“The Hollow” by Agatha Christie (1946)

1 Comment

“At six thirteen am on a Friday morning Lucy Angkatell’s big blue eyes opened upon another day and, as always, she was at once wide awake and began immediately to deal with the problems conjured up by her incredibly active mind.”

Fresh from exploring a fictional version of Christie’s life, I return to her invented worlds. Let’s dive right in.

Poirot arrives at the country pile of Sir and Lady Angkatell, The Hollow, to find himself immediately thrust into a strange sight. A man lies on the edge of the swimming pool, a woman over him holding a gun, and a crowd of onlookers staring in confusion. He’s convinced that this is a set-up, supposedly meant to entertain the famous detective, but he quickly notes that something isn’t quite right. That’s definitely not red paint dripping off into the pool – that’s blood.

The victim, Dr John Christow, was something of a ladies man. He was married to the slow and dim-witted Gerda, who is now stood over him, revolver in hand, carrying on with the sculptor Henrietta Savernake, and formerly engaged to the Angkatell’s new neighbour, Hollywood actress Veronica Cray. Any of them could have snapped and killed him, but then it could just as easily have been Edward Angkatell, who longed to marry Henrietta, or Lucy Angkatell herself, who absent-mindedly put a gun in her basket that morning, but can’t now remember why. The scene looks cut and dried, with Gerda literally caught red-handed, but when it turns out that the bullet that killed John doesn’t match the gun in Gerda’s hand, it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems…

I wasn’t especially taken with the plot of this one. It’s definitely clever, and there’s a lot going on that wasn’t apparent until the end, as everyone’s motives aren’t quite what you think they might be. Sometimes the answers are right under your nose. However, it is the characters that really stand out in this one. Lucy Angkatell is hilariously ditzy, but also shows a shrewd understanding of people, being able to guess things about their private lives with astonishing accuracy. John Christow, aside from his philandering, also appears to be a decent bloke, a very capable and respected doctor, and against all obvious evidence, seems certainly in love with his wife. She, Gerda Christow, in turn is a great character, with everyone thinking she’s slow and stupid but actually showing surprising depth when she’s alone. Henrietta Savernake is also a blessing, with her passion for art and sculpture eventually betraying her secret.

It’s really something of a tragedy, this one, with upsetting consequences for many of the characters, but still a couple of rays of sunshine push their way through. While not my favourite, it’s definitely a fascinating character study with some brilliant set pieces and very vivid scenes.

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

1 Comment

“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.

“Problem At Pollensa Bay” by Agatha Christie (1935)

Leave a comment

“The steamer from Barcelona to Majorca landed Mr Parker Pyne at Palma in the early hours of the morning – and straightaway he met with disillusionment.”

I’ve been commuting via train this week which has certainly been a novel and tiring experience. Engaged in Catch-22 for the previous week, I finished and decided I needed something a bit less dense that was easier to read in the mornings when surrounded by other passengers. When in doubt, it’s always best to turn to Agatha Christie.

A collection of eight short stories, these tales bring back some old characters, as well as including two other stories with none of the usual heroes. Two tales feature Mr Parker Pyne, another two reunite us again with Mr Satterthwaite and Harley Quin, and two more provide a welcome return for Hercule Poirot. The final two are gothic tales and not the mysteries we associate with Christie, but I’ll get onto them shortly.

Poirot appears in “The Second Gong” and “Yellow Iris”, the latter of which I’ve seen as a stage adaptation. The first involves the murder of a man in his study and is very traditionally Christie, and in the second, Poirot receives a mysterious phone call from a panicked woman who tells him to join her immediately at a restaurant where she feels something awful is about to happen. Mr Parker Pyne shows up in the titular “Problem at Pollensa Pay” where he’s desperately trying to enjoy a holiday without being recognised but he still ends up trying to fix an unwelcome engagement. He shows up again in “The Regatta Mystery” when a rare jewel goes missing after a prank goes wrong.

Mr Satterthwaite once again meets his mysterious friend Harley Quin first in “The Harlequin Tea Set”, in which a knowledge of genetics will help prevent a murder. They collide again, literally, in “The Love Detectives” where a man has been killed and it seems that everyone is prepared to claim they did the crime, despite none of them seeming to know how he died. All six of these stories are brilliant and charming, full of character and humour alongside the darkness and I’m almost sorry it took me so long to get around to them.

