Posted Tuesday afternoon, January 30, 2018.
Agatha Christie and a few of her books. Cover photo for her autobiography. Copyright William Morrow Co., via Parade.
I’ve been having a high old time reading Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels---ok, listening to Hugh Fraser’s marvelous audiobook performances. Fraser played Hastings to David Suchet’s Poirot on the television series but on the audiobooks he plays everybody, including Poirot, and does a terrific job of being everybody, including Poirot. It’s close to Jim Dale’s Harry Potter readings in voice acting brilliance. At any rate, I’m having fun. I was a big fan of the TV series but I hadn’t read any of the books since high school. As I slide---stumble and stagger, to be precise---into a dull and decrepit old age, it’s a comfort to me to know I have dozens of Christie’s books to look forward to reading and re-reading to help me get through the bleak and lonely nights ahead, And isn’t that a cheering thought? Never mind. Point is, I’ve been surprised at how well-written they are and by how trenchant.
Christie worked in types and stock characters but so did Dickens and Shakespeare and Terry Pratchett, and, no, I’m not about to make the case that she’s anywhere near as brilliant a writer as the three of them, either as a prose stylist or a psychologist or a humorist. But she knows people and she uses her characters to get at truths about human nature, of which she is sharply critical. Though Poirot is in his way an angel---an angel of justice and retribution---that makes him inhuman. The humans in her books are all too human. Hastings included. And there’s not a saint among them. Her murderers are evil but for the most part they aren’t inhuman and the evil that motivates them to kill exists to greater and lesser degrees in almost all her characters. That’s a necessary trope of murder mysteries. Many characters other than the actual murderer have to be capable of evil in order for them to be suspects and there to be a mystery.
In the last month or so, I’ve polished off Murder on the Orient Express, The A.B.C. Murders, Murder on the Links, and The Clocks, and Sunday night I finished Hallowe’en Party. The first three were more or less what I expected. Cozy, old-fashioned puzzlers that readers do their best to solve for themselves before Poirot calls all the suspects together for the Big Reveal. The Clocks and Hallowe’en Party are decidedly different. Darker. More cynical. And Christie has moved from genial social observation to explicit and acerbic social commentary. This has much to due with when they’re set.
Overly influenced by the TV series with only the dimmest memories of the books I read in high school, I had the idea that all her stories and novels took place in an eternal Pre-World War II world and like Bertie Wooster and Jeeves Poirot and Hastings didn’t age and their circumstances and their version of England didn’t change. So I was startled to startled when in The Clocks I hit upon this passage:
There were few people about. A couple of boys on bicycles passed me, two women with shopping bags. The houses themselves might have been embalmed like mummies for all the signs of life there were in them. I knew why that was. It was already, or close upon, the sacred hour of one, an hour sanctified by English traditions to the consuming of the a midday meal. In one or two of the houses I could see through the uncurtained windows a group of one or two people round a dining table, but even that was exceedingly rare. Either the windows were discreetly screened with nylon netting, as opposed to the once popular Nottingham lace, or---which was far more probable---anyone who was at home was eating in the “modern” kitchen, according to the custom of the 1960s.
This occurs on page 235 of my paperback edition. There were plenty of clues to the time period but I was apparently ignoring them or failing to register them. The big clue that should have hit me over the head is that the subplot is a spy story, a Cold War spy story. Christie seems to have been influenced by John le Carre (or did she influence him? The first Smiley novel, Call for the Dead, was published in 1961, the second, A Murder of Quality in ‘62, and the third, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in ‘64. The Clocks is copyrighted 1964. But A Murder of Quality has as much in common with a traditional Christie mystery as it does with le Carre’s later spy stories.) not Ian Fleming, but the fact is the Russians are the enemies and I let that go right by me. I was reading The Clocks as if it was set in what I took as the vintage Christie world of a sentimentalized 1920s and 30s. I was probably over-influenced by the first seven seasons of the TV series which were set in the 1930s with World War II in the offing but still years away.
By the way, the TV series isn’t all that sentimental about the time period.
