“No more detective work or I’ll write to Mum.” Percy Weasley, The Chamber of Secrets
On the back cover of the “adult” UK edition of Harry potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling is pictured against a bookcase which includes at least three Agatha Christie novels. (It also includes a book on Freud, which is relevant to the MuggleNet discussion on sex from Lesson#2!)
In a 2005 interview JK Rowling said , “...Harry, which is not really a detective story but feels like one sometimes...” and there’s no doubt that Jo Rowling enthusiastically uses the conventions and strengths of the detective story to structure Harry’s adventures.
The classic mystery story starts with a puzzle; it’s usually a crime and is often a clear case of murder, but the emphasis is always on the mystery. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone we are quickly presented with the double murder of Lily and James Potter and the mystery of how baby Harry survived the killing curse. We have to wait a long time before the mystery is resolved, but that particular puzzle informs and drives the entire series.
In classic detection, the detective has to find out what happened before the story opens and what will happen next before (after some confusion) establishing the truth. With the discovery of the truth, justice is done and order is restored. The detective usually has to explain what’s really been happening in the story and how we have been mislead by appearances. Albus Dumbledore steps into the role of Hercule Poriot for the first five books, provides a lengthy explanation at the end of Deathly Hallows and gives Harry the truth he needs to finally confront and defeat Voldermort. The truth is told, justice is done and order is restored.
I would like to look at the series to show how it is informed by detective story norms. I am also fascinated by the structural and stylistic links between JK Rowling and Agatha Christie. (I can also discuss Dorothy L Sayers but am less convinced of the links between Sayers and Rowling.)
Echoes of Christie.
Agatha Christie’s characters are depicted very visually in swift, vivid word pictures, as are JK Rowling’s. They are very easy to draw! They fulfil their purpose exactly by being completely memorable and completely coherent. We never feel, with either Christie or Rowling that someone is “out of character”.
The characters of both authors are fixed. They might learn more and experience more, but their characters remain the same. One of Agatha Christie’s favourite reflections is that characters never really change. For instance, Sirius Black, who goes from imprisonment in Azkaban to virtual imprisonment in Grimmuald Place could credibly become deeply reflective, even to the point of sympathising with Kreacher. Instead he remains a caged lion, reckless and resentful of his plight.
The language used in Harry Potter is vivid, simple and immediate, like that of Christie’s. The concepts and themes may be deep or complicated but the words used make it easy to understand. The words don’t get in the way of the reader’s understanding.