#281: “Twelve different solutions to everything, most of them not very probable…” – in Partial Defence of Hallowe’en Party (1969) by Agatha Christie

Hallowe'en Party

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)

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Whaaaaaaat……???!!!

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.

Branagh Hallowe'en

“I’m ready!”

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.

Hallowe'en Parties

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…

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“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.

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“Finally!”

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…

80 thoughts on “#281: “Twelve different solutions to everything, most of them not very probable…” – in Partial Defence of Hallowe’en Party (1969) by Agatha Christie

  1. Funnily enough (ha ha), was talking about this with a friend at the weekend and she also picked MIRROR CRACKED as being fascinating for the way it clocked that change in British society – in that sense I always thought of it as a good companion to BETRAM’S for the same reason, for the way that fake nostalgia can become a trap (and used as one). I remember quire liking this one, for all its obvious faults (it is is one of hers that I solved way before the end). Nice work here JJ, thanks 🙂

    • Thanks, Sergio; I’m trying to give credit to the aspects of these works that make them interesting or explain their shortcomings. Fine, they’re not as good as her classics works; fine, the mysteries are poorly motivated or poorly clewed — it’s interesting how little goes beyond that when looking at these final works.

      I get a little bored of hearing how terrible everything is and would like to at least see some thought going into critiquing and assessing what does and doesn’t work. Christie did it for 50-odd years, and the ability to write good mysteries didn’t just up and desert her one day…let’s get into that!

    • Yeah, we’ll see; I was supposed to dislike Caribbean Mystery and Bertram’s Hotel and I found a huge amount of value in a lot of what they did. In fact, the one I didn’t like of these later works — By the Pricking of My Thumbs — is the one I seem to remember people coming out and being all “Oh, no, you’ve missed the point; it;s a good book for all these reasons…”. So maybe I’m just wired wrong or something…

      • Make up your own mind for sure, that’s the only way. In my opinion, all those other books you mention are head and shoulders above Frankfurt, which I think is about the most muddle headed thriller I’ve ever come across. I do hope you take something positive away from it – I kind of liked the color scheme on the cover of my edition, but that was about all. 😀

        • 😀 If I start by complimenting the cover, that’s when you’ll know it’s not been a good read!

          I’ve neglected Christie of late — this is only the second I’ve read in 2017 — so I imagine I’ll pick up the pace a bit and get through Frankfurt and Nemesis before the year is out.

  2. “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”
    Heh, that is such a timely statement that I laughed out loud when I read it. I happen to have a blog post that is half-written on this very topic…

    I love your reference to “unessential Christie”. “Unessential” feels like the perfect word for what I was going for when I first wrote my hilariously outdated piece on John Dickson Carr’s “middle ground”. My overall goal with that post was to separate the lesser discussed titles into two camps – those worth reading and those that were… er, unessential. Of course, that was written back before I had decided to jump all in and just read everything…

    • The “unessential” books of a writer for me means those titles you’re able to’ve not read and yet still be able to come to a conclusion on their work. This stems partyl from the frustration of people going “Oh, I can’t stand so-and-so” when it turns out they’ve read one book or, even worse, about three chapters, and then just written off the entire output of whoever they’re talking about.

      If I read, say, Third Girl and said “I can’t stand Agatha Christie’s books” I’ve not done the essential reading to make that statement with any authority and I just look like a moron; this is one of those books that could be left out without my moronicness being called into being by making the above statement, since it’s possible to come to a conclusion on a writer without reading everything they’ve done.

      Such books may still be worth reading, but they’re not going to impact your overall feeling of the work that person produced. Man, upon reflection, this would’ve made a good post…

  3. Erm . . . what is the blogger’s etiquette here: do I write a response that is as long, if not longer, than your very post? Or do I take this up in a post of my own? Honestly, if you were to fly me out tonight, this would be a great subject for a podcast. You just need to cover airfare and the substitute teacher at school . . .

    Seriously, though, I have a lot to say on this one, and I don’t want to be a pig . . . let alone FIVE little pigs!

