Monday, 30 November 2009

Hickory Dickory Dock (1955)

PLOT: Student flatshare - Bizarre thefts, death by poisoning, rucksacks and racism. It's the 1950s version of This Life

This is both the most racist and the least racist Christie I've read by far. Set in a shared student house with a clutch of international students, owned by the vile Greek Mrs Nicoletis, there are several sentences that make you wince, such as Mrs Nicoletis's first rant ("as for these coloured ones - scram!"). We meet the student known "affectionately" as Black Bess, and the gentle Mr Akibombo, and there's even the ghastly Nigel, who is probably a gay. He's not quite the mincing horror from Murder Is Easy, but he's always laughing and shrieking and spreading marmalade on toast in the middle of a crisis. And if that isn't a sign of a wendy, then I don't know what is.

Poirot muddles through admirably. As a foreigner himself he avoids the worst of it, but there are a fair few clumps of outdated terms and unsympathetic characters. In amongst all this is a fascinating portrait of shared student housing - and a remarkably mixed, accepting lot they are if you remember that at the time many boarding houses had signs outside saying "No Dogs, No Irish, No Blacks". But still... this isn't an easy read at times.

It's the stray details that disturb. I think we're meant to loathe Mrs Nicoletis, and not to like the vile Chandra Lal, and we're supposed to think fondly of Mr Akibombo, who appears to go out on dates with one character even though she actually falls for someone else, even though she does ask him to her wedding. It's just the occasional descriptions of the poor man - sometimes he's quite eloquent, other times he's like the Um-Bongo commercial. And then there are lines like "Akibombo nodded an enthusiastic black woolly head and showed his white teeth in a pleased smile", which is as close to Bo-Jo's dreaded "picaninny smiles" as you would want to get.

But this isn't actually a story about racism. It is about love. And Poirot "suddenly felt very tired of love", when he clears up an initial mystery, which turns out to be about a student turning kleptomaniac in order to gain the interest of the psychology student she loves. This all goes horribly wrong, and soon there's an impressively high body count.

By the end it's all quite curious. Some things are resolved and some things aren't - the mysterious smuggling ring, for example either does, or does not work out neatly. A few people fall in love, and some real nastiness is revealed. It's a great read, but at the same time, there's that troubling question of "Is Christie simply being honest about her times and is she actually quite liberal for them?" remains.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Five Little Pigs (1942)

PLOT: Poirot is asked to solve a murder that took place 16 years ago, and does so by talking to the five witnesses. A lot.

There's a despicable kind of person who apparently can't resist flicking to the end of a detective novel just to know who did it. Five Little Pigs is that remarkable thing, a book which feel like you needn't to bother.

I'm not claiming any amazing deductive powers here. This is a book that, from a handful of pages in, pretty much screams the name of the villain. The clues are dropped in so obviously they may as well be printed in bold italic with a bit of underlining. But are things really that simple? Even if they're just red herrings, should they be painted such a bright shade of scarlet?

It's a peculiar book all in. Perhaps I'm just saying that because knowing who did it in this case knocks so much of the stuffing out of it. You can, you should, re-read Murder of Roger Ackroyd knowing who did it. But this is one where, from the very first, you don't even detect cunning misdirection, so much as a giant arrow hanging over the perpetrator whenever their name is mentioned. And if it doesn't turn out to be them, then it's an absolutely massive cheat.

In terms of approach it is similar to Josephine Tey's Daughter Of Time, in that it unleashes a detective on a long-ago crime. Poirot must pick his way through recollection and written statements, overturning accepted fact and revealing a deeper psychological truth. Or, if you prefer, Poirot must kick his heels for a couple of hundred pages before revealing the bleeding obvious.

Without the narrative veneer of Hastings, we do get a remarkable insight into the detective's methods. We see him deciding when to "play the foreigner", by turns flattering, deceiving, or applying rigorous candour. We see him carefully, ingeniously cultivating the trust of suspects, of relaying half of a truth in the hopes of securing revelation.

We also see more of Poirot's mind. The book is mostly about the careful interrogation of five suspects - and we see how, powerfully, Poirot doesn't care for any of them very much. Whereas Miss Marple loves people for all their weaknesses, Poirot sees each suspect merely as a type and works on them accordingly.

In many books the human centre is Hastings. In this book it is the cameo of the victims' daughter, all grown up. Everyone else is merely fodder for Poirot's mental machinery. Poor Clara Lemarchant - a wild artist for a father and an equally precarious mother, damned by everyone. Even Clara, determined to vindicate her, says "I wasn't, I don't think, especially fond of her".

