Agatha Christie’s ‘Dead Man’s Folly:’ Moaning Myrtle and The Silkworm

Dolores Gordon-Smith spotted three Agatha Christie mysteries on J. K. Rowling’s bookshelf in the photo taken for the back cover of the Bloomsbury adult edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Mrs. Gordon-Smith is a mystery writer herself (check out her brilliant Jack Haldean novels if you haven’t already!), a Potter pundit, and a great fan and close reader of Dame Agatha. She noted that Rowling had almost certainly decided to name the Hogwarts Saga’s Weasley daughter Ginny with the proper name Ginevra after the red headed teen girl in Christie’s Appointment with Death who is also a spirited Ginny/Ginevra.

Appointment with Death, however, was only one of the three Christie’s on Rowling’s shelf that Mrs Gordon-Smith spotted. With it are Dead Man’s Folly and Murder in Three Acts. David Llewellyn Dodds has found four more Christie paperbacks on a different part of the bookshelf in the same picture. Based on the Ginny/Ginevra find in Appointment, I have read and posted about other links with Harry and Cormoran in that book, in another Christie mystery with obvious correspondences to a Rowling title (cf., The Pale Horse with Lethal White), those Christie mysteries which Rowling has said she enjoyed (The Moving Finger, Murder at the Vicarage) or just collections I have read at random (The Complete Miss Marple Short Stories, Murder at the Manor).

Today I read Dead Man’s Folly, a Hercule Poirot classic first published in 1956. It is a delight both with respect to the great twist at the finale set-up by the Queen of Crime and the wonderful resonance with Rowling’s writing that her serious readers will revel in. And maybe, just maybe, we have Moaning Myrtle’s mother and a template for the novel-within-the-novel of Galbraith’s The Silkworm. Join me after the jump for all that!

(1) The Embedded Author Writing the Story

Agatha Christie is famous for two detectives: Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She also had a collection of characters that appear in her books with some regularity besides and apart from her most famous sleuths. My favorite, I think, is Ariadne Oliver, the grand dame of detective fiction who so often appears in Poirot stories. Oliver is a positively cartoonish version of Agatha Christie herself which alone makes her the source of endless good humor, always the richer for the reader’s knowing that she is the shamelessly obvious embedded author in the text.

Christie takes this running joke to new heights in Dead Man’s Folly. The story begins with Oliver magisterially summoning Poirot, as one has to assume only his creator could, to drop everything and travel across England to help her solve a crime which has not yet happened. Ariadne, we discover alongside the flabbergasted Hercule, has been commissioned to write a murder mystery for a Fete on a private estate. She has, however, been manipulated, she feels, to change the story she has written by the principals at the Manor; Poirot is assigned to figure out the murder before it happens and prevent what the author assumes will be a tragedy.

Alas, Poirot fails to prevent the crime, if, of course, he does get his man in the end. Dead Man’s Folly takes mise en abyme in a wonderfully playful new direction; while Poirot, the police, and the reader are trying to solve the crime before and after it happens, the play-within-the-play written by the embedded author is the mystery the characters most like the reader, the guests at the Fete, are trying to solve the murder mystery as composed by Ariadne Oliver. Not to give away the delightful ending twist, the solution turns in small part on Poirot’s finally asking Oliver about the story she had written for the Murder Hunt because he realizes the author must have embedded clues in the embedded work.

J. K. Rowling’s best stand-alone books, I think, in both her Hogwarts saga and Cormoran Strike mysteries, are the second installments of each: Chamber of Secrets and The Silkworm. Both feature tragi-comic, self-important authors, most notably, Gilderoy Pullman, that is ‘Lockhart,’ and Owen Quine. Both include embedded texts written by the bad guys, namely the Riddle diary and the second edition of Bombyx Mori. The Silkworm, though, as Rowling has said, is a “novel about novels with a novel in it” and she might have said it has lessons, too, about novel writing, how to read a novel and think about them, with novelists on display. 

Silkworm’s Katherine Kent and Hogwarts’ Professor Trelawney are not as obvious as Ariadne Oliver in being embedded authors but they’re there and serve much the comic and instructive roles that Oliver does in Christie’s books. Enjoy Dead Man’s Folly for its own sake and then think of it as something of a template for Rowling who says the surest way for a wannabe writer is to study the books you love, note what works, and imitate them. We have the evidence in the picture of her bookshelf that Dame Agatha and her Dead Man’s Folly were part of this process on her own journey to fame and fortune as a writer.

(2) Moaning Myrtle’s Mom?

Did someone mention Chamber of Secrets? The beloved ghost in the second floor girl’s loo at Hogwarts is Myrtle Elizabeth Warren (I kid you not…), most often referred to as ‘Moaning Myrtle.’ Olive Hornsby teased Myrtle about her thick glasses whilst they were both students at Hogwarts which torment led to Myrtle’s retreat into the bathroom upstairs for a good cry. She came out of the stall when she heard a boy’s voice and stared into the eyes of a Basilisk. You know the rest of her story, I’m sure.

What you almost certainly don’t know is that Rowling’s original name for this character was Wailing Wanda, which because of the wand in it seems an especially apt name for a young witch, especially a Muggle-born like Elizabeth Warren, that is ‘Myrtle.’ Why did Rowling change Wailing Wanda to Moaning Myrtle? As I explained here, my best guess about the change is that francophone Rowling wanted to make a joke about Myrtle’s residence in a toilet stall, actually in the toilet as often as not. The French word for excrement is merd — and Myrtle is assonant with merd-el. What better name for a loo inhabitant?

