The more I read Christie’s later books, the more I wonder if their reputation is at least partially undeserved.
The Clocks is one of her later Poirot novels, so it;s a novel that barely has Poirot in it (which can be either good or bad, please pick one). Most of the plot is told from the point of view of Colin Lamb, a marine biologist who doubles at a spy. The set-up is a solid Christie hook: A typist named Sheila Webb is told to go the house of a blind schoolteacher, who asks for Webb specifically even though Sheila protests that she’s never heard of the woman. Nonetheless, she goes to the house, finds it unlocked, and stumbles on a room where there. Are. Four. Clocks! One is off from all the others, a fact which is completely unimportant. What’s far more interesting is the dead man stuffed behind the couch.
As mentioned, Poirot is barely in this. Most of the book is the investigation of Colin and time-displaced 90s action hero turned police officer Dick Hardcastle. Colin is a fair enough narrator, even if he ultimately does very little. This is problem, because he’s supposed to be looking into espionage, but does very little towards that goal, mostly tagging along in the murder investigation. It’s the normal round of interrogating everyone and their dog, but it still feels more lively than the last Christie I looked at; people have actual personality to them, even if the characterization is quick and dirty. The problem is they lack page time. In Caribbean, the suspects had page time, but felt dry. Here they have more to them, but you don’t get time to suspect them.
While looking into this book, quite a few people complained about how Christie doesn’t live up to the very interesting hook she sets up. I’m glad to inform you that she does. Sort of. It’s the dang clocks that are the issue, you could remove them and end up with not a classic, but what would probably be a good late Christie. They serve no purpose. No, really, they don’t. Even after reading the book, I still can’t understand the reason they were shoved in. Poirot explains it, but it makes no sense, considering how it plays no role in the rest of the plan. I can understand planting that clock there, but Poirot doesn’t treat that as the reason. Really, if she’d cut them out you’d have a far better book.
However, the overall cluing of the book is rather weak. I admit to flip-flopping on this a bit. Everytime I think “Definitely not fair” I come up with a few more clues for it to feel fair, but then when I think it’s fair I start wondering if you could really solve it with what you have, and I have to conclude that you can’t, really. A smart reader can notice the broad strokes of what’s going on, and at least have an idea, but I would honestly be surprised if anyone can come to the conclusions Poirot does in the end, especially regarding the victim’s identity*. You might be able to guess at it, but Poirot has access to resources the reader doesn’t, in this case. Same with the clocks.
The “anonymous victim” idea can be a hard one to pull off, but Christie does well here. Admittedly, I’ll say that you have very little chance of figuring out exactly who the dead man is, but you can make a reasonable guess, and Christie does a good job of playing around with the identity, certainly better than 4:50 from Paddington. She leads the reader along well, and I felt satisfied with the final reveal.
That really sums up my attitude as a whole, “satisfied”. It’s not top-tier Christie, but I didn’t feel like I had wasted my time, like with say Dumb Witness. It’s not the best, and it’s not my first choice for best Christie, but fans should like it. Recommended, with caveats.
*Fun fact! This isn’t the first time Christie did the “anonymous victim” idea. That was 4:50 From Paddingtion.