30 September 2020

Grown Up with Percy Jackson

Back in 2006, just a few months after starting this blog, I commented on Rick Riordan’s first Percy Jackson novel.

I wasn’t a big fan. I recognized Riordan’s power to create exciting scenes, and obviously many people love the series. But for me the book seemed too quick to assure readers that Percy’s difficulties were all because he was special, and to assure Americans they were the most special of all.

But damn if this detail from Riordan’s recent interview with Publishers Weekly didn’t make me happy:
My older son, Haley, has ADHD and dyslexia, and was the impetus for Percy Jackson when he was eight or nine years old. I started telling him a bedtime story, and everything came from that. He needed a story that would tell him that it was okay, that seeing the world differently, processing information differently is okay, and can be a sign of strength. And my son just got his master’s degree in higher education with a certificate in learning disabilities.

27 September 2020

More on Christie and Wodehouse

After posting about the possible influence of P. G. Wodehouse on Agatha Christie, I got a hold of Christie’s autobiography to see if it had any information to refute or confirm that hypothesis.

(I also looked at Laura Thompson’s biography, Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, but nothing in it contradicted Christie’s own statements.)

As a young writer, Christie tried to place her literary short stories: “I sent them to magazines, but expected them to come back, and come back the usually did.” However, her autobiography didn’t name those magazines, so I can’t say whether any were publishing Wodehouse in the mid-1910s.

Christie definitely had Dr. Watson in mind when she created Capt. Hastings for her first detective story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and she definitely didn’t think much of the character:
At that date I was well steeped in the Sherlock Holmes tradition. So I considered detectives. Not like Sherlock Holmes, of course: I must invent one of my own, and he would also have a friend as a kind of butt or stooge—that would not be too difficult.
That certainly doesn’t sound like she put a lot of thought into Hastings when she planned that story. “He was a stereotyped creation,” she wrote, though she “quite enjoyed” him.

As for her writing process, Christie’s autobiography confirmed that she “finished the last half of the book, or as near as not, during my fortnight’s holiday. Of course that was not the end. I then had to rewrite a great part of it—mostly the over-complicated middle.” Again, it’s not clear when she developed Hastings and his rapport with Poirot, which is where I see the resemblance to Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves.

Christie started sending her rewritten manuscript to publishers during the World War. It stayed at The Bodley Head through the Armistice and for “nearly two years” before the publisher asked for revisions. Christie described those changes merely as the “last chapter” and “a few more alterations,” suggesting that by that point the main characterizations were intact.

Thus, it appears that Christie most likely developed Poirot and Hastings’s interactions during her 1917 revisions, after stories exploring the Jeeves and Bertie relationship had started to appear in British magazines. But the autobiography offers no additional evidence of possible influence from Wodehouse.

Christie did refer to her first husband’s wartime “soldier servant and batman” as “a kind of Jeeves—a perfection.” But of course she could have read Wodehouse’s stories anytime in the decades between her debut and when she wrote her memoirs.

22 September 2020

Stillwater Runs 3-D

I actually made a little noise in my throat when I saw how animators are interpreting Jon J. Muth’s Zen Shorts watercolor art for a television cartoon.

This is of course the default computer-aided animation style of children’s entertainment today. Years back, I thought it was rather exciting. Now it seems to be what audiences expect and studios can easily produce.

But with all the images that computers can help artists create, that’s as close as they could get to the original?

16 September 2020

Coming Over the Wire

KidLit411 is featuring an interview with my writing colleague Lisa Robinson about her new picture book Madame Saqui: Revolutionary Rope Dancer, illustrated by Rebecca Green.

Here’s a sampling:
When Madame Saqui was briefly mentioned in a book I was reading about circus history, I knew her story needed to be told. Here was a daring woman who wirewalked over the Seine and between the towers of Notre Dame during the French Revolutionary era. . . .

Before I learned about Saqui, we owned a low tight wire that lives inside our house or in the yard during good weather. We got the wire for my children who love circus arts and go to Circus Smirkus camp during the summer. It wasn’t until I discovered Madame Saqui’s story that I decided to learn to wire walk, too.

The hardest part about wire walking is the fear and the tedium; the fear of falling and sustaining an injury; the fear of not being able to handle the next challenge, like completing a turn or a new dance step; the fear of humiliating yourself in front of an audience. It’s not a forgiving art — one misstep and you’re on the ground.

The tedium comes from the need to practice practice practice in order to progress. Once I decided I would wire walk at book stores to promote my book, I committed to walking on the wire for 30 minutes a day, every day, in order to build my confidence and skill enough to perform in front of an audience (which never happened due to the coronavirus pandemic).
And here’s Lisa as we don’t get to see her performing in person this pandemic year.

15 September 2020

Turning Ojo into Woot

A recent online discussion about the relative ages of L. Frank Baum’s young male protagonists took me back almost twenty years to when Oziana magazine published my story “Woot Meets Yoop.”

