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Musing #23: Dame Agatha, Part III (The Rule, Broken)

Welcome to the conclusion of my Dame Agatha triumvirate.

This thing has gotten away from me. It’s become more a peak at the inner-workings of my mind than a biographical sketch of my Dad. And, honestly, I haven’t a clue how any of it pertains to NYC artist struggle. (Probably because none of it does.)

That bothers me.

So I’m hereby abandoning my plan for a series of “Fadda’s Shtick” posts. Next week, I return to tales of Gotham. But tonight, I must finish what I’ve already begun.

I assure you, there will be no talk of bigotry…only murder.

(Aren’t I just a ray of sunshine?)

Here’s a recap of the non-bigot-related points from the preceding posts of this series, beginning with the prologue in its entirety:

Musing #20: Guam Belongs to Scott (or, My Peculiar Upbringing)

It is early on a Saturday morning in 1995. Fifteen-year-old me is desperately trying to sleep in, despite the chronic roar of youthful mischief. (With six children, there is no peace. Or privacy.) The phone rings. A sibling answers it and shouts for me to get up. (Everyone is always shouting.)

Dad is calling me via pre-cell-surgeon-walkie-talkie from the road to Miami for a CME conference. I grumble at the disturbance, fumble for the glasses on my headboard, roll out of bed with eyes still closed and pick up the phone.

Stacy: What, Dad?

Dad: Where’s your book?

Stacy: Huh? What do you mean?

Dad: You know exactly what I mean. Where is your book?!?

My weary eyes pop to full capacity and dart to my headboard. Murder on the Orient Express is GONE. My jaw drops in disbelief.

Stacy: Did you reach over my head and steal it while I was SLEEPING?!?

Dad: Yes I did!

I am now enraged.

Dad: It’s in the car on its way to Miami. AND YOU CAN’T HAVE IT BACK UNTIL YOU FINISH THE SHORT STORIES!!!

Stacy: Oh my god! You’re INSANE!!!

Dad bursts into trademark high-pitched, gut-busting, maniacal mirth. And hangs up.

 Murder_on_the_Orient_Express_First_Edition_Cover_1934

Welcome to my peculiar upbringing.

*         *         *

This brings us to why my father would do such a (mildly creepy) thing:

Musing #21: Dame Agatha, Part I (Infamous Jew-Hating)

Every cultural teaching project Dad has ever undertaken for us (and there are many – yes, present tense) has rules. And Fadda takes his self-imposed rules very seriously.…The curious case of Fadda absconding with Murder on the Orient Express…happened because I broke a rule, which in this case was Fadda’s mad interpretation of a time-honored tradition of the Christie hardcore; the operative word being of course tradition, as opposed to rule:

Read ALL the works – including the short stories – in publication order, or don’t read ANY at all. (And don’t DARE watch a screen adaptation before reading the source material!)

This is legitimately because many characters recur throughout the Christie oeuvre, often referring to their old cases and sometimes even blowing the answers to them. But Fadda takes it eons beyond the point to which the principle applies.…I began my Dame Agatha journey in 1987, long before I could drive. Dad was able to enforce his mad interpretation of canonical tradition because he owned the books and kept them at my grandma’s house, for dispensation at his maniacal discretion.

*         *         *

And one last preceding-post excerpt:

Musing #22: Dame Agatha, Part II (Christie in Context)

I’ll tie up my Dame Agatha triumvirate by explaining what the value is in her work…despite her unimaginative prose, overuse of the word “adenoidal” and raging bigotry. Here’s a clue, courtesy of South Park’s twin geniuses (one of whom is a fellow Member of the Tribe):

 Full page photo

 “Say what you will about Mel Gibson, but the man knows story structure.”

*         *         *

From 1987 to 1995, I leapt at Dame Agatha (to my father’s delight) whenever there was time for pleasure-reading. I did so, obediently, in strict publication order – including the short stories – and I never once cheated in the screen adaptation department. But it was clear to me by 1991 that I vastly preferred the novels to the short stories. (Stay tuned for why.)

By 1995, the cinephile in me could no longer resist scratching a particular itch. The all-star 1974 film version of Orient Express called to me like the Sirens to Odysseus. (See what I did, there? Brought it back to Scylla and Charybdis.) But, alas, The Hound of Death and Other Stories loomed betwixt me and my heart’s desire.

hound

I wasn’t about to spoil Orient Express for myself by watching the film first, but I was bogged down in The Hound of Death, not making progress. I begged Fadda to let me skip it. But for no good reason other than his own maniacal OCD, he steadfastly refused. And not in the manner of a tease. He was dead serious.

That’s where I screwed myself. By giving him the chance to be a normal person about it, I clued him into to just how much I craved it. He was therefore on patrol for funny business. Had I kept my mouth shut (which, admittedly, I rarely do), I might have gotten away with reading it on the sly.

While at my grandma’s house for dinner the night before Dad fled with it, I stuffed the book down my shirt and smuggled it awkwardly home, sitting deliberately behind him as he drove. To this day, I’m not sure when exactly he caught on to my ruse. But both Dad and the book were off to Miami by the crack of dawn.

 lose

Seriously, you’d think we were talking about something important, here. Like a lifetime supply of chocolate.

But, no. We’re talkin’ shtick. And, frankly, writing so playfully about murder mysteries on this most solemn of national anniversaries feels dreadfully gauche to this history buff.

It’s a good reminder, though, never to permit myself an inurement to violence…no matter how many murder mysteries I consume; no matter how much I love Martin Scorsese; no matter how addictive conspiracies are to read about.

Fortunately, the Zapruder film still makes me properly sick and helplessly sad. So pop culture hasn’t yet smitten my soul.

Well…that was cheerful.

Time to lighten the mood by bringing it all back to South Park.

The value of Agatha Christie’s writing to a fiction writer – which, by the way, Christopher Hitchens was not – is her mastery of story structure. I don’t care for her short stories because her true skill is weaving a complicated web, and the medium just doesn’t accommodate that. It doesn’t let her shine.

I will never attempt to write a murder mystery, because I could never compete with Dame Agatha. And I have no desire to try. But that screenplay I mention from time to time? The structure is the star of that screenplay. I learned structure from her. Thanks, Lady Mallowan!

And that concludes my detour from the point of this blog!

Tune in two Fridays from now (when we need no longer be Kennedy solemn) for Musing #24: Bookends (or, Humanism and HELLO, DOLLY!).

Until then, “Damn the strychnine, enough with Dame Agatha!”

Fadda’s Unabashed Jewish Christie Fangirl

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  1. Musing #22: Dame Agatha, Part II (Christie in Context) - Work Life Balance Protection Agency | Work Life Balance Protection Agency - […] So tune in next Friday for Musing #23: Dame Agatha, Part III (The Rule, Broken). […]
  2. Musing #30: Oscar, LeVine Style (Teach Your Children Well, Part IV) - Work Life Balance Protection Agency | Work Life Balance Protection Agency - […] Four of the many programs from Dad’s curriculum, in no particular order (which would drive him nuts): […]

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