Although Agatha Christie’s later works put her out of era for this blog, I’m still keen to look at these books on account of the level of impact she had on the genre. So The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962) was an early review when I was less rigid in my restrictions, but alas I had nothing to say about The Clocks (1963). Then came the one-two punch of A Caribbean Mystery (1964) and At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) before Poirot once again got a short shrift with the rather forgettable Third Girl (1966), which Brad has analysed with typical adroitness here. So, because I’m reading these chronologically, this brings me to Endless Night.
It’s interesting to reflect, now that I’ve read this, just how down Christie seemed to be on youth and modern times in those books listed above: Mirror Crack’d had its young families moving into The Development being built on the outskirts of St Mary Mead, and arguably rests entirely on misplaced youthful over-enthusiasm; Caribbean Mystery is as wholesale a celebration of old age as I think you’re ever likely to read in a non-Booker-baiting genre novel; Bertram’s Hotel is (I maintain, Your Honour!) at least partially an analysis of the dismissal Christie must have faced in her advancing years and brighter, younger things encroached on her territory; and Third Girl — all scuzzy cafés and concrete blocks divided into unappealing flats — made much of the mockery of Poirot’s age and perceived infirmity, both mental and physical. The Clocks probably had…something, too, I dunno, it’s not really memorable; there are clocks in it, and a spy, and nineteen other kinds of thing…yeah, it’s not a good book.
But here, with Endless Night, we have a wholesale celebration of Youth, of twenty-two year-old Michael Rogers and his sudden, all-consuming romance with twenty year-old Fenella ‘Ellie’ Guteman. “If this is a love story — and it is,” Rogers insists early in his narrative, “why not begin with when I first saw Ellie standing in the dark fir trees of Gipsy’s Acre.” And, indeed, Gipsy’s Acre becomes the focus of the entire undertaking: the wild fancy of youth desiring, then achieving what it desires, and then living with what it has achieved. “When youth begins to pass, fun isn’t fun any longer,” Rogers tells us, and so the two of them get caught up in the fun of making a life together in the face of adversity, and the sheer joy of being young and free of restrictions sings through everything they achieve together.
In many regards, this could easily have been written in Christie’s own youth. A reference to the Korean War is the only factor that dates it, and since that started over a decade and a half before this was published there’s no reason this couldn’t be set in 1950 (to be fair, you’re never given the exact date). Shorn of the references to Beatles, modern modes of dress, and the sexual mores of the younger generation that peppered her previous books, what we have here is Christie almost deliberately simplifying her narrative and her setting to echo those simpler times when publishing three novels in a year wasn’t such a big deal. Yes, there’s some reference to international plane flights as undertaken by the absurdly wealthy, but Destination Unknown (1954) did that, too, so again we’re able to place these actions in an earlier time frame if we wish. It has to be a deliberate choice — it lacks the emphasis on the contemporary modernness of the setting of her preceding books — and the isolation of these characters comes to mean something in the context of the plot, too, but they’re so removed from the world that Poirot and Aunt Jane have been negotiating that I can’t believe it’s accidental.
Only really the middle section gives it away as a novel with its roots in Christie’s Later Period: it’s…well, it’s slow, but I think the term deliberate is both more accurate and more kind. Not a lot happens here where her younger self would have been stewing red herrings left, right, and just off-centre, and it’s partly this lack of dissemination that twigged me to what was going on since you have, as with all her later books, more of an opportunity to reflect on matters rather than being bamboozled with occurrences. It’s youth as seen through an old head, and while it distills away some of the infectious enthusiasm of that opening section it also helps ground these two before they float of the page in front of us.
It is also this middle section that gives us much of the adversity I mentioned above, and it is the provenance of most of that adversity that again supports this as a young person’s book: old gypsies, old lawyers, old and possibly untrustworthy businessmen, old and grasping nearly-relations…everyone over a certain age (Ellie’s stepmother is forty, and is well beyond this boundary) is against them. Even the elderly characters not involved directly in the plot have a part to play in their negativity: witness the couple Michael drives to Hamburg early on, only to become sick of them and ditch the job, only find his way back to Gipsy’s Acre and meet Ellie… without a shadow of a doubt, the older generations herein are being viewed with the same hesitation that has been poured onto the younger generation in the books leading up to this.
By comparison, the youthful Greta Andersen is the one running interference in the early stages of Michael and Ellie’s relationship to enable them to live out their lives as they choose, and young Claudia Hardcastle welcomes Ellie to the community and encourages her various enthusiasms. Even in their absence, the young provide support: witness “man-mad half-wit” oil heiress Minnie Thompson, whose first potential husband was bought off to the tune of $200,000 and so enables out young lovers to at least go into this with their eyes open: Ellie, for all her youth, is aware of the risk of swindlers and gold-diggers that will come chasing after her wealth, and it is a salutary lesson for the working-class Michael when Uncle Frank comes round begging poor.
Now if you’ve read this you’re thinking “Ahh, but what about the ending, huh? How is the ending a celebration of youth?”. And it’s true that — this is a crime novel, after all, in spite of also being a love story — things do go wrong for our youthful lovers. The hand of providence (well, our elderly author, really) reaches out and touches the lives of the characters involved in a way that isn’t going to be completely happy for all of them, and so this of course may be seen as a criticism of the decisions made in youthful ignorance and bliss.
But consider that ending if you know it, and you’ll know that Agatha Christie is, in many ways, the only author who could get away with it: for anyone else, it isn’t really an option. And in this regard it makes the entire novel about youth as it’s a celebration of — and a wink towards, if you will — Christie’s own youth, those happier, younger days when she was free to get away with what she liked without all the attention upon her…not (ahem) unlike Ellie here. Now Ellie is far less and author-insert character than Aunt Jane at this stage, and I’ll stop short of my always-questionable meta-analysis of the events herein as a comment on Christie’s own feelings about this stage of her career (it’s not something I fully believe in this time, anyway…), but it’s wonderful to see the old girl enjoying herself one last time.