Thursday, June 15, 2023

The Hollow (1946) by Agatha Christie

Reading Agatha Christie’s The Hollow right after The Murder on the Links was an experience. With over twenty years separating the two books, you’d expect The Hollow to not only be better, but different. After all, twenty years is plenty of time to not only refine one’s craft, but to try out different ideas that would have been difficult for a young writer. I am glad to report that The Hollow shows how far Christie had come.

Even though this is a Poirot novel, he takes a while to make an appearance. Instead, we focus on the people preparing to meet at the Hollow, a vacation home for the Angkatell family. Lucy Angkatell gathers family and friends for a weekend party. Three of the guests are Dr. John Christow, his wife Gerda, and Lucy’s distant relation (and John’s lover) the sculptor Henrietta. All seems well until the stable triangle is disrupted by the surprise appearance of Veronica Cray, an actress and a former flame of John’s who is vacationing nearby, who reminds him of a path he could have taken, who pushes him into maybe taking it again…

Poirot (who is also vacationing nearby) arrives at The Hollow to find “a joke, a set piece [...] a highly artificial murder scene”: John dying of a gunshot wound by the side of the pool. Gerda standing over him with a gun. Others stumbling on the scene. And his last word, “Henrietta--”

What makes this book special is the characters and their interplay. The central John-Gerda-Henrietta relationship is well-done. John is a jerk with little empathy, but we see his determination to cure Ridgeway’s Disease. Gerda is foolish, but we see how she uses her stupidity as a shield. Henrietta, meanwhile, is the most complex character in the book. She is deeply passionate about her art. She has an astonishing amount of compassion and is the only character in the book to treat Gerda with any respect. Yet she doesn’t blink about using Gerda as the model for an unflattering piece of art. The unusual relationship she has with John plays a key role in the book, and I thought Christie mostly did a good job with it. (There were some aspects that I didn’t quite buy.)

The other characters are good as well. The highlight for me was Lucy, a silly, scatterbrained but also deeply intelligent woman who also plays a key role in the plot. Like most of the other characters in the story, there’s more to her than meets the eye, and there’s a very chilling portion of the book where we see that her utter disregard for social niceties extends to more than just awkward arranging of party guests. The only one who doesn’t quite work is David Angkatell, who’s mostly there to be an Angry Young Person.

“But what about the mystery plot?” I hear you ask. Well…if A. this wasn’t a Christie novel and B. I hadn’t known the solution going in, there’s a chance I would have been disappointed. Christie was a master at taking simple scenarios and spinning complexity out of them, but the murder plan here might feel a little too simple for some. I liked it; it fits thematically with the rest of the book and is the solution this book needed. It’s not all great however. I may have been misled by spoilers, but it felt like some of the minor background details of the crime weren’t explained. There’s also one clue (the drawing of the tree by the pool and Poirot’s conclusions from it) that felt misused. I can buy the logic of “Once we know the solution, this clue has to mean this,” but I don’t always like that type of backwards reasoning. But that's secondary to the characters in this book. I still really enjoyed what Christie did here.

The only real rough spot in the novel is the portrayal of a Jewish shopkeeper, which is very distasteful.

On the whole, this is a real gem of a book. Newcomers and fans alike will really enjoy the strong characters and solid plotting that this book offers. Highly Recommended!

Other Reviews: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Pretty Sinister Books, The Green Capsule, Dead Yesterday, A Crime is Afoot, Countdown John's Christie Journalahsweetmysteryblog (contains spoilers), Composed Almost Entirely of Books (contains spoilers)

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