Evil Under the Sun – Agatha Christie (1941)

EvilUnderTheSunI 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.

EvilUnderTheSunMap
The map from my 1973 Fontana Books edition

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.

The film

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.

My editions

EvilUnderTheSun2I 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.

18 thoughts on “Evil Under the Sun – Agatha Christie (1941)”

  1. My memories of Evil Under the Sun will always be affected by my having read about people on holiday being killed on an island while I was myself on an island holiday. I sat in the sun and read it in about 4 hours, and loved every word — that solution completely caught me out, and there are several key moments that I still sort of hug close to myself on my memory. Doubtless I’ll reread it at home on a wet Thursday and be thoroughly underwhelmed 🙂

    Oh, and And Then There Were None was published under its original title far later than 1973. I found one from the late 70s in a secondhand bookshop not that long ago, and sure I’ve been shown one from the 1980s .

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  2. You made quite an interesting point here quote 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 unquote.
    Now that I’m thinking about the best Poirot novels I’ve read, I’m questioning myself to what extent the rating I gave to some of her novels was not influenced by other widely accepted views. And this novel in particular is a good example of this bias.

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    1. I too find myself questioning how much my own opinion is swayed by more widely accepted views. The popular books clearly aren’t complete duds – they’re at least going to be quite readable – but I suspect there’s a tendency to elevate them in rankings based on that popularity. Crooked House and Death on the Nile are examples that stand out to me. They’re both excellent reads, but I don’t see them as Christie’s better mysteries. In fact, I’d rate The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder on the Links higher than both. And yet if I were actually posting a top 10 Christie list, I think I’d find myself conflicted over doing that. How strange is that?

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      1. There’s an interesting point here about how much awareness is needed for a quorum. Carer’s The Hollow Man was probably accepted as his best book for such a long time because it was the most widely read (on account of it being the most readily available) and so “What’s the best Carr?” got confused with “What’s the best Carr you’ve read?”. Most people try not to have an opinion on something they’re yet to experence, after all.

        With Christie, Death on the Nile and Orient Express are famous on account of the old (and new) movies, so the notion of popular opinion becomes muddied again. It’s often the books that break out of the GAD echo chamber which are seen as the best because they’re popular, but if there’d been an all-star 1970s movie of The Clocks, I guaran-damn-tee you that that book would feature heavily on “best Christie” lists.

        The only sanity is to be found in loving what you love. Popular opinion is a fickle beast, independent of internal quality.

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      2. Carr and Christie are interesting examples because you’d have to read a tremendous amount of books in order to really gauge what is the best. These days it might be easy to review a few online “top 10” lists, read a superset of those books, and then form an opinion. If you’ve read the 24 books that spanned eight top ten lists then chances are you’ve really judged the best.

        Rewind more than 25 years and things become considerably more difficult. Your best bet at that point is to rely on books or magazines that specialize in the subject matter, and you’d realistically be hard pressed to have access to more than a few such works. As you said, JJ, you’re more likely to resort to what’s available, and that isn’t going to be the full 50-70 novel library. And so, it seems that it’s within those confines that much of popular opinion was formed.

        Of course, loving what you love is what leads me to listing The Problem of the Wire Cage as one of Carr’s top 10 (as long as I can erase that second murder, damnit!). And for Christie it’s what so far leads me to choosing Murder in Retrospect, Death Comes as the End, and then maybe those two early titles I listed.

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    1. It’s interesting to think of how these novels would have been viewed back during their own day. At the time Evil Under the Sun was published, The Burning Court would be a mere four years old. The modern equivalent of a book published in 2015.

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  3. The Suchet movie was filmed on Burgh Island in Devon. Christie herself stayed on Burgh Island in the 1930s and it’s likely the inspiration for both the Island in And then there were None and in this book. So the ladder in the Suchet movie is probably premmy much exactly whyt Christie had in mind when writing the book.

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  4. I agree that this is in the “good but not great” range; it’s most likely more famous than some of her other mid-range books just because of the ’82 movie with Peter Ustinov. It was a bit of a weird choice for that series since they’d just adapted DEATH ON THE NILE, which I think has kind of a similar plot. I love both movies, though.

    Christie often expanded and revised her early short stories to turn them into longer ones. This one is partially based on a story called “Triangle at Rhodes,” which has a similar setting and cast of characters but develops differently and ends up with a different character as the murderer. It appeared in a 1937 collection called MURDER IN THE MEWS, in which ALL of the stories either were adapted from earlier works or were eventually turned into novels!

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      1. I think you should be fine with MURDER IN THE MEWS–there are only four stories in the book (they’re in the 50-70 page range rather than the very short stories in books like POIROT INVESTIGATES) and the other three are all expanded from earlier, shorter tales. The really funny thing is that each story was adapted in a different way:
        – “The Incredible Theft” has exactly the same plot as “The Submarine Plans.”
        – “Dead Man’s Mirror” has mostly the same plot as “The Second Gong,” except that a different character is the murderer.
        – “Murder in the Mews” has the exact same twist ending as an earlier story which had a completely different setup and characters.
        – And, as I said, “Triangle at Rhodes” has the same characters and basic setup as EVIL UNDER THE SUN but spins them off into a different plot.

        When it comes to stories in other collections, you should probably avoid “The Plymouth Express” until you’ve read THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN and “The Case of the Caretaker” until you’ve read ENDLESS NIGHT.

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      2. As an addition to what Jack wrote. With the exception of “Triangle at Rhodes/Evil under the Sun”, IMO all the Storys in Murder the Mews are better than their respective adaption in another story. “The second gong”, especially is very weak, and the way the murderer gets caught is unintentionally hilarious, while Dead Man’s Mirror is a pretty well done version of mostly the same story with an additional emotional punch.

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  5. Since I’m currently at work on trying to tie down my list of “Top Ten Christies” I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. As I wrote about recently, Sophie Hannah went on about the “enjoyability factor” vs. mere plot analysis on a recent podcast. Essentially, I disagree with you, Ben, that Styles and Links are better mysteries than Nile or Sun, but even if the plots were more clever, I would argue that the latter two are far more enjoyable reads than the first two Poirot cases. I find Links exceedingly tiresome, in fact, and I’ve tried several times to like it better, only to find that while I like the mystery plot more than I did, the book itself drags for me. Nile has a brilliant plot with a strong emotional center, but you guessed it all, and I think that played a big part in your disappointment of it. Sun is a book that I have grown to love the more I’ve lived with it, and I think it is a delightful read, while you yourself have said the misdirection counts amongst Christie’s best.

    This chat about reputation vs. enjoyment vs. plotting is interesting. I think that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Curtain are extremely important books in the canon. Are they the best reads though??? Discuss.

    I’ll have more to say when/if I ever get this Top Ten post done!!!!

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    1. Um, Brad, we’ve been doing nothing but wait for this list since you teased it a week or so ago. All reading is on hold and at this point everybody’s just recycling earlier reviews. The backroom betting is getting insane, with After the Funeral garnering a tremendous amount of cash (there’s an over/under side bet as well on whether you’ll refer to it as Funerals are Fatal). Off the record, my money’s on Giant’s Bread because the payout is ridiculous.

      I do think that Death on the Nile is high up there in terms of being an enjoyable read. In that regard I think it smokes Evil Under the Sun. Of course, the latter fooled me considerably while the former seemed a bit obvious. That may be an unfortunate thing to influence my point of view. I can imagine regarding Death on the Nile as brilliant if I hadn’t seen through it.

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