Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Clocks (1963)

PLOT: A mystery man is found dead in room full of clocks.

[ Hello! Thanks to the postal strike it's late this week and we're taking an unscheduled detour from Foreign Travel ]

This is "Late Christie" apparently. Which is another way of saying curiously reflective and even more self-aware. Much discussion is made of the chunk in the middle where Poirot turns literary critic. In this long detour, Poirot announces that he has been reading detective fiction, and offers frank appraisals of some writers (real and semi-disguised).

First up he gives both bullets to his dear friend Ariadne Oliver. "The long arm of coincidence is far too freely employed. And, being young at the time, she was foolish enough to make her detective a Finn..." And on he goes, pointing out that Christie is nothing if not acutely self-aware.

Poirot's lecture also takes in (I'm guessing) Dickson-Carr ("the whole point is always the alibi"), Erle Stanley Gardner ("melodrama stirred up with a stick"), and Chandler ("rye and bourbon")... the exact victims here aren't as important as the points being scored about the genre ("what is a Brownstone mansion - I have never known?"). Finally the Belgian settles happily on Sherlock Holmes.

What seems a pretty siding turns out to have direct bearing on The Clocks, which is a mystery almost about mysteries. In some ways it's a snide sequel to The Seven Dials Mystery. We have another corpse in a room of clocks, we have talk of an organisation of spies, and we even discover Inspector Battle's son investigating (it's never said exactly who "Colin Lamb" is, but it's made fairly clear).

Christie is making the point that time has passed. What was perfect in a Wodehouse-style jape now looks deliberately bizarre. Whereas The Seven Dials mystery was solved in secret corridors, fast cars and high-society, this is uncovered by painstaking and deliberate plodding around a middle-class housing estate. The placidly omniscient Sergeant Battle's son shares his father's quiet efficiency, but his life is more about donkey work.

This is a story of two worlds which Poirot hovers above like a quietly-amused God of a past age. There is the housing estate that Lamb trudges endlessly around with its front rooms and back gardens, and then there is the world of Sheila Webb's typing bureau, a place of boring repetition, of lunch hours and office gossip.

We've met the typing pool before in Christie (notably in They Came To Baghdad), but here this isn't a springboard to espionage, but a very mundane place, where the excitement is a broken heel or a morning off, and their typing work is not secrets, but all too often the the very worst kind of novel ("there is nothing duller than dull pornography").

The housing estate is similarly unglamorous. Gone are the drawing rooms and parlour games of early Christie. Whereas Miss Marple ventured to an estate in The Mirror Crack's From Side To Side, Battle is firmly entrenched in it. But just because it's a lower social class doesn't make the people any less remarkable - we've the magnificent blind teacher, the harrassed mother, the grubby children who say "Coo!", even someone who is referred to as an actual tart. But somewhere among these drab, normal people is a murderer and also a ring of international espionage.

This is a very strange mystery in a very mundane world. It is this contrast that points Poirot to the solution - "the whole thing is melodramatic, fantastic, and completely unreal". Having found this, Poirot unravels this and is even able to solve the murder and the spy case. Although, even here, he can't resist pulling a chain of coincidences out of the bag that even Ariadne Oliver would blench at. You do get to the end of The Clocks charmed and satisfied, but also quietly muttering "So she is her... and she knew this and so when she... and he... and oh...!"

NEXT: Peril At End House

Monday, 19 October 2009

Destination Unknown 1955

PLOT: Missing scientists, plucky suicide, and The Prisoner in Casablanca.

Almost pure plot, Destination Unknown rattles along triumphantly, trumpeting its difference - No drawing rooms! No detectives! No death! I'm betting this sheer unChristie-ness contributes to its rather low reputation, which is thoroughly undeserved.

The first half is the standard world of the Christie thriller - there are mysterious government agents behind closed doors, luxurious hotels and enigmatic passengers on planes. There are the vividly convincing touches of local detail ("You come with me. We have very fine toilet! Oh very fine! Just like the Ritz Hotel.").

But there is a crucial difference - that of a mysterious women in a hotel who assumes a false name, a wife abandoned by her cheating husband and contemplating suicide in luxurious surroundings. Is this an Agatha Christie figure? *shrugs* What's more important is what Hilary Craven offers the plot - she's able to go on a remarkable mission because she's very willing to die.

This mission takes up the second half of the book, and it is The Prisoner. Hilary finds herself in a mysterious society which could be in Africa or behind the Iron Curtain. There are enigmatic leaders, assumed identities, brainwashers, peculiar rules, surveillance, and all the luxurious comforts of home including shops and cinemas... but it is still a prison, a prison designed to extract knowledge from people the world thinks dead. Frankly, blimey. To take against this book because there aren't corpses in the library is short-sighted - all Christie is missing is a giant killer balloon and some repressed homosexuality and we're there.

There's some intriguing political musings going on here. Christie appears to be saying that communist and fascist and anarchist are all easily swayed. Her Number One isn't a Nightmare Soul, but a cunning capitalist spider sucking knowledge from everyone.

In amongst a shower of riches we're presented with a character called Andy Peters, the veiled awkwardness of two people pretending to be married while under observation, and an uneasy disguise which includes "full Negroid lips".