The final two stories, on the other hand, are less engaging. Involving no murder, or really any crime at all, they are gothic tales that are somewhat haunting, but not particularly engaging. “Next to a Dog” is about a young woman who needs to get married because no job she goes for will allow her to keep her precious dog, Terry, meaning she is blindly led into a marriage of convenience with a man she doesn’t love. The second, “Magnolia Blossom” also feels very familiar as a story and I may have seen an adaptation of it at some point but I can’t quite remember. It’s about a woman who leaves her husband, but dashes back later the same day when she discovers her husband’s company has collapsed and her loyalty is such that she can’t leave him on the same day as that happening. Her husband, however, then tries to use her for his own means to save his life, leading her to wonder if her loyalty wasn’t misplaced.

So, while mostly a good batch with a great collection of Christie’s finest characters, I was left disappointed by the final two tales. Still, they can’t all be winners, and you can’t begrudge her from trying some new styles every now and again. Truth is though, her murder mysteries are still the best, and nothing else can quite measure up.

Just as a quick note in case there are the sort of people reading this and get fussy about specifics, although published as this collection in 1991, I have dated it 1935, which is the date the title story was first published. The stories themselves, however, were published separately between 1926 and 1971. So there you go.

“The Labours Of Hercules” by Agatha Christie (1947)

1 Comment

the-labours-of-hercules“Hercule Poirot’s flat was essentially modern in its furnishings.”

I love the Greek myths. I love Agatha Christie. Bring in a book that combines the two and I’m a very happy man indeed. Fortunately, you don’t need to be classically educated to keep up with this one, so let’s just get stuck in.

Hercule Poirot, world-famous detective, is contemplating retirement. He’s getting on, and these days he’s more into the idea of growing marrows than seeking out murderers. But when an old friend scoffs at Poirot’s thoughts of retirement, Poirot seems determined to prove him wrong. Poirot, however, can’t just disappear of the scene, however. He decides that he will take twelve more cases, only dealing with those that seem to mirror the Twelve Labours of his mythological namesake, Hercules.

And so Poirot sets about his task. The twelve short stories each detail a specific crime that, in one manner or another, represents the Herculean task. Unusually, he is rarely dealing with murder here, and along the way he solves issues of missing persons, theft, a brainwashing, money-grabbing cult, criminal gangs and drug addiction. He is occasionally assisted by Inspector Japp and his secretary Miss Lemon, and he meets again Countess Vera Rossakoff, the only woman to whom he seems to show any attraction, despite her criminal background.

Despite the assurance that these are his last cases before retirement, we know full well that this was never going to be the case. He is retired already in his first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is growing marrows in the countryside. However, he also makes reference here to an incident from The Big Four (the novel in which the Countess is also introduced), which was published after Ackroyd, suggesting to us that the novels were not published in the order that things happen. These fit in somewhere, but their real place in the canon isn’t strictly important.

Poirot’s insistence that the stories match up to the legendary tasks means that he can only take certain cases, although he’s definitely stretching a point a few times. “The Lernean Hydra”, for example, is famously about a monster that can never die because it always regrows new heads when one it cut off. Here, he is dealing with a village of gossips, who can never be fully silenced. “The Horses of Diomedes” gives us an untamed herd of daughters that are running riot with the wrong crowd, and for “The Apple of the Hesperides”, we are taken along on a journey to recover a stolen goblet that is decorated with emeralds to represent apples in Eden. “The Capture of Cerberus” is indeed about bringing a dog up from Hell (although, in this case, Hell is an underground nightclub), but “The Stymphalean Birds” merely relates the title to two women who are birdlike in their manner and appearance, with beaked noses and big capes.

They’re an enjoyable set of stories, and while the body count is low, it’s almost refreshing to see a Christie where the bodies aren’t piling up. Poirot dealt with far more than just murder, and this collection shows of his ability to turn his little grey cells to any puzzle. Short, sharp and very clever; a delightful read.

“Third Girl” by Agatha Christie (1966)

Leave a comment

third-girl“Hercule Poirot was sitting at the breakfast table.”

There are many things that one comes to expect from an Agatha Christie novel. A recently rewritten will. A loyal butler. A fussy foreign detective. A red herring or six. But above all what one expects is a body. These books are about murder, after all. So when you’re reading one and there isn’t a body at all, you’re thrown somewhat. This is, of course, Third Girl.

