CHRISTIE’S THE CLOCKS: The Ravaging Effects of Time

“In old days the public didn’t really mind much about accuracy, but nowadays readers take it upon themselves to write to authors on every possible occasion, pointing out flaws.”

This sounds like an excerpt from an interview with Agatha Christie – or any other longtime successful author – but the line is actually spoken early in Christie’s The Clocks by Miss Katherine Martindale, the owner of the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau, which specializes in the needs of novelists. By the time The Clocks rolled around in 1963, Christie was 73 years old, long established as a master of the mystery novel – maybe the master – and she could afford to be tolerant of her fans’ well-meaning suggestions even as she tossed them into the circular file beside her desk.

Unknown          Far be it from me, then, to offer the late great Dame Agatha suggestions for improvement on a book that cries out for it. But The Clocks must, for me at least, rank among the lesser efforts by the Queen of Crime. It is eminently readable and offers some minor pleasures. Still, if one examines this tale in relation to other, better Christies, the least I can do is warn readers new to the author not to make this your first attempt at reading her. I myself am re-reading it as part of the Goodreads Christie group, which attacks all of the author’s work chronologically. We are now deep into the 1960’s, and as far as the Poirot novels go, these are dark times, dark times.

This discussion contains spoilers, particularly to those familiar with Christie’s work. Let those among you stand warned.

 

Even at her worst, Agatha Christie knew how to open a novel. This time around, she quickly establishes enough to pique one’s interest: In the suburb of Crowdean, the Cavendish Bureau dispatches one of its stenographers, a lovely young woman named Sheila Webb, who has been asked to report to a Miss Pebmarsh at Number 19 Wilbraham Crescent for work. At Miss Pebmarsh’s house, there is no sign of the owner, but there is a man, stabbed to death, lying in the sitting room. Then Miss P. arrives home, and it turns out she is blind and is about to step on the corpse. Sheila cries out a warning, then runs screaming out of the house and into the arms of Colin Lamb, a dashing marine biologist who is passing by. Why does Miss Pebmarsh insist that she did not call the Cavendish Bureau, even though she was seen making a phone call at the nearby call box? Why did the caller specifically ask for Sheila? And what’s with all those clocks, scattered about the murder room, which Miss Pebmarsh insists do not belong to her? Colin teams up with his friend, Inspector Dick Hardcastle, to untangle these questions and rescue Sheila from a murder charge. The game is afoot!

Except it’s not much of a game. Or, rather, this game is a soggy hodgepodge of old ideas and devices that Christie has used before, and the resulting whole is far less than the sum of its parts.

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Take the setting: a housing development where the residences look pretty but are substandard and where Hardcastle finds to his dismay that, unlike a village, people here mind their own business. A far more charming satire on modern housing can be found in Christie’s novel before this one, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side.

 

28-mirror             1291-1              Better satire of modern housing                         Better use of split narrative

What about the narrative style? Here, Christie splits the narrative between Colin and the third person, just like she did in, The Pale Horse, the novel before The Mirror Crack’d. Only it works better in Horse, where Mark Easterbrook’s perspective is quite different from that of the police and other characters, and where Christie stirs up some suspense before the separate investigations merge together. In The Clocks, most of the third person covers Hardcastle’s investigation, where Colin masquerades as his sergeant and sits in on every interview. From The Pale Horse, Christie also borrows the device of a mysterious piece of paper taken off the body of a dead man that leads to the discovery of evil doings. Except the one in Horse leads to the main conspiracy around which the plot evolves, while the symbols found on the paper in The Clocks are part of a secondary story (see below) that is one of the book’s biggest weaknesses.

images                          51Yl8H84DyL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_                      Better hybrid between a murder and a spy plot!

Ah, that split plot! From the novel just before Horse, Cat Among the Pigeons, Christie takes the hybrid of a murder story crossed with a spy plot. Except that it works much better in Cat. It seems that Colin Lamb is a spy as well as a marine biologist, and he was in Wilbraham Crescent searching for the brains of an enemy spy organization. The paper Colin has in his pocket is, as is often the case with pieces of paper in Christie novels, somewhat misinterpreted, and I must say that the explanation for this is two parts clever and eight parts silly! And it really comprises all of the spy plot, which, to put it mildly, is no threat to Fleming or Le Carre! This leaves the reader hoping that at least the murder plot will be satisfying.

But it’s not! (SPOILER ALERT! Don’t read this part if you haven’t read The Clocks and intend to.) From 1956’s Dead Man’s Folly, Christie borrows . . . well, the essential strategy of the whole mystery. The motive, the red herring, all of it are taken apart and repurposed. Not that Christie hasn’t done this before, but here the revised strategy just sort of lays there, for a number of reasons. At least, in Folly, the characters had a mild sort of relationship to one another and interacted for the purposes of putting together a fete. Here, the only connection between these characters, at least outwardly, is that they are neighbors, and not very friendly neighbors at that. This changes the structure of the novel from a “closed circle” sort of mystery to a procedural. The success of a procedural rests on the interest generated by the investigation, and there isn’t much of interest to be found here. The residents of Wilbraham Crescent are fun to meet, in the style of Christie characterizations – the cat lady, the religious spinster, the hearty builder and his invalid wife – but most of them appear in cameos and have little or nothing to do with the plot. Christie relies on a second murder to enliven the story (the motive for this one comes straight out of A Murder Is Announced, where it was used better and generated some emotion that is utterly missing here), and then a third murder, but neither does much to jog us out of a sense of malaise, of “the same old same old.”