Woot the Wanderer is one of the heroes of The Tin Woodman of Oz. He hikes around Oz, looking for distraction without danger—which of course makes it easy for a storyteller to get him into danger. In this story I had him run into Mr. Yoop, the caged and carnivorous giant from The Patchwork Girl of Oz.

As I recall, this issue of Oziana was being assembled in a rush to catch up to its annual schedule, so I offered to create illustrations for the story by digitally manipulating some of John R. Neill’s illustrations.

Most of the pictures I worked with came from The Tin Woodman of Oz and showed Woot. But one I wanted to use came from The Patchwork Girl of Oz and showed that book’s young hero, Ojo. This is where Neill’s tendency to draw the children in the Oz stories with quite similar faces became an advantage.

Here’s the picture of Ojo.

My oldest edition of The Patchwork Girl of Oz has no color printing, just line art, which was easier to work with. I removed Ojo’s Munchkin ruff and drew in Woot’s more ordinary Gillikin lapels. I shortened the tails of Ojo’s jacket to approximate Woot’s and added Woot’s knapsack.

Just as important, I stretched out the boy’s legs and body a little. Removing the ruff left plenty of room for a long neck. Because as Baum wrote him, and as Neill drew him, Woot is a bit older than Ojo, further into adolescence.

Here’s the resulting picture of Woot.

I just went back and superimposed these pictures to confirm the differences. With Neill’s standard young-person face at the same level, Woot is a little taller with longer legs. A teenager instead of a boy—at least as I picture him.

08 September 2020

A Scarecrow in Wodehouse

“The Aunt and the Sluggard,” one of P. G. Wodehouse’s earliest stories about Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, turns out to have an Oz connection.

The plot revolves around an eccentric aunt who insists on her nephew taking in the thrills of 1916 New York City and relaying them to her so she can live vicariously. With Jeeves’s help, Bertie’s friend the nephew writes letters with passages like this:
We were quite a gay party. Georgie Cohan looked in about midnight and got off a good one about Willie Collier. Fred Stone could only stay a minute, but Doug. Fairbanks did all sorts of stunts and made us roar.
Fred Stone had become a huge Broadway star a bit over a decade earlier by playing the Scarecrow in the musical extravaganza The Wizard of Oz.

In reviewing the show Jack O’Lantern for Vanity Fair in 1917, Wodehouse wrote, “Fred Stone is unique. In a profession where the man who can dance can’t sing and the man who can sing can’t act he stands alone as one who can do everything.” So spotting him at one’s party would indeed be a big thrill.

To everyone’s surprise, the aunt shows up at Bertie’s apartment to enjoy New York herself.
“Good afternoon,” I managed to say.

“How do you do?” she said. “Mr. Cohan?”


“Mr. Fred Stone?”

“Not absolutely. As a matter of fact, my name’s Wooster—Bertie Wooster.”

She seemed disappointed. The fine old name of Wooster appeared to mean nothing in her life.
The nephew has to take the aunt out to nightclubs, and he gives Bertie this report by phone:
“She keeps asking me when Cohan and Stone are going to turn up; and it’s simply a question of time before she discovers that Stone is sitting two tables away.”
Fred Stone is thus an actual character in this story, not merely an allusion.

In contrast, Wodehouse named the rip-roaring evangelist who plays a role in the resolution as Jimmy Mundy, forbearing to import Billy Sunday into his version of New York. But to get the full power of theatrical celebrity, it seems, he had to use a real star.

Toward the end of this story, after the aunt and nephew have happily gone their separate ways, Bertie echoes Oz again: “Jeeves, there’s no place like home—what?”

To be sure, that’s a line Baum quoted from John Howard Payne’s 1823 song “Home, Sweet Home!” But Bertie gives it his own spin, what?

07 September 2020

Did Wodehouse Influence Christie?

The Mysterious Affair at Styles made me wonder if Agatha Christie’s portrayal of the relationship between Capt. Arthur Hastings and Hercule Poirot might have been influenced by P. G. Wodehouse’s stories of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.

In both cases, the narrator is a young upper-class Englishman with no professional responsibilities, affable manners, a weakness for pretty ladies, and modest intellectual ambitions that nonetheless exceed his capacities. This narrator describes how a punctilious man from a lower social class uses his brilliant mind to deduce solutions and put things right. Hastings and Bertie admire Poirot and Jeeves, but they also resent being pulled along, which produces some of the stories’ entertainment.

On the question of influence, the first factor I examined was when Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She reported writing the first draft in 1916, taking two weeks off work to check into a Torquay hotel to finish.

But then, I presume, Christie revised the manuscript. One strong indication of that is how subsequent Poirot stories (“The Affair at the Victory Ball,” The Murder on the Links) make clear that the action of the novel starts in July 1917 after Hastings has spent “some months” recuperating from being wounded in the Battle of the Somme, which took place in late 1916. Christie thus came to conceive of her first novel as taking place months after she had written her first draft.