Poirot is enjoying breakfast when his servant George informs him that there is a young woman to see him, most urgently. Although Poirot doesn’t normal take house calls at this time of the morning, he allows her to be seen in and very quickly she announces that she thinks she’s committed a murder, although she doesn’t seem very sure. Before Poirot can even learn her name or any more details, she declares that he’s too old to help her, and makes her exit, leaving a hurt and frustrated Poirot behind.

Upon receiving a call from friend and writer Ariadne Oliver, Poirot is soon buoyed again by her company and it transpires that the dotty author is the one who sent the girl to him in the first place! Seeking out the girl’s name and address, Poirot and Oliver set about exploring the friends and family surrounding this mysterious woman. There’s her father, recently returned from abroad with his new, young wife; a dotty old soldier who is trying to write his memoirs; a highly efficient secretary who may just be too efficient; and a glamorous dandy of a man who the mystery girl seems rather fond of.

But all the while there doesn’t seem to have actually been a murder committed, which leads to a very difficult question – is this girl a murderer, or is she mad?

If ever you need a reminder that Christie wrote more than just books set in the twenties, here is a great example. Published in 1966 and set around the same time, we dispel for the most part with the grand house and murdered nobility to explore a London populated by working girls, beautiful young mods, and more drugs than you can take if you had the whole decade free. Poirot feels like a throwback to a much older time in this society, and yet he’s on top form as ever. Personally, I find that Christie’s later novels rarely live up to the pure genius of her earlier ones (although there are, of course, exceptions) and this one includes a very long chapter in the middle in which Poirot lays out to himself everything that he has learnt so far. The answers are all in there, but you need to know what you’re looking for. I got some of the hints quite sharpish, and I’d worked out half the solution, but I wasn’t entirely there.

The book is notable, however, because just when you think you’ve seen Christie do everything possible, she plays around with the medium again. The idea of having a murderer but no murder is an interesting one, and it’s unusual to go so long in a Christie novel without finding a body. Poirot becomes increasingly frustrated that he doesn’t have a murder, and it becomes almost as weird as it is amusing. Body or no, however, I enjoyed this one. It may have meandered a little, but everything seems to tie up and you once again feel sure that justice has been done.

“Sad Cypress” by Agatha Christie (1940)

Leave a comment

sad-cypress“Elinor Katharine Carlisle. You stand charged upon this indictment with the murder of Mary Gerrard upon the 27th of July last. Are you guilty or not guilty?”

If there’s one enduring certainty left in this world, it’s that books will always be there to rescue us, to teach us, and to help us. As the news of this week sunk in and seemed to become worse with every passing moment, I moved from Jasper Fforde to Agatha Christie, feeling safe among the words of writers I admire and know I can trust.

The book opens in court, with Elinor Carlisle being accused of murder of the young Mary Gerrard. The evidence all seems to point at her guilt, but the defence counsel isn’t so sure, and neither is Hercule Poirot. The story leaps back to show us how to got to here. Elinor and her fiancé Roddy Welman receive an anonymous letter from, apparently, a concerned well-wisher who tells them that their Aunt Laura (biological aunt to Elinor, aunt by marriage to Roddy) is not long for this world and that the young woman who lives at the lodge on the grounds of the house, Mary, is sucking up to the old woman presumably hoping to be left money in her will.

Upon arriving, Roddy finds himself immediately smitten with Mary, and when Aunt Laura has a second stroke, her death soon follows, much sooner than either Doctor Lord or Nurses Hopkins and O’Brien had thought. But it soon turns out that Laura Welman had never written a will, and so the money all falls directly to Elinor. Unable to marry her now, in case people think he’s only doing it for the money, Roddy ends the engagement and sets off for Europe to decide if he really does love Elinor, or if it’s now Mary he adores. Elsewhere, Nurse Hopkins discovers that some morphine has gone missing from her bag, but she convinces herself that she left it at home by mistake. It’s only when Mary Gerrard is found dead, and morphine poisoning is stated as the cause, that suspicion falls on Elinor, the only person who seems to have had the means, motive and opportunity to commit the act.

Now everyone has questions. Why did Elinor give Mary money before killing her? What made Mary so eager to write a will of her own? Where has the morphine gone? And what significance does a rose bush have to the solving of the crime? Poirot has his work cut out for him again, but with his little grey cells, he’s certain that he’s on the right track.

