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.