If you came to me at this precise moment in time and expressed both an ignorance of and an interest in the work of Agatha Christie, these are the ten books I’d recommend picking one to start from (presented chronologically, let’s not play Favourites):
1. The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)
2. The Murder on the Links (1923)
3. The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)
4. The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)
5. Peril at End House (1932)
6. Lord Edgware Dies (1933)
7. Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934)
8. Three Act Tragedy (1934)
9. Murder is Easy (1939)
10. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)
If you came to me at this precise moment in time and said “Hey, JJ, exactly like yourself I have read up to and including Hallowe’en Party and want to compare notes on the best ten Christie novels thus far experienced,” I’d say:
1. The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)
2. The Thirteen Problems [ss] (1932)
3. Peril at End House (1932)
4. Appointment with Death (1938)
5. And The There Were None (1939)
6. Murder is Easy (1939)
7. Evil Under the Sun (1941)
8. The Moving Finger (1942)
9. Crooked House (1949)
10. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962)
Oh, I know, I know, you’re probably scandalised at something in there — hell, I’ll look back at this in six months and be scandalised at something in there myself — but the point stands that there are good Christies for different reasons. No-one’s first Christie novel should be And Then There Were None — fight me — because part of what makes that novel so brilliant is how thoroughly it is not like anything else she wrote (no detective, no detection, no sifting of clues, no alibi-breaking) and it sets up unfounded expectations. Equally I’m a firm believer in getting to know an author before diving into their “best” work; in an ideal world everyone would commit fully and read everything in order, but some people don’t want to sign up to 80 books spread over eighteen-and-counting years. You think I’m the weirdo, but I know you are…
My point? That Hallowe’en Party (1969) — Agatha Christie’s 70th published mystery-based work, and the thirty-fifth to feature Hercule Poirot — is not a rubbish novel. It’s not a great novel, it’s certainly not among those you’d think of mentioning as giving some sense of the archetypal Agatha Christie Golden Age Mystery, and it doesn’t even contain some of her best ideas of misdirections (that is another list, but I figure there are enough lists here already), but given the received wisdom of “All of Agatha Christie’s work after 195x is terrible” I think some assessment and context is required.
This, you comprehend, may take a while.
The inclusion of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side above may surprise many of you, but — as I’ve outlined poorly here before — my thesis is that this book is among the most important Christie wrote for the simple fact of the acknowledgement of change in the preserved-in-aspic world of Jane Marple and the Christie canon. That moment in Christie’s output is huge, because in the books that follow — The Clocks (1963), A Caribbean Mystery (1964), At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), Third Girl (1966), Endless Night (1967), By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) — the background of change becomes inescapable: from brutalist 1960s architecture via dayes gone bye hotels to a sense of the essential loss of identity and security in a society that no longer values you, the world Christie is renowned and celebrated for (and in which she did her very best work) was no longer the world people outside the books inhabited or recognised. Author and creations alike were disdained as part of a stuffy tradition that had nothing to do with “modern” mores, and Christie was as confused about how to face this shifting milieu as would be expected.
The style of book coming into vogue — the realistic thriller, the crime novel — were the very experiments that she had herself been unsuccessful in attempting when it wasn’t required of her. The likes of They Came to Baghdad (1951) and Destination Unknown (1954) have some typically Chirstiean flourishes, but I’d lay good money on not even the most counter-culture reader putting them anywhere near their top 40 of her books. Also, it’s fair to say, she would have been aware that An Agatha Christie Novel wasn’t that type of book and, approaching the end of her eighth decade, she lacked both the motivation and the wherewithal to reinvent herself in such a way. There’s a huge amount of truth in that assertion that Christie didn’t change what she wrote because she only really knew how to write a very limited range of genre (and, at her best, practically no-one could rival her in that arena), but I’d opine that she was savvy enough to be more than fully aware of the changing fashions, and that these books address that change head-on.
And so, at last, to Hallowe’en Party.
Hallowe’en Party is a novel where, in many ways, most of the ingredients are wrong, but — hear me out — often deliberately so. The crime is wrong, the characters are wrong, the investigation is wrong, the clues are wrong, the deductions are wrong…I’m not saying Christie salvages a masterpiece from this, but a lot of what is going on here feels very pointedly wide of the mark. There are moments when a real sharp-eyed savagery shows through in her writing through the parroting of easy conclusions or lazy reasoning on behalf of her characters, and I see this as a deliberate response to the changing attitudes and fashions in crime fiction, and shall expand on this below. Undeniably, however, in writing this Christie was biting off far more than she could chew and — as came to typify the later career of Leo Bruce, for one — the ability to takes swipes and also remain at range and so unharmed oneself eluded her. In short, she also writes a fair amount of crap. But, and here’s my partial defence of this title, it comes from very good and clear intentions.
