I had a distinct impression going in that Evil Under the Sun is widely regarded as one of Agatha Christie’s better books. Upon finishing it, I have to question whether that is in fact true or whether I’ve just gotten mixed up with all of the reviews that I’ve read. That’s not to say it’s in any way bad, it just lacks elements that typically suck me into a Christie novel.
We find Hercule Poirot vacationing on Smuggler’s Island, just off the Devon coast. Among a small group of other occupants is Arlena Marshall, an enchanting siren who draws the attention of the men and the scorn of their wives. It’s hardly surprising when Arlena winds up dead – strangled on the beach of a secluded cove.
The nature of the island gives us a closed circle of suspects, although I didn’t find any of them to be as memorable as characters in Christie’s other novels. The island setting, as enchanting as it may sound, also fell a bit flat compared to the country houses, Egyptian rivers, and quaint villages the author peppers her novels with. I could never really grasp the island layout, which is unfortunate, since solving the crime comes down to time tables of who had the opportunity to get to and from the crime scene unobserved. A map really would have helped. It turned out I actually had one, but didn’t realize it – one of the two editions I own has a map, but it wasn’t the copy I read (more on that later). That kind of kills me, as I imagine the map might have made the mystery a bit more fun to contemplate.
It’s still a fine mystery – it’s not like Christie was going to write a dud at this point in her career – and working out how the crime was accomplished was a bit of fun. I’m pleased to say that Christie completely tricked me with this one, although I thankfully saw through the more obvious red herrings.
It’s a good one to be tricked by, because the solution is outstanding. Christie seems to anticipate two key midsections that a clever reader (me of course) might glom onto, and pulls a neat reversal on them. Thinking back through the Christie’s I’ve read up to now, this is definitely her best misdirection.
So, not one of Christie’s best novels, but still good. I’d put Evil Under the Sun in the same category as Sad Cypress and Cards on the Table: enjoyable books that simply don’t reach the heights of Christie’s better work. At least Evil Under the Sun has that excellent solution, and I imagine that’s what I’ll remember a few years from now.
As a bit of trivia, John Dickson Carr’s novel The Burning Court is mentioned about midway through the book. It’s always interesting to see a writer like Christie acknowledging other authors of the time, in particular someone like Carr who wrote a somewhat different type of mystery.
Rather than going for the 1982 film, I chose to watch the David Suchet adaptation simply because it’s a habit when I finish a Poirot novel. The Suchet version felt spot on in terms of capturing the island setting and filling in some of the gaps left by my imagination. There’s a great scene involving a sea tractor – a sort of wagon on stilted wheels – that’s used to ferry guests to the hotel. That detail isn’t in the book (at least as far as I recall), but was an excellent touch in the film and added to the strange grandeur of it all.
Another nice touch in the film is the ladder used to descend from the cliffs down to the beach where the victim was killed. In the book it’s mentioned that several characters are too scared to climb down the ladder, which I interpreted as a fear of heights involving a typical vertical ladder descending 10 feet or so. The film corrects my interpretation, showing a series of ladders haphazardly strung along a high cliff, creating what could only be described as a death trap.
As great as the setting is, the film’s producers couldn’t help but muck with the story, altering both plot and characters for no particularly good reason. Poirot’s on the island to lose weight, a character’s gender is reversed, and Hastings is thrown into the story, among other needless bits. You still get the core mystery and stunning solution, which is what matters most, but it still annoys me that all of the other elements of the story had to be changed.
I had two copies of Evil Under the Sun – a 1945 Pocket Books edition and a 1973 Fontana Books edition. I elected to read the 1945 Pocket Books copy since it’s that perfect war-time paperback format that I love: small form factor, impossibly thin paper, and excellent type. Plus, the cover is memorable, blending vintage illustration with abstract style.
The Fontana is an excellent physical work for a book put out in the 1970s. It’s a bit larger than I like, but features an interesting cover, good paper stock, and a nice print layout. Plus, it contains a map of the island, which I wish I would have known when I selected the edition to read. The map does a nice job of laying out the island and showing where all of the core landmarks are – the various beaches, the hotel, the tennis court, and the causeway. Lesson learned – flip through your editions before reading if you have multiple (in fact, I normally do this, but dropped the ball this time).
On the downside, the Fontana edition features a quote on the back cover referring to And Then There Were None by it’s originally published title. This seems particularly vile when you consider the edition was printed in the 1970s.