Saturday, July 23, 2011

Evil Under the Sun

For every evil under the sun,
There is a remedy; or there is none;
If there be one, try and find it,
If there be none, never mind it. 

-- Mother Goose

Catchy little rhyme, isn't it? Though the words have come to us on the wings of Mother Goose, they could have been as easily taken from the mouth of M. Hercule Poirot, as he tries to solve an intricately planned murder in Evil Under the Sun (1941).

The mise en scène is pure Agatha Christie. The stage is a secluded island off Leathercombe Bay, complete with a pirate's cove and a causeway that floods at high tide. The players are a delightfully Christie-esque cast that leaves no one without questionable character, opportunity or motive. There's the much despised Arlena Marshall, a former actress, and as many of her fellow guests would have it: 'a man eater.' Her husband, Captain Marshall, is an excellent specimen of English reserve.  There's a philandering husband and his wall-flower wife. An obnoxious couple from America (Mrs. Christie gets the 'And didn't I tell them, Odell' and the 'yes, dears,' just right); an athletic spinster; a successful dressmaker; a fanatical vicar; a shady, 'self-made' investor; and, lastly but not leastly, the neglected stepdaughter of the Marshalls.

All of these characters play some role -- even if ever so small -- in what turns out to be a most puzzling mystery. But M. Poirot, as Miss Lemon has known for so long now, is not to be gotten the better of.

Perhaps one of the particular pleasures of this novel (if Miss Lemon dare make mention of it) is to see the rough treatment the preening Poirot gets at the hands of Mrs. Christie. Horace Blatt, the self-made millionaire, sums up the company thus: 'A lot of kids, to begin with, and a lot of old fogeys too. There's that old Anglo-Indian bore and that athletic parson and those yapping Americans and that foreigner with the moustache -- makes me laugh that moustache of his! I should say he's a hair-dresser, something of that sort.'

Although the year was only 1941, and Dame Agatha was entering the peak of her powers as a crime novelist, it's clear that Poirot, loth as he'd be to believe it, is beginning to wear.

But her gentle barbs are just part of the fun. And they, with the mesmerizing seclusion of the coves and cliffs, make for a delightfully chilling game of mystery and murder. A perfect diversion for a hot summer's day.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Endless Night

Feeling a bit wilty from the relentless summer sun? Then let Miss Lemon recommend Agatha Christie's chilly crime novel, Endless Night (1967) to cool you down.

Max Mallowan, the renowned archaeologist and second husband to Dame Agatha, once observed that Endless Night was perhaps her darkest novel.

It is a bit of a dark horse, Miss Lemon must agree, starting out of the gate as it does with the breathless first-person point-of-view of Michael Rogers, a salt-of-the-earth type of man; but a dreamer and a drifter, too. Rogers is a man with a past, but one who's quick to point out that so many of us are -- especially the ones who wind up at the center of a crime story. In this case, the story's got to do with a fantastically wealthy young American heiress, a Swedish architect, a lonely plot of land called 'Gypsy's Acre,' a curse, a real-life gypsy, and many, many hangers on.

Oh, and did Miss Lemon mention pasts?

There's no Poirot in Endless Night; or Hastings, Japp or Miss Marple, either. Even so, this is Agatha Christie at the top of her game. She seems to inhabit wholly the sensibility and manner of Michael Rogers, a convincingly rendered voice right down to his arrogance as a man and insecurity as a writer. As Miss Lemon mentioned, there's a breathless quality to Rogers' narration, and according to The Secret Notebooks of Agatha Christie , she wrote Endless Night in the space of six weeks versus the usual six months to a year that it took her to write other books.

And as in Third Girl, Mrs. Christie strives for, and, in Miss Lemon's estimation, succeeds in capturing a surprisingly modern tone in characterization and in plot detail.

Without giving too much away, Miss Lemon urges you to read Endless Night. Be patient, should it seem as if not much is happening in the way of murder or mischief. When you get to the end, you'll see not only a neatly fashioned crime and solution but also a startling allusion to some of Mrs. Christie's greatest novels of the past.

Miss Lemon won't say which ones.