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)

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

The Murder on the Links (1923) by Agatha Christie

I’ve found that it’s easy to forget about an author’s early works. Often, they are seen as inferior 

compared to later, more polished works. In the case of authors like Agatha Christie, who shuffled genres and produced what is to my understanding some subpar works in her early career, it’s even easier to overlook their early stuff, especially if there isn’t an obvious hook for the reader. The Murder on the Links went under my radar for years, but after really enjoying The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I decided to give this a shot. Does it actually deserve to be forgotten?

The book opens with Hastings meeting a mysterious young woman who charms him instantly. Thankfully for those fearful of a romance plot, the romance is mostly handled well, and “Cinderella” (as she calls herself), is fun to watch in action. The meat of the story begins later, when Poirot receives a letter from millionaire Paul Renauld, claiming that his life is in danger. Intrigued, Poirot goes off to France…only to learn that his client was stabbed to death the night before, his body dumped in a shallow grave on his unfinished golf course. The victim’s wife tells a story straight out of a sensation novel: two masked men barged into her and her husband’s bedroom in the night, threatening him with a knife and demanding he give them “the secret” before escorting him off into the night. A broken watch that’s two hours fast, a piece of lead piping, and (the lack of) footprints in a flower bed are just some of the many clues that Poirot has to interpret.

Links is more focused on the puzzle than later Christie novels. Clues fly thick and fast, and only a very attentive reader will be able to piece together the truth. I'd say it's possible, but you do have to be paying close attention. Also, this time Poirot has competition in the form of Giraud, a French detective who elevates physical evidence above all. Of course, Poirot insists that the physical clues don’t matter nearly as much as the “true psychology of the case.” Frankly, I didn’t find the competition between the two very impressive because Giraud is so off-base from the start. Sure, I know that Poirot will win, but I’d like a little more back-and-forth.

As I said, the mystery is quite complex. This leads to more of a focus on that than on the characters. They’re all very generic. There’s the victim’s wife, his son (who made the murder weapon and quarreled with him the night of the murder), and the secretary. There’s also M. Daubreuil, “the girl with the anxious eyes” who is in love with the victim’s son, and her mother, a strange woman who Poirot cannot place, but he has the distinct impression that she was involved in a murder case…

I admit, I had to read this book twice. I did not read it the first time in the best mindset, and the book mostly didn’t stick well in my head, and what did stick I found disappointing. This is Christie showing her technical complexity. She gives a very well-worked out mystery, but it doesn’t stick well in the reader’s head. My second read-through went much better; the plot gelled together and felt more coherent. That being said, I do have a couple of major issues with it. (ROT13: Svefg, gurer’f ab jnl guvf cyna jbhyq unir sbbyrq jub vg jnf zrnag gb sbby. Lrf, Puevfgvr qbrf frg vg hc ol fnlvat gung “Zna vf na habevtvany navzny,” naq gung ur’yy pbcl jung ur'f nyernql qbar, ohg gurer’f n qvssrerapr orgjrra “Ercrngvat gur fnzr orngf sebz n cerivbhf, fhpprffshy pevzr,” naq “Ercrngvat nyzbfg gur fnzr cyna lbh pbbxrq hc jvgu na nppbzcyvpr naq rkcrpgvat vg gb sbby fnvq nppbzcyvpr.” Frpbaq, gur zheqre uvatrf ba gjb crbcyr qvfphffvat gurve snxr zheqre cynaf va gur bcra, arkg gb gurve arvtuobe’f lneq.)

Hastings is not on good form here. I admit, I like Hastings more than most; him rolling his eyes at Poirot’s latest boast makes the great detective much more tolerable. But this book justifies the complaints that people have against him; he makes mistake after mistake, seems to have forgotten every other case he’s seen Poirot solve (which, okay, aren't many at this point, but it should be clear to him that Poirot knows what he’s doing), and makes such a gaping error near the end that Poirot himself is dumbfounded.

Despite my complaints, I ended up enjoying this book in the end. It’s a breezy, fun, and complex murder mystery that might slip under the radar of Christie fans. I would still label this a B-tier Christie, but definitely upper B-tier. Recommended.

Other Reviews: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Mysteries Ahoy! The Green Capsule, Countdown John's Christie JournalAhSweetMysteryBlog (contains spoilers), crossexaminingcrime (contains spoilers)