the murder.

The following excerpts illustrate her use of the theme throughout the story.

Chapter 1

She added softly in a musing voice: “In a little crooked house …”

I must have looked slightly startled, for she seemed amused and explained by elaborating the quotation. “'And they all lived together in a crooked little house.' That’s us. Not really such a little house either. But definitely crooked – running to gables and half timbering!”

Chapter 3

I suddenly remembered the whole verse of the nursery rhyme:

There was a crooked man and he went a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence beside a crooked stile.
He had a crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

I wondered why it had been called Three Gables. Eleven gables would have been more apposite! The curious thing was that it had a strange air of being distorted – and I thought I knew why. It was the type, really, of a cottage, it was a cottage swollen out of all proportion. It was like looking at a country cottage through a gigantic magnifying-glass. The slant-wise beams, the half-timbering, the gables – it was a little crooked house that had grown like a mushroom in the night.

Chapter 8

This was the Original Crooked Little Man who had built the Crooked Little House – and without him the Crooked Little House had lost its meaning.

Chapter 13

I went down to the Crooked House (as I called it in my own mind) with a slightly guilty feeling.

Chapter 15

“I think that’s what I mean when I said we all lived together in a crooked little house. I didn’t mean that it was crooked in the dishonest sense. I think what I meant was that we hadn’t been able to grow up independent, standing by ourselves, upright. We’re all a bit twisted and twining (…) like bindweed."

Chapter 17

“He was a natural twister. He liked, if I may put it so, doing things the crooked way.”

Chapter 26

“We will go there together and you will forget the little Crooked House.”

Throughout the solving of the murder, the evidence twists and turns and reveals the way the family members are intertwined in an unhealthy way. The young widow is often described as resembling a cat.

Christie sprinkled the theme in with a delicate hand. The analogy is referred to in only seven of the twenty-six chapters. The idea of crookedness inspires the whole.

To address theme, I suggest considering at the beginning or end of the first draft what you want the story to say. Then, as you go through the revision layers, develop your theme through description and dialogue.

You might find a nursery rhyme to fit your purpose.

Next week, we will take a look at how Christie uses description to introduce characters.

Scouting Locations

Just as a film director scouts locations for his film, you can scout locations for your book. Whether you are an organic, planner, or hybrid writer, your scenes will be set somewhere.

When you are planning or writing your novel, it helps to have visual images to look at when describing your scenes. You may have chosen a gritty urban streetscape, a desert SciFi terrain, a remote manor house in the Scottish Highlands, or a sheep farm down under. If you are lucky enough to be able to travel to the place and truly absorb the sights, smells, and sounds, you are ahead of the game.

If not, the beautiful thing about the internet age is you don’t have to leave your house to research them. There are travel channels and brochures, DVDs, and movies set in specific locales for you to investigate. It won’t give you the smells, sounds, and tastes, but it is better than making it up entirely in your head.

Thanks to Google Maps and other satellite mapping programs, you can now zoom in and do a 360-degree pan of the area. While it doesn’t allow you to peek inside the windows, you can stroll through a neighborhood in Paris, London, or Peoria for free.

For interior scenes, you can find images through internet search engines. You can find examples of log cabins, Victorian parlors, industrial warehouses, and suburban homes. Tourist sites and real estate sites offer visual tours.

For my current project I needed a Victorian stage and the exterior and interior of a Victorian manor house. Some tours of stately homes offered floor plans. I will create a fictional manor house utilizing the rich details I discovered.

By zooming along England’s coast I found the town of Graves End. Perfect location name for a mystery and close enough to London that my investigators could easily go there by coach. A little more digging and I found it was on the coach line and had people arriving from London several times a day. Of course, Google maps shows a very modern Graves End, but I did find an early map of it as well as illustrations.

Sadly, I cannot afford to go to Graves End and I’d need the Tardis to return to Victorian times. I’ll have to settle for imagining the way it smells and sounds and the way it might have been. But if I hadn’t been scouting for locations, I would never have known it was there.