Monday, 17 May 2010

Death In The Clouds (1935)

Plot: Murder in mid-air with a sting in the tale.

Sorry for the summary which makes me feel like someone haplessly subbing Jeffrey Archer blurbs. It's not doing Death In The Clouds justice. Let's start by looking at a few tropes:

1) Locked room mystery
Peculiarly, Christie doesn't often use this device. When she does, she frequently sets herself the added challenge of locking all the suspects in with the victim - here, in Murder On The Orient Express and even in Cards On The Table. Just for an added bit of fun.

Of course, Christie doesn't leave it at that, and makes one of the suspects a hapless author of detective fiction who is too busy consulting his railway timetables to spot a real murder taking place in front of him. Poor Mr Clancy with his mess and bananas is the butt of a lot of the book's humour.

2) Plain Jane Super Brain
We know what to expect of Jane Grey by now. She's that figure who emerges in 30s Christie - plucky, lower-middle class. Ordinary background but bright and capable. Sometimes she's a typist, sometimes a shop assistant. Here she's a hairdresser. Perhaps placed there for her typical reader she's not a noblewoman with a sports car, but an aspirational figure - taken out of normal life and plunged into a world of intrigue and murder. There are a lot of similarities with Jane and the heroine of They Came To Baghdad - she's practical, reasonable, develops an interest in archaeology (and archaeologists), and is not necessarily looking for love in the right place.

3) The Dashing Young Man Who Is Not What He Appears

Talking of which, the less said the better. But Christie is developing an archetypal character who will rock up, be jolly reasonable, and yet... come the end...

4) The Society Bitch

There's no other phrase for Lady Horbury, who is just vile and Christie has enormous fun with her. Men-stealing society harpies get little mercy from Christie (is this revenge for the end of her first marriage?), and Lady H has every single vice lovingly described. She takes cocaine with more gusto than any other Christie character we've so far encountered which clearly marks her out as a wrong-un. She even declared "Do you know who I am?" and is unable to file her nails without assistance. Her ultimate fate will annoy readers, but is in keeping with the journey of similar characters in titles like Five Little Pigs.

5) Sensation

Christie frequently mocks the absurdity of the plot - it's all about a woman assasinated in mid-air with snake venom. But, as Poirot points out "c'est possible?" - but it's very effective as a mystery. It's made even more so by some vicious mockery of the press, with a wonderful interlude courtesy of a reporter from the Weekly Howl with "a certain glib assurance" and a loose connection to the truth. Reading this book explains why Christie didn't love giving interviews.

6) Avoidance of formula
Christie's well into her stride with this book. She manages to fit in the dutiful round of interrogations, and even the obvious list-making, but she breaks it up compellingly. So our detectives dart across the Channel, assume disguises, investigate curiosities, arrange two weddings and provide a list of everyone's luggage (both stuffed with clues and also a fascinating cultural document).

7) Jews
It's tempting to type "anti-semitism rears its ugly head", but that's almost falling into the same trap. We meet a Jewish hairdresser called Antoine who is referred to as "Ikey Andrew". He's not a sympathetic character and I really wish he hadn't been Jewish. It's getting tiresome.

8) Dentists

Hello Norman Gale, Jane's bumbling quasi-love-interest. Again we see Poirot forming a band of investigators out of his suspects, and Norman is fun. On first seeing Jane on the plane he checks her for gum disease. We follow his thoughts as his practice collapses as his patients shy away from him after his involvement with the murder, provoking a hint of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe with the line "If the dentist were to run amuck".

Lord knows why I'm making a list, as it means I can't come up with a heading for Poriot's use of the phrase "Le Sex Appeal", no matter how much I want to.


  1. Wonderful inventive review - this is one of my favourites (and I like almost all of them apart from I have never quite got along with Tommy and Tuppence).

    Thanks for sharing


  2. Aw thanks Hannah. Tommy and Tuppence I am growing to very much like, but I suspect that may change with Postern Of Fate.

  3. Christie's description of the murderer transforming, almost were-rat like, at the end, is one of her strongest sentences ever written imo. Superb.