Sunday 25 August 2019

Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie

The title of Hickory Dickory Dock will probably baffle non-English readers, and quite a few English ones. It refers to a nursery rhyme. 

The connection is utterly tenuous, though — most of the action takes place at a boarding house in Hickory Road, an imaginary location in London. 

Agatha Christie was weirdly fond of nursery rhyme titles and had a tendency to crowbar them in where they didn't belong. Possibly the worst example is Five Little Pigs, where she imposed an utterly irrelevant moniker on a masterpiece of a novel.

Hickory Dickory Dock isn't in that league, but it's good enough to deserve a better name. Still, the title provided the justification for that Tom Adams cover painting with the cute little mouse on it.
This is the 32nd Hercule Poirot novel, published in 1955. It begins with Poirot's faithful, infallible automaton of a secretary Miss Lemon revealing that she has a sister. And that this sister has a problem...

The sister is called Mrs Hubbard (possibly another nursery rhyme reference) and she runs that boarding house I mentioned. It's a student hostel and it is being plagued with a bizarre series of thefts.

It is refreshingly different to have a Poirot story being set in motion by a  crime other than murder — though there will be plenty of murder, too, of course.

What develops is a fascinating mystery, and Poirot himself is on fine form, "deliberately playing the mountebank"and revealing unsurprisingly that the "sound of his own voice was always pleasant to him."

At the same time his sharp and enquiring mind is very much in evidence. "Everything interests me," he declares. And after one of his awe-inspiring deductions a lawyer remarks, "In the Middle Ages you would certainly have been burnt at the stake."
This is the first Agatha Christie I've read from the 1950s, and her transformation is fascinating. Gone are the casually racist attitudes of, say, Death in the Clouds.

Here Christie is clearly bending over backwards in an attempt to be enlightened and tolerant. There are several non-white characters, including a young West Indian law student called Elizabeth Johnston.

Her intelligence and articulacy are constantly cited. Indeed, she's declared a "a very superior girl."

And when the thefts begin at the house in Hickory Road the woman who owns the house suggests that they should simply kick out all "these coloured ones."

"Not while I'm in charge," responds Mrs Hubbard coldly.

All very admirable. But we also get a dreadfully embarrassing comic turn by the African student Mr Akibombo. Still, full marks for trying, Agatha...

And also for straying so far outside the Christie comfort zone. As Charles Osborne puts it, "she makes a brave and remarkably successful attempt to move, temporarily, with the times, away from the grand country houses or the cosy cottages of St Mary Mead and into the genteel squalor of students' London in the mid-1950s."

What's more, Poirot's methodical investigation in the story is suitably fascinating, and baffling to the reader: "I dissect rucksacks. It's very interesting," he tells a police colleague. He also does a great bit of ratiocination involving a bowl of soup.

And Christie's storytelling is lively and engaging. One of the students says that if a girl she doesn't like is charged with murder, "I should rejoice madly." 

While elsewhere another student is searching through a pile of clothes in a woman's room, "burrowing like an excited terrier." Agatha Christie was obviously having fun writing this.

I had a bit of trouble keeping track of the characters — there are a lot of them and they're often referred to just by their first names, but the level of confusion here is certainly nothing like that of The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis.

And the solution to the mystery is suitably unguessable, if a little convoluted.

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads, except for the main one, the Fontana Tom Adams, which is a scan of my own copy. Besides the two versions of this Tom Adams, with its adorable little mouse, I particularly like the blue Swedish cover featuring a selection of the stolen items.)

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