As a tutor, one way I help students is to read the books they are required to read in school. Then we discuss and write about those books. The student learns more about the books this way, I can develop writing topics for my students, and I can analyze gems to help me be a better writer. Win–win–win.
During the past week to help an eighth grader, I reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. In 2013 the Crime Writers’ Association in Britain named it the best crime novel ever, in part because it “contains one of the most celebrated plot twists in crime writing history.” A similar group in the US named it number 13.
At the same time, for my own reading pleasure, I reread The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. In 1999, it was voted 96th of Le Monde‘s “100 Books of the Century.” It was included in Time magazine’s “List of the 100 Best Novels” in 2005.
I like both books, but for different reasons.
I reread the Christie book to find out how she was able to hide the identity of the murderer until the last pages while having that character front and center throughout the telling of the story. She gives subtle clues but on the whole stuns readers with the book’s ending. Christie said she wrote this book to see if she could succeed at this twist in a plot line. She did, brilliantly, though her characters, except for her debuting detective, Hercule Poirot, are easily forgotten.
I reread the Chandler book not remembering who the murderer is or even caring. I read to enjoy the author’s style. Detective Philip Marlow’s character, especially his sense of humor, is developed deliciously. The author’s descriptions of settings are meticulous, each seeming to be a metaphor of the characters who inhabit them. Tiny details like the doctor writing on a pad with attached carbon paper date the story, while other details like “a smile as wide as Wilshire Boulevard” anchor the story in Los Angeles.
Writers can learn from both authors.
From Christie we can learn how to plot a novel, especially a crime mystery. We can learn to include light-heartedness—in the form of the narrator’s chatty sister, Caroline—in what otherwise is a humorless story. We can learn that pivotal details must seem organic to the story, not pulled out of a magician’s hat, unlike the explanation for who made a crucial phone call to the doctor on the night of the murder.
From Chandler we can learn how to develop memorable, quirky characters. We can learn how to write metaphors and similes which reveal character but which are also in keeping with the personality of the person thinking them. We can learn to use witty, flirting dialog. We can learn how to make a setting—in this case 1930s LA—almost a character.
Since Chandler’s novels rely on sex in their plots and in their chauvinistic development of women characters, his books might not be suitable for eighth graders. Christie’s, on the other hand, are suitable for almost all ages. If you have a bucket list of books to read—for pleasure or to hone your craft—add The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Big Sleep to the top. You will thank me.