The art of the book lies in delicately layering and relayering Clara's idea of her parents. Sometimes we see them as vile grotesques, at others as deeply human and interesting for all of their flaws. Sometimes we side with the mother, sometimes with the father, frequently with their friends, and even occasionally with the wily girl intent on destroying their marriage.

The problem is that, just as Poirot doesn't like any of them very much, neither do we. There's some remarkable psychology at work, but also a sneaking suspicion that Agatha Christie herself doesn't care for any of them either.

It is a cold book. There's little of Christie's trademark humour and warmth. Sometimes, reading these books, you think what fun it would be to meet these people. But not this one - you get an impression of awkward meals, gin and door-slamming.

It is at its most remarkable when it offers portraits of the survivors - such as Lord and Lady Dittisham in their cold, luxurious palace. If Lord Dittisham is a poet without human sympathy, his wife is a statue robbed of a soul.

While I've said the structure is remarkable, it's actually a twist on the route often taken by Ngaio Marsh, where the crime takes place and then is narrated from several points of view by witnesses before the detective sees the way through the woods. And, oddly, just as the heart sinks slightly when you realise you're reading one of the duller Ngaio Marsh novels, there's a similar feeling that hangs over Five Little Pigs - it is a book held prisoner in its structure. It's especially dispiriting when, Poirot having interviewed all five suspects, he then reviews their five written accounts. "Oh no, not again," you groan - even though it's a great exercise in different narrative voices, and is also stripping the detective novel down to its bare essentials - five subtly conflicting narratives. Five little pigs. One porkie pie.

Curiously, Christie will return to the "nostalgia murder" approach a couple of times - including in the late, problematic Poirot adventure, Elephants Can Remember. It's as though she's trying to solve not a murder, but a structure. Somewhere in this, she is thinking, is the key to a brilliant mystery novel. Maybe I've not quite got it yet, but I'll have another go...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)

PLOT: Someone really doesn't like dentists.

This book is about remarkable coincidence. You can buy that a murder happens whenever Poirot goes on holiday, just as Jessica Fletcher's friends probably check in with their solicitors every time she announces she's dropping round.

By now, of course, you'd assume that if you were planning a murder and you realise that Poirot is on holiday with you, you'd have second thoughts. Similarly, if you're a rich heiress with a persecution complex and Poirot turns up, you'd either jump off the train or summon a priest.

At first glance, this book takes that on the chin. Poirot isn't on safari but mundanely at the dentist. This is an everyday creepy setting and a great place for a murder... but...

The chain of coincidence that this book then requires is remarkable.
  • Poirot has a dentist. Fine.
  • He shares this dentist with the most powerful financial brain in Britain. Also fine - after all, why not specialise in clever teeth?
  • Although one of your clients is Miss Sainsbury Seale, who is very dim.
  • And she just happens to know a powerful secret.
  • She also just happens to have met a powerful blackmailer who just happens to have toothache.

So, just a few pages in, remarkable machinery has been set in motion and the murderer is presented with a most remarkable opportunity that will change the country's future. It's too good to miss. But, and you should remember this... this is also Poirot's dentist!

For the book to succeed, and it does succeed, Christie lays on top of this coincidence a remarkable number of layers of complexity.

So, as well as the dentist at the centre of the universe we have impostors, super secret spies, mysterious organisations, false telegrams and suspicious fiancees as well as at least one death which is almost motiveless.

This is a book stuffed full of herrings, some of them painted a magnificent red which is patiently washed off by Poirot, leaving you, by the end, aware that the book is about something you really didn't think it could be about.

The framing device of the nursery rhyme adds to the splendid conclusion - it has almost nothing to do with the story, and yet, by the end, you realise it has everything to do with the solution.

The book also re-poses the question of necessary murder to Poirot. Is there such a thing as a crime that is so important that justice cannot be brought? Not in Poirot's eyes. Curiously, the ITV adaptation implies that, by making this choice, Poirot causes the second world war. Which seems a little unfair.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Taken At The Flood (1948)

PLOT: Can Poirot save rich widow Rosaleen Underhay?

Poirot's made it through the Second World War. When we first met him he was a refugee during the First World War and possibly retired. So how old is he now? It's best not to ask.

Taken At The Flood is interesting from the point of "Does Christie change with the times, or does she simply redress her mannequins in fashionable outfits?". This is a grim novel of a damaged, glum Britain, with air raids, blitzed London and villages plunged into miserable poverty. It's very contemporary and appropriate - there's no sense of conspicuous affluence or that the cast haven't been changed by the global upheaval.

