Monday, 31 May 2010

Dead Man's Folly (1956)

Plot: A murder mystery game turns real.

You're in for a bit of a surprise with Dead Man's Folly. It pulls off that strange late Christie trick of being very readable and entertaining whilst being... er, not very good.

Things that suck:

1) The murder of a child.
Christie just sails into this without even a flicker of sentimentality. Poor Marlene Tucker is vulgar, which kind of marks her out for death. There's even the monstrous moment where a doctor is asked if it's a sex crime: "I wouldn't say so, no. I shouldn't say she'd been a very attractive girl." Marlene's family are treated similarly badly with mutterings about their grubbiness, nagging, and general weakness. Her mother's reaction is a mixture of sobbing grief and a lament that her husband won't get his chance at the coconut shy now.

2) Not with Poirot around
By now, surely, you'd know better than to stage a murder with Poirot on the scene? We've encountered this problem before in Death On The Nile, but this is a positive trumpeting, arranging for Poirot to be on hand for a pre-determined death. Are we supposed to believe that murderers are brashly over-confident?

3) The whole reason for the crime
When you realise what's causing all this, you do have a sudden spike of worry. Is that really all it comes down to? There are about three different solutions that would avoid any homicide. One of which is to claim mumps, the other is to rush off shopping and leave a note. It's genuinely a case where murder just seems like a lot of trouble just to avoid an awkward social occasion.

4) The ending
It's not just rushed, it's a positive cascade of revelation. Many of the facts are Utterly New to the reader. There's no feeling of "Oh, if only I'd realised" just a lament of "Oi, that's not fair!". This is offset by the marvellous symbolism of Poirot's last act which makes the entire book make sense.

But what's to love about this book?

1) Ariadne and Hercule
Christie's fictional alter ego bumbles through the book brilliantly. She's outraged at learning that "apparently she drinks like a fish" and is all mad hair and scatty schemes that make her great fun - and Poirot positively softens under her influence. The two balance each other nicely and make for a great pair.

2) The Idea
There's a story in "While The Last Lasts" based on a treasure hunt Christie was asked to devise. Here we see a whole mystery built up around a murder game... the only shame is that the game is abandoned so quickly, and proves to be almost incidental to the actual murder (a good hard shove on a dark night would be a lot subtler).

3) The Parallels
Ariadne Oliver's mind creates some bizarre characters for her game - outlandish grotesques who all, eventually, turn out to have their twins somewhere in the book. It's a clever way of Christie getting away with a larger-than-life plot while at the same time mocking the extravagances of crime fiction.

4) Mrs Folliat
The lapsed gentlewoman is lovely. We've come a long way from the roaring gals of the 1920s to the genteel poor. Mrs Folliat is a proto-Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton, renting out the lodge while her stately home is occupied by newcomers. She maintains her social position almost effortlessly, and behaves with perfect grace as the real lady of the manor. It's a very complicated, bittersweet portrait of fallen grandeur, and Christie pulls it off brilliantly... especially when we realise that Mrs F's sacrifices have been more severe than we originally realised.

5) Lady Stubbs
The naively manipulative wife is another great portrait. Everyone involved announces that she's a really very stupid women, and yet no-one can quite escape her simpering manipulation. She manages to dominate the book while spending quite a lot of it absent, usually tucked up in bed.

There are also a lot of familiar themes knocking around - impersonation, long-lost relatives, sinister spies, dangerously smooth foreighners, and even the terrible mayhem wrought by a new wife...

Yes, it may be a bit of an odd read, and not one of the best, but it's still very rewarding.


  1. Thanks for posting this - it is hilarious - I read this book a few years ago and agree with your points - I think that you can't really beat early CHristie....

    thanks for sharing