Sunday, 4 July 2010

Evil under the Sun

Actually, this is my favourite Hercule Poirot story. Most people know “Murder on the Orient Express” better, but I prefer this one. It has a lot more to offer and there’s a lot more to take into account when solving this crime.

“Evil under the Sun” takes place on an island (well, in the novel it is a land tongue that is cut off from the main land at all times but low tide), so the stranger who arrives unseen to murder the victim is out of the picture quite soon. Apart from only be reachable for a short period of the day, there’s a guard at the path people have to take to get there.

This, of course, leaves the reader – and Monsieur Poirot himself – with enough suspects on the island who have a reason to kill Mrs. Marshall, the murder victim. There’s the former lover from whom she has taken an expensive jewel. There’s the husband who knows she’s cheating on him. There’s the stepdaughter whom she bullies at every chance she gets. There’s the current lover’s wife who has to watch the two of them flirt. There’s the owner of the hotel who is secretly in love with the husband and could want the wife out of the picture. They all have alibis – but one must have done it.

I will not spoil the solution here and tell you who did it (and how and why). If you want to find out, either go and read the novel or watch the very good movie with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. I will, though, give you a few hints if you want to solve the murder yourself:

First of all, the time of death is not as clear as it might seem.

The bath which nobody took is important, as is the bottle that almost hit one of the guests on the head.

Some of the guests are great actors.

Not all alibis hold up to a good test.

The reason for the murder is not the one everyone is expecting.

Always keep in mind the first thought about bodies on the beach that is uttered in the novel.

But now back to the story itself. Why do I like “Evil under the Sun” more than the big classic, “Murder on the Orient Express”? There’s various reasons.

First of all, in the big classic you have a very classical setup (a wider variety of the locked room). The murderer has to be someone on the train, because nobody could have entered or left it unseen and without traces during the time at which the crime occurred. It plays a lot with the question of “who did it?” and then gives a surprise solution: everyone (except for Poirot, of course) did it. And they all appear to have no reason to kill the man – until Poirot finds the motif and all falls in line.

“Evil under the Sun” presents the reader with a lot of possible suspects and a victim that surely has done nothing to prevent bad things from happening. Arlene Marshall is not a nice person, she is vain, self-serving and rude towards others. Still, even she doesn’t deserve being strangled. (And compared to the kidnapper and baby murderer killed in “Murder on the Orient Express”, she’s a nice person, indeed.) Despite the same cut-off setting, “Evil under the Sun” has a different scenario. We’re not talking about a train wagon here that holds room for fourteen or so people. It’s a complete island with a hotel on it, three beaches and a lot of free space. People will find it a lot harder to have an alibi on a island than inside a train wagon that’s stuck in the snow. Still, at first all of them have an alibi, it seems. The hotel owner has seen the husband type, the stepdaughter has been swimming by a beach on the opposite side of the island from the crime scene, the wife of the lover was with her. The guy whose jewel she took is the only one without an alibi, it seems.

As the story unfolds, the alibis mostly disappear. Everyone, it seems, has either lied or was mistaken. So, who was it? Why did she have to die?

The solution Poirot presents at the end of the story is logical, even though most people might overlook one clue or two. As with many mysteries, the secret of solving them is paying a lot of attention to details.

The same, of course, goes for writing a mystery novel (which brings us back to why this post is in the “Writer’s Block” blog). You can’t just pull the solution out of a hat like a stage magician. You need to know it first, then build the story around it. You need to drop hints for the reader, even though they might not recognize them at first. You need to make all of the characters interesting – including the victim, the investigator (whatever his or her job might be) and the criminal. You need to create false leads (red herrings, as they’re called so nicely in English, German misses such a nice word for them). You need to give the reader various suspects, give them all good reasons to commit the crime. There will be false alibis and true ones (and people without one).

At the same time, try to stay away from clichés – unless, of course, you want to play with them. The locked room has been used a lot and most readers will know the obvious solutions (such as stabbing through the keyhole or locking the room with a strange device while leaving or the victim locking the room after being attacked or a device inside the room killing the victim). If you can find a novel way to use one of those concepts, go ahead and use it. Just don’t recycle old ideas and think people won’t realize.

Writing a mystery is a lot like solving one: You need to look at everything from every angle and pay a great attention to details. But if you like that kind of thing, it’s a great way to spent some time.

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