Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Third Girl (1966)

Plot: Dolly birds on disco drugs! Poirot sails into the sixties!

Yet more japes with Ariadne Oliver and Hercule Poirot, this time set in the wild whirl of sixties flatshares. Things have come quite a way from the boarding house of Hickory Dickory Dock - we're in a world where three young gals pal up in a flat, swapping chit chat over morning coffee and sharing gossip about their come-downs:

"I was up too late last night," Frances said, "... Basil would make us try some new pills - Emerald Dreams."

Now, don't roll your eyes. Despite all this lunacy it's all very jolly. Christie's always been quite blase about drugs, and despite this odd hiccup, the relentless sang-froid actually suits the feel of the story - which is a bit like that Murray Lachlan Young poem "Everyone's Taking Cocaine".

The constant drugs form an important background, as underneath all this (slight spoilers) is the suspected Gaslighting of poor Norma the Third Girl. Is she really a mentally disturbed murderess? Is she taking refuge in drugs? Is she doing things unconsciously? Or is something stranger happening? The truth is both interesting and complex, and shows Christie experimenting with a whole new type of murder and a whole new type of poisoning.

The trick that Christie is pulling is actually very clever, as she uses the drugs both as a red herring and as a key ingredient, and also uses them to misdirect you away from what's really going on (which has slight echoes of Curtain).

Both Poirot and Ariadne are clearly very old here - in fact, the whole mystery starts because Norma takes one look at Poirot, nearly tells him everything and then says "I'm sorry, but you're too old" and rushes out of the room.

In a way this is the story of the Golden Age of Crime trying to come to terms with the 1960s. Although, what actually happens is that the Golden Age storytelling tames the 60s. Gradually Christie stirs some familiar ingredients into the new age - so we get a country house, a mysterious old colonel writing his memoirs, a sinister foreign nurse, and a ruggedly heroic doctor type who is planning on emigrating to the colonies. Elements that Christie cannot control she cunningly unleashes Poirot on, so we see him running an espionage network, and even arranging a kidnapping from a greasy spoon cafe.

Ariadne Oliver is as splendid as ever, and gets to go on a secret mission, attend an artist's studio party, and get clubbed unconscious. The latter act has curious similarities to the indisposal of Tuppence in By The Pricking Of My Thumbs - surely, you think later, it would have been easy to murder the old love? But then we'd be denied a great character.

Talking of characters, we get a lovely old loopy colonel who manages this week's winning racist remark about Poirot:

"A clever chap but a thorough frog, isn't he? You know, mincing and dancing and bowing and scraping."

Again, not a *great* book, but a thoroughly lovely rattle of a read which gets away with it.