    • I think it’s fair to say that this 3,000+ word essay is inviting a long response; it’s significantly longer than anything I’ve written in a while (possibly ever…) on here, so do whatever works best for you — your own thing, a series of short responses, a 40,000-word comment of your own…all welcome!

  4. I’m going to go long then . . . and I’ll stay here because this is your topic, this Agatha Whatshername . . .

    PROLOGUE
    “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.

    So of course you must know that ATTWN was my first Christie novel, and while your point is taken (and I am definitely not the most well-adjusted nut in the sack), I want others to know that the rest of the Christie canon was in no way a letdown after such an auspicious beginning. There are many marvels to sample in such a long and illustrious career. And I agree with you that an author so adept at what she does is going to provide different pleasures even in the least of her books. The same holds true for Carr, I’m sure you will say, as there is hardly a title of his that is “unreadable.” For the most part, we true fans tend to be disappointed in what we came into a book expecting but is not there. There is a lot to be found in Hallowe’en Party; I’m just not sure much of it is good.

    I. THE CRIME IS WRONG, INTENTIONALLY
    Do you really think so? The gist of what I take from your argument is a criticism on Christie’s part of those of us who would voraciously read about the murder of a child with gusto, eschewing the true horror of such an event for the enjoyment of the puzzle. If I’m wrong here, I apologize, but I can certainly agree that, once Joyce dies, few people exhibit much natural feeling about it. Part of this is explained by Joyce herself, who seems to have been an exceedingly unpleasant child. But really, that’s not enough to excuse the coldness of an entire community. But is this really Christie making a meta-literary point? She had created a similar set-off point thirteen years earlier in Dead Man’s Folly, which featured another girl’s death. (Marlene Tucker is a teenager, but she’s still a child.) I don’t think Christie mustered any true horror for that victim’s death either, nor do we feel much upset at the dead baby in By the Pricking of My Thumbs. Honestly, I thought it was a British thing: you people send your kids off to boarding school and then give vague thoughts that they will marry well. Isn’t that right? 🙂

    The only child Christie involves us with emotionally is Josephine Leonides, but she plays such a different role in that novel that her death hits us hard – as it should. There are a couple of cute kids in cameos in other books (the little girl in The Clocks comes to mind), but most of the children are unrealized as characters.

    II. The characters are wrong, unintentionally

    You’ll get no argument from me there. I think we’re all supposed to fall in love with Miranda Butler, but Christie hammers home the “sprite” aspects of her personality so much that I kind of want her to fall out of a tree.

    However, we do get Mrs. Oliver, and the only bad thing about her playing such a major part in the final stages of Christie’s career is that most of the books she’s in are beneath her. (You think you’ll find some good in Elephants Can Remember? Mrs. Oliver is the only thing that is good there.)

    III. The investigation is wrong, unintentionally and intentionally
    I don’t understand your trying to have it two ways here. You will see again in Elephants Can Remember and Nemesis how Christie flounders over the investigative aspects of a crime. At least Miss Marple doesn’t bring in the police at all. But in the last Poirot before Curtain, the sleuth’s “interrogations” of characters are muddled because I think the author could no longer put together the permutations of a strong mystery plot. Was Poirot out of fashion by 1968? I think you could make a good argument that this is true, but there are also the millions of Christie fans (like me) who couldn’t care less. But at the time (even though I was 13), I could tell there was something wrong with Hallowe’en Party,/i> and with all that followed – until Curtain, when I could tell we were back in the hands of a master (even if that novel isn’t Christie at her best either.)

    And I think Christie wanted to be relevant. Hence, Passenger to Frankfurt, which is frankly an execrable exercise in trying to write a political thriller mostly because her ideas are so irrelevant!! Don’t say Colin and I didn’t warn you. (Oh, Colin, have you not read Postern of Fate before? Come, let me take your hand and whisper soothing words as you try and get through it.)

    IV: The clues are wrong, unintentionally

    I totally agree, which is why the killer is so obvious in this one to me. The structure of this novel leads a fan to believe that Christie might be revisiting the territory she covered so well in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, which might make us forgive how fuzzily she treats the past cases. But ultimately, all of that is a poorly done cheat, and Christie doesn’t do enough to link present characters to past events in order to provide red herrings.

