SD Sykes: Stepping into Christie territory

Author SD Sykes talks about stepping into Christie territory and why we continue to love writing and reading closed-circle crime.

Posted on July 16, 2019 in Guest Author, Under investigation

Imagine this. You open the newspaper to read the headline. ‘Murder at isolated country house.’  You read on with interest – especially when you discover that the large and rambling house in question had been cut off from the outside world for forty-eight hours by a terrible storm, the likes of which had not been seen for over a hundred years. Not only had all the phone lines, mobile coverage and electricity supplies been temporarily thrown out of action, but also that the single bridge giving access to this house had been washed away by the surging storm waters. Your interest only increases as you then discover that the house had been temporarily home to a group of mis-matched individuals, each with a secret to hide, who had come together only to find that one of them was a murderer. Then to complete the bizarreness of this story, it transpires that one of the party happened to possess the skills of a seasoned detective, and was able to deduce the identity of the murderer and then confront him or her with their crime, all before communications with the outside world were restored.

Of course, you would never read this story in a newspaper – because it has never (to my knowledge) happened in real life. I have to own up here – the above scenario is pretty much the plot of my latest book The Bone Fire. But I’m not alone in telling this story. Since finishing my novel, I’ve noticed that many contemporary writers are also telling versions of this same tale. In Hanna Jameson’s The Last the victims are holed up in a Swiss hotel with a murderer, as the outside world is being destroyed by nuclear war. In Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party they’re in a Scottish hunting lodge, cut off by a snow-storm, as a serial murderer strikes. In Jane Harper’s The Lost Man they’re divided off from civilisation by thousands of miles of Australian outback, as one of the family mysteriously loses his life. And in my own book The Bone Fire the victims have fled from the ravages of plague to a remote castle, only to find that they have locked themselves inside with a killer.

It is a trope made most famous by Agatha Christie, particularly in her novels And Then There Were None and Murder On The Orient Express, but its popularity has never gone away. The contemporary novels mentioned above, including my own, might take place in medieval castles, hunting lodges, or even Australian cattle stations, but they are treading most firmly into Christie territory.

So why is this story popular, when it seems to bear so little resemblance to reality? How often are we genuinely cut off from the rest of the world? Even in the time when my books are set, which is the fourteenth century, it would have been fairly difficult to achieve. And what about the way in which the crimes are portrayed in these stories?  Murder in the real world is mostly senseless, ugly and random – often prompted by a moment of rage or desire, or a mixture of the two. Sometimes it’s even just an irrevocable blunder. A punch that was too hard, or a car that was driven too quickly.  More often than not, it is perpetrated by somebody who has neither planned their crime, nor does a very good job at covering their tracks. Whereas the murderer in Christie territory is a different beast entirely.  He or she is clever, adept and brimming over with plausible motive.  His or her crimes are never impulsive or sloppy.

And then what about the victim? For the most part they are quickly forgotten, as the plot moves relentlessly forward, often onto the next murder – because there is rarely just one killing in these stories. It seems there isn’t time for lamentation or feelings of loss at the victim’s death. As P.D James wrote of Christie’s victims, ‘we feel that at the end of the book the victim will get up, wipe off the artificial blood and be restored to life.’

So what draws an author to write these books, you might ask, if it is such a work of invention? From my own point of view, I was intrigued by the challenge of writing a murder mystery with all the constraints of this sub-genre – the limited cast that must include both a murderer and victims, all taking place within an intimate environment that cannot be escaped. It pushed my skills at plotting to the limits. It also focused my mind, more than ever before, on the nature of  my characters – for the claustrophobic setting of the closed-circle mystery only serves to hold an enormous magnifying glass over their motives. If your characters are acting in an unbelievable and contrived way just to serve the plot, then the novel will ultimately fail.

At times, writing The Bone Fire made my brain ache more than any of the other books I’ve written. I often felt as if I were lost inside a web of looping paths, constrained within the highest, tightest walls of the most devious maze. Ultimately it was a challenge that I enjoyed, and one in which I hope to have succeeded, but straying into Christie territory is never easy.  As she said herself, in her author’s notes for And Then There Were None: ‘The person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been.’

So, if it’s a challenge for the writer, then what is the appeal for the reader? I’ve come to the conclusion that the major shortcoming of these closed-circle mysteries – their contrived reality – is, in fact, their main appeal. This is crime in a closed container. A piece of Tupperware that can be opened and then shut away again. A puzzle that is designed to be solved by the reader like a game of Cluedo, but which doesn’t tend to intrude upon or even pollute their imagination, in the way that reading about gangland crime, people trafficking or serial murderers might. After reading these books, we don’t worry about being murdered by our fellow guests on a weekend break to the Lake District. It is murder in a controlled, laboratory environment. It might be violent. It might be dark, but it is still safe.  And that’s exactly why we continue to consume and enjoy it. In our chaotic and unsure world, it is crime with rules and standards.

The Bone Fire is the next gripping Oswald de Lacy thriller, and is available to order now.

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