An Israeli Author's Manual for Writing an Agatha Christie-type Crime Novel

Maya Arad's new novel offers an accelerated lesson in the principles of the detective story. It’s intellectual, illuminating and brilliant — but also cold, mechanical and not particularly suspenseful.

Israeli author Maya Arad.
Mira Mamon

“Me’ahorei Hahar” (“Behind the Mountain”), by Maya Arad, Xargol and Modan publishers (in Hebrew), 327 pps, 98 shekels ($26)

Zohar Bar, an external lecturer in American academic institutions, an Israeli-born visiting lecturer in America, is invited to spend Thanksgiving in a luxurious, isolated ski chalet in the Sierra Mountains, along with nine strangers. His job: to deliver a series of talks on detective fiction for the guests’ edification, in return for a handsome fee. Paz ponders the invitation. There are better, and better-known, literary scholars, yet he got the nod. Ten people are gathered in a closed space, cut off from the outside world, the roads to the site having been made impassable by a snowstorm.

Anyone who’s read Agatha Christie has to figure that one of them is liable to be murdered.

Three themes, generally overlapping, occupy Maya Arad, a prolific Israeli writer and literature professor who lives in the United States and writes in Hebrew. She’s interested in other Israelis living in the United States and in the phenomena of alienation and loss of identity; in academic careers and their intriguing, achievement-driven nature; and in the worlds of literature, which are also not free of malice, backbiting and bitter rivalries. She tends to approach these subjects with a generous, sometimes exaggerated, helping of irony and sophistication. In her best works of fiction, she disassembles the mental constructs that characterize the hierarchy of both literary scholars and writers in America wittily and arrogantly. She depicts the loneliness, the competitive urge, the frustration and bitterness of those left behind, those who did not progress as expected, did not publish at the required rate, did not find their place in the heard of the field.

From this perspective, the classic detective genre is well suited to Arad’s themes and style alike. Her new novel, which is packed with allusions to works by Christie, is cast in the rhetorical and stylistic mold of the golden age of detective fiction. As in Christie, the crime committed here does not have a traumatic thrust; it’s more in the nature of a breach of the social rules of etiquette, a form of trespass or an infringement of private property rights. It occurs within a decadent atmosphere of snobbish relations between individuals who plan their moves carefully and realize their calculating, analytical dispositions. The characters are motivated only by selfish ends, such as a passion for money, revenge or love. The social aspect of their relations is only the decorative display window through which they are observed. This is why Christie typically offers a closed, internal mechanism, analytical and formal, pervaded by formulas and calculations, an unfolding logical puzzle whose mystery the reader — if he follows the hints and ignores the diversionary tactics — can solve himself.

The world of the luxury chalet to which the lecturer is invited is also one of seating arrangements, courteous gestures and hidden motives. However, as we expect from Arad, “Behind the Mountain” is not a routine detective story. In fact, it’s a reader’s manual or means for apprenticeship in creating the detective novel. It switches the positions of the players in the drama: The literary lecturer is not a detective but a researcher of detective novels. It is the job of the reader to be involved in solving the detective novel’s mystery.

Four lectures provide the plot. The guests gather around and the literary scholar regales them — and the reader — with talks that aim to deconstruct the machinery of writing whodunits. The lectures are conveyed verbatim: Their didacticism is aimed at the reader, not at the listening characters — otherwise there would be no need to transmit them with such detailed and realistic documentation. The lecturer makes use of examples, pop quizzes and leading questions as he presents to his diligent students the analytical role of the detective and the mechanics of deception that obscures the solution of the mystery.

He describes red herrings that mislead the reader and, from the opposite vantage point, talks about how to blur important information by mentioning it casually along with other trivial details. He explains how the point of view from which events are described enables important facts to be hidden or leads the reader astray by means of erroneous basic assumptions. He discusses the convention of the unlikely suspect that produces the surprise in the mystery’s solution. And also the way in which, in terms of how the genre in general has developed, how it’s precisely the likeliest suspect — the character whom the detective and reader have their eye on from the very beginning but abandon in favor of alternative suppositions — who actually becomes the unlikely suspect to whom the story returns with a surprise revelation.

After the lectures comes the turn of the final exam. Did the reader pay close attention? Did he understand the material? The crime that inhabits “Behind the Mountain” appears in the last part of the novel, leaving us with little time to demonstrate the literary-detective abilities we’ve acquired and solve the mystery. I can report with satisfaction that I was successful in this; I passed the exam. For the benefit of the students, the lecturer’s last lesson explains in detail how the test demanded internalization of the rules that were learned and how they were given expression in the book that was read.

In other words, Arad’s new novel offers an accelerated course in the principles of detective fiction, in which the student-reader has to fulfill the role of the detective based on a didactic study of the theoretical materials presented to him. The lecturer himself — the failed academic who didn’t get tenure in a prestigious university, and whose wife’s professional achievements created a gulf between them that caused the breakdown of their marriage — is unsuccessful at playing the role of the detective, however well acquainted he is with the relevant literary formulas. The academic can analyze but can’t act; can explain literature but not write it; is able to understand the mechanics of the detective story but not to solve the mystery himself. As in Arad’s previous books, the academic establishment is presented as a source of impotence. It can produce and convey information, but not make use of it beyond its confines.

“Behind the Mountain” is more an academic teaching exercise than it is a detective novel. And, like any good course, it’s intellectual, brilliant and illuminating but also — as in the genre that the reader is required to study — cold and mechanical. I read it like a work of nonfiction: with great interest, but without feeling suspense.

“Exactly like a detective story, only without a story,” the protagonist reflects. “According to the rules, the murder has to take place in the first quarter of the book, yet a quarter of his stay has passed and nothing has happened.”

The book does, in fact, depart from the rules. The murder, as noted, appears only in its last quarter, after the reader has undergone lengthy preparation. The mystery is not dependent on the identity of the murderer, but on whether the reader can complete Arad’s course successfully.