#639: “Nothing is so sad as the devastation wrought by age” – Going Out in Style(s) with Curtain (1975) by Agatha Christie

Curtain

Given the inevitable decline in Agatha Christie’s powers as her career drew to a close, there’s a moderate irony in that fact that she had come off probably the most successful decade in the history of detective fiction writing when she opted to portray Hercule Poirot at his apparent worst.

Hallowe’en Party (1969) and Elephants Can Remember (1972) would have been fairly damning epitaphs for the career of the little Belgian, and for Dame Agatha herself, and yet when reading them it’s clear that Poirot is supposed to still be in his pomp and magnificence.  Whatever the true motivation was behind Christie writing Curtain in the 1940s — I’ve seen it claimed both that she wanted to guarantee a strong ending to the character were she to be killed herself in the Blitz, and that she simply loved the idea when it came to her and felt the need to write it while it was fresh — I can’t deny that it’s somewhat wonderful to have author and sleuth both back on their game.  Yes, there are all manner of anachronisms (from, er, research purposes elsewhere I know that the practice of hanging criminals was abandoned before the apparent setting of this story) and it exists in a curiously airless, trapped-in-amber milieu that could be anything from 1924 to some sort of 21st century Technology Detox Camp, but I’m happy to allow certain things for the sheer quality of this experience.

The plot is simplicity itself: we begin with Arthur Hastings returning to Styles, now run as a hotel by Colonel and Mrs. Luttrell, at the request of his old (and now elderly) confrere.  There, a variety of GAD Types await us: the worldly Sir William Boyd Carrington, a former governor out in India, the reserved spinster Elizabeth Cole, cad and gadabout Major Allerton, keen birdwatcher Stephen Norton, research scientist (and casual vivisectionist, with “hutches of guinea pigs…and mice and rabbits”) Dr John Franklin, his psychosomatic invalid wife Barbara, and Judith Hastings, youngest daughter of our long-suffering narrator and assistant to Dr. Franklin.  One of these people, Poirot tells us, is a murderer of the most hateful and pernicious type, a shadowy figure able to remain on the fringes of suspicion in at least five known cases who was, nevertheless, undeniably guilty of each of the deaths that have occurred.  Poirot calls this person X, and says — with a straight face and everything — that he needs Hastings’ help in running the guilty party to ground.

Poirot, see, is not the physical force he once was.

Crippled with arthritis, he propelled himself abut in a wheeled chair.  His once plump frame had fallen in.  He was a thin little man now  His face was lined and wrinkled. … Only his eyes were the same as ever, shrewd and twinkling…

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“I’m as fit as I ever was…”

Hastings, then, shall be the eyes and ears, and Poirot the brains.  And so, naturally, Hastings goes about hearing and seeing all the right things but putting entirely the wrong interpretation on them.  Perhaps the first meaningful flaw in this, and there aren’t many, is how dense Hastings appears now — did I simply overlook this before, or has the awareness been coaxed out of me in his absence?  He’s seemingly eager to stop a murderer, but also unable to see how important it is to do things Poirot’s way even with his own daughter as potentially both a suspect and a possible victim.  “In spite of Poirot’s feebleness and ill health,” he tells us, “I had faith in him… I was used, you see, to Poirot’s succeeding” — and yet even Papa Poirot is moved to uncharacteristic frustration with Hastings’ injunctions against basic precautions:

“You can listen to conversations, you have knees that will bend and permit you to kneel and look through keyholes–“

“I will not look through keyholes,” I interrupted hotly.

Poirot closed his eyes.  “Very well, then.  You will not look through keyholes.  You will remain the English gentleman and someone will be killed.  It does not matter, that.  Honour comes first with an Englishman.  Your honour is more important that somebody else’s life.”

We, of course, have faith in Poirot, and it would be a deviation from the norm too far were he to fail in this instance — and that, piled upon all the other deviations this plot brings us, has a Phelpsian air that perhaps even Christie shied away from (writing, it might be said, the sort of book that Sarah Phelps wishes she could dramatise).  For all his obstinacy, Hastings goes through a quite phenomenal changes at a key part of this story, and Christie makes the agonies he experiences compelling and believable at the same time; “the morning after”, as it may be termed, is one of the most compelling I think I’ve ever encountered, and, while the man did vex me so, I enthusiastically applaud the acumen Christie exhibited in bringing someone we have such an emotional connection with back to be put through the wringer in such a manner.