And yet... peel off the new wrappings, and we've the classic village full of suspicion, a rich young heiress, a black sheep, a tiny bit of occult and a lot of vocal and chemical poison. The sense is that, despite everything, England carries on - the world of quiet malice behind the flower arranging.

Poirot is dragged in by the poisonously new age Mrs Lionel Cloade ("M. Poirot, I have come to you under spirit guidance"). It's a story of an Old Family who are trying to adjust to New Money - to their rich brother's nervous widow, Rosaleen, and her domineering brother, David.

It's world of subtle nastiness and complicated resentments. The Cloades despise Rosaleen, but depend on her for money, at the same time as questioning just how she came into her inheritance. The story all comes down to what noble Lynn Cloade realises - "We'd do anything, anything for money."

The story splits two ways - both an investigation of mystery of the past and a mysterious stranger from the present, and Poirot hovers over both, quietly, regretfully investigating. And everywhere he turns is the same motive - "We'd do anything for money". So it is that we meet characters like the shabby genteel Major, who still goes to his club but lives in threadbare poverty, broken by taxation. Every single person in the book is driven by greed - this is the world of classic Christie but come upon hard times.

So it is that we find Poriot at a miserable hotel ("Here there was a good fire, but in a large arm-chair, toasting her toes comfortably, was a monumental old lady who glared at Poirot" and the Coffee Room, "the only time coffee was served there was somewhat grudgingly for breakfast and that even then a good deal of watery hot was its principal component"), carrying out his investigation into the lives of people who are literally mean-spirited. In many ways it's business as usual - complicated lies and alibis, but hanging over it is a sense of tiredness and despair. The war is over but there's no real sense of victory, and everyone's morals are slightly off balance.

It's a melancholy, dismal book, and affecting in its sense of tragedy. The noblest character is Lynn, returning from war to find herself repelled by her lovelorn cousin Rowley and instead besotted with rakish David. But who will she end up with? Well, actually, that's one of the most interesting, and troubling scenes...


Lynn goes to see Rowley to break the news that she's leaving him for exciting, risky David. Rowley is anguished - she's been away to war, he's been stuck behind, having to keep the farm going. He feels left out of life and now abandoned by her. For her part she's refusing to give up her independence, her love of excitement.

And then Rowley cracks, and strangles Lynn, and we realise that Rowley's broken the law to keep order.

Only... Poirot turns up at the last minute, suggests a pot of tea, and explains what's really happened. It's quite startling - oddly like the kitchen murder from Torn Curtain in its savagery and civility, but also has a really, really odd conclusion.

Lynn realises that, after all, it is Rowley she loves. Or, as she puts it, "When you caught hold of me by the throat... I knew then that I was your woman." Umm. I think the point is that she's realised that Rowley isn't as meek as she thought he was, but the message that's coming over is that a bit of domestic violence can bring necessary spice to a relationship. Ah well, different times.

The ending is ultimately and appropriately bleak and morally curious. Poirot, the avenging angel, allows death to be misattributed and for a killer to find happiness with someone they attempted to murder.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Peril At End House (1932)

PLOT: Who could possibly want to kill the eccentric heiress of a ramshackle house?

Crikey. On one level this is a jolly murder romp with a neat twist ending. On another level this is a very dark game of cat and mouse - and Poirot's not necessarily the cat.

Superficially bright and sunny this is Poirot and Hastings on a seaside holiday taking strolls and, in between cups of tea, trying to save young Nick Buckley from some implausible plots against her life.

Actually, this is a complicated look at the Bright Young Things. We've seen them before in The Secret of Chimneys deftly mixing crime and cocktails, but this is a darker brew. Young Nick may seem like an untidy saint, but her friends paint a blacker picture of the society she mixes in, all involved in drug-smuggling, debt and dirty weekends.

We get Nick's best friend Freddie, who doesn't really like Nick, is off her head most of the time, and yet has a certain integrity. We get the honest naval officer who is anything but and the successful art dealer whose as fast as his car.

This contrasts with two dull cousins - honest Maggie and the lawyer, neither of whom are painted as particularly exciting, and yet both of them are revealed as having a lot more going on than first appears.

This is a book of fragile appearances and constant impersonation - only Poirot and Hastings are who they appear to be. We even reach a stage where Poirot meets some comedy Australians and remarks that they're a bit too comedy Australian to be believable.

By the end of the book, even Poirot is being impersonated as part of a plot involving chocolates that aren't what they appear to be and we've a corpse that isn't what it appears to be and ... oh my lord.

You won't be surprised to hear that this is a book with a good twist ending that sees Poirot more than justify his reputation - and a good job too, as the book has seen characters assuring Poirot that they've never heard of him. As it turns out, that isn't what it appears to be, either.