A little more emotionally pliable than some of her works, in Sad Cypress Christie plays with the notion of the love triangle again, and lays out the red herrings and genuine clues so beautifully that you can’t help but slap your forehead at the end and realise exactly what’s going on. And if you happen to be a horticulturist, you may be able to get it sooner even than that. It’s all there, and it’s all so obvious once you’re told the solution, but nonetheless it’s a good, fun tale.

It’s divided into three parts, which roughly coincide with the murders and everyone’s reactions to and around them, Poirot’s investigations, and then the court case. The latter section deals with the witnesses for the prosecution and the defence. Elinor seems very definitely in the frame – and things are complicated further when Laura is exhumed and they find she too shows signs of morphine poisoning – but Poirot and the very capable lawyer Sir Edwin Bulmer are on hand to make sure justice is fair.

The cast is small, but it’s a big mystery, and a very smart one too. Just remember that everyone lies, and their lies often reveal truths they didn’t intend.

“Elephants Can Remember” by Agatha Christie (1972)

Leave a comment

elephants“Mrs Oliver looked at herself in the glass.”

If I’ve done the maths right, I’ve only got twelve Agatha Christie novels left to go before I’ve made my way through all of them. I reckon that means there’s only a year to go, if I continue at the rate of roughly one a month, so soon this blog will become devoid of fresh Christie reviews. Some people might like that, who knows, but until then, let’s soldier on with the last book she wrote that contained Hercule Poirot.

Ariadne Oliver, the well-known crime novelist, has decided to attend a literary luncheon for the first time. Normally she avoids the things, and doesn’t enjoy the business of talking to people who want to compliment her while she has nothing to say back. However, she is enjoying this one and making pleasant conversation with those around her, until she is cornered by a bossy woman who gives her name as Mrs Burton-Cox. While they’ve never met, Burton-Cox asks Oliver to confirm that she is indeed the godmother of one Celia Ravenscourt. Oliver states that she is and then Burton-Cox drops a bombshell of a question: “Did her mother kill her father, or was it the father who killed the mother?”

More than a decade previously, Celia’s parents were found dead on a clifftop, both shot and with a gun between them on the ground, both their fingerprints present on the weapon. The police ruled that it was a suicide pact and while much gossip passed between friends and locals at the time, much of the detail has been lost to history. But now questions are arising, and they aren’t necessarily welcome ones. Was that conclusion really the truth? Who killed whom? And why is it so important that Mrs Burton-Cox finds out? Her curiosity piqued, Ariadne Oliver seeks out help from her old friend Hercule Poirot, and together they track down the people involved who have the best memories; the, as it were, elephants who never forget.

Ariadne Oliver has turned up in several previous novels, and this is her last appearance, but it’s where I feel she really comes into her own. Poirot is not so central to the story here, and it is Oliver who does much of the early legwork and shows her talents at getting people to talk. This is really her most wonderful appearance, although I will thankfully meet her once more in earlier novel Third Girl which I’ve yet to read. Oliver was notably based on Christie herself, and the two share many traits, including being the inventors of foreign detectives that they grew to loathe, and a lack of enthusiasm when it comes to public speaking and literary events.

The novel uses extensively the themes of memory and oral testimony. Some people cite this, as well as the reduced vocabulary size as evidence that Christie was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, with which she was never officially diagnosed. While they might have a point with the style and language, the use of memory is nothing new. Indeed, the book itself discusses the plots of Five Little Pigs, Hallowe’en Party and Mrs McGinty’s Dead, all of which, along with the unmentioned Ordeal by Innocence, feature murders that took place years before the events of the novel. It’s an interesting idea, and one that allows for a variance on a typical murder plot.

Astute readers will have noticed that I’ve not explicitly said whether I liked it or not. I did – I always do – but it’s definitely not one of my favourites, which seems to often be the case with the books she wrote later in her career. There’s a certain amount of rambling, and the solution isn’t hidden very well, so I can’t even consider this a win when I got it right because it’s obvious from about halfway though. I wondered if she’s pull the rug from under me with a double bluff at the end, but it wasn’t to be.

Frankly, it’s not her strongest, but the right people get happy endings, and for a big fan, it’s of course a must-read, but it’s not one to start with. It lacks a certain sparkle, but it’s still classic Christie.

Older Entries