In tone and in what happens within the main murder mystery plot, though, The Clocks could be set in the 20s or 30s, and that bit about the “modern” kitchen reads as if the narrator, who is the hero of both the spy story and the mystery (after Poirot, of course), is observing the 1960s in passing. It’s as if he’s looking into the future the way he looks into the windows, with momentary interest as he continues purposefully on his way to his main business of solving the mystery back in the present, which, like I said, reads like it’s a couple of decades earlier. For all they matter to the story or to the characters, the 60s are just a bit of interesting local color.
But in Hallowe’en Party, published in 1969, the 60s are a theme!
The times are on every adult character’s mind. They shape their thinking and their behavior. They see them in action affecting each other and playing out in their lives. These aren’t the Swinging 60s or the Radical 60s. The social and cultural upheavals that rocked England and Europe as well as the United States are so far offstage that they’re all but invisible, to the characters and to the reader. Far from the scene of the crime, and consequently the scenes of Poirot’s investigations, London may swing like a pendulum do but we don’t feel or see it and barely hear it. Christie, through her characters, takes a few curmudgeonly critical swipes at the fashions and the music, but for the most part her targets are fashions of thought.
The 60s in Hallowe’en Party are “Not the World as I Knew It” and “A Place I Don’t Know How to Navigate or Fit Into.” Things have changed, but the characters have a hard time putting their fingers on exactly what’s changed, and so they have a hard time knowing what to think about their lives anymore. They mostly think what they were in the habit of thinking but without their former conviction or satisfaction. Others think whatever their moods or feelings dictate, adjusting their thinking according to their needs and desires in a deconstructive way. The 60s are a time of intellectual faddism and moral relativism. Ideas and feelings about how the world works they used to take for granted no longer provide them with guidance or a sense of certainty. They’re worried, then, that they’re just making it up as they’re going along to no purpose. They see themselves living in a fallen world, which, when you remember that Adam and Eve’s sin was eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, is a wised up world. (Which explains why apples feature prominently in the plot.) But what they’ve been put wise to is that they have no certain wisdom to hold fast to. As a society, they’ve eaten the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge but what they know now is that they don’t know anything anymore.
(By the way, along with apples, the novel features a garden as a major symbol and a focus of action. But as a beautiful and seemingly idyllic as it is, it’s a garden full of menace and it’s inhabited by a snake.)
Everybody but Poirot, who remains certain of everything because he remains certain of himself, and the very young---excepting one teenager who was raised as a throwback to another time, and not to the 30s either, but to the late Victorian era. She’s a Pre-Raphaelite painting come to life. Which makes her extremely vulnerable to the villains of the story.---who take the new world’s uncertainty as just the way things are, is having to one degree or another, an existential crisis. But ultimately what everybody is trying to get their heads around is that the falling away of the old, traditional, comforting habits of thought and behavior, has revealed to them that the world is very possibly an evil place.
Not that it’s a world that is full of evil. They know about that. All the adults have memories of World War II, after all. And of course Christie herself was aware of it, traded on that, as a matter of obvious fact. One of her go-to books of the Bible was Ecclesiastes. It provided her with the title of one of her most famous Poirots, Evil Under the Sun: from Ecclesiastes Chapter 6, Verse 1: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men…” No, it isn’t that people are capable of evil. It’s that they may be inherently evil. This is why they’re try to make themselves see things they know have happened in all times as aberrations and blame them on the this particular time or, in some cases, explain them away or, worse to Poirot’s mind, even excuse them on account of the times.
Christie takes every opportunity to offer social commentary that regularly crosses the border into social criticism. The criticism is conservative in nature. It's also mordant, ironic, and frequently funny. If Evelyn Waugh had written a traditional mystery novel it might very likely have resembled Hallowe'en Party. With one big difference. Waugh wrote with malice aforethought. He didn't much care for his fellow human beings and his characters suffered the brunt of his misanthropy. Christie genuinely liked people. Even as she's training a critical eye on her characters, she paints them with compassion and affection. Waugh was the much more brilliant stylist and his satire was scathing. But Christie was the more sympathetic portraitist and her satire was gentler, her humor more teasing than mocking.
