Wednesday, November 10, 2010

They Forge Their Creativity Closer to the Heart*

I’ve been thinking about creativity lately. A recent post by Elizabeth at Mystery Writing is Murder raised a fascinating question about what kinds of creativity we have and how that meshes with others’ creativity. And a post by Michele at Southern City Mysteries discusses fascination for art and the people who create art. People have told me that they’re not creative, by which they mean they don’t paint or draw. But the fact is, we all have different kinds of creativity, whether it’s writing, problem-solving, humour, music, or figuring out the most efficient way to make the weekly paycheck cover everything. People who really tap their creativity can be innovative, energized and interesting. They can also be so passionate about what they create that they’re led straight into danger. That spark of creativity is absolutely fascinating, and it’s no surprise that we see it a lot in crime fiction, in sleuths and in other characters.

For example, one of the very interesting characters in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) is famous painter Amyas Crale. Oddly enough, when the novel begins, Crale’s been dead for sixteen years. His daughter Carla Lemarchant asks Hercule Poirot to investigate Crale’s murder; her mother Caroline Crale was arrested, tried and convicted for the murder and died in prison. But Carla is sure she was innocent. Poirot agrees to take the case and through his interviews with the people who were present at the time of the murder, and their accounts of the murder, we learn much about Amyas Crale. He’s a gifted painter whose creativity has made him truly passionate about his art. In Crale’s case, that passion has blinded him to the very real conflicts going on around him. In some ways, he’s self-aware; for instance, he tells his mistress Elsa Greer not to believe him or trust him, except for his art, saying that the best of him is in his art. That doesn’t keep him safe, though, and Poirot discovers that Crale’s obsession with his art is, in part, responsible for his murder.

And then there’s Henrietta Savernake, a sculptor whom we meet in Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). She’s so focused on her creations that in many ways, they’re more important to her than are the people in her life. As a matter of fact, that quality in her is irksome to Dr. John Christow, successful Harley Street specialist whose mistress Henrietta is. In fact at one point, Christow says to her:

“‘I want to come first.’

‘You do, John.’

‘No, if I were dead, the first thing you’d do, with the tears streaming down your face, would be to start modelling some damned mourning woman or some figure of grief…’”

One week-end, Christow and his wife Gerda visit the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. When Christow is shot during their stay, Hercule Poirot, who’s staying at a cottage nearby, gets involved in the investigation. As he gets to know the various members of the Angkatell clan, Poirot sees the interesting kinds of creativity that run in the family. That creativity adds interest to this story.

John Christow’s character shows that creativity doesn’t have to take just one form. He’s passionate about his medical research, and in fact, is working on some groundbreaking treatments for Ridgeway’s Disease. Throughout the novel, we see his creativity come through as we learn about the different treatments he’s trying. We also see that kind of scientific creativity in some of Robin Cook’s work. For instance, in Acceptable Risk, we meet Edward Armstrong, a noted neuroscientist. He’s passionate about finding new treatments for clinical depression, so he’s excited to team up with Genetix, a breakout biotechnology company. Armstrong and his team are even more excited when they discover that a simple ergot may hold the key to a new treatment for depression. As they work around the clock to develop the treatment, we can see how their creativity comes through. We also see how it consumes them and what the terrifying consequences of that all-consuming passion are.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti meets some very creative people in Through a Glass, Darkly. In that novel, he and Ispettore Vianello investigate the death of Giorgio Tassini, who works nights at Giovanni De Cal’s glass-blowing factory. As they interview people and find out more about the factory, we get to see the passion people have for creating beautiful things. In fact, Brunetti is reminded of his childhood, when his own father worked in a glass-blowing factory, and he appreciates the creativity he sees at the factory:

“As they watched, he blew into one end of the iron canna, inflating the blog of glass at the other end. Quickly, with the grace of a baton twirler, he swung the glowing mass until it was just about the bucket and squeezed it carefully into the cylindrical tub, moving it up and down and slipping it around until it slid inside. He blew repeatedly into the end of the pipe, each puff forcing a halo of sparks to fly from the top of the tub.”

That spark of creativity isn’t the reason for Tassini’s murder, but it adds a fascinating layer to this story.

Very often, it’s the sleuth who’s creative. That makes sense, too. When we tap our creativity, it allows us to stretch our thinking and for the sleuth, it allows the chance to look at cases from different angles. Sometimes that’s just what’s needed to solve a case, too.

For instance, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is creative. His creative outlet is gardening, especially the growing of orchids. He tends to his garden all the time, and it’s often there that he reflects on the cases he’s investigating. In fact, he almost never leaves his home, because he finds the inspiration he needs there.

