It’s been five years since I have read this novel and to be honest there wasn’t much I could remember about it, other than it featuring both Ariadne Oliver and Hercule Poirot. The primary death was the other element I recalled, which makes wonder whether the opening chapters of the book, are the best part of the tale.
It all begins with Ariadne Oliver “helping” to set up a children’s Hallowe’en party, (hosted by Rowena Drake), and by helping, I mean putting her feet up whilst musing on matters and scoffing some of the apples for the apple bobbing contest. The rest of the helpers ‘consisted for the most part of mothers, one or two competent spinsters; there were useful teenagers, boys of sixteen and seventeen climbing up ladders or standing on chairs to put decorations […] girls from eleven to fifteen hung about in groups and giggled.’ During these preparations, 13-year-old Joyce Reynolds boldly claims to Ariadne that she once saw a murder happen, though she only realised it was one, later on. Of course, no one believes her, and the teasing of other children deters Joyce from giving out any specific details. When the time for the party arrives all goes well and it is only at the end of the event that the adults realise they can’t find Joyce and when they do they are in for an unpleasant surprise…. namely discovering Joyce has been drowned in the bucket used for the apple bobbing. Ariadne understandably goes to her old friend Hercule Poirot. Whilst some say the killing must have been committed by an escaped lunatic, she is sure that Joyce’s boast from earlier on, may have something to do with her death. But given how nebulous Joyce’s claim was, without even a definite idea of when this earlier murder may have taken place, Poirot certainly has his work cut out…
I don’t feel too many would quibble with me, (there’s always one after all), that this story doesn’t show Ariadne and Hercule at their best, the former especially so. The traits which appealed to me and made me laugh in earlier outings with Ariadne, were now lacklustre in this re-read, (opening chapter aside). The path she takes for telling information is never a direct one and normally this is amusing part of her character, but in this book, her slowness in telling Poirot what happened to Joyce was bordering on the tortuous. Interestingly both characters are outsiders coming into the mystery, as Ariadne’s entry into the plot is only due to visiting a friend she met on holiday. Yet I wonder whether they are quite the right outsiders for this plot. Would Miss Marple have fared better in this story, being the outsider who also becomes the insider? Would she have got more information out of the suspects and witnesses earlier? In my mind I even considered whether this book could have gone in the direction made by The Pale Horse; i.e. Ariadne without Poirot. Of course, feel free to tell me how completely wrong I am in the comments below!
In keeping with Christie’s later books, the story also considers the changing times. One wonders whether Christie didn’t quite gel with current youth hairstyles: ‘There were two adolescent boys who appeared to have just got used to trying out different hair styles with rather unfortunate results.’ Though I don’t think such a remark alienates Christie from her readers and it’s hard not to laugh and sympathise when poor Ariadne goes to find the bathroom, only to find her progress impeded by two teenagers kissing against the door. Not very surprisingly, these two perceive her as being the inconsiderate one, when she asks them to move…
Even Poirot gets a bit of an update when Ariadne likens Poirot to ‘a computer […] programming’ itself. There is though a lot of dialogue centred on the theme of “it wasn’t like this in our day…” and this strain of conversation becomes more focused post-murder, as various locals decry the way homes and similar social institutions are overfull, the apparent consequence being the perception that the streets are littered with mentally unbalanced individuals, primed to kill whenever the fancy takes them. This “theory” almost becomes like a mantra, to the extent of course that readers may consider it a somewhat unlikely solution. Yet I do wonder whether this issue was a contemporary zeitgeist, fuelled by changes to how mental health and cognitive issues were being treated, which led to Christie deciding to incorporate it into the story.
As my final rating shows I am decidedly lukewarm in feeling towards this book and this is principally due to two reasons. The first of these is the structure of the book, once the murder has occurred, as Poirot’s investigation consists of a series of sound bite interviews from a range of locals. Yet I would say the vast majority of these interviews are fairly fruitless and in the main repeat a lot of the same stuff. In comparison to the manner in which Miss Marple and her compatriots, piece to together the cold case in Sleeping Murder or even in Nemesis, I find Poirot’s handling of the matter less satisfying. Perhaps Christie tries to pull off too much in this area, as in the end Poirot has to whip out a lot of information and hunches to conjure up the final solution. Finally, my biggest bugbear might be the number of characters who decide to hold on to useful information until very near the end. One character doing this is irksome yet bearable, but the parade of people doing it in this book takes the biscuit, (though I appreciate there are variations in why people do it). To do Christie some justice, however, I will say she includes a very good sneaky clue, yet personally I think the mystery as a whole wasn’t sufficiently well-clued.
SPOILER ALERT FOR THE NEXT PARAGRAPH
My second reason for lacking enthusiasm with this book is the characterisation. The cast for this tale is a healthy size, but I found the narrative never seemed to spend the right amount of time with each of the characters, spending too much or too little time with them. The “child” component of the book though is interesting and the device of Joyce using someone’s else’s claim as her own, is classic Christie. Yet I don’t feel she used the device’s full potential and having Leopold also knowing too much was a touch too much for me. Hallowe’en Party has a kinship with Crooked House, (a book I really love), yet due to Joyce’s early death and our very patchy time with Miranda, I don’t feel it produces the same emotional resonance with the reader. The ending with Miranda in jeopardy logically includes the events which should feel at home with a dramatic denouement, yet for me at any rate, I didn’t become emotionally involved, as I hadn’t had time to bond with Miranda previously. To round off my spoiler-ish comments I think the motive behind the crimes shares the oddity of the motive found in After the Funeral, yet due to the way the solution is brought out and hurriedly supported, I don’t think the reader is sufficiently prepared by the investigation for the solution, nor able to be as amazed by it.
SAFE TO RESUME READING
So to sum up I think this story has a number of intriguing and interesting elements, but that they weren’t woven together in a satisfying or interesting way.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Death by Drowning
Calendar of Crime: October (4) Hallowe’en (Bet you didn’t see that coming did you?)