    Here’s where I REALLY disagree with you: “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 . . . ” I have never found 5LP dull, although I know you did. I think that this is a masterpiece of retrospective mystery because the characters are so vivid and the contrast in their stories so compelling. I’m frustrated that I can’t figure out how to make you see that, even as I respect your different taste. (#RupertPenny)

    V. The deductions are wrong, unintentionally and intentionally

    I honestly only remember ONE deduction (regarding water). It seems to me the whole thing unraveled by pure luck, due to a visit Miranda makes to a garden. I just think of this as incomplete mystery plotting. I can’t figure out a decent motivation for Christie wanting to make things this way. Without her notes – she was using a dictaphone – I think she forgot stuff she had already written. That’s a guess, but it follows since everything from Third Girl on has issues of one sort or another. I think Christie played with psychology in a few books (although I would challenge her correctness on some issues), but this was not one of them. Anyone and their Aunt Fanny who couldn’t figure out Joyce’s true connection with the past murder (and the need to look elsewhere) is a pretty dim bulb indeed.

    I’m writing this at school while children all around me are failing English. I didn’t take as long as I feared, but I apologize to you and the gang if I have rambled on too long. Normally, one finds ME at the defense of AC more often than on the other side. I think HP has a wonderful hook, and it has Mrs. Oliver. Sadly, It’s hard to find much more in the way of pleasure – intended or unintended – in the bulk of this novel.

    • This is brilliant, thank-you! I shall take the highlights because, well, otherwise we’ll still be here three years from now.

      Re: ATTWN — as soon as I made that sweeping generalisation I knew someone would come out with “Well I read it first and I’m fine”; dammit, lesson learned 🙂 But I do think the average reader would read that, pick up a few others and find them less intense, and then quite Christie for good (epsecially as they can doubtless watch them on Netflix to find out what happens, eh?)

      Re: reaction to the crime — no, you read me correctly, I do think Christie is pointing her disapproving finger at the new vogue for vicarious pleasure through unconscionable crap, but I think the coldness of reaction in the community is part of my point in part 2 about the characters being so off; she had a chance here to really drive that home and, for reasons discussed elsewhere, fumbles it badly.

      Re: Five Little Pigs — the middle section of that book is just the first section with one piece of information added, or at least that’s how I remember it. I have said how much I love the reversal of the situation, and I do, but the framing needs trimming down and the bok is really just a novella padded out heinously to standalone length. Shorn of its repetition, it could be as fast and focussed as Murer in the Mews, and I think that’s a sadly missed opportunity.

      Re: Poirot’s relevance — I think Christie’s fans would have been more than delighted for her to write her books from this era in some hemertically-sealed temporal slow zone where things could well have been the 1940s again, but I feel there was a sense of people picking up these books having not read her before and being thoroughly thrown out by how un-current they were. She didn’t need to pander to a new audience at this stage of her career, and maybe I’m misreading it, but there’s a distinct effort to ring certain changes and, given how largely unchanged things are from Styles up until the early 1960s, that’s gotta be worth taking note of…

      And, hey, dude, I’ve read 72 Agatha Christie books and you’ve read, what, two chapters of Rupert Penny? You’re letting the side down, man! 😉

      Your point about the use of a tae ecorder to make her notes is a great one, I’d totally forgeotten she did that and it would account for the odd lost idea and thread. I’m not trying to deny that Christie was a reduced force by this stage of her career, and after everything she gave the genre I think it’s a little callous when I see reviews online of people going “Well, this is late Christie and therefore awful”. You don’t just lose that overnight, and there are obvious signs of decline, but the bits she gets right are nice to see; it would be lovely if there were more of them, no doubt, and maybe this will be the last one I have anything moderately decent to comment on, but I think taking them incontext is far more interesting than simply dismissing them easily.

  5. I too think that Christie’s later work gets a bad rap. I have a review of The Clocks just sitting on my Google Docs (along with like five other reviews I should really post at some time.) and I decided that it’s honesty not that bad, if you took the clocks out you’d end up with a solid if not amazing mystery novel.

