“Evil Under The Sun” by Agatha Christie (1941)

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“When Captain Roger Angmering built himself a house in the year 1782 on the island off Leathercombe Bay, it was thought the height of eccentricity on his part.”

Undaunted by a disappointing Agatha Christie last month, I press on with the final few novels. We’re much earlier in her career this time, 1941 to be exact, and back with Hercule Poirot, so there was a lot more hope that this was going to be one of the good ones. Indeed, it was.

We find our Belgian hero holidaying on a tiny island off of Devon at the Jolly Roger Hotel. His fellow guests are quite a jolly bunch, but one among them is causing quite a stir. Arlena Marshall is an uncommonly beautiful woman and all eyes turn to her as she makes her way down onto the beach every morning; the men look on with lust, the women with hatred and jealousy. She seems particularly intent on flirting with Patrick Redfern, a married man who follows her around like a loyal dog. With all this interest around her, it isn’t long before she’s found dead, strangled, on one of the island’s more remote beaches.

Ruling out the staff and noting it would be almost impossible for someone to cross from the mainland to the island unnoticed, it quickly becomes apparent that the murderer is among the hotel guests. Could it be that her husband, Kenneth Marshall, had finally had enough of her and the way she carried on and slipped off to murder her? Was it her step-daughter, Linda, who was seen that very morning with a bag of candles and no explanation? Is is Reverend Stephen Lane, convinced that Arlena was “evil through and through”? Perhaps Patrick’s wife Christie, jealous and angry? Not to mention Kenneth’s old friend Rosamund, athletic spinster Emily Brewster, or the garrulous Mrs Gardener? Everyone seems to have a perfect alibi, but Poirot is on the case, trying to work out what a bath, a bottle and a pair of nail scissors have to do with anything.

Fortunately, I adored this one. Poirot is on hand to help the local police, who are portrayed well and as a reasonably sensible group. The hotel guests are all interesting, and until the reveal, you could make quite a strong case against most of them. Liberally stuffed with red herrings, the story as usual has all the clues there, but it’s hard sometimes to even know what you’re looking for, or what offhand comment might reveal all. It’s a gorgeous setting too, and the novel includes a little map of the island, presumably added so Christie doesn’t have to provide a chapter of exposition on its shape and layout, and also to help amateur sleuths work out where everyone was when the crime occurred. There’s even a lovely little meta-joke: when one of the hotel guests asks Poirot to share with them his thoughts, he says, “I reserve the explanations for the last chapter.” And indeed, as usual, he does.

I’m going to be sorry when I’ve run out of Christie novels to discover for the first time. Undoubtedly a re-read of them all will have to take place. Still, until then, six to go.

“Skios” by Michael Frayn (2012)

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Grab your hat and sun cream, it’s holiday time!

“‘I just want to say a big thank-you to our distinguished guest,’ said Nikki Hook, ‘for making this evening such a fascinating and wonderful occasion, and one that I’m sure none of us here will ever forget…'”

The name Michael Frayn was an unfamiliar one to me, although I have heard of one of his most famous works, the play Noises Off, probably the most notable farce in the history of theatre. The play, as I understand it, is all about mistaken entrances and wrong exits, people getting confused among themselves and no one quite being in the right place at the right time. This is the basis for Skios.

Skios is the farcical story of Oliver Fox. He has arrived on the Greek island of Skios to spend the weekend with someone else’s girlfriend, but has a crisis of faith and identity, becomes sick of who he is. He becomes further messed around when the woman he’s meant to be in Greece with has missed her flight and won’t be able to get another one until the next day. With twenty-four hours to kill in paradise, he heads to the arrivals lounge and, on a whim, selects another name from the signs being held up and steps into the role of Dr. Norman Wilfred. He is rushed off with the most efficient PA this side of the Mediterranean, Nikki, to the luxury compound where, the following day, he will be delivering a speech.

The real Dr. Wilfred is on the same flight and things aren’t looking so great for him. His suitcase has gone missing and he’s ended up with one beloning to Annuka Vos. He becomes enraged with the airport staff and then confused by the taxi driver who has a limited understanding of English, but is eventually sure that he has managed to communicate his desire to get to the Fred Toppler Foundation. He is instead whisked off to the villa where Oliver should be staying.

And then Oliver’s new lover, Georgie, gets an earlier flight and finds herself in Greece and heading to the villa right on time.

The novel is a farce from beginning to end, with the central characters all entirely mistaking one another’s identity, and everyone jumping to conclusions about everyone else. Oliver barely struggles to convince people that he is the speech-giver, even though he looks nothing like the photo on his CV, and his passport has his actual name on it quite clearly. The real Dr Wilfred, however, is having a much more difficult time in a villa with Georgie.

There’s a lot here about our attitudes to identity – we act differently around different people and, if we just change our names and tell a few white lies, can we completely change who we are and pass of as someone else? Are we really who we say we are, or is everyone lying? There’s also a good deal of discussion on the nature of coincidence and fate. Have the events in our lives been inevitable since the big bang, with the universe working to get everything into position, or does it all happen on the spur of the moment by sudden decisions? The ending could’ve been incredibly predictable, but there’s a twist and it seems to resolve itself satisfactorily.

I become instantly wary of any book that is covered in quotes saying how funny it is. Yes, there are a few titters and smirks to be had here, but I didn’t laugh out loud at any point. It is quite funny but in a theatrical sort of way, which is Frayn’s background anyway, and by no means a bad thing. It would work well on stage, and it’s not a terrible book, but it has a tendency to get bogged down in itself and can be as stifling in places as the weather we’ve got at the moment. I recommend it for a quick summer read, if you’re off on a beach holiday and need some light entertainment.