The inclusion of Judith, too, is an inspired piece of reflection.  Christie isn’t especially good at conveying parent-offspring relationships — it’s too easy here to read great depths into the awkwardness of the Hastings ménage given her own, well-documented difficulties with her daughter Rosalind — but Judith is a great shortcut to Hastings’ many flaws and the pricking of his thumbs ego.  Convinced that he is doing a superb job of dissemblage when examining the suspects over dinner, he’s approached afterwards by Judith who wants to know why he was “staring at everyone at dinner” — this following Hastings having credited himself with “a little dissimulation” over Poirot’s refusal to give up the name of the killer.  And the gap in generations is brought about, too, by Judith’s confident avowal that “Unfit lives, useless lives — they should be got out of the way”, while the older, more level-headed Norton reassures her shaken father that “it’s the sort of half-baked idea one has when one is young, but fortunately one doesn’t carry it out.  It remains just talk.”

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“Ah, but when one is old…”

Throughout all this, Hastings is, naturally, in the thick of all manner of subtle pointers and indicators as to who our killer is, blithely sailing — along with us — past the key incidents to point his moving finger at the most obvious suspect (“It came to me very strongly that [redacted] was almost certainly X.  And I had let him see that I suspected the fact.”) and allowing X to work their not-so-merry magic.  We get some textbook character descriptions — I unknowingly highlighted perhaps the most significant one because of its sheer banality, only to get to the end and realise how deliberate that banality was — and glorious touches like Boyd Carrington’s quiet reflection that “one feels safer alone” after the death of his first wife, or the effervescent joy of Daisy Luttrell’s here-again-gone-again Irish brogue.  It’s a wonderfully joyous time, so light on its feet after the galumphing Elephants, and you can see Christie almost hugging herself with joy at times for how neatly she hides so much under the guise of apparent nothingness.

Inevitably, death comes as the end of this apparent nothingness, and suddenly you know there has to be some relevance to what has been going on.  This is, after all, vintage-era Christie.

The deaths herein warrant some discussion, and I shall attempt to do so without spoiling anything.  The first is one of those sting-in-the-tail affairs, when the revelation of how it was done is a real kicker that you don’t see coming…and that’s especially true here because I went back to read the relevant passage once the workings were revealed and there’s no way you could link that description with causing the death that happens.  It’s a shop-worn Golden Age trick of sorts, and never fails to amuse me, and I’d be no less delighted here but for the fact that it drops out of stark nowhere and thus lacks the kick it might otherwise have.  The second death is doubtless why this ended up on the Roland Lacourbe-curated Locked Room Library list, but to read this book for its locked room murder would be a (dead man’s) folly.  Indeed, to talk about that as a locked room murder is to take away from the deviation that it represents — the sort of bold and audacious step that characterises why Christie was such a great champion of the detective novel, and why she remains so beloved today.

The final death is, then, perhaps the one everyone will fixate on, especially in light of what follows it — the revelation of X’s identity, and the moral difficulty of how to deal with such sociopathy.  It has to be said, I’ve flipped and and forth through this book in the writing of this review, and the sheer depth of X’s modus operandi is somewhat breathtaking; it is nothing short of genre genius to see how those apparently innocuous observations that are so often the bread and butter of the GAD author are dialled up to about 12 here, with X in at every key moment and development displaying the sort of raw cunning that could well make me believe Christie was incredibly excited to conceive of such a frankly evil scheme.

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“Of course, she didn’t fool me for a second…”

So where does that leave us, now that Papa Poirot has spoken his last?  With the best Christies, one comes away somewhat mute at the ingenious meshing of the gears, and with a creeping feeling that writing about murder is easy when she can make it look so effortless.  Whether Curtain is among the best Christies is difficult to call — it’s doubtless the best thing she published in the 1960s and 1970s, and the joy at getting the old girl back facing the peak of her achievements may lead many among us to overstate its qualities.  As a scheme I think this might be the best thing she ever came up with — yes, beating even And Then There Were None (1939) — with the problems in declaration (the final chapter, where Poirot explains, requires a lot of withheld information to come to the fore, which is…just annoying, especially as we’re told there are clues to some of it that there simply aren’t) letting the side down somewhat.

If you put this into the company of her 1940s output, since its a contemporary of them, after all, it doesn’t stand out as quite the beacon it may seem from the distance of its publication date.  Arguably the 40s saw an increase in Christie’s creativity — Five Little Pigs (1943), Towards Zero (1944), Death Comes As the End (1944), Sparkling Cyanide (1945), The Hollow (1946), and Crooked House (1949) showcasing a multiplicity of approaches that most writers would kill for — and as such Curtain fits in quite neatly, without excelling.  However, such judgement is moot, really: for all her well-publicised disdain for the little Belgian as her career progressed, it’s delightful to think that she was still interested in giving him such a strong send-off, and one that will live so long in the memory, too.