    • Hmm, your comment about The Clocks got me thinking about it and I remember not reacting all that positively it. I tracked down this comment on the book I made on another forum all of seven years ago:
      I didn’t like it [The Clocks] at all. That half-arsed espionage business just torpedoed it for me.
      I’m currently toiling my way through One, Two, Buckle My Shoe which is showing signs of following a similarly unconvincing murder/spy setup. When you come across terms like “all very hush-hush” you know there’s trouble looming. Why couldn’t the woman just stick to straight murder stories!

      • Hm, fair enough. I don’t recall it bothering me that much, but that might be because it has so little to do with anything that I could ignore it. 😛 I dunno, maybe it was because I was expecting an utter mess, but there are some good ideas therein.

        • I too think that Christie’s later work gets a bad rap.”

          General consensus is that the post-1950 books are poor or very bad, but, when you see what readers are saying about them, you’ll find that opinions are very divided about this period. The Pale Horse is actually considered to be late masterpiece and some think Endless Night is Christie’s last classic detective story, while others absolutely hate it. Elephants Can Remember was my first Christie and loved it. Even the rambling Postern of Fate has its defenders.

          However, Passenger to Frankfurt seems to be universally despised. So good luck on that one, JJ.

          P.S.
          Dark One: just post those reviews, you lazy hack!

          • Elephants Can Remember was very nearly my second Christie, it was only the publication of the Agatha Chrisite Collection in 2002 — a book released every fortnight with a magazine exploring the background of the novel in question — that got me reading the earlier works first. And so, 15 years later, I still have ECR to look forward to…

        • TomCat: I object. I’m merely a hack, not a lazy one.

          I think that negative reaction is why I’m enjoying this later work, honestly. I was expecting something much worse than I got, honestly. Again, remove those dang clocks and it’s still not amazing, but good, with some tweaks.

      • I remember very little about The Clocks; I remember the bored child looking out the window at the key moment, and something about gardens, but the main thing that sticks with me is how much it feels like a differnt, more residential (for want of a better word) type of mystery. If country house murders were written to satisfying a sort of thrill of the unknown and seeing the upper classes experiencing worse problems than the lower classes, this felt very much like an attempt to write a middle clss book for a middle class audience.

        • Nice point, JJ. In that sense, The Clocks feels very much like Christie attempting to write a “modern” mystery, with working class folk and the focus on the police interrogation rather than on Poirot (who appears very late here).

          Unfortunately, it’s not very good . . .

  6. Re: TomCat’s comment above: I would never dismiss the 50’s novels, even though we see a waning of her powers show up mid-decade. The 50’s begin with A Murder Is Announced, for God’s sake, and all the Marples through A Caribbean Mystery are wonderful! And 1953 saw my favorite Poirot ever. And The Pale Horse is too wonderful! So there!

  7. As to “Hallowe’en Party”, if you could take the flaws out of the book, smooth patch them, revise and “fix” them, would you? Or would you leave the story as is in all its flawed glory?

    Could “Hallowe’en Party” have been one of Christie’s best, maybe one of the top books of the later years, if there were more of an emotional angle coming from the parents as to their child’s deaths? Christie doesn’t shy away from the unfortunate reality of a child being murdered and on that level I applaud her for that. But what she doesn’t do in the book, from what I can remember, is there’s no depiction of the emotional impact that these children’s deaths has on the families left behind. I don’t know whether Christie ignored that aspect at the expense of the puzzle or…. well, who knows! In the hands of a modern mystery writer this book would’ve been so much darker. Sure there would be more of a human interest angle but would it have resulted in a 600 page tome, exploring different character situations and backstories but leaving a lackluster puzzle resulting in a more flawed book then what Christie wrote?

    • This is a good set of questions, Brian. My initial response is that if all the problems were fixed, the lack of any real puzzle would result in something not unlilke The Hollow — I don’t love that book, but the set of relationships is, IIRC, very astutely drawn and the characters lightly sketch but markedly vivid. I also think she would have utilised the “water deduction” more solidly, more damningly, and so it being the sole piece of reasoning there is would really hit home once the lie at the heart of it is revealed.

