Exposing the Criminal Scene – The Body in the Library

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This week we’re studying the “Exposing the Criminal” scene in the Crime Story The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie. The Core Event is presented as a classic “Gathering Summation” scene and appears in chapter 18, the final chapter of the book.

We’re focusing on scenes this season because scenes are the basic building blocks of story. To be able to write a story that works, you must be able to write a scene that works. And we’re using stories that already appear somewhere in the Story Grid Universe. The story we’re discussing is featured this year in the Story Grid Guild.

GENRE AND THREE-ACT SUMMARY

 

The  is a Global Crime story (Cozy Mystery), and here’s a brief overview of the three-act summary.

  • Beginning Hook – The dead body of a young woman is discovered in Colonel Bantry’s library, and Mrs. Bantry calls in her good friend Miss Jane Marple to help solve the mystery and restore her husband’s reputation. Marple agrees to help and examines the body before the superintendent arrives. The victim’s sister, Josie, identifies her as Ruby Keene, a dancer who performs at a resort hotel.
  • Middle Build – Investigation ensues, along the lines of typical motive and opportunity. The victim was a companion of Conway Jefferson, who had decided to adopt her and leave the bulk of his money to her. Everyone who stood to gain from Ruby’s death had an alibi. At the midpoint, another body is found in a burned car in a quarry, presumed to be a local teen girl who’d gone missing. The clues lead Marple and the police to Basil Blake, but Marple knows he’s not the killer and informs the police.
  • Ending Payoff – Miss Marple reaches her conclusion by expressing her gift never accepting what she observes and hears at face value. The police set a trap using Jefferson as bait. The killer reveals herself, and Marple explains all in the scene we’re about to discuss.

 

 

ANALYZING THE SCENE

Scene Type 

What function does this scene serve in the story? Editor’s Scene Type

Core event of the Crime Story. Exposing the Criminal. This is the climax of the ending payoff, but the scene also includes the resolution, in which we learn whether the criminal is brought to justice or not. 

Pretty self-explanatory … the detective, in this case, an amateur detective because it’s a cozy mystery, reveals the identity of the criminal. It may include how they figured it out. Loose strings are tied up.

What kind of scene is this? 

“I’ve gathered you all here …”

A scene that brings interested parties together to provide the answer to the puzzle. We might also say this is a scene in which Marple is showing her work. 

Other similar scenes include the reading of a will or announcing the winner of a contest.

What does this scene type accomplish within the context of the novel as a whole?

A feature of many cozy mysteries, but particularly stories by Agatha Christie, the exposing the criminal/bringing them to justice includes this explanation. We’re not privy to Jane Marple’s thoughts throughout the story. There are clues about what she’s thinking, but we can’t read her mind, and she’s not saying. 

Nice feature: The characters in the room can ask questions the reader would want to ask if they were present.

How many people are in the scene?

Eight onstage, at least twenty offstage

Where does the scene take place (location)?

Majestic Hotel – interesting that we don’t know what room they’re in. In fact the story overall is really thin on setting. She’d had published thirty plus books at this point in her career. The locations are ones that are pretty typical of cozy mysteries, coastal resort hotel, village squire’s hall.

What is the power dynamic at play in this scene?

Miss Jane Marple holds the power. She possesses knowledge that  everyone else in the room wants to know. She has their full attention.

Separately, Conway Jefferson has a fortune to dispose of, now that his intended recipient is dead. 

What is the point of conflict, and how does that relate to the characters’ objects of desire?

On the surface, the other main characters in the scene (Sir Henry Clithering, Superintendent Harper, Colonel Melchett, and Conway Jefferson) want to know how Marple solved the crime, what was her first clue, and what her methods are. Beneath the surface, they want to be reassured that the solution to the puzzle makes sense, the criminal(s) has been dealt with, and justice has been restored.

Miss Jane Marple wants acknowledgement and appreciation for her skills and methods, which are not typically praised in law enforcement circles. Jefferson wants to see his fortune do some good for a young person.

When we analyze a scene we need to answer four story event questions, and identify the five commandments of storytelling. These are covered in detail in Story Grid 101 which is available as a free download from the Story Grid website.

Story Grid Scene Analysis Question

1. The Action Story Component: What are the characters literally doing—that is, what are their micro on-the-surface actions?

Jane Marple is showing her work while revealing whodunit, how and why, while investigators listen intently.

2. The Worldview Story Component: What is the essential tactic of the characters—that is, what above-the-surface macro behaviors are they employing that are linked to a universal human value?  

Marple wants acknowledgement and appreciation. The others want to know that justice has been done.

3. The Heroic Journey 2.0 Component: What beyond-the-surface universal human values have changed for one or more characters in the scene? Which one of those value changes is most important and should be included in the Story Grid Spreadsheet?

At the beginning of the scene, everyone (except the reader) knows who the culprit is, but not why or how. Marple explains all, so they go from Unaware to Aware. 

But this is a Crime Story, so we’re interested in the spectrum of Injustice to Justice. It’s the core event, so it must turn on the global value. So where is that happening in this scene? A clue about this is revealed in the 5Cs, so in the spirit of mystery, we’ll circle back to this in a few moments.