16 thoughts on “#639: “Nothing is so sad as the devastation wrought by age” – Going Out in Style(s) with Curtain (1975) by Agatha Christie

  1. Your analysis of Hastings here is so good: I’m not a fan of the guy because he is so unbearably stupid, but at least until this book we’re dealing with the lack of growth of most GAD regulars from book to book. But here, we have this tremendous transformation in Poirot, and yet we’re expected to believe that Hastings hasn’t changed at all. After accompanying Poirot on dozens of cases, marrying and fathering several children, and running a business in South America, he comes back and is still the befuddled traditionalist he always was, even in the company of the genius whom he loves and who is dying? I don’t buy it. On the other hand, the way that Christie transforms Hastings from a dumb Watson to an actual player in this game is ingenious and goes a long way toward softening my feelings for the man. Maybe it’s because, for the first time, he actually feels like a man.

    Where I have to disagree with you is in this statement: “Christie isn’t especially good at conveying parent-offspring relationships — it’s too easy here to read great depths into the awkwardness of the Hastings ménage given her own, well-documented difficulties with her daughter Rosalind . . . ” Christie does mothers and sons very well (the Allertons, the Swettenhams, along with a couple of secret ones I won’t mention), and she does even more interesting variations on mother/daughter relationships (the Tamplins, the Otterbournes, Mrs. Symmington and Megan). Of course, all of these were created too early to reflect on Christie’s relationship with her own daughter, and they are nothing like Christie’s close ties with her mother.

    There are actually very few father/daughter relationships in Christie. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the author losing her beloved but foolhardy dad so early. But I just don’t see Hastings the parent as a surrogate for Christie the mom, and frankly I can understand Judith’s frustration with a man who never seems to have developed any acumen for human behavior, despite having worked closely with one of the world’s best for so many years.

    Still, I think you have demonstrated what an important book this is in the canon, even if I agree that it isn’t the best. And while I don’t think it beats out ATTWN in the plot department, we know that ATTWN is not a wholly original idea, and I don’t know of anyone else who has conceived a murder plot as clever as this one. Now, when you move on to Sleeping Murder, do not in ANY way expect something of similar importance. It is “just another” Christie in most ways . . . although this is one aspect that I’m sure Sarah Phelps would have loved to sink her claws into!

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    • It’s interesting, innit, because I really struggle to think of any filial relationships that really stand out in Christie’s books, and typically the only ones that occur to me are where patri- or matricide are concerned — for me, Christie does those sort of relationships well when one side spurned into a murderous rage towards the other… 🙂 This sort of aching disconnection with the Hastingses doesn’t really work for me — there’s nothing that convinces me Hastings has any real feeling for Judith apart from his repeatedly telling us so. As I say above, his conduct would be markedly different were that the case, and it ain’t so it ain’t.

      I’ve said before that I don’t believe the received wisdom that Sleeping Murder was written at around the same time as Curtain, simply because Christie has written, I believe, only two Marple books by that point and should — by sheer numbers alone — have been more likely to be thinking about an appropriate send off for T&T or Battle. I understand Sleeping Murder often seen as a bit of “just another Christie” but I’m still naturally very curious how it fits in following the way Aunt Jane herself declined over the last handful of her stories. Expect a report in the coming months.

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  2. One thing I’ve always loved about this book— especially as a farewell to Poirot— is that it’s solution plays as a “Best Hits”’ album of Christie solution devices: it’s part Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, part Roger Ackroyd, part And Then There Were None, part Sparkling Cyanide, one might even say part Murder on the Orient Express. And though Robert Barnard referred to it as “oddly perfunctory in execution,” I never felt that way. For me, it stands firmly in fifth place, behind And Then There Were None , Five Little Pigs, Death on the Nile, and After the Funeral. Sleeping Murder, on the other hand, I don’t find nearly as interesting as even any of the other later novels, excluding Postern, which I’ve never read.

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    • There are certain titles I’m going to have to reread before I can place Curtain anywhere in my personal Top ?? for Christie, but I’m looking forward to rereading some of her (in my mind) stone cold classics with this one fresh in the brain, so as to get a good idea of how they stack up. To try and compare this with books I’ve not read in 20 years seems a little unfair, but I’m intrigued to see you rate it so highly, Scott.