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Then, in Chapter 14, Hercule Poirot makes his first appearance, and for a moment it looks like something wonderful might occur. Poirot is bored. Clients have stopped turning up at his door, and he aches for the excitement of solving a problem:

“It does not matter what the problem is. It can be like the good Sherlock Holmes, the depth at which the parsley has sunk into the butter. All that matters is that there should be a problem. It is not the muscles I need to exercise, you see, it is the cells of the brain.”

Poirot tells Colin that he has given himself over to solving famous unsolved crimes. Names like Charles Bravo and Constance Kent are thrown out, and I must say that I derived even greater pleasure reading this section this time having read, in Martin Edward’s The Golden Age of Murder all about the fascination true life crimes held for Christie and her peers in The Detection Club. Poirot then turns his attention to fictional crime writers, and as he prepares to critique their work, one gets excited at this potential glimpse into an author’s thought processes in the same way one reacts to Gideon Fell’s locked room lecture in The Hollow Man or Drury Lane’s dying message lecture in The Tragedy of X. For we must assume that we are getting, not Poirot’s, but Christie’s opinions of the work of such classic writers of detective fiction as Cyril Quain, Florence Elks, Louisa O’Malley and Garry Gregson.

Wait a minute, Garry who? It seems that Christie could or would not discuss her peers, so she frames her comments around fictional authors. It seems obvious that Cyril Quain, “master of the alibi,” is really Freeman Wills Crofts. The rest are anybody’s guess, although Poirot’s discourse on Gregson may reveal Christie’s antipathy toward much of the hard-boiled school. Christie does have some fun when Poirot critiques the work of Ariadne Oliver, whom most of us believe is, to some degree, a self-portrait by Christie, and notes both her strengths and her weaknesses as a writer. We laugh when Poirot says that Mrs. Oliver “was foolish enough to make her detective a Finn, and it is clear that she knows nothing about Finns or Finland . . . “ Oh, Papa Poirot, be careful of whom you speak!

Poirot’s acceptance of a challenge to solve the crimes without leaving the confines of his apartment – to use only the little grey cells – makes his part in the story seem stunted, almost unnecessary, especially since there really isn’t any deduction made that couldn’t have been accomplished by Hardcastle and/or Colin.

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To sum up, The Clocks provides some minor pleasures through Poirot’s philosophical ramblings about crime fiction, some fine character sketches and patches of dialogue. But the uneasy pairing of a grubby murder plot and an undeveloped spy drama make this one a novel to read as part of one’s efforts to cover a brilliant author’s entire oeuvre, including her lesser efforts. It’s telling to mention that the TV adaptation of this novel, starring David Suchet, attempted to “improve” the story by beefing up the spy plot, moving the whole thing back to World War II, and pushing Poirot out of his armchair and onto center stage . . . and the result turned out no better. I’m sure The Clocks has its fans. I fear that I am not one of them.

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30 thoughts on “CHRISTIE’S THE CLOCKS: The Ravaging Effects of Time

  1. I think you definitely hit the nail or perhaps nails on the head for why this isn’t one of Christie’s best works. Found the connections to past novels very interesting, as I wasn’t aware of how much she was borrowing from her past endeavours. Also never realised there was a Christie group on Goodreads. Excellent post as always.

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    1. Kate, the Goodreads group is full of nice people who mostly say, “Oh, I liked this so much. That Hercule Poirot is such a character.” It’s more of an appreciation than a discussion, although occasionally an interesting point gets thrown out. My heart (and mind) remain here! 🙂

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  2. This is the most recent Christie I’ve read – sometime in November/December, I believe – and I’m fairly astounded at how little of it I can remember.

    I think you pinpoint the problem exactly, though: these people are all involved in this moderately-involved plot but they’re essentially just around each other by accident as they happen to be neighbours. There’s no real sense of involvement, no central construction to the setup (compare it to, say, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, where the randomness of those people being in the same dentist’s office is given a far more significant role). When your plot depends on a sick child happening to look out of a window…well, then you’re in trouble!

    Presumably this means we’ll be reading A Caribbean Mystery at about the same time, too, then. Hmmmm, I shall try to remember more of that one – perhaps a comparison is on the cards…

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  3. If this is your first time with ACM, JJ, you’re in for much more of a treat than with THE CLOCKS. It feels like, as much as the Poirot experience degrades in her final years, Christie puts most of her creativity into her Miss Marple adventures. There is MUCH to like about this tropical mystery. I propose dual reviews, comparisons and much discussion! Oh, and cookies . . .

    The Tuesday Night Bloggers tackle John Dickson Carr next month. It might take me that long to finish THE HOLLOW MAN (oh, the agony), but if all works out well, I will also tackle HE WHO WHISPERS (can’t remember if I read that one, but many people rank it his best!), THE BLACK SPECTACLES (which I did read as a teenager and know you liked!) and, perhaps, Halter’s THE FOURTH DOOR. My reading abilities in January were sadly marred by overwork!

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    1. Perhaps there’s a post in what you’re not enjoying about THM, rather than suffering agonies to struggle through it. Maybe group therapy will help…

      I’m having a reading mare at the moment, having given up on four of the last five books I’ve started. Perhaps ACM is the antidote to this; at the very least, Christie is such an old friend that it’s unlikely to be hard work.

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      1. Oh dear sounds like your reading experience isn’t great at the moment. Which 4 books weren’t working for you? The silver lining is that your TBR pile is a little smaller. I enjoyed The Caribbean Mystery, be interested to hear your thoughts on it if you review it for