Probably seems a bit of a stretch to you, but Dickens, master of cryptonyms, tags the bad guy in Little Dorrit with Merdel and another black hat in David Copperfield with Murdstone. And Christie?

In Dead Man’s Folly, the murder victim is a young teenage girl named Marlene Tucker. Her role in the Murder Hunt is to play the victim’s part; she is to be found strangled, prostate, and dead in the boathouse by the successful amateur sleuth who has doped out Ariadne Oliver’s clues. She is found, of course, dead in the boathouse in the exact part and position she was written to play. Fun, that, no?

It turns out that Marlene was something of a Bertha Jorkins type who spied on friends and adults to extort favors or treats from them. Poirot finally figures out, though, who killed the girl and why only after learning that she was the boat-man’s grand-daughter. His name? Merdell.

“So Marlene was Merdell’s granddaughter,” said Poirot. “Yes — I begin to see –” He was silent for a moment, an immense excitement was surging within him. “Your father was drowned, you say, in the river?” (Ch 17)

I think Rowling gets these merd jokes in her favorite writers. I think, too, that she resolved to use them in her Harry Potter stories for a girl who was murdered (merdered?) in the bathroom and lived there ever after. Read Dead Man’s Folly and see if you aren’t struck by the same possibility that the late Marlene Merdell Tucker is Moaning Myrtle’s Muggle grandmama.

(3) Writing about Writing (and about Genre)

I am reading Agatha Christie at breakneck speeds and late at night with the hope of having enough time to put together a post on the subject before it’s time for bed. That isn’t the way to pick up the more subtle points of an artist’s work or even, truth be told, to spot the less than very obvious parallels with Potter and Strike novels. While reading Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, which arrived in the morning’s post, I was haunted at the finish by the repeated thought that the story was a ring composition (there certainly is very suggestive bracketing of the first five or six opening and closing scenes). What a find that would be, both with respect to grasping Christie’s artistry and to understanding whence Rowling discovered her signature story scaffolding.

I was confirmed in my suspicion that Christie was largely writing about story-telling in Folly, whatever her structural choices, when she has Ariadne Oliver tell Poirot on the phone near the story close (in echo of the telephone command to appear at story’s start?) that she is delighted to hear from him.

“It’s splendid that you’ve rung me up,” she said. “I was just going out to give a Talk on ‘How I Write My Books.’ Now I can get my secretary to ring up and say I am unavoidably detained.”

“But, Madame, you must not let me prevent –“

“It’s not a case of preventing,” said Mrs Oliver joyfully. “I’d have made the most awful fool of myself. I mean, what can you say about how you write books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up. I can’t imagine why everybody is so keen for authors to talk about writing. I should have thought it was an author’s business to write, not talk.”

“And yet it is about how you write that I want to ask you.”

“You can ask,” said Mrs Oliver, “but I probably shan’t know the answer. I mean one just sits down and writes.”

Poirot then thanks her for giving him some of his most important ideas (!) before explaining:

“I made one grave mistake,” said Poirot. “I never read your synopsis for competitors [in the Fete’s Murder Hunt]. In the gravity of discovering a murder it did not seem to matter. I was wrong. It did matter. You are a sensitive person, Madame. You are affected by your atmosphere, by the personalities of the people you meet. And they are translated into your work. Not recognizably so, but they are the inspiration from which your fertile brain draws its creations.”

“That’s very nice flowery language,” said Mrs Oliver, “but what exactly do you mean?”

“That you have always known more about this crime than you have realised yourself.” (ch 17)

There are some fun intertextual moments in Folly. One character who has had a long, sad life quotes from memory the closing couplet of Spencer’s ‘Sleep After Toil‘ to great effect. The title from Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘When Lovely Women Stoops to Folly‘ is a clue Mrs Oliver uses in the Murder Hunt but the man who finds it needs a fairly hard push by the author to get its meaning because the poem and the various meanings of “folly” escape him.

This is a treasure working on several levels. Goldsmith’s poem is known today mostly because T. S. Eliot rewrote it within his ‘Waste Land’ to mark the condition of men and women in relationship today. that the contestant doesn’t get the reference without an author’s explanation may be Christie’s joke about Eliot’s need for footnotes to his poetry as well as strong pointer to the reader that they need to reflect on the meaning of both Goldsmith’s and Eliot’s poems if they’re to solve the mystery of her story’s greater meaning.

These notes only highlight Christie’s effort, despite Mrs Oliver’s insistence that writing is just “having an idea” and then “forcing oneself to sit down and write,” to gift the attentive reader, one in search of more than distracting entertainment, with thoughts about writing and reading. She is aware, obviously, that her creative mind is something of a “compost heap” of experiences and atmosphere that are, in Poirot’s words, “translated into your work.” 

But like the Ariadne character, she directs and inspires Poirot as much more than someone subject to influence from the environment or other authors. Christie is an active agent as a writer rather than the passive object of pressures felt unconsciously — and she is writing about the difference. Poirot’s search for a “pattern” throughout Dead Man’s Folly and for the new perspective that will allow to see the “pieces of the puzzle” correctly (he discusses this at some length while trying to finish a jigsaw puzzle in his London flat) is Christie’s image of both the reader’s task in understanding a story or any narrative properly and the challenge of writing a truly satisfying test text that fosters such penetration.

And, yes, I think Rowling the close reader understood this and imitates it in her work. I recommend Dead Man’s Folly to you as an excellent example of Dame Agatha’s beneath the conscious threshold artistry and as another place where Rowling learned her craft.

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