      Watch this space…

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  3. I think Hastings has always been this stupid. Like you, I didn’t remember him as being that dense, but my re-read has led me to the realisation that he really was incredibly bad at reading situations and behaviours.

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    • I suppose his misreading had its appeal when the genre was relatively new, but even by 1939 (the earliest which I assume we can take to be the date of Curtain’s provenance) that shtick was pretty old hat. Maybe that’s why Christie never returned to him, too — because she knew we had an extra-heavy dose of cluelessness on the way…

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  4. I’m going to be honest and say that, for all her influence, Christie didn’t really entertain me all that much. There were, however, notable exceptions, and Curtain was undoubtedly one of them. X’s modus operandi is genuinely great. The way everything resolves was perfect and, I feel, appropriate for Poirot.

    I also thought the Suchet adaptation was pretty good, too, imo. Maybe not in all aspects, but I think Suchet himself managed to land it for me.

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    • I think Christie is possibly the traditionalist GAD author, being in at the blood and so, so influential in popularising the genre. For people who like their crimes less traditional — and going on your first three works, I’d suggest you fit into such a bracket — yeah, she’s not going to work to the same extent as she does for me ‘n’ Brad.

      The good news is that there’s plenty of weird goodness in the GAD church for you to get stuck into. Thankfully, it’s a very catholic story form, and goes from the pedestrian all the way to the weeeeeird while maintaining some pretty good consistencies in form and expectation.

      I’ve seen very few Suchet adaptations. Certainly nothing since my voice broke. I have only the vaguest, vaguest memories of any of his televisations ()he’s sitting in a train in one, and Roger Acrkoyd ends with a chase through a facotry…that, I think, is everything).

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      • The Suchet adaptations are up and down–the further away they go from the books, the worse they are (their version of ORIENT EXPRESS was Sarah Phelps-level bad, with Poirot acting so out of character that he seems like a visitor from another planet). Luckily, they managed to do a really good job with CURTAIN, which I think is one of Christie’s best books and a perfect end to the series.

        Come to think of it, are there any other GAD writers who did “series finales” like this, with a book that clearly winds up the career of a long-running character? The only other one I can think of is Ellery Queen’s DRURY LANE’S LAST CASE, and that series had only been running for 2 years–not exactly the same emotional impact as Poirot’s 55-year career.

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        • Hmmm. How many series characters stuck around for a comparable time? Lancelot Priestley, Bobby Owen, Perry Mason, Roderick Alleyn, Henry Merrivale, Gideon Fell, Ellery Queen, Joseph French, maybe Hildegarde Withers…okay, that’s quite a few off the top of my head. Inevitably the majority of series were much shorter than this and many authors may have “picked their ending” by simply opting not to write about that character any more. But it’s a great point to consider whether anyone else planned it in quite the same way. Not writing the book in advance, but just very deliberately writing the final case in their sleuth’s casebook.

          Oh, and Holmes, of course. Twice 🙂

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        • Jack, it’s an interesting question, but I don’t think the ignoring of chronology during the Golden Age lent itself to authors seeking a finale. Inspector Alleyn met his wife on a case, married her, and had a kid, but he never seemed to change. Ellery Queen’s The Finishing Stroke (1958) gives us the nostalgia of a 1920’s case that is solved by an older and wiser 1958 Ellery – who doesn’t really seem older at all. (And his dad should be 120 but marries in the book before this one from 1956.) Even in the 40’s and 50’s, series detectives might change their marital status and/or refer to earlier cases as long distant ones, but they simply don’t age or change emotionally.

          Contrast that with relatively modern day authors like P.D. James or Elizabeth George, whose books are mammoth in size (at least, compared to GAD) because the authors expend as many pages on their detectives’ evolving personal life as on the case in question. One is almost required to read their books in order. And the final Adam Dalgliesh mystery did have a resolution to his story with his marriage to a woman he had, of course, met while on a case, and had been romancing for several books.

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    • I know that Suchet himself was emotionally shattered playing Poirot’s death scene. After a quarter century of “being” Poirot, he seemed the right person to guide us toward this shattering conclusion of the detective’s career.

      As a huge Christie fan, it saddens me that you never got much out of her. I think there are other murderer’s whose minds travel in the same zany path as X does here. As JJ says, there is a wide variety of styles, yet all containing the basic aspects that make them mysteries, to suit every taste. If Hake Talbot had managed to publish 66 variations on Rim of the Pit, I imagine many readers of this blog would be ecstatic! I think it would tire me out.