Ngaio Marsh’s Agatha Troy is an artist. That creativity gives her a very interesting perspective on the world. That perspective’s often quite helpful to her husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Agatha Troy has insights into people that help Alleyn makes sense of his cases. Of course, that creativity also gets Troy involved in murder cases…

And then of course, there’s Ariadne Olver, Agatha Christie’s fictitious detective novelist. Her creativity is with words, and she taps that creativity when she’s involved in cases. She’s got a rich imagination, and although it’s sometimes not focused, it’s made her, as Poirot puts it, a very shrewd judge of character. In Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, Oliver’s involved in the investigation of the strangling murder of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker. Marlene was playing the part of the victim in a Murder Hunt (rather like a scavenger hunt) that Oliver created for a fête. When Inspector Bland asks Oliver if she can imagine why Marlene Tucker was killed, she says,

“At least, of course, I can imagine – I can imagine anything! That’s the trouble with me. I can imagine things now – this minute. I could even make them sound all right, but of course, none of them would be true. I mean….”

Oliver then mentions six different kinds of reasons that Marlene Tucker could have been murdered, much to the dismay of the inspector, who’s trying to make sense of her ideas.

That spark of creativity can “recharge batteries,” make people interested and interesting and add depth and life to a fictional character. How are you creative (and please don’t comment to tell me you are not!)? Which novels have you enjoyed that feature creativity?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Closer to the Heart.


  1. For a full analysis of what it means to be creative I highly recommend 'Creativity' by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
    A good starting point for creativity in the crime novel would be Poe's Dupin or Doyle's Holmes.

  2. John - Thanks for the recommendation. That's not a book I've read before, but it sounds quite interesting; I'll have to check it out. And you're quite right; each in his own way, Dupin and Holmes are certainly creative. I think most sleuths have that quality in some form or another.

  3. Those posts you've mentioned are wonderful and especially because they've led to this "creative" post. I like it when authors create characters that are creative. In fact, I think it takes a creative detectives to come up with solutions against creative villains. And the more creative the crime, the more interesting the creativity should be the crime is discovered.

  4. How about the crafty cozy mystery writers like Cricket McRae, Maggie Sefton, Margaret Grace, Beth Groundwater and many more? Their protagonists are creative with everything from scented soaps to artistic miniatures.

  5. Once again you take a different look at mysteries that one normally wouldn't consider. That's one of the many things I enjoy about your post. Having a protagonist who is creative does inspire the reader. After reading a Scrapbooking Mystery book by Laura Childs, I'm always inspired to browse through the scrapbooking section of the craft store even though I don't scrapbook. Creative sleuths make for wonderful reading.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Clarissa - Why, thank yo :-). I agree that when both the villain and the sleuth are creative, this can really make a mystery more interesting. And yes, creative crimes add zest, too. They can be a lot more interesting than a run-of-the-mill (if there is such a thing) crime.

    Patricia - Right you are! Cricket, Beth, Margaret and Maggie all have series about very creative people who use that creativity when they sleuth. And there are lots of cooking cosy mysteries, too, that have that same dash of (pun intended) creativity. Isis Crawford and Joane Fluke are just two of those authors that come to my mind. As you say, there are lots more.

    Mason - Thank you :-) - you're awfully kind. And those scrapbooking mysteries are also a really good example of sleuths who are creative and who use that creativity not only in their own lives, but also when they're "on the case." When characters tap their reservoirs of creativity, whatever it happens to be, this can add a lot to a story.

  7. I always loved the creation of Agatha Troy. Marsh used her very effectively.

  8. Patti - I couldn't agree with you more! She's a great character.

  9. Douglas preston and Lincoln Child are very creative writers. They have unique characters and unique ideas and settings. These guys are at the top of their game.

  10. Stephen - I agree. I'm more familiar with Child than I am with Preston, but they do offer unique and creative characters and settings.

  11. Nice post! "The Postcard Killers" by Liza Marklund and James Patterson is a good example where the killers ride their creativity to the edge of madness and beyond.

    About detectives and creativity, I think creativity is the common thread which connects the art and the science of detection.

  12. Amey - Thank you :-). You put that so very well, too: ...creativity is the common thread which connects the art and the science of detection.. That explains beautifully why creativity is such an important aspect in any crime fiction novel.

  13. Thank you!:) (grinning from ear to ear!)

    Creativity is indeed important in any mystery, one cannot help but wonder if the greatest stimulant for creativity is the awareness of a mystery to be solved.

    Albert Einstein once said, " The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." :)

  14. Amey - I'm so very glad that you posted that Albert Einstein comment!! :-). It's a wonderful quote and explains so clearly why so many sleuths are also creative!

    As a matter of fact, my personal "pet" bookmark has the first part of that quote on it: The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.