Sunday 5 May 2019

Go Back for Murder by Agatha Christie

This is the first play of Agatha Christie's which I've reported on. And it's devastatingly good. I think it's the best one I've read by her — and I read it in a collection which also includes The Mousetrap and Ten Little Indians.

It was first staged in 1960 and it's based on her 1942 novel Five Little Pigs (known in America by the superior title Murder in Retrospect), which not coincidentally, is my favourite Christie novel so far.

I say "not coincidentally" because the story is indelible and gripping. It is also powerfully simple.

Carla Crale is a beautiful young woman who wants to clear her mother's name. Her mother was tried for murder and found guilty of killing her husband, Carla's father Amyas Crale.

Amyas Crale (I just can't get enough of that name) was a famous and hugely talented painter. Vain and egotistical, he is also irresistible to women and never hesitated to have affairs outside of his marriage. 

And his wife, Caroline, tolerated these. Sort of...

But Amyas went too far when he brought his bewitching young mistress Elsa into the family home so he could paint her against the magnificent sea view there — fashioning a masterpiece, incidentally. But a masterpiece that would be the last thing he ever did.

During the hot summer days at the Crales' idyllic country house in Devonshire, the tension ratchets up. Caroline knows all too well what is going on. Even before Elsa blithely announces — to Caroline's face — that she's going to take her husband away from her.

But Amyas has no patience with this fraught domestic drama — he just wants to finish his painting — "when I'm painting nothing else matters — least of all a pair of jealous, quarrelling women."

Here, and elsewhere, Agatha Christie shows her psychological insight and her ability to create strikingly authentic characters. Amyas Crale is utterly true to life both in his single minded devotion to his art, and his technical discussion of it. 

When his model Elsa wants to put on a sweater because she's cold, he growls "Oh no you don't. It'll change all the tones of the skin." Christie has clearly done her research.

But painting your gorgeous young mistress on a hot summer day while your beautiful spurned wife is watching from the house is thirsty work. And Amyas demands a cold beer.

He gets one. Spiked with conine, a lethal "pure alkaloid" (again with the research, Agatha) derived from hemlock.

And, not knowing he's dying, he slowly and painfully finishes his painting while everyone else — including his killer — is inside the house having lunch.

Sixteen years later, his daughter wants to find out who really put the poison in his beer.

It's a superb and unforgettable story, studded with beautifully evoked and distinctive characters. 
The book the play is based on is a Hercule Poirot novel. And the first thing Christie did when adapting it for the stage was to eliminate Poirot entirely from the narrative. Yup, him and his little grey cells are just gone.

Which at first sounds crazy — remove the detective from a detective story?— but it makes absolute sense.

Of course, there are some kinds of detective stories where the hero rescues women from death, beats up bad guys, defeats the evil scheme and generally provides important turning points in the plot.

But in this kind, where the key thing is solving the puzzle, the detective is a viewpoint character. He doesn't actually do anything in the story except elicit facts and draw a conclusion.

The investigation Poirot did in the book is handed over in the play to a young lawyer Carla consults, Justin Fogg.

Christie makes some other canny — indeed quite brilliant decisions — I was particularly delighted that she eliminated Carla's drip of a fiancĂ©. In the book he is boringly perfect, and exists almost entirely offstage, only turning up at the end to be "tall, square jawed" and have "steady grey eyes."

In the play the fiancé is a creep who doesn't deserve Carla. And Justin the lawyer, who has quite naturally fallen for her, is determined to take her away from the creep.

Thus Christie threads a satisfying love story through the mystery and adds another layer of pleasure for her theatre audience.  (And people like me who read the play.)

The novel concludes with all of the witnesses (which is to say, the suspects) returning to the house where it happened and reconstructing that fateful day. In the book this is done in dialogue.

In the play, with her peerless instincts as a dramatist, Christie has the events actually acted out in flashback, with the actress playing Carla now in the role of her mother Caroline.

Incidentally, the solution to the mystery is unpredictable, logical and stunning in the best Agatha Christie tradition.

But that, to me, is secondary compared to the sheer genius involved in her construction of the dazzling original novel, and then her deconstruction of it to refashion into this staggeringly clever play.

Dame Agatha, take a bow. My hat is off to you.

(Image credits: The purple Samuel French cover is from Barnes and Noble. The striking purple People's Theatre poster with the sealed envelope is from North East Theatre Guide. The Hamburg Players poster is from their own website. The Southwick Players handbill ("Pit your wits against Christie!") is from their archive. The lovely Teatro Impulso poster — is that an Augustus John painting? – is from News Sicilia. The Therry Dramatic Society poster with the backward arrows is from the Adelaide Theatre Guide. The nice 1920s style Rockville Little Theatre poster is from the RLT website. The Official Agatha Christie Theatre Company poster is from No More Workhorse. The image of Lysette Anthony in her 1960s chic is from All Edinburgh Theatre.)

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