Crunching Christie, and Other News


On the Shelf


The poster for Murder Most Foul.

  • Data analysts have descended on the corpus of Agatha Christie—to celebrate the 125th anniversary of her birth, they’ve crunched some numbers and honed a formula “that they claim will enable the reader to identify the killer before the likes of Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple have managed the feat,” thus taking the fun out of what had been formerly known as “reading.” The formula examines factors like setting, gender of culprit, number of culprit mentions per chapter, and sentiment of culprit mentions; in some cases its findings are surprising. “They found that if the victim was strangled, the killer was more likely to be male … if the setting was a country house—not uncommon for a Christie novel—there was a 75% chance the killer would be female. Female culprits were usually discovered thanks to a domestic item, while males were normally found out through information or logic.”
  • At Stanford, meanwhile, new software called ePADD will change the way researchers process e-mail collections. Archivists who’d been “grappling with more than 150,000 e-mails in the archive of poet and author Robert Creeley” used ePADD to separate the wheat from the chaff: e-mails “accumulate like dust … A mountain of ‘See you at eight o’clock.’ Every now and then, there must be significant ones but the sheer volume is very great.”
  • An old lecture by Shirley Jackson looks at two of a writer’s most necessary tools—memory and delusion: “The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. I am, this morning, endeavoring to persuade you to join me in my deluded world; it is a happy, irrational, rich world, full of fairies and ghosts and free electricity and dragons, and a world beyond all others fun to walk around in. All you have to do—and watch this carefully, please—is keep writing.”
  • This is your periodic reminder that it’s okay, or even laudable, to pursue “difficult” fiction: “Think back on our country’s rich literary traditions in fiction: from Hawthorne to Melville, through Poe to James, Stein, ­Ellison, and Faulkner, just to cite a few. Their books make use of circularity, fragmentation, and elision, and at their most extreme reject coherence in an effort to produce new meaning. Their wildness has played an important defining role in our culture’s literary identity … If we want to make sure this important tradition continues, we have to sustain the curiosity to care about work that, at first glance, might seem difficult … Let’s not give up on the intricacies of ambitious fiction. Let’s not stop reading the kind of books that keep teaching us to read.”
  • Marie Darrieussecq’s first book, Pig Tales, published in 1996, is “narrated by an unnamed young white woman who aspires to a higher class, but in turn, is becoming a pig. As her body undergoes this great metamorphosis, she attracts increasing acts of sexual violence … The narrator, who works at Perfumes Plus as a perfume seller and prostitute, doesn’t seem to know that she is abused, let alone deceived about her pay.” But in all its grotesquerie, the book’s formalism offers an effective way of depicting violence against women: “Darrieussecq, in Pig Tales, rigorously insists on visibility—form is light. Her formal rigor, her careful and caring arrangement, her tactic, bares her comment. I want all writers, if they want to take the female body out of their tool kit, and hurt it, to work hard. Mostly, so hard they don’t bother.”