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

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