Sunday 26 May 2019

Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie

This is the 39th Hercule Poirot, published in 1969, and sees Agatha Christie cautiously dipping her toe into the turbulent waters of the Swinging Sixties. 

I've been particularly looking forward to reading this novel as part of my Poirot project, because of the gorgeous Tom Adams cover art — which I've always admired, even back in the days when I  snobbishly declined to read Agatha Christie...

(Incidentally, that fantastic image of the apple transforming into a skull, and the water dripping from it, will make sense very rapidly when you read the book, although I don't intend to give any spoilers here.)

The book begins with some adroit, busy scene-setting as preparations are made for the  titular Halloween party, with character largely established through dialogue. 

Among those present is Ariadne Oliver, whom I was pleased to find. Ariadne is a recurring minor character in Christie's work, and I first encountered her in Cards On the Table. She's a spinster crime novelist — sort of Agatha Christie's alter ego.

Unlike Christie, Ariadne's detective is a Finn. (When asked, "Why a Finn?" Ariadne responds, "I've often wondered.")

Like Christie, Ariadne Oliver is a bestseller and a big success, and there's an amusing throwaway bit here when she's asked if her books make a lot of money, which sends "her thoughts flying to the Inland Revenue." Christie must have known a thing or two about high income tax...

Anyhow, Ariadne's presence at the party is actually the trigger for a murder to take place there. The police, of course, are baffled, and Ariadne summons her old friend Hercule Poirot and the carefully engineered Christie plot is underway.

Hallow'een Party is the newest in the Poirot series that I've read, and indeed the most recent of Christie's novels — which caused me some concern... A friend who's a Christie buff had told me that it dated "from Christie’s declining years when her faculties are not what they once were."

At first this prescription seemed glumly accurate. After the drama of the initial murder, the book seemed a trifle dull — somewhat colourless and repetitive. 
Was Christie having difficulty with writing in the milieu of a changing world? Had the sexual permissiveness, and casual drug use of the Sixties baffled her?

Well, Agatha Christie had always written about drugs, including cocaine and heroin... Although now things are somewhat different. Ariadne's friend Judith Butler says, "Peculiar drugs and — what do they call it? — Flower Pot or Purple Hemp or L.S.D."

On the other hand, Christie had never written very directly about sex. However, all that changes in this novel, and a rather lifeless book surprisingly comes to life — and Christie herself snaps awake — with the introduction of two children of the era.

Desmond and Nicholas are a pair of teenage boys who were witnesses to (and also suspects in) the murder at the Halloween party. The scene where Poirot interviews them is utterly priceless, and these kids are great characters, desperately striving as they do for sophistication.

They offer Poirot their own theories on the possible identity of the murderer. Starting with the "Sex starved" school mistress. "Lesbian?" suggests Nicholas "in a man of the world voice."

And then there's the curate (assistant vicar) who "might be a bit off his nut" and have committed the murder. "'Perhaps he exposed himself to her first,' said Nicholas hopefully."

This scene, with the two boys enthusiastically theorising about possible culprits and motives, is fabulous. And also a rather hilarious parody of mystery fiction tropes. 

As the boys roll out these preposterous suggestions, offering our hero the benefit of their wisdom, "They both looked at Poirot with the air of contented dogs who have retrieved something useful which their master has asked for."

This must be one of Dame Agatha's best similes ever, and had me laughing out loud. Indeed this sequence was pretty much the high point of the book for me and, I suspect, for Christie herself.

Which is not to say that she short changes us on an unpredictable plot, or a grippingly suspenseful climax. 

There is a brilliant piece of classic Christie misdirection here, concerning the murder victim having witnessed an earlier murder. 
Plus the usual rush of excitement for the reader as we race towards a very Christie conclusion.

Ultimately, I felt that Hallowe'en Party more than delivered the goods, which is great news since I have a lot of late period Christie novels to read.

And Nicholas and Desmond are quite wonderful characters. I like to think that if Christie had lived long enough she would have spun them off into a series of adventures of their own.

In any case, here she was clever enough to enlist them in the climax of the story.

(Image credits: The main image, of the beautiful Tom Adams cover painting, is once again scanned by me from my own copy. The other covers are from good old Good Reads, including the nice Bulgarian one which reuses the Adams art. I also particularly like both the Portuguese versions — with different titles. It's nice to see the Colecao Vampiro series still going strong in 1970 with Poirot eo Encontro Juvenil (Poirot and the Youth Gathering), and A Festa das Bruxas (literally, A Witches Party) has a charming cover painting, don't you think? Including a cat...)

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