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 As a foreigner himself he avoids the worst of it, but there are a fair few clumps of outdated terms and unsympathetic characters.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.

No comments:

Post a Comment