VIRUS: WHAT FICTION TEACHES US ABOUT FEAR

We are all living through a disaster story right now.

We don’t want to. We don’t like it. But we don’t have any choice.

Like me, you’re probably very worried. We all have people we love, and some of them may be vulnerable right now. We’re all facing an uncertain present and an even more uncertain future.

But if it’s any comfort, this is a well-trodden path we’re all on. 

Human beings have been surviving all manner of disasters, great and small, since we started walking upright – and then we made up stories about what happened, to use as road maps in the future.

So what can fiction teach us about fear – in fact, how is fiction going to help us in any way?

Because it is what fiction is for.

Times like these – it’s the very reason stories exist.

Stories, from Superman to Cinderella, Hunger Games to Hannibal Lecter, are our collective wisdom. It’s why we read them and watch them and listen to them. 

You see, fiction isn’t about things that never happened. As I wrote last week, plot is just a device. The real story is about you and me, and discovering together what we are really like inside.

And we only ever learn anything about ourselves in a crisis.

Every day, somewhere in the world, there are people fighting to survive some sort of personal threat; it could be a war, a divorce or – as is happening right now – a virus.

You and I have been thrust into the middle of this. There is no way to refuse the call. Our particular story will be what we do between now, this unexpected beginning, and The End.

And that story will count for something.

We all have had parents or grandparents who lived through even darker days than these. When I was a little boy, my mother used to tell me how she and her neighbours sat in an underground station in London during the Blitz, singing songs to keep up each other’s spirits while the bombs fell and the ground shook. (Much the same way Italians are serenading each other right now, from their balconies above the deserted piazzas .) Every morning she woke up wondering if this was the day she would be a widow at eighteen, or be homeless – or both.

My old man remembered sitting shivering on Juno Beach on D-Day+1, with a cold can of baked beans, thinking: this is the last time I’ll ever see the sun come up.

My grandmother would sometimes mutter under her breath about her brother-in-law, who got himself listed ‘unfit for duty’ and instead stayed home and made a handsome profit on the black market.  

Theirs were stories about heroism and fear and survival and now such reminiscences form the backdrop to countless novels and movies about those same terrible times.

Very soon, we may all have stories a little like theirs.

There will be hoarders and profiteers; there will be communities pulling together; there will be doctors and nurses fighting on the front line and people going out of their way to help others who can’t help themselves.

And when the story finally ends – and hopefully our time of danger will not last anywhere near as long as that terrible war – we will all have learned something about ourselves.

Did we secure seven thousand bottles of hand sanitizer so we could sell them on eBay at a ridiculous profit – or did we give the food we just bought from the supermarket to the old lady who got knocked over in the stampede in the aisles?

When people write novels about the Coronavirus Epidemic of 2020 – and they will – will you be the inspiration for one of the villains or one of the heroes of the story?

We are only at the end of the first act right now. There will be many more crises and black moments to come,as in any blockbuster.

But there will be a morning after. Take comfort in that. This is not for ever. Every story has to end.

So stay safe. Be kind and be brave. And try to be not only the hero in your own story – but in someone else’s.

Until next week.


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WHO MURDERED AGATHA CHRISTIE?

At quarter to ten on the evening of Friday, December 3, 1926, an up and coming crime writer left her home in Berkshire, England, saying she was going out for a drive.

She first went upstairs to kiss her sleeping daughter, Rosalind, then got into her Morris Cowley and left.

The next morning the car was found several miles away – abandoned.

Where was she?

She left behind a letter, addressed to the local constable, saying she feared for her life.

So – had she been murdered?

To add to the intrigue, the writer’s mother had died just a few months earlier and she was said to be severely depressed. There was a lake called Silent Pool just a quarter of a mile from where her car was found. A character in one of her books had drowned there.

So – must be suicide then.

The police started dredging the lake. Fifteen thousand volunteers joined the search of the surrounding countryside. 

The writer’s name? You might have heard of her. It was Agatha Christie.

And now the plot thickens…

photo: violetriga

The police discovered that Agatha’s husband, Archie, a handsome fighter pilot and war hero, had been having an affair with a woman named Nancy Neele. He had told Agatha he was going to spend the weekend with Nancy at their love nest in Surrey.

He had asked for a divorce, but she had refused to give him one.

Was this the reason she feared for her life?

Had he murdered his wife so he could marry his mistress?

The police started following him, even tapped his phone.

Or perhaps, you know, the butler did it?

The police investigated further. The family didn’t have a butler. Damn.