To illustrate this, I shall take the above ingredients — crime, characters, investigation, clues, deductions — and highlight their wrongness, both when deliberate and when not. Spoilers ahead? Not really. Anything risky I’ll flag up but, let’s be honest, you’re going to get much more out of what lies henceforth if you’ve already read the book
1. The crime is wrong, intentionally
The crime here is the murder of 13 year-old Joyce Reynolds, drowned at the eponymous party in the bucket used for bobbing for apples. Christie had by this point in her career used the murder of a child only once before, and that was one of the most devastating decisions she’d yet deployed, not least for the implications of that murder and the way it feeds into the plot of the book containing it. You felt that death, and it’s something that you also felt lived with the characters long after the book was done.
Here, Joyce’s mother aside, the death of a child is seen very much as the sort of thing that just happens these days — hell, there’s even an element of victim-blaming in the sort of cavalier “Well, children will walk home a different way from school and then get in a car with a stranger when they’ve been warned not to…” laissez-faire attitude taken by most of the adults. We’re four years on from the cessation of the Moors murders, and the casual ignorance with which assertions over the psychologically unsound being left free to wander among society (because the “loony-bins” are overcrowded) are thrown around is too pointed that to be anything other than deliberate on Christie’s part.
There is in her writing of these scenes a palpable disgust at the moral wrongness of normalising child murder, at a society that would seek to rubberneck at such horrors to the point of casual conversation, and the prevailing literary tide that reads this kind of thing for entertainment, that’s almost dashing it in the face of such expectations. If the perception of the separation of the horror of murder from reality in the conventional GAD novel is a criticism raised at those (chuff, chuff) now-outdated plots — written following the death and destruction of the First World War, lest we forget — the celebration of horrors in a huge section of modern crime fiction in a society inured to far more depraved undertakings is something Christie was definitely responding to here.
2. The characters are wrong, unintentionally
Christie, you get the impression, does not care for the people in this book. Rowena Drake is efficient but uptight. Miss Emlyn, headmistress of The Elms, is competent and shrewd — indeed, is treated to the highest compliment I recall Poirot ever paying anyone:
“Can I help you? Miss Emlyn seems to think that that might be so.”
“If Miss Emlyn thinks so, then it is almost a certainty that you can. I would take her word for it.”
Everyone else is…sort of present. Judith Butler is…a mother. Her 11 year-old daughter is apparently a 28 year-old. We get some unusually protracted reflection and insight into two fringe characters — the “opera girl” Olga Seminoff and the gardener Michael Garfield — but most of the time the most impactful characters are the ones Christie can fall back on easily, like Superintendent Spence’s sister Elspeth who knows everyone and is forthright in her opinions, or easily-mocked stereotypes she mines for (well-observed, it has to be said) humour, like teenagers Nicholas Ransom and Desmond Holland.
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 would have passed as that of elderly clubmen.
So it’s not that Christie isn’t trying at all, she just puts in the energy where she wants to make a point — we’ll return to Nicholas and Desmond later — and let’s everyone else go hang. This means that a lot of the conversation is simply had in rooms where people who are easy to mix up with each other go over a lot of the same ground in an unexciting way. Which neatly brings me to…
3. The investigation is wrong, unintentionally and intentionally
The Genius Amateur Detective was very much out of vogue by now, and the idea that anyone from serf to Viscountess would be simply honoured to sit and answer questions put to them was by now somewhat outmoded. And although he is operating with the consent of the local police, Poirot is still very much not a policeman and most likely therefore to be kicked out or simply refused entry in the first place. Nevertheless, this is a Hercule Poirot novel, and so he must do some sort of investigating…so, how to get around this?
Scoff if you like, but there’s a real softness and a distinct absence of interrogation to the interviews Poirot conducts. Gone is the posturing of “I am the great Hercule Poirot and you will tell me what I want to know…” and instead comes in a sort of naturalism whereby the topic is raised in general terms — leading, no doubt, to a certain amount of repetition — before the specifics of Poirot’s intended interrogation are worked in. If you look at each interview from Poirot’s perspective of needing to get his subject on his side before probing down into what he wants to know, this repetition makes a lot of sense. The only difficulty is that it will be, for many, not a lot of fun to read.
The sole exception to this rule seems to be that interview with Nicholas and Desmond, where Poirot exploits both his own foreign-ness (as is his wont at times, of course) and props up fragile teenage egos by assuring them that “I have come now to the younger generation, to those of acute eyesight and acute hearing and have up-to-date scientific knowledge and shrewd philosophy. I am eager — very eager — to hear your views on this matter,” — the contrast in approach is so marked, you can almost feel Christie’s relief at not having to butter up another self-important witness for four pages before getting on with it (a relief her readers shared, no doubt).
We’re still not done with Desmond and Nicholas, by the way…
“Get on with it, then…”
4. The clues are wrong, unintentionally
When you get down to it, there are two clues: one that it would be very easy for the guilty party to go “Oh, no, that’s not the interpretation you should put on that…” and no-one would be able to budge them, and one that is essentially your killer writing Mwah-hahahaha I’m so evil and brilliant and this is the proof I did it. Between the two of them, they constitute pretty much all this novel has in terms of actual clewing. It’s not a great return, especially considering how deftly Christie handled a similar “lots of people tell slight variations on the same story” motif in Five Little Pigs (1943), another novel padded out by dull rounds of interviews that at least had a superb reversal of a seemingly watertight situation.
