dead-mans-folly“It was Miss Lemon, Poirot’s efficient secretary, who took the telephone call.”

There’s no denying that Agatha Christie novels, after a while, begin to follow a format. Take a big country house, fill it will suspicious looking people, toss in a couple of dead bodies, sprinkle with red herrings and there you go! Your basic Christie novel! Christie, however, was well aware of what she was doing and that formulaic approach may have been what led her to write Dead Man’s Folly, possibly the most meta of all her novels.

In this one, we once again meet Ariadne Oliver, a crime novelist and friend of Poirot who pops up occasionally. She is Christie’s self-insert, as it were, being the mouthpiece for Christie’s opinions on writing and the structure of crime novels. She’s also sometimes used so that Christie can complain about things she doesn’t like, or correct mistakes she’s made through earlier novels by making Oliver make the same ones. Although she only appears in seven novels (and a handful of other short stories), Ariadne Oliver is definitely one of my favourite characters in the Christie canon. Anyway, on with the plot.

This novel is set in a big country house full of suspicious people. Sir George and Lady Stubbs have recently moved into Nasse House, former seat of the Folliat family, which has stood empty for years. When the last remaining Folliat, Amy Folliat, finds that the house may soon be sold off, she convinces George to buy it and marry the young woman in her charge, Hattie. Now, to celebrate the return off the house to its former glory, they’re holding a summer fete for the surrounding neighbours. Ariadne Oliver is invited to set up a Murder Hunt, sort of like a treasure hunt, except players must follow clues to find out who committed a murder. A young Girl Guide is employed to be the body, and the game is afoot!

But Oliver is convinced that something is wrong – female intuition perhaps. Her worry prompts her to call Hercule Poirot, telling the others that he is there to give out prizes, but in reality he’s there to prevent whatever dastardly deed Oliver suspects. Soon the game is underway and it all seems to be going very well. But when the fake victim is found dead for real, things take a turn for the worrisome. With hundreds of people at the fete, it seems impossible at first to know who did it. And on top of that, Hattie’s estranged cousin has just turned up, there are youngsters from a nearby youth hostel trespassing at all hours, and Hattie herself has completely disappeared…

So, I noted above that this is a meta novel? That’s because Christie is writing a plot about an author writing a murder, albiet a murder that actually happens. As such, it’s very clever and a fascinating romp. The “folly” of the title has a double meaning, but at first seems to refer to a folly that has been built on the grounds of the estate, but hidden in the woods rather than out for all to see as would be usual. It becomes a pivotal point in the novel, but every character seems to have an opinion of it.

The criticism I’ve seen again and again about this novel in reading other reviews is that the characters are flat, and I concede that they aren’t the most exciting bunch that Christie has produced, with Poirot and Oliver stealing all of their scenes. There are perhaps too many characters, many of whom are only there to cross off the suspect list immediately, but it has the adverse effect of not allowing enough page time to each. Granted, this is a novel with a few decent red herrings, but there remains also an issue of a few questions being unresolved, as far as I could tell. A couple of threads are left hanging, and the story ends with more to come – the ultimate fates of the surviving characters are unknown to us.

I liked it, I always like Christie, and I’d ignore the naysayers. The suspects may be a little flatter, but Christie’s ingenious plotting is in full force here and her use of the murder mystery within the murder mystery is brilliant.