Sunday 8 September 2019

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Aha! I'm beginning to sort out the standard Poirot novels from the exceptional ones, and Peril at End House is an exceptional one. 

It's not a match for the wonderful Five Little Pigs (I'm beginning to think nothing ever will be) but it's right up there with Taken at the Flood as prime Poirot. 

Published in 1932, Peril at End House is the eighth in the series and it begins with Hercule Poirot and his sidekick, the "faithful dog" Major Hastings, on holiday together.

They are staying at a hotel on the Cornish coast, which even then was attempting to pass itself off as the English Riviera, leading to some sarcastic comments on page one.

Almost immediately Poirot encounters a captivating young woman, Nick Buckley (groovy name) who, though she doesn't realise it yet, is the subject of a series of murder attempts. 

But the would-be killer has "made a grave mistake... when he shot at his victim within a dozen yards of Hercule Poirot!"

Nick lives in a big mansion adjacent to the hotel. Yes, you've guessed it, it's called End House and Nick is the subject of the peril in the title. 

Her situation puts Poirot in a challenging dilemma, requiring him to "detect a crime before it has been committed — that is indeed of a rare difficulty."

And we are desperate for Poirot to succeed, because Nick Buckley is a great character, immediately vivid in the reader's mind, with her "small impudent dark head" and her fabulous, sardonic dialogue.

Like when she is talking about her boring lawyer cousin and says, "Charles thinks my mode of life is reprehensible and he disapproves of my cocktails, my complexion, my friends and my conversation. But he still feels my fatal fascination."   
Or in describing the hairdo of her frumpy cousin Maggie, which has "just become fashionable by accident."

And when Poirot comes to call on her, intending to reveal that she is the target of a murder plot, Nick tells him, "I'm devoured with curiosity."

Nick Buckley is a jackpot character and brings out the best in Christie. Also perhaps in Poirot, who seems to feel something of that fatal fascination himself.

Though he does describe Nick as an "allumeuse." It means a kind of posh (if you'll excuse the expression) prick tease.

It's a word Christie would use again in Murder in Mesopotamia. Interestingly there is also a ghastly and mysterious face at the window in Peril at End House, as there is Murder in Mesopotamia.

But Nick Buckley is brimming with vitality and fun, and so is the book. ("Dr Watson, I presume?" says Nick when she meets Hastings.)

Nick's friend Frederica, also vividly drawn, doesn't hesitate to bad-mouth Nick, calling her "the most heaven-sent little liar that ever existed." And then adding that "loyalty's such a tiresome virtue."

The dialogue in this novel is outstanding and Christie is clearly firing on all cylinders. 

Even Poirot gets in some zingers. Referring to Hastings' recent sojourn in Brazil, he says, "He has just returned from those great clear open spaces, etc." 

This is the tone of the book — sardonic, full of exuberance and energy. The novel is a breath of fresh air, like that blowing in off the sea in great abundance on the Cornish Riviera. 

And it fizzes with life, ironically for a story so focused on death.

The story's energy dips a bit when Nick is consigned to a nursing home for her own safety ("In the narrow iron bed she looked like a tired child") — although the attempts on her life continue.

And she remains a supremely terrific character, one of the best in the series so far.

Poirot is also very much on form, with his arrogance firmly intact ("I who am an original").
And soon enough he is on the track of the killer and Hastings observes, "His eyes were shining with the queer cat-like green light that I knew so well." 

(This is one of the few occasions where cats serve in a positive fashion in a Christie narrative; they're more normally signifiers of something negative.)

Peril at End House isn't flawless. There's a murder attempt by slipping cocaine into someone's food. And I simply don't think that could be lethal. 

Christie would become quite an expert on poisons, but at this stage there are the weird anomalies like the mysterious "goose quill" used to snort heroin in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

And there's a nasty little hiccup in Peril at End House when a Jewish character, who has up to now has been presented in a refreshingly positive light, is denigrated by Poirot. 

As Charles Osborne puts it in his excellent book on Christie, "You are saddened to hear this from Poirot, who must himself frequently have been the butt of other people's xenophobia."

Yet Peril at End House remains a top drawer Poirot novel. Is it better than Taken at the Flood? Well, the characters and dialogue here are clearly superior.

However, the solution to the mystery in Peril at End House — while it is entirely unguessable — doesn't quite have the flabbergasting astonishment factor of the ending of Taken at the Flood.

But it's a close thing.

And I'm looking forward to finding the other finest Poirot adventures, and telling you about them.

(Image credits: The nice Tom Adams cover with the plot-relevant Mauser pistol is scanned from my own copy. The other covers are from Good Reads. I love the yellow Bulgarian one with the rifle sights superimposed on Nick.)

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