As a result, then, the motivation for actions that make the plot happen and so could loosely be deemed clewing is all over the place. When Joyce Reynolds boasts at the setup for the party of having seen a murder, the person who committed that murder is present and so kills her (none of the foregoing is a spoiler, it’s all very early and somewhat necessarily obvious). But Joyce would have known that person was there, so boasting of it in their earshot was clearly folly — now, yes, given later developments this boast can be explained away, but the guilty party would have known they were in the clear either way if you think about it. So did they act in panic, or in self-preservation? Perhaps, but clearly such action wasn’t necessary.
There is also a certain action towards the end — something is bought — that is again taken as a proof-positive of some sort of nebulous connection with the murder…which gets the connections all the wrong way around. Because someone committed a murder, they did action A: fine. Because someone did Action A, they committed a murder…well, no (changing realms a bit to illustrate this fallacy: all cats have ears — yup — but everything with ears is a cat….no; Socrates would be furious!). Which brings me to…
5. The deductions are wrong, unintentionally and intentionally
On the unintentional side of this, the conclusions are reached working from the end backwards — because X is the murderer, these things about them will show they did the murdering. Indeed, the fallacious logic that is used to implicate the guilty party — a witness describes a series of events presuming they were unseen, but that were in fact staged so that they would see them and report on them to shore up the killer’s apparent innocence — is so dodgy that I’d half expected the witness to be the one who was suspicious: they reported something that was innocent in a sort of “Well, this can’t possibly have any bearing on things, can it…?” way in order to direct attention to that person and away from themself, the actual guilty party. Shades of Five Little Pigs again, perhaps: I was anticipating that shocker of an ending, where the obvious case is beautifully overturned.
To pick another thinly-clewed example, Sad Cypress (1940) has equally as little to go on in proving guilt, but the series of actions of the guilty person actually form a short chain of evidence by which they can be hanged: there’s no refutation, no doubt of the intention at any stage (that’s how I remember it, anyway; it’s been a few years…). Here we have a mixture of physical evidence and psychology which doesn’t form quite the intended dressing for our salad of crime (Ithankyou); Christie lays on the psychology of a few characters, as I say above, and then — Cards on the Table (1936) style (sort of, I know this doesn’t actually happen there) — drops in a convenient witness who overheard everything and happens to point fingers with impunity. The physical clues are debatable, and the psychology is at best horribly uneven.
But — but — Christie isn’t a fan of the psychology angle, anyway. There’s an element of this sort of thing expected in the Brave New World of these realistic crime novels she can’t quite bring herself to write, and she disdains it completely. Want proof? Look no further than Desmond and Nicholas.
In chapter 15, Poirot interviews these two boys and Christie, with all the bemused tolerance most of us adopt towards the younger generation so sure of themselves on so little evidence, lightly and incisively shows them to be thoroughly out of step in just about every way — from their easy dismissal of the “kids” ar the party to their surety over the fact that “they’re all alike, birds are” when discussing the photographs produced for the fortune telling game. And then, when asked if they have any ideas themselves, they produce this wonderfully wide of the mark psychological explanation of how the curate must be the killer on account of “original sin perhaps, and all that, and the water and the apple and things … It would all fit. Adam and Eve and the apple and hellfire … and being baptised to cure you of sin”.
In a way, I choose to see this as Christie’s real commentary here, the idea that something as horrible as murder can be explained away on such frivolous and unsound grounds being clearly presented as something ridiculous thought by ridiculous people. Fine if you want you ‘psychological break’ as a motivation for your murderer, but Christie herself is having none of it. And the simple fact is that this sort of explanation became increasingly regular from hereon, and is very much part of a popular trend evident in the genre that has chosen to abandon the difficult road of physical detail and reach for this simple nutcase a majority of the time (ahem, Exhibit A). So Christie wants this to be ridiculous…but the shame of it is that she doesn’t have the workings in place to show it up more fully than this one time, and then what follows fails to hammer the nail in as far she she’d like.
So, whew. What Hallowe’en Party gives us is a book of good intentions and some smart awarenesses of its own shortcomings that the author is perhaps not motivated to expand much beyond the ideas stage too many times. Written 20 years earlier, I think some of those unintentional flaws mentioned above would have been tidied up and the whole made more satisfying, but through the cracked lens that is this less-than-brilliant final run of books I’m again more than willing to give Christie some leeway and allow a little admiration alongside the undeniable disappointment.
No, you wouldn’t put it among the ten best; no, you wouldn’t suggest someone start here — though it’s not unlike mid-period peak supposed also Crime Queen Ngaio Marsh, and I’m not just saying that to throw shade at Marsh fans…it really does read like her — but that doesn’t mean you would or should write it off altogether. It fails just enough that you’d catalogue it among The Unessential Christie, but the cautious, the curious, and the broad-minded will, I’d wager, get much more from that than those simply wanting everything to be amazing — a glimpse at the woman behind the books, perhaps, and all the more interesting for the way it doesn’t succeed.
Next up for me and Mrs. Mallowan, meanwhile, a trip to Frankfurt…