Reviews

‘Footfall is as engaging as it gets. Cassandra James is . . . a terrific character, beautifully honed from seemingly staid academic to feisty heroine . . . a truly breathtaking read.’

- TANGLED WEB

How does she do it?

In my last post, I wrote about the pleasure of getting my reading mojo back when I embarked on Martin Edwards’s new novel, Mortmain Hall. I loved the book, romped through it, thoroughly enjoying it, but the relief was only temporary and  when I’d finished it, I was back in my state of reading apathy.

After moping around the house for a while,  it came to me that what I really wanted to read next was an Agatha Christie. But wasn’t I too familiar with them all? I picked Hallowe’en Party off the shelf and read the first few pages. And bingo! I couldn’t remember who had done it. In fact, I didn’t even remember reading it. And so it was that I passed a very agreeable two or three hours in the company of Agatha Christie. And yet I have to admit that this is not one of her best books. It was published in 1969, and there are signs of decline – she didn’t pull the wool over my eyes as effectively as usual – but it was still very enjoyable. As well as Poirot, Ariadne Oliver is involved, always a plus for me – and Superintendent Spence, too, retired now. There is also a splendid headmistress, Miss Emlyn. Mrs Oliver is clearly a self-portrait and I love her thoughts about writing and her encounters with her readers. “‘I read one of your books, said [sixteen year old] Ann to Mrs Oliver. ‘The Dying Goldfish. It was quite good,’ she added kindly.”

How does Agatha Christie do it, I ask myself. What makes her so wonderfully readable? It is not just the puzzle and the superlative plotting, important though that is. She is also a mistress of narrative pace: there is enough detail, but never too much. Though she has sometimes been accused of creating two-dimensional characters, I don’t find them so and feel that her characters are plausible, if a little stereotypical sometimes. But there’s more.  There is something about her narrative voice that I find attractive. I get the impression that though she takes her writing seriously, she does not take herself too seriously – the element of self-parody shows that. She is enjoying herself, and it shows. She is also a surprisingly funny writer in a sly way.

In sum, few writers can have given, and still give, more pleasure than Agatha Christie and as I closed my copy of Hallowe’en Party, I said a silent thank you to her for seeing me through another solitary evening in semi-lockdown.

 

My battered old paperback has the splendid Tom Adams cover shown here. He died only recently on the 17th December 2019 aged 93.

10 Comments

  1. Margot Kinberg
    August 14, 2020

    I agree, Christine, that this one makes very effective use of Ariadne Oliver’s character. That part is very well done, and, yes, so is Miss Emlyn’s character. I like Spence’s sister, too, although she doesn’t have a major role. As you say, it’s not Christie at the top of her form, and if I’m being honest, there are one or two places where my disbelief shook its head. Still, it’s an enjoyable read, isn’t it? I’m glad it helped with your reading slump.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      August 14, 2020

      Oh, yes, I liked the sister too. And I agree that there were some weak links. It is one of the wonderful aspects of the internet (I know there are down sides, too) that we can have conversations like this. I have moved on now to a new BL edition of Margot Bennett’s The Man Who Didn’t Fly (intro by our friend Martin Edwards) and have high hopes of it. But I have to admit that Why Didn’t They Ask Evans is also on the bedside table as backup!

      Reply
  2. Susan D
    August 14, 2020

    Yes, I can reread Christie again and again. You’re so right. Not at all two-dimensional characters.

    And such a social historian. Bright young things tackling post-WWI London on half nothing… Post-WWII changes in the social order, and making ends meet. Tea and Scandal at four o’clock. All delightful.

    My only quibble with Agatha is her her apparent need to ALWAYS provide a romance at the end. Did Lucy Eylesbarrow have to marry EITHER of those self-centred, incomplete young men? Why did the self-sufficient Katherine Grey marry the very shady and creepily unpleasant widower of the murder victim, even if he didn’t kill her? And Lynn Marchmont deciding to marry the violent ex-fiance, because he threatens to strangle her in a jealous rage?

    Sorry, getting carried away.

    Read long and prosper

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      August 16, 2020

      Oh yes, I love the social history aspect. Though – naturally enough – she doesn’t always quite get it right in the later novels, when we are into the swinging sixties.
      I know what you mean about the romance at the end. As well as the ones you mention, I’m not happy about the end of Towards Zero. She does have a tendency to write about competent independent young women, only to have them surrender to some masterful man at the end. Either that, or, as you say they decide to mother absolute no-hopers. See the end of Mrs MacGinty’s Dead for another example.

      Reply
  3. tracybham
    August 16, 2020

    I agree with everything you say, Christine. Especially about Christie’s characters. I haven’t read Hallowe’en Party yet, and you have encouraged me to do that. I had heard it was a lesser effort, but I think I will enjoy it.

    I wish I had that edition you have. Mine has a nice skull on the cover, but has the tiniest print I have ever seen. Maybe I will look for a different edition. I don’t mind having multiple copies of Rex Stout and Agatha Christie books.

    I am hoping this is not a duplicate comment. A couple of days ago I commented but I tried a different login and I am guessing it did not work.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      August 17, 2020

      Yes, not her best, but I enjoyed it all the same. Yes, terrific cover and I do look out for the Tom Adams designs.
      I didn’t get the earlier comment – pleased to get this one now!

      Reply
  4. Patsy
    August 17, 2020

    I agree that her books are an enjoyable read. Despite living in a different time, and different social class, from her characters, I somehow feel they’re real and I know them a little.

    How she does that I’m not sure, as often there isn’t a great deal of obvious depth to the way she portrays them.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      August 17, 2020

      To be honest, I am not entirely sure either! Perhaps the dialogue is a big part of it? She is good at people’s speech patterns and the way they think, too.

      Reply
  5. Moira@Clothes in Books
    August 30, 2020

    I often try to work out exactly what it is about her, but without success!
    When other writers (who may be very good in their way) are described as ‘the new Agatha’ or ‘as good as Christie’ I usually wonder if they have actually read any of her books. They seem, and sound, as though they are like many others (eg Miss Marple resembles Miss Silver) but you would never mistake the plotting of one for the other…
    I enjoy trying to work it out, the distinctiveness, but I don’t think I will ever succeed in solving it.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      August 30, 2020

      Hard to know, isn’t it? She is read world wide, and not just in translation. She is a popular read for people who are learning English as a second language. She is economical and straightforward. And yet that doesn’t get to the heart of it, does it?

      Reply

Leave a Reply