For eleven days in 1926, all England was abuzz with the mystery of what had happened to the woman who was to become the greatest mystery writer in literary history.

What had happened to Agatha Christie?

The story made the front page of the New York Times. The British Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, demanded answers. Even celebrated crime writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers got involved; Doyle took one of Agatha’s discarded gloves to a medium; Sayers spent days inspecting the scene of the crime and then announced that she had now enough material to write another book.

A typical writer.

If Agatha was dead – where was her body?

Her body was still breathing and sitting in a cane chair reading magazines in Yorkshire.

In fact Agatha’s brother-in-law, Campbell, had already told the police that Agatha had written to him the week before she disappeared, saying she was going to a spa in Yorkshire. But the police didn’t believe him – they thought it was a red herring.

In the denouement, it was revealed that he was right after all. She had checked in – disappointingly not under the name Miss Marple – but the name Theresa Neele – the same surname as her husband’s paramour.

Like any good crime writer, she had even left clues; she had placed an advertisement in the London Times saying Mrs. Theresa Neele’s relatives could find her at the Hydro in Harrogate.

But the Poirots at Scotland Yard missed that.

Finally, some of the spa’s other guests compared the photographs in the newspaper with their own Mrs Neele, gathered everyone in the dining room, and solved the case.

It seemed that after she had dumped her car, she had simply walked into town and caught a train to London. Once there, she did a little retail therapy, posted the letter to Archie and took the train to Yorkshire.

Elementary my dear Watson.

When the press got wind of the fact that Mrs. Agatha Christie was not dead in a ditch but had been relaxing for eleven days at a spa, they were outraged. They demanded answers; why had she done it?

She refused to say.

In fact, she kept silent about the whole episode her entire life. Her most enduring mystery died with her, unsolved.

The official line was that she had amnesia brought on by grief over her mother’s death, or that she was in a fugue state, a rare psychogenic condition brought on by trauma and depression.

Another theory was that her devious writer’s mind contrived the whole affair to ruin her husband’s dirty weekend.

No! I believe the real culprit is right here in this room, I say, pointing my finger accusingly at Agatha herself, and that she did it to boost sales of her new book, ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’!

* The rest of the cast gasp, in horror at the deviousness of the plot and in admiration of my brilliant detective work. *

If I’m right, and it was all an elaborate publicity stunt, then it was a stroke of genius, because Ms Christie went on to sell around a billion copies of her eighty novels in English, and another billion in 103 other languages. (I didn’t know there were that many languages.)

She and Archie were divorced in 1928 and Agatha later married archaeologist Max Mallowan, 15 years her junior. (She reportedly said that the great thing about marrying an archaeologist was that the older she got, the more interested he was in her.)

She finally died in 1975, aged 86, from natural causes.

At least that’s what she wants us all to think.

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Love crime fiction?

Dripping with authenticity. Packed full of characters you genuinely care about . . . I didn’t read the last few chapters, I devoured them. An absolute triumph‘ M. W. CRAVEN
_____________

Charlie loves surprises. But not this one.

A schoolgirl is found dead in a park in North London and DI Charlie George is not short of suspects – is it her stepfather? Is it a sex crime? Is it race-related?

Charlie finally thinks he has it sorted, with his killer bang to rights. But then his lawyer gets him free on a technicality.

And that’s just the start of his troubles.

He’s been a cop all his life, he thought he’d seen everything . . . But Charlie soon realises, he hasn’t seen anything yet.

READ MORE ABOUT ‘INNOCENCE DIES’

Colin Falconer

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THE BEST 43 OPENING LINES IN NOVEL WRITING HISTORY

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover.

A good cover may make us pick the book up and think about buying it.

But it’s the first lines are crucial in helping us decide whether we are going to keep reading or not.

For my own part, I’ve read plenty of good books whose first lines I don’t remember.

I even tore out the first three pages of one of my favorite novels – The Poisonwood Bible – when I came to re-read it. That prologue was so dreary I almost gave up on the book that first time. Thankfully, I persisted.

Now, with every one of my own books, I spend a lot of time on the first line, the first paragraph, the first page.

“I was twenty-nine years old when I died.” – A Vain and Indecent Woman, Colin Falconer

“The head had been impaled on a railing outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand in the early hours of a cold November morning. There was a fine dusting of frost on the corpse’s hair and eyelids which gave it a festive touch.” – Cry Justice, Colin Falconer

You can never underestimate the power of a good opening line.

Here are 43 of the best in Literature: Read More …