It also took Christie years to find a publisher. When John Lane agreed to issue the book at the Bodley Head press, he insisted that Poirot reveal the murderer by gathering all the suspects in the drawing room, a device that had already become standard in murder mysteries. (Christie originally had Poirot share his revelations in court.) The book thus went through a final revision stage before it was published in 1920.

Therefore, we can date Christie’s creation of the full text of The Mysterious Affair at Styles to the period from 1916 to 1920. But we don’t know when in that period she cemented the characterization of Hastings and Poirot. Did she start with the characters and find a mystery for them, or start with the plot and develop the characters around it?

The next question is whether Agatha Christie read P. G. Wodehouse. Decades later, when they were both internationally bestselling authors, the two became friendly correspondents. In her first letter to Wodehouse, Christie said she enjoyed his 1913 novel The Little Nugget, which involves kidnappers, an upper-class hero at loose ends, and a Pinkerton detective working as a butler. But there’s no way to know when she read that book—as early as 1913 or just a few years before her letter. We also have no indication of whether Christie read the short stories Wodehouse sold to British magazines in the 1910s, which are the crucial texts in this question.

P. G. Wodehouse spent most of that decade in New York City, enjoying the excitement of America and the rewards of selling the same work to both American and British publishers. Many of his tales involved Englishmen in America, and among those was a series of short stories about a young gentleman named Bertie and his gentleman’s gentleman.

Those characters made their first appearance in the story “Extricating Young Gussie,” published in America’s Saturday Evening Post in September 1915 and in Britain’s The Strand Magazine in January 1916 (and of course it’s the latter date that pertains to the Christie question). At that point, Bertie didn’t have a last name, though he already had an Aunt Agatha. Jeeves was simply a generic valet. With “The Artistic Career of Corky”/“Leave It to Jeeves” (The Strand, June 1916), Wodehouse hit on the idea of Jeeves being a problem-solving genius.

Finally, Wodehouse started to explore the frictions between Bertie and Jeeves in “The Aunt and the Sluggard” (The Strand, August 1916) and “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest” (The Strand, March 1917). He also wrote “Jeeves Takes Charge,” providing an origin story for the team, but that wasn’t published in Britain until 1923. In these tales we see Bertie pushing back against Jeeves’s sartorial advice, resenting his silences, and finally coming around to realizing his brilliance.

That’s the same dynamic I see in Capt. Hastings and Poirot, already fully realized in the published text of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Comparing the dates show it was possible Christie was inspired by Wodehouse’s magazine stories as she developed her novel, particularly after the first draft. But there’s no conclusive clue about influence. The similarity might simply be the result of similar ideas occurring to two authors around the same time, like two separate characters out to snatch the same diamond necklace or handwritten will.

01 September 2020

Captain Hastings’s True Worth

In the end, after the drawing-room revelations that the publisher demanded, I enjoyed Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles more as a series of character sketches and dialogues than as a murder mystery.

For me, the solution relied too much on esoteric aspects of poisons. (Christie was working at a wartime pharmacy.) The number of people administering said poisons, sneaking into bedrooms at night, and trying to frame or shield other people became incredible. In an excellent mystery, everything comes together at the end with an almost audible click. There was still a bit of scraping in this debut.

That said, the character of Hercule Poirot seems to have come out fully formed and delightful. There’s a rich vein of supporting characters with distinct personalities and speech patterns, most of whom pair off at the end like a Shakespearean comedy. And for the first time I appreciated Capt. Arthur Hastings as a comedic character.

Christie clearly took inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson when she wrote about Poirot and Hastings, especially in the short stories that followed the success of this novel, in which the men share rooms in London. But Dr. John Watson was an intelligent, resourceful man, appearing incapable only because he was standing next to an obsessed genius. He helped Sherlock Holmes in many ways. He never came across as a doofus until the character was written that way for Nigel Bruce in the movies.

Hastings, in contrast, provides only one type of assistance to Poirot: entrée into upper-class British society. Well, two things if we add light entertainment in the course of a trying case, as shown in this discussion of the likely murderer:
“Someone with a good deal of intelligence,” remarked Poirot dryly. “You realize that he chose the one place in the house to hide it where its presence would not be remarked? Yes, he is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”

I acquiesced.

“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.
Early in the book, Hastings, who’s recovering from a battlefield wound, speaks of becoming a detective. He coddles easy theories about the murder and records lots of clues whose significance passes him by completely. (Poisons not among them.)

Hastings’s attention is easily caught by beautiful women, though his code means he doesn’t pursue another man’s wife and impulsively proposes marriage to an unmarried woman he thinks is about to cry. As a narrator, Hastings alternately admires Poirot, feels baffled by his momentary “mistakes,” and occasionally resents his superiority and secrecy.

To sum up, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles Capt. Hastings behaves very much like Bertie Wooster toward Jeeves.

COMING UP: The Code of the Wodehouses?