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

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