My last encounter with Agatha Christie, Five Little Pigs (Murder in Retrospect), really stuck with me. There was something that she captured between those pages that my mind couldn’t leave alone – the tragedy of it all. It’s been several months, and yet my thoughts continually drift back to the characters, the setting, and paint drying on a canvas.
It’s a rare thing for me to really be impacted by a mystery book. Christianna Brand has a certain knack for it – creating a cast of characters so richly painted that it becomes anguishing in the end when one of them is revealed to be a killer. John Dickson Carr was less effective at it, but he had his moment with books like He Who Whispers and She Died a Lady – titles in which some element of the story pulls at the mind long after the book is set down.
When I normally approach a GAD novel, I’m looking for a nice brisk read with a killer hook and an even better solution. It’s a rare story that takes it the extra mile and sticks with you beyond the cleverness of the trick or misdirection.
I was tipped onto The Hollow by a few helpful souls haunting these boards. Published four years after Five Little Pigs, this is the first Poirot novel in as many years, and the characterization was rumored to pack a similar punch. On the back of this recommendation, I decided to delay my voyage on The Orient Express a little while longer and instead headed into The Hollow.
It’s a choice I didn’t regret. The emotional punch isn’t at the level of Five Little Pigs, but The Hollow offers a deep tale that pulled me in immediately. “This is a story that just happens to contain a mystery,” I thought to myself. A later reading of Brad’s review at Ah Sweet Mystery revealed that my thoughts weren’t exactly novel. “It is a novel with murder in it,” Brad stated, perhaps in words better than mine. Regardless, it’s true.
The title of the book comes from the name of a country house occupied by the Angkatells, a curious family headed by the batty Lady Angkatell. As the story opens, plans are being laid out for a weekend get together, and it’s made plain that not all of the guests will be getting along. The background for the anticipated drama is varied, but much of it revolves around John Christow, a doctor making the trip up from London.
Christow is somewhat of a complex character. He’s charitable in his research into Ridgeway’s Disease and passionate about his patients. Yet, he disdains the women who come to see him at his home practice. He possesses a deep affection for his blundering wife, Gerda, yet he emotionally abuses her. Not the least of his transgressions is his secret relationship with Henrietta Saversnake, an artist with complexities of her own.
It won’t really do for me to detail out the story that unfolds for the first portion of the book – that’s probably handled better by other sources. We watch the characters make their way to The Hollow and experience the layers of relationship between them. Although “nothing happens” in the first third, at least in way of a murder or crime, I was thoroughly drawn into the story. Christie created some truly captivating characters and there was a definite apprehension about who would be killed. More so, there was that Christianna Brand-esque inevitability that one of these people would be the killer.
Murder does come, roughly a third of the way through the story, and the scene unfolds through Hercule Poirot’s eyes. Invited over to The Hollow for lunch, Poirot stumbles upon what at first appears to be a prank. John Christow lies bleeding at the side of a swimming pool. His wife stands above him, holding a pistol with a look of disbelief on her face. Several other characters seem to have just approached the scene from various directions and stand looking at the victim in disbelief.
“For what he was looking at was a highly artificial murder scene.”
Initially assuming a staged murder to try his reputation as a sleuth, it quickly dawns on Poirot that what he is seeing is all too real. Christie creates a scene that sticks in your mind, and somewhat haunts me even now that the book is behind me.
“And suddenly, or so it felt to Poirot, there seemed to be in all this group of people only one person who was really alive – the man who was at the point of death.”
The victim dies, but not before a passionate final gasp – “Henrietta…” Is this a last second accusation or a dying message?
On the face of it, the solution seems obvious. Gerda Christow has shot her husband, most likely in retaliation for an affair he carried out the previous night. She naturally proclaims her innocence, insisting that she came across John immediately after he was shot and picked up the gun in confusion.
Of course, this is a Christie novel, and we know that the solution won’t be that easy. Poirot himself injects a question in the reader’s mind about what he witnessed as he came upon the crime scene, and Christie keeps pulling us back to his initial impression that what he was witnessing seemed artificial.
“The eyes see, sometimes, what they are meant to see.”
But how? How could it have been staged? I wracked myself with that question and it just didn’t seem to make sense. When you factor in all of the characters involved in the scene, there doesn’t seem to be a thread that could tie it all together.
I’m pleased to say that the solution truly threw me for a loop and none of my various theories were even remotely close to what actually happened. It’s funny because there were a few key clues that I noticed along the way, but I either forgot about them or failed to piece them together in the right way. A reader should definitely be able to figure this one out, but, in a way, the solution is so counterintuitive that I feel that most people won’t get it.
Beyond a crafty solution, Christie has managed to create a novel with true emotional weight at the end. Not quite to the level of Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger or Fog of Doubt, but the sadness of it all is still very much there. I personally prefer Five Little Pigs over The Hollow, but the later is definitely a read I’ll recommend.
As has become somewhat of a tradition for me, I followed my reading of The Hollow with the film version staring David Suchet. There’s something about Suchet’s version of Poirot that I absolutely crave, and it takes all of my will power to avoid simply watching the series without reading the books first.
Of course, it’s critical to read the books first because they are superior to the films in every way. The Hollow, in particular, sheds a lot of elements of the story that show the depth of the characters. John Christow and Henrietta Saversnake, two characters that will live in my mind for a long time due to their presence in the novel, are reduced to shadows of themselves in the Suchet version. It’s interesting because the more minor characters are fairly well cast, but the two key characters missed the mark.
The film adaptations always bother me because details of the plot seem to be dropped or changed in a needless way. Five Little Pigs was actually fairly good in this regard (although they dropped the most important part in my eyes), but The Hollow suffers from a number of minor changes. I can appreciate that some of the alterations are for brevity, but why, for example, have Poirot show up at the Angkatell’s house the night before the crime? The bridge scene would have played out the same without him being there.
The filmmakers did do an excellent job with the scene of the murder, capturing the artificial nature of the events from Poirot’s eyes. I had been really curious to see whether this could be pulled off, and the scene was effectively used as it was played back several times.
The one place where the scene missed the mark was the death of John Christow. The character lacked the vitality described in the book, and his moment of death was a classic example of an actor letting loose a dramatic gasp and then slumping over.
While the movie wasn’t all that I hoped for, Suchet’s Poirot is excellent and I enjoy nothing more than the scenery and the sets. The producers did an excellent job capturing the grandness of The Hollow and the period details. If anything, I’ll continue to watch the film versions for these elements.