Regular blog readers will have been wondering where this review has been, as it has been on the cards for over a week, whilst other posts have been seemingly jumping the queue. But here it is at long last. Hope it’s worth the wait…
This is another re-read for me and in particular my second Christie re-read of the month. Thankfully this story was much better than my other re-read. Then again it would have had hard job being worse… Postern of Fate bashing aside, let’s look at today read.
The book is set at Christmas time and there are various characters making their way to Gorston Hall, home of the wealthy and tyrannical Simeon Lee. Aside from his son Alfred, who lives at the Hall with his wife, Lydia, we have a mysterious stranger arriving from South Africa and a young Spanish woman, as well as three further sons, two of which are coming with wives. Not all of these guests are expected, and some bring with them a whole heap of strife and tension. This doesn’t bother Simeon in the slightest, in fact he mostly engineered it all himself, in order to have a Christmas he could really enjoy. Though it will not surprise you that his idea of joke turns nasty and that it turns nasty for him…
Yet his death is no quiet affair, in fact the crashing of furniture and a deathly scream are what drives the other household inhabitants to his aid, once they’ve broken down the door. As many of you will know this is one of most overt examples of the locked room mystery in the Christie canon and in this tale she poses a fiendish case; not in terms of how the door is locked with the key on the inside, but in regards to the killer’s timing. How did they manage to do what they did in the time they would have had? It is fortunate then that Hercule Poirot is visiting the local Chief Constable and is able to lend a hand with the case.
Despite having a sizeable cast of characters; a variation of which we can see in the later novel of 4:50 from Paddington, Christie does a good job of differentiating them and making them easy to remember. I think she partially achieves this through pacing her introductions to them, working through degrees of closeness. We begin with the “outsider” characters, in terms of nationality and acquaintanceship with the Lee family, before moving onto closer family members. During this period, we only hear about Simeon through his relations and we are able to observe the effect he has had on his sons, before we get to see him in the flesh. When the time comes for us to finally meet him we are told that in the ‘big grandfather armchair, the biggest and most imposing of all the chairs, sat the thin shrivelled figure of an old man;’ a description which is perhaps at odds with what we have been told about him. Yet the narrator is quick to correct us: ‘a shabby, insignificant figure, one might have thought. But the nose, aquiline and proud, and the eyes, dark and intensely alive, might cause an observer to alter his opinion. Here was fire and life and vigour.’
If my memory serves me correctly, fellow blogger Brad, has referred to Simeon as one of Christie’s most unpleasant villains, which is a reasonable statement given the catalogue of bad actions he has committed. Yet during this re-read to me, it felt like there was still some narrative leniency being given to him, leniency which other villains in her canon are not afforded with, in particular I am thinking of Mrs Boynton from Appointment with Death (1938). It feels less like a coincidence that both these characters were published in the same year. Both of them treat their relations appallingly and enjoy inflicting psychological cruelty upon them, whilst feeling a great deal of power in doing so. However, unlike Mrs Boynton, Simeon is given a certain roguish charm, which dilutes his unpleasantness and more than one character in the book is pulled in by it. Equally we have characters such as Hilda who partially victim blame, suggesting that Simeon’s now-dead wife, who at the very least perpetuated her own poor treatment from Simeon, through her meek behaviour.
Though it is interesting that aside from Simeon’s wife, the majority of the living female characters in the book are quite strong minded. Lydia and Hilda are especially noted for this, with an equal emphasis on their not being particularly beautiful. However, I think their variation of energy and force is portrayed more favourably than Pilar Estravados’ which is depicted a little more barbarically, with others suggesting she is a ‘bloodthirsty young woman.’ This seems a less surprising statement when the reader has just heard that Pilar thinks a car blowing up is ‘exciting,’ but a ‘nuisance’ as her driver was killed. Highly inconvenient indeed! She injects a modicum of youth into the setup, but I’m not sure we’re meant to overly identify with her.
Given that this is a locked room mystery, there is an expectation for there to be a focus on physical clues and initially such clues are forthcoming, as a number of things don’t add up for Poirot about the crime scene. It is not for nothing that prior to the murder we observe a conversation between Poirot and the Chief Constable, the latter of whom prefers murders where there is ‘no ambiguity about the cause of death.’ Christie has a great deal of fun with this concept, giving us a death with a clear cause, yet ensuring it is far from ‘straightforward.’ Nevertheless, Christie also plays around with the idea of what constitutes as a physical clue, as well as what constitutes a psychological one and throughout the story Poirot is keen to emphasise that ‘the whole importance of the case lies… in the character of the dead man […] the character of the victim has always something to do with his or her murder.’ In the end I would say that the final solution blends the two types of clues together. It goes without saying that the sneakiest of clues, the ones which create the “how could I miss that?” moment, are Christie’s verbal clues and word choice is of paramount importance in this text.
By and large I would say the clues are fairly laid and since this was a re-read, I was much more able to spot where they were and how for certain parts of the solution they build up. However, there is one clue that prevents the solution from being wholly satisfying, as it requires Poirot to pull a certain aspect of the case out of the hat. It also has to be said that this solution has a number of excesses, with certain elements being duplicated shall we say. Yet somehow Christie manages to get away with it, on the whole. The quick pace and engaging dialogue certainly play their part and after all Christmas is so very often a time of over-indulgence, so Christie’s extravagances can be excused to an extent, in exchange for the entertainment they offer.
Calendar of Crime: December (6) Original Month of Publication