      • More Hollow bashing! Honestly, I like that one a lot! It’s like the direct inverse of Five Little Pigs. The problem with it is that it feels like Christie went down to the country to work on two novels, a mystery and a romance, and she dropped the file folders, mixing up the pages. She got some Poirot stuck in her Mary Westmacott and mixed some Mary up in her mystery! So The Hollow turns out to be the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of the canon.

        • Not bashing — I said I didn’t love it, not “it’s terrible in every way and has no redeeming features”. The characters are great, that’s the kind of clarity Hallowe’en Party would have benefitted from, but the mystery element is, you’ll surely agree, dampened down somewhat. In a way the solution is one of Christie’s most surprising, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing here… 🙂

          • Yup, there are flaws – not enough in the way of Christie-an misdirection (except I DO like that dying message), and the character of Veronica Cray definitely belongs in another, earlier novel, not with all these relatively naturalistic people. And the argument that Poirot isn’t necessary or doesn’t belong has some credence — although the whole set-up at the swimming pool for his benefit is kinda delicious. I was exaggerating when I used the word “bashing,” but a lot of people don’t like this one, and I can’t figure out why. The ending is devastating, and the theme of “ego” is brilliantly explored here.

  8. I love “Hallowe’en Party” no matter what flaws are in that book. I love the inclusion of Ariadne Oliver and how she can’t bear to even look at an apple after what happens, the scene before the party when Joyce claimed to have seen a murder and no believes her (a wonderful hook), the backstories that pulls me further in the mystery, Michael Garfield with a passion for beauty and creation, and the dark tone that plagues the story until the end. It’s by no means a perfect novel but I rather take a less-than-perfect, flawed Christie than no Christie at all. Sure beats many of these mysteries coming out these days.

    • I like the hook and Mrs. Oliver.

      I’m not sure what backstories you mean, Brian! I think the characters here are unusually thin, as JJ pointed out. And Michael Garfield simply isn’t woven into the novel enough to have the effect on my that I imagine Christie wanted him to have.

      SPOILER re: “the scene before the party when Joyce claimed to have seen a murder and no believes her” – If Joyce had really seen a murder – if she hadn’t lied for once – then this might have been laden with more pathos for me. But this is just another one of her games. Everyone was right not to believe her. And in the meantime, she caused a lot of trouble and the death of her brother as well as her own. AND she gets no credit in the end for bringing a killer to justice. She is, essentially, forgotten by the end. This bothers me.

      • Well maybe backstories wasn’t the right word to use. What I mean was I liked hearing off the possible murders that Joyce “might” have witnessed in Woodleigh Common that is explored and talked about throughout the book. Speaking of Michael Garfield, do you think Christie was more focused getting the puzzle right that she didn’t get the effect of his character that she might have wanted? I’m sure if Christie wrote this in her prime, this book would have been a knock-out. Or maybe it would’ve been flawed but less flawed than what we have.

        • Given how well Christie handles the artistic temperament in five little pigs and the hollow, I think she just fell short with Michael’s character. Also, I think the relationship between Michael and Miranda is incredibly creepy, far more so than Christie felt comfortable with. Could this book has been better when Christie was in possession of her full powers ? Of course!

      • Yeah, that her actions SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER!!!lead to her brother’s death is…unconscionable; it’s a weird thread in the plot, though one that’s possibly there to give someone the chance to react appropriately to the death of a child. But maybe Joyce is better forgotten on account of how much crap and awfulness she causes. I don’t know — I genuinely do not know — if there’s a way to redeem her inside of these actions, y’know? You end up with a victim who is is something of a moral and ethical morass, and not at all easy to sympathise with. That did not occur to me until just now.