So along with the adults Christie submits to harsh judgment, we get these two specimens:
Poirot looked from one boy to the other. They would not have described themselves as boys. Their manner was carefully adult, so much so that if one shut one’s eyes, their conversation could have passed as that of elderly clubmen. Nicholas was eighteen. Desmond was sixteen…
...both of them had excellent manners. Nicholas...was good-looking, wearing sideburns,hair that grew fairly far down his neck, and a rather funereal outfit of black, not as mourning for the recent tragedy, but was obviously his personal taste in modern clothes. [Desmond] was wearing a rose-colored velvet coat, mauve trousers and a kind of frilled shirting. They both obviously spent a good deal of money on their clothes which were certainly not bought locally and were probably paid for by themselves and not by their parents or guardians.
Desmond’s hair was ginger-colored and there was a good deal of fluffy profusion.
I would bet when the book was published Christie’s description of Nicholas and Desmond might have struck some readers as an old fuddy-duddy’s harumphing at what she took as the foppishness of men’s fashions at the time. Fifty years later, it just comes across as a fact of the period---if the novel was set in the 1769, they’d be wearing knee breaches. What Christie is actually poking fun at is their adolescent male vanity, which is timeless, and she’s doing it with amusement. She likes Nicholas and Desmond and wants readers to like them too, despite their pretentions.
That rose-colored velvet coat, by the way, plays a heroic role in the apprehension of the murderer.
Christie is not so forgiving or amused by Rowena Drake. At least Poirot isn’t. Always keep in mind that when Christie seems to be using Poirot as her spokesman she didn’t like him very much. Mrs Drake is a well-meaning and liberal-minded community leader and organizer with an authoritarian streak. She isn’t a suspect, but she may be a witness. It was during a Halloween party at her house that the murder took place. In the quaint English fashion, her house has a name. Apple Trees.
“I am sorry to have kept you waiting, Monsieur Poirot,” said Mrs Drake.
Outside in the hall there was a diminishing hum of voices as various people took their leave and departed.
“It’s our church Christmas fete,” explained Mrs Drake. “A Committee Meeting for arrangements for it, and all the rest of it. These things always go on much longer than they ought to, of course. Somebody always objects to something, or as a good idea---a good ideal usually being a perfectly impossible one.”
There was a slight acerbity in her tone. Poirot could well imagine that Rowena Drake would put things down as quite absurd, firmly and definitely. He could understand form remarks he had heard from Spence’s sister, from hints of what other people had said and from various other sources, that Rowena Drake was the dominant type of personality whom everyone expects to run the show, and whom nobody has much affection for while she is doing it.
Christie goes harder on her when she connects Rowena’s self-importance and self-satisfied judgmentalism to the creeping moral relativism in the face of the rising evil of what Poirot calls “the present age”:
He thought her a hard creature but a person of integrity. He thought that she was, like many women of the same type, women who were often magistrates, or who ran councils or charities, or interested themselves in what used to be called “good works.” Women who had an inordinate belief in extenuating circumstances, who were ready, strangely enough, to make excuses for the young criminal. And adolescent boy, a mentally retarded girl. Someone who had already been---what is the the phrase?--- “in care.” If that had been the type of person she had seen coming out of the library, then he thought it possible that Rowena Drake’s protective instinct might have come into play. It was not unknown in the present age for children to commit crimes, quite young children. Children of seven, of nine, and so on. And it was often difficult to know how to dispose of these natural, it seemed, young criminals who came before the juvenile courts. Excuses had to be brought for them. Broken homes. Negligent and unsuitable parents. But the people who spoke the most vehemently for them, were usually of the type of Rowena Drake. A stern and censorious woman, except in such cases.
This doesn’t sit well with Poirot.
For himself, Poirot did not agree. He was a man who first always thought of justice. He was suspicious, had always been suspicious, of mercy---too much mercy, that is to say. Too much mercy, as he knew from former experience both in Belgium and this country often resulted in further crimes which were fatal to innocent victims who need not have been victims if justice had been put first and mercy second.
Turns out though that it’s not Rowena’s supposed affinity for the faddish overly compassionate thinking of “the present age” that contributes to the evil under the psychedelic sun of the 1960s. It’s her timeless sense of self-importance.
Hallowe’en Party is set in the 60s, but Christie herself wasn’t stuck there as a satirist. Human nature has always been what it is, which is why her writing is timeless.
Ok. Onto Dumb Witness. Which means back to the 1930s and back to having the cheerful and optimistic Hastings as narrator. I said up top how I’m counting on Christie to see me through the dark nights of my old age. But it won’t help if I devour all her books in the next few weeks.