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The Murder of Roget’s Thesaurus


(Illustration by Eric Shansby)
Columnist

When I was a teenager, I loved murder mysteries from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, particularly those by Agatha Christie. Until recently I thought I had read everything Dame Agatha had ever written featuring her idiosyncratic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. So I was surprised and delighted to discover in a bookstore a collection of Poirot short stories I had not seen before. Most of them were from very early in Christie’s career, published only in magazines.

I bought the book and settled in for a trip down Memory Lane. Alas, it turned into a trip down the descending colon. These stories stank. Christie had yet to figure out exactly who Poirot would be. Instead of having a charmingly ordered mind, he was an annoying fussbudget. Instead of being a likable aesthete, he was comically effeminate. Instead of being a little full of himself, he was an insufferable egomaniac. The plots were derivative: Poirot and his loyal sidekick, Hastings, did not so much resemble Holmes and Watson as duplicate them to a potentially litigable degree.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

Far from feeling betrayed, as a writer I felt relief. If Agatha Christie had once been this bad, there is always hope for hacks like me. Maybe I’m not mediocre, maybe I just need more time to find my voice. Y’know, work out the kinks.

I bet all the great writers had dreadful misfires before they got it right. Who knows what you’d find in that first balled-up sheet of paper in the trash can next to their writing desks?

Gabriel García Márquez:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father taught him to use the potty like a big boy.”

Jane Austen:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a prudent investment strategy.”

Charles Dickens:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. I mean, it was just nucking futz.”

Groucho Marx:

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog is whatever maggoty dreck they last snorked up from the gutter.”

Vladimir Nabokov:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, irritant of my pancreas ...”

F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Never drink orange juice right after brushing your teeth.”

Leo Tolstoy:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but it usually stems from the uncalled-for implementation of noogies.”

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies) ...”

(Actually, that last one’s verbatim, as written. Couldn’t make it worse.)

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