  9. Odd how Christie better handled Michael Rogers in Endless Night whose character is a young working class man whom you’d think Christie would have been more out of touch with considering her age when she wrote the book. You would think that character would have fell short a lot more than Michael Garfield whose artistic temperament with beauty and creation was right up Christie’s alley and this was nothing new to her since she’s done it before as you pointed out, Brad. Maybe in this regard it didn’t have much to do with her age or lack of possession of her full powers. Even in her later years she was able to pen a some stunners. And it had to be more than just mere luck or magic to pull those out of the hat. Maybe it just had to do with execution. Michael Garfield’s character just wasn’t executed to the full potential that it could have been.

    • Michael Rogers is a very good comparison to draw. Perhaps the difficulty comes fro the two (MR and MG) wanting essentially the same thing from different ends: it;s easy to justify MR wanting the finer things in life, but selling MG’s pursuit of freedom to chase the beauty he wants to create is a tougher concept narratively. MR is just a poor boy who wants thing things money will buy him; MG has the things money will buy him and doesn’t like where that necessarily leads — the conflict of needing the money to do what he loves, yet that same money (someone else’s money, lest we forget) forcing him to give up control over the thing he knows if he has to bow to the whims of a less knowledgable employer…that’s complex, dude! Perhaps that’s why we get that extended reflection from Poirot in the quarry garden, and the motivation in what MG does is therefore at least explicitly out there, but tying up those threads without having someone overhear a convenient conversation is a trick I think Christie would have struggled to pull of even in the mid-1940s.

      In a way, you want to admire her ambition in trying to make this sort of revelation work — hell, she could have fallen back on any number of easier schemes and motivations…

      • And at her age and with all the success that she has mounted up, she could’ve easily phoned it in and fell back on easier motives or recycled ones from previous books. But Agatha Christie was one that took risks and wasn’t afraid to go down different avenues no matter how challenging the task was. I know this has nothing to do with “Halloween Party” but when Stephen Glanville, a friend of Christie, persuaded her to write a mystery in Ancient Egypt, she could have easily refused, but from one who likes a challenge she accepted and remained to the end of the whole process until the book got done. She could have easily stayed in her comfort zone and continue writing in the current time period that she was used to. I guess she could have easily done that when the 1960’s came. I wonder, was there a Golden Age mystery writer who set their books in the 30’s and 40’s and allow them to remain there even while times were changing outside the books?

    • No doubt. But compared to the weaknesses of earlier “prime period” Christie novels like Mystery of the Blue Train or They Do It With Mirrors, though, I feel the contect of this one is more of an exculpating factor.

      Thanks for the kind words, always nice to know someone is reading this stuff….!

      • I SO wanted to love Mystery on the Blue Train, but I thought it got bogged down with Katherine’s “relatives”. Ugh. Good mystery potential, poorly executed, but compared with almost anything modern I will take it :D.

        I thought the whole “someone is trying to kill Carrie Louise” thing in TDITM did go on a bit. Wasn’t much of a mystery once you learn about the Foundation. Lots of money? There’s your motive. . .

          • the shame of it is, it’s one of Christie’s best-realised unusual settings — no falling back on the trope of the Quiant English Village or the Family Country Pile; she takes an interesting backdrop and really brings it to life. And then the mystery is sort of sub-par. Ah, well, still better than every book I’ve published.

            • TDIwM is not a boring mystery by any stretch. The glimpse at Miss Marple’s girlhood, the odd juxtaposition of family country home with Juvenile Hall, the weirdness that is Carrie Louise’s character, like a Madonna to whom nothing good happens, the set-up of Christian’s arrival and murder, and especially the rivalry between Mildred and Gina . . . I have always enjoyed revisiting this one. As you say, it merely lets us down a bit in the end. The subsequent murders feel tacked on (that feeling returns with greater vigor in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side), and the presence of a certain character to act as accessory seems ridiculously fortuitous. How did the murderer know this issue would ever come up?

            • Here’s a toe in the water of public opinion: Any murder in the final quarter of a book is cheating. What do we think?

        • I agree Marblex, I’ll take Christie’s weakest entry over the pile of modern mysteries written today. Many of them don’t have such great premises so on that note they don’t pull me in to the story.

