Friday, 30 July 2010

Murder on the Links (1923)

Plot: Well, there's a murder. On some links.

What happens when Agatha Christie isn't as famously readable as normal? For some reason Murder On The Links bounced off my eyes tiresomely and I grew cross with myself for just not getting it. Well, for the first 150 pages or so.

It's an odd book - lacking the fluid style of "golden age" Christie, the sheer machine code brilliance of "The Mysterious Affair At Styles", or even the bonkers madness of "The Big Four", it just happens. Perfectly competently etc etc, but just so hard to get into.

The failing is more with me than with Christie - by now I'm looking for things which aren't yet there. Poirot is a stiff cadaver, Hastings an unsubtle booby, and although the murder happens swiftly, the mechanics of the investigation grind mercilessly on as one drab character after another is wheeled creakingly to the stage to give a statement. It's all so lifeless and tepid.

Poirot's stilted characterisation isn't helped by the introduction of Giraud, an even more outlandishly eccentric Gallic detective. Each is just a heap of annoying mannerisms, both treat Hastings with amused scorn, and neither makes the other feel real and...

And then, once you're over the first 150 pages, the fireworks go off.

Trying to put my finger on it, I'd risk saying that the book improves as soon as Christie gets her big cheat out of the way. Poirot rushes off to Paris and comes back with a bit of information the reader could not have possibly known, deduced or guessed. As soon as Poirot slaps this down on the table, the book changes gear and all sorts of intercontinental madness is rolled out at great pace, the enormous plot engine churning furiously away.

Suddenly the book becomes ripping fun. We meet twin acrobats! We hurtle between France and England and France again! We meet new characters! We dramatically re-interpret old ones! There are wigs and disguises, and remarkable, remarkable twists. It's as though Christie has finally pushed the book up a wearisome slope and is now enjoying freewheeling downhill.

All sorts of things that seemed lumpen suddenly have a purpose, and, amid all the fireworks, there's a lot of sheer misdirection. If you catch your breath, the direction from which the murderer comes is obvious, but you don't pause, not even for a second as you're just too excited. Christie keeps pulling back the stage, announcing twist after giddy twist - many of them exquisitely sign-posted.

It's like the welcome return of an old friend. Much of Murder On The Links reads like the kind of contemporary fiction Christie often spoofs - intriguing mystery, eccentric detective, not much else... but those last hundred pages she's firmly back in the driving seat. The glory of the end of the book is tremendous - Poirot is almost godlike in his cunning, Hastings is at his best, both as a character and biased narrator, and the whole thing is fluidly oiled.

Which makes Not Getting On with the opening even more annoying. It feels like the fault is squarely mine rather than Christie's. But, as this is the internet, the home of snide carping, I'll instead say that it is the sign of a mastercrafstman finding their true voice in midflight. There we go - that's a thunderingly mixed metaphor. Good.

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