Wednesday, 22 February 2012
You might find this difficult to believe, but until this weekend I'd never knowingly read an Agatha Christie novel.
I was in a youth hostel, had finished the books I'd taken and had to pick from their shelves.
Having chosen and then decided against several of the more likely options, I came across 'Lord Edgeware Dies'. On the inside of the cover, it reminded me that 'Agatha Christie' is known throughout the world as the Queen Of Crime'. That was the clincher. It also seemed thin enough for me to get through in a couple of days.
'Lord Edgeware Dies' is a Poirot novel. He's that lovable Belgian sleuth, the one I've seen on the telly so many times and switched over from to avoid the prospect of an ITV interpretation of the early 20th Century. Thought I've never watched the programme, it still gave me a strong image of the man and it seemed to fit pretty well.
Poirot and sidekick Hastings happen upon their latest mystery in the land of London theatre. Whilst taking supper at the Ritz later on, they come across a group of actors and it's not long until Jane Wilkinson (beauty, actress and the current Lady Edgeware) has persuaded the pair to join her upstairs at her private suite to discuss a few matters. Having earlier announced that she'd happily kill her husband, she asks Poirot to intervene with Lord Hastings and get him to divorce her so that she can marry even further up on the social ladder.
Enter a group of theatre cronies that includes Carlotta Adams, actress of some talent and mimic of the stars, including Lady Edgeware.
A brief sketch is given of all the characters and the ball is spinning.
It turns out Lord Edgeware has already agreed to divorce. Poirot is perplexed. He's even more perplexed when his lordship is found murdered in his study, double so when Carlotta Adams is found poisoned.
Lady Edgeware has been seen entering her husband's home on the night of the murder. Following her statements about being prepared to kill him she's the obvious suspect, only she has a cast-iron alibi.
Oh who could it have been? Which socialite could have done the deed? And did I care?
I actually did care rather a lot. Enough to sneak the book from the youth hostel at the end of our stay and to grab reads whenever I could.
The ending was utterly satisfying, too.
It got me wondering about the whodunnit format and about how Agatha had managed to keep me so engrossed.
Many of the books I read have a whodinnit element. It's a great way for an author to create a page-turner if they can hook a reader in by making them care enough. I guess a lot of you will recognise that.
So what was it that AC did for me in this book, one I'd ordinarily have poo-pooed?
First off, the relationship between Poirot and Hastings is a pleasing one. On the one hand there is a need for evidence and a deep desire to understand the psychological elements involved (including the why?) and on the other, an almost naive sidekick who chips in with child-like observations every now and then to give Poirot other angles.
Hastings has a more important role in terms of the structure. He's the voice. As such, he can give us all the information that Poirot is prepared to articulate without ever being able to reveal his deeper thoughts. It's a teasing process that works really well.
Then there's the desire to be smarter than the author. It's as if we can outsmart the writer by working it all out before the end. Better still, right at the beginning. AC plays on this vanity perfectly. Everyone who turns up to see Poirot (and they usually do) is a suspect. They all have their motives, character flaws, loose mouths. We're given clues about them all. When they were dropped I collected them as if it were me on the trail - one for my pocket that I'll bring out later to prove I was right all along.
Now that's where she's really good. She filled my pockets with clues. I had a net full of red-herrings, enough to feed the 5000. In turn, thought Poirot, she showed me that she knew exactly what I'd been thinking, known that I'd picked up on it and rubbed my nose gently in it. Great work.
Perhaps it's her modus operandi - build up each individual as if they'd done the deed, and make them everything but. By the way, I racked up five or six suspects in the end; got the whole thing completely wrong.
The setting, wealthy classes and glitzy settings is also really entertaining and far from the twee irritation I half-expected. It means the butler could always have done it because practically everyone has servants in some form or other.
Telling the vast majority of the story through conversation also helped keep it lively and thrilling. That's difficult to explain. I work on the idea that too much exposition in dialogue is a bad thing. It leaves me wondering if it's exposition she's actually giving thought the dialogue or something else entirely. To answer that, I'll probably have to read more of her books and I fully expect to now that I've dipped in my toe. I even look forward it.
All I need to do now is book another break in Arnside and slip the book back onto the shelf - wouldn't want any mustachioued smart-arse asking me where I was on the weekend of the 19th now, would I?