    • It’s been awhile since I read “Halloween Party” but I recall loving it when I first read it. Let’s see if my opinion will change or remain the same when I re-read it . . . .

    • I think the “weird” aspects were what I liked about TDIwM. The setting, the odd assortment of characters . . . Christie’s take on juvenile delinquency and its treatment, which is a quite conservative viewpoint but doesn’t necessarily brand her as out of touch like later novels will. I just don’t think the solution supports the weirdness enough. Interestingly, the French Christie series gave this one a completely different and quite weird ending – quite horrible, imho, but it did stay true to some of the relationships of the original novel.

      • They Do It With Mirrors is a very under-rated Christie mystery, much less in the Miss Marple series. It’s a book that’s often not talked about or listed on a top 10 list of faves, but surprisingly it was adapted 3 times.

        • I agree that it’s underrated, part of the problem with there being so many Christie Greats (or at least Famouses) to command the attention. As I say above, I really like the context, but I think a lot of people come to Christie for pure mystery, and on this front a lot of experienced readers will come away a little deflated. It’s a good “@m new to this dort of thing” mystery, I think, as it conforms to a lot of the tropes those unaccustomed to this type of book would expect while also offering up an interesting milieu that I think anyone not just keyed into the murder would enjoy (and be surprised by).

  10. There have been some notable exceptions where money wasn’t a motive. Crooked House; Five Little Pigs; The Hollow, come to mind. I always hated CH but the other two are favorites, largely because of the great character studies.

    (Sarah Miles and Edward Fox were hilarious scene-stealers in the film version of The Hollow.)

    • Speaking of “The Hollow”, specifically the book, I have a question . . . . . . .

      ***[MIGHT CONTAIN “SPOILERS” FOR SOME!!!!!!!]***

      When Gerda heads towards the pavilion and spots her husband there with Veronica Cray, what is it that she SEES that makes her decide to kill him? What is John and Veronica doing in there? In the David Suchet adaptation, the screenwriter wrote John and Veronica in a “compromising, sensual, and sexual” position and I don’t think this is what Agatha Christie envisioned in her mind . . . . or did she? In the book all Gerda says is, “It was moonlight. I went along the path to the swimming pool. There was a light in the pavilion. They were there — John and that woman.” That’s it! Agatha Christie doesn’t provide further detail or give mention of what they did . . . . or maybe they didn’t do anything at all. She wrote just enough for the reader to have somewhat of a clear mental image of the scene but not enough to have everything described for them. This is the kind of writing that not only resonates with the reader after he/she closes the book but it invites lively discussion as well. What do you think John Christow and Veronica Cray were doing?

      • I’m afraid I’ll have to leave this to someone who remembers it more clearly. Seeing her husband in the moonlight with another woman carries implication enough over what they’re doing — Christie was always very demure, but the screenwriter doesn’t seem far off in my mind — but there coul be events elsewhere that contradict this supposition of mine. Anyone else want to take this on…?

        • I do agree that in this particular instance, as to the film, the screenwriter weren’t that far off portraying such a scene like this considering how unnecessarily they insert sexual scenes in previous Christie films when they weren’t called for. But I think such a scene portrayed as in the film may be taken to the extreme when taking Gerda’s character into consideration.

        • It has been too long for me to specifically remember, but John left the dinner party to walk Veronica home and didn’t come back for god knows how long. I think Gerda felt this was a slap in the face, whereas his love for Henrietta was not only treated more subtly, but Henrietta displayed great sympathy and friendliness toward Gerda. Veronica was the last straw. As I recall, John is rejecting Veronica at the pool, and she gets angry (making her a suspect). I imagine Gerda overheard this and focused on the fact that this conversation proved John had been unfaithful with this awful woman.

          • “Well, I can’t remember the specifics…” says Brad, and promptly goes into more detail than I can manage immediately upon finishing a book…
            #HumbleBrag 🙂

      • She never explicitly describes what Gerda saw but makes it clear that the couple were in fact, in flagrante delecto. This is what sent her around the bend. In the movie, you see them in the act, though they are (more or less) fully clothed. Gerda witnessed her husband being unfaithful, which not only hurt her deeply but, more importantly, destroyed her perfect image of him.