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      • The notion of 66 Hake Talbot novels puts me in mind of how kids must feel at Disneyland: overstimulated, giddy, and probably irascible most of the time from sheer excitable exhaustion.

        Though, depending on how many Yokomizo translations we get, maybe this means I won’t have to fork out for Disneyland after…

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        • Although the mere mention of The Rim of the Pit above probably doesn’t justify my further discussion of it, it did bring to mind my thoughts about it, and so I’m gonna go for it regardless of propriety. . Though I admire much about it, there has always been a somewhat unsatisfactory aspect of its solution to me, and it’s not a mere matter of sensory overload. And I think the fact of my being (until a few weeks ago) a working magician as well as a detective fiction enthusiast and aspiring whodunit writer is what enables me to identify what I consider a primary weakness.

          In many respects, the analogy people often make between the detective story writer and stage magician is actually even more accurate and specific than is probably realized. Most of the deceptive devices employed in mystery novels have very direct parallels in magic tricks. For example, the time-shift deception employed in The Big Bow Mystery (and later Evil Under the Sun and many other works of the genre) is precisely the incident-made-to-appear-earlier-than-actual-occurrence that makes nearly every version of folded-signed-card-found-in-box (or shoe, or bottle, etc…).possible.
          And the same “reverse psychology” deception-expectation principle that makes the most likely suspect a deceptive device is employed by magicians commonly to misdirect.

          But in one major respect, the work of the magician and mystery writer is quite different. For while the job of the mystery writer to deceive is arguably much easier (the narrative provides many more opportunities for misdirection), the magician Is only required to fool, by any method possible. The mystery writer has a need, which the magician does not, to reveal his methods, and in doing so justify them and show them to be ideally as impressive and compelling as the puzzle that precedes them. Often this is accomplished by revealing that the puzzlement has been entirely due to a single misconception: “once we look at if from the right angle, it all becomes clear.” (This all fits in with my “affirmation of universal order which provides a subconscious validation of our own existence” theory of the core pleasure of the genre).

          That’s where Hake Talbot reveals himself to be a magician, as opposed to the magical-arts-inspired mystery writer Carr was. For although all the impossibilities of Talbot’s story are revealed, they turn out to be a collection of individusl, unrelated magic tricks. And for most part— much like most magic tricks— they are not only more earthbound than the miracles they explain, but also much more prosaic. This is not usually true of Carr, whose explanations of impossibility often turn to be as fascinating (even frequently in their surprising simplicity) as the impossibities themselves. .

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          • I think this is fair, Scott. Though I’d also suggest that, given the density of miracle occurrences herein, I suppose i never imagined that there would be some overall linking element to their conception. Two or three of the same occurrence in a story — let’s say everyone disappears from a particular room when they sleep there on a Tuesday night when it’s raining — usually end up having the same cause, and as such the linking idea tends to become a little apparent.

            Seven or eight or nine different problems — a seance, a vanishing spirit, a man possessed by evil spirits and floating through locked doors and over snow, a massive winged mythical creature, etc., etc — as we have here are exponentially more unlikely to be linked together by the same thread, if only because the sheer range of problems is so vast. The “surface” narrative links them (in this case, it’s all demons and…stuff) but I’m rarely surprised when a bit of running around has to be done to explain a no footprints murder, a shooting in a locked room, the vanishing of a motor car from a locked garage, and a dream that contains prophecy.

            I wonder if the difference is that the magician’s eye sees each trick as part of an overall show, where the writer wants to look for a tidy summation. Magicians are all about the effect of the trick and consider the explanation to be almost redundant; writers want the explanation to dazzle and so hold back a little to enable that.

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            • Yes, in fact I’d say that your final paragraph is understatement: magicians often have to remind themselves that effect is all and explanation is of absolutely no importance (as the audience will never know it, the magician has to keep in mind that there is no such thing as a better or worse method to them). And yes, conversely, the easiest way to disappoint the reader of a whodunit is to make the solution less interesting or satisfying than the puzzle (one of the reasons The Crooked Hinge is somewhat of a disappointment for me, it’s solution rather lacking in a sense of inevitability due to thinness of clueing).

              You’re right that it would be quite extraordinary to find a single thread that would account for all the impossibilitIes found in Rim of the Pit. But that’s one of the reasons that most authors— even Carr himself— would not choose to include as many impossibilities in the first place. Because there really is something more satisfactory about an abductive “this explains everything” solution than an “everything can be explained” solution, which I think describes Rim of the Pit.

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