4. The Scene Event Synthesis: What Story Event sums up the scene’s on-the-surface actions, essential above-the-surface worldview behavioral tactics, and beyond-the-surface value change? We will enter that event in the Story Grid Spreadsheet. 

Investigators and Jefferson learn as Marple reveals that Josie and Mark conspired to kill Pamela and Ruby and explains how they accomplished their crimes, but also how Marple herself solved the crime.

 

Story Grid Five Commandment Analysis

 

Inciting Incident: After successfully catching the killer in the act of attempting to murder Conway Jefferson, the team comes together to hear how Marple solved the crime. Will it make sense? How can they gain the most Justice?

Progressive Complications (and how they escalate the stakes):

  • Marple lays out the clues: First victim, Ruby Keene, was young, bit her nails, and teeth stuck out a little, identified by her cousin Josie; Adelaide Jefferson and Mark Gaskell stood to benefit, but they had alibis; Pamela Reeve was second victim, identified on basis of clothing; Dinah Lee (Basil Blake’s wife) mentioned Somerset house and marriage > Marple realizes Mark and Josie must be married
  • Marple explains how they did it: Tricked Pamela, drugged her, put her in Ruby’s clothes, dumped her body in Blake’s living room; drugged Ruby and put her in George Bartlett’s car and burned it at quarry
  • Vital clues: discrepancies between description of Ruby’s teeth and nails and appearance of body in library
  • Setup: make Josie and Mark think Mark would be written out of the will again.

Turning Point Progressive Complication: Adelaide and Hugo tell Conway they are getting married.

Crisis: Does Conway disinherit Adelaide for moving on with her life?

Climax: No, he’s giving 10K to Adelaide and the rest is for her son Peter.

Resolution: Adelaide and Hugo leave to get married.

WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT THIS SCENE?

Valerie

Core Event, Sub-Genre Convention: Exposure of the criminal is the core event of a crime story, but with cozy mysteries, this scene is done in a very particular way. The whodunnit and the howdunnit both need to happen, and then can come in the same scene as with The Body in the Library, or separate scenes. But, they’re two necessary parts of the core event.

Obviously we want to know who committed the crime. But with stories like those written by Agatha Christie, the reader (and the other characters) want to know how Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot figured it out.

Working Scene or Exposition: I can see why Leslie analyzed the scene the way she did, however, when I first read it I considered it a piece of exposition and not a working scene. That said, I think it’s a necessary piece of exposition because it describes who committed the crime and how Jane Marple figured out whodunnit. As the last chapter in the book that ties up all the loose threads and answers the readers’ questions, it works within the context of the novel. 

Jefferson may have had a crisis – off page and in past, here resolution of the crisis – so not dramatic. Does it matter?

Leslie

This is a Crime Story, and it’s about the puzzle, so there is a  great focus on this and the Core Value Justice. But what kind of justice? 

The change that happens in the scene, other than ignorance to knowledge, is that Conway realizes he was being silly in attaching himself to Ruby, and that he should have looked closer to home. Now that might not be my worldview or yours, but it is the worldview expressed by the story and was typical of that time and place. 

Jane Marple, is a close observer of human behavior. She shares quaint stories about her maid, the people in town, and who’s doing what with whom. The Crime is the backdrop for us to talk about how we behave toward one another, a shocking event to get us to look at our behavior and get aligned with what’s right. 

Shawn’s recent explanation about what a crime story is about: It’s to answer the question: How do we not destroy one another? 

Let’s say you don’t want to write a crime story. Why should you read a story like this? Because it’s a great way to study how to set up your Core Event. If you reread knowing the result, you can pick up on the way Christie planted clues along the way. It’s a bit cheesy and quaint, but Christie shows us how to lay the ground work for the Core Event without cheating.

Key Takeaways 

Valerie: whodunnit and howdunnit – can be in one scene or two, but must expose the criminal and explain to the reader how the crime was solved.

Leslie: Think about the way you think about stories. Are you only seeing what’s on the surface? Be curious about why you’re attracted to certain stories, why you’re writing the one you’re writing. This skill is the functional equivalent of thinking like a lawyer. Understanding why you’re writing this story is one important key to writing a great story.

Your Writers’ Room editors are Valerie Francis, specializing in stories by, for and about women, and Leslie Watts who helps fiction and nonfiction writers craft epic stories that matter.

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About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
Comments
Author Leslie Watts

One Comment

Mike Saatkamp says:

Why do I get the feeling one of you is investigating, while the other is masking her crime? Is it because you’re both obviously hiding your Hungarian accents behind those Scottish Brogues? You may perhaps be concerned the Parker Duofold you’ve been writing with will be reclaimed by your compatriot British pipe enthusiast, who could surely quickly deduce the murderers identity. Your crime would have been more difficult to comprehend had you not pretended to disagree, leaving an unsolved component in our imaginations. Did you intend this to be an eternal conundrum? British parliamentary damnation? Regardless of your intent, I have found *&%&($#()(&#^4785T To be guilty of an excellent recording. May the judge be merciful and pronounce a sentence of no more than a week in the Scottish Highlands (No Jamie included!)
Thanks for this you guys, very helpful.

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