        • In “The Hollow” Gerda mentions her devotion and worship towards her husband, “I’d trusted John. I’d believed in him- as though he were God. I thought he was the noblest man in the world-I thought he was everything that was fine and noble… And it was all a lie! I was left with nothing-nothing at all. I-I’d worshipped John!”

          I know the film shows her husband and Veronica Cray in the act, showing the extreme length that John went to with his old flame. But what if in the pavilion John and Veronica were in a close embrace and kissed? Or what if they were in the room talking and laughing? What would a man be doing with another woman in the middle of the night as his wife is asleep? Gerda wasn’t a stupid woman as everyone thought she was. What if this scenario happened? What would have happened if Gerda didn’t catch the two in time? It’s possible that she thought along those same lines and Gerda saw her husband for what he really was. Here is a woman who thought her husband as one who could do no wrong. It’s possible for a woman who worshipped her husband, trusted and had complete faith in him and even elevating him to God (seeing him as perfect), to be set off by John clearly cheating on his wife or at least giving off the “appearance” as such (in other words, anything small that suggests that an adulterous act would soon follow).

          But there’s one sentence from Gerda that suggests to me that the activity in the pavilion was more than a man and his old flame laughing and having a good time, though that would probably be enough to set Gerda off. THIS is the sentence: ‘Her eyes seemed to be turning inwards seeing the scene.’ This tells me that this was a scene that changed everything. A scene that was imprinted in her mind. A scene that she could recall as though it happened yesterday. A scene she would never forget. It could have been a scene that involved John and Veronica kissing one another. It could have been sexual. Agatha Christie was never one that wrote blatant, graphic scenes. But could she? Could she have wrote such a scene if she was one who desired to? I remember in a discussion on a forum, one person mentioned that if Christie wanted to write such a scene she wouldn’t have been able to because of a publication obscenity act/law authorizing the disuse of such material in books. Whether she wanted to write such a scene or not doesn’t matter because as a result, such a scene was never written but the question is was a scene that was sexual in nature “hinted” at? If so, I don’t know why my mind has a hard time believing that Christie could have thought such a scene happened in the pavilion. But she wasn’t a woman ignorant of the world around her and the extreme lengths people would go to.

          What say you?

          • I think she caught them at it. Doesn’t need to be explicit, anymore than a description of what Arlena and Patrick were up to in EUTS. Implied strongly.

            I agree with Brad, The Hollow is a masterpiece of misdirection, but in the end, Gerda, who almost outwitted everyone, understood what her options were and took imho, the best one, even though it orphaned her children.

            Gerda was by no means stupid but, her own insecurities simply crippled her and her dependency on and worship of John destroyed her.

  11. No matter how weak “Halloween Party” is compared to Christie’s other books, it sure is a great book to read during the autumn season, especially with Halloween approaching 😉

      • Halloween III: Season of the Witch is one of those utterly repulsive experiences that one should make every effort . . . not to experience! It shares its place in the pantheon of Movies That Should Not Have Been Made with such classics as It’s Alive (and all that gem’s sequels) and the original Death Ship. The list grows larger every year . . .

          • They Live is a hilarious sci-fi parody by John Carpenter, who had to work really hard to get things wrong. It’s Alive is about a mutant baby eating its way out of its mother, decimating the surgical team, and then wandering around town butchering milkmen.

            Oh, wait – now I’ve made it sound worth seeing . . .

  12. Halloween Party hooks you to the story as quick as possible with its inciting incident but I wonder for modern readers today, who require more immediacy which is what I read in many writing craft books, would another way to open up the acene to get to the action more quicker than what Christie offered us is to have it open with Poirot getting the phone call from a distressed and breathless Ariadne Oliver who then tells him about the murder of Joyce Reynolds? As an aspiring writer I’m trying to study the craft and look at all the possible angles of opening a story.

    • Nope, the opening you describe is the opening for Dead Man’s Folly. The Halloween party is a perfect opening for that book, but the rest of the novel falls short, imho.

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