Earlier this week I re-read the first few pages of ‘A Murder is Announced,’ by Agatha Christie.
It starts with a paper-boy delivering newspapers around a small English village. We find out which residents get which papers, and how everyone takes the local paper.
Then we enter a house, to meet a woman and her adult son, as they read their own papers – she takes the Telegraph, he the Daily Worker – before they move on to the local one. In it, the mother reads a curious ad in the personal columns. ‘A Murder is Announced,’ it says, with an address she knows, for the attention of friends.
What can this be? She wonders aloud. That’s not like Mrs So-and-so. And the date given is this evening! Her son says something smart. I don’t care, she says. We’re going!
Why do I précis all this? Because it’s both easy and fashionable to diss Agatha Christie. Everybody does it. The two-dimensional characters, the clunking plots, and so forth. That’s what everyone says.
But look back at this summary. We start outside. It’s general. We come in on a street, then a house, then a letterbox. We’re taken inside that letterbox to meet people. We move in on a newspaper, then on a page, then on an ad. Then we move back out for a reaction, and a decision.
It’s cinema, that’s what it is. It’s the perfect hook: in just five or six pages, it draws you in. it’s what Stephen King calls the gotta – ‘I gotta find out what happens next.’
I defy anyone to read a few pages like these, and not say, ‘Do you know what? That woman’s right. I’m going to Mrs So-and-so’s too. I want to find out what’s going on here.’