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...

1 comment:

  1. Watch the 2003 movie. It's better and more emotional.