One of the big shames is that the book peters out. In some ways it's been driving towards this ending, and it ticks a lot of boxes - showdown, secrets, arrests etc, but there's also the queasy sense that diplomatic pragmatism has prevailed over justice and that Christie is hurrying back to familiar ground without having fully explored her amazing alternative society.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Appointment with Death (1938)

PLOT: Big bad Momma pops it in Petra.

"What an absurdity of an old tyrant!"

Unusually, this book gets duller AFTER the murder is committed.

Christie creates a great villain in Mrs Boynton, the satanic buddha (is there such a thing?) with her vast bulk, toad face and malevolent control over her family. Which is fine until the old dear is finished off, leaving the book without its most interesting character for the last two thirds.

It's the exact reverse of the "Oh, this is all very well, but when will the detective turn up?" factor. Marvellous as he is, Poirot would have to enter cartwheeling with fireworks clamped between his teeth to be as fascinating as Mrs Boynton.

If ever a Christie villain needed a plan for world domination and a death ray it's Mrs B. As it is, she's a supreme evil forced to content herself with torturing her family. As plucky Sarah King comments, it's a bit pathetic really.

And yet, for the 100 pages where Mrs Boynton holds court, she dominates the book, undermining, shredding and manipulating her offspring, making them so colourless that it's quite hard to remember how many step-children she has. One heartily wishes the old bat dead, and then instantly regrets the impulse when facing 150 pages without her.

As though slightly despairing of the Boynton clan, Christie wheels out a vibrant supporting cast. There's the wonderfully Avengers-ish Dr Sarah King, and the brilliant ghastly Lady Westholme with her "large red rocking horse nostrils" and many other finely written scenes ("Lady Westholme entered the room with the assurance of a transatlantic liner coming into dock" is one of many wonderful Wodehouse-isms). There's also a jumpy spinster and a curiously creepy psychiatrist who talks frankly about intercourse ("One always comes back to sex, does one not?")

We score 1 for Pro-Semitism with the wonderfully repellant tour guide ("misery and iniquities the Jews do to us") who everyone deplores. Poirot's replacement Hastings here is Colonel Carbury, a tidy mind in an untidy body whose tie Poirot is always straightening.

There are two further weaknesses that the book must deal with. The first is that all the characters appear to have read Murder On The Orient Express and use its twist ending as a reason for Poirot to drop the case - this is another crime where the world is better without the victim in it. Poirot counters all this admirably ("I do not approve of murder"), but cannot overcome the setting.

The stage play of Appointment With Death elimintates Poirot and, once the characters reach Petra, they stay there. The book gets to Petra, finishes off Mrs B, and then spends the rest of it in hotel rooms. Poirot does not even get to Petra, which seems unfair. One imagines that, for the inevitable ITV adaptation, David Suchet's contract will stipulate "Poirot arrives in Petra on a donkey".

The book finishes in a remarkable fashion. When Poirot summons people to the "You may have wondered why I called you here" scene, there are several suspects missing. What happens next is either clever or arbitrary, but great use is made of a throwaway mention of a shoe being dropped. As to whether the murderer is a good choice or not, Christie changed her mind for the stage play.

This is a curious book. People who don't read Christie say that she's a bad writer but her plots are good. This book is arguably the reverse - it's full of great characters wonderfully described, but the actual mystery is a slight disappointment.

NEXT: Christie does The Prisoner with Destination Unknown

Monday, 5 October 2009

They Came To Baghdad (1951)

PLOT: Bridget Jones does James Bond in a ripping thriller of intrigue, murder and bad typing.

Victoria Jones is bored of being a very bad typist and on a whim follows a dashing stranger to Iraq where she gets involved in an international conspiracy. Along the way she's kidnapped, betrayed, and goes undercover as an archaeologist with no idea that she alone is the last living key to a global disaster.

Crikey! This is thumpingly good stuff. Just when I was getting tired of murder cocktail with a twist, here comes a charming thriller starring plucky Victoria Jones. By her own admission she's neither intelligent nor smart, but she has bucketloads of pluck and cunning which sees her through a world of lethal murder and secret revolutions admirably.

Victoria is a great heroine and proves how even more fun a Bridget Jones book would be if the guest cast dropped like flies. She's endearingly at home at an ambassador's reception and totally out of place infiltrating a sinister society. It's knuckle-gasp time as she trots into work, surrounded by obviously Villainous Sorts, making a hash of typing up the lethal plans of the Olive Branch.

With her wounded pride and her "Some of the cleverest people can't spell" attitude she sticks out like a sore thumb against the ice cool Catherine who you just know is a bad 'un. After Poirot's perfections, Victoria is a breath of fresh air, armed only with her niceness and determination.

Christie pulls off 1950s Iraq with aplomb and not a whiff of racism, peopling it with vivid locals, arrogant Englishers, and offices with secret doors and hidden agendas. We get the super-super spy Fakir Carmichael who is so noble he'd make Biggles blub, we've the secretly efficient Mr Dakin, we've a wonderfully decent hotelier who doesn't mind that Victoria's broke, and diplomats with a love of good furniture.

It's splendid, splendid stuff - and just when you think it can't get better, comes Victoria's visit to the archaeological dig, and a spot of clear autobiography for Christie as she faithfully explains her Mesopotamian labours and the wonders of Max Mallowan. As charming as the reality was, the real Christie wasn't on the tun from a death cult. But there we are.

NEXT: Big bad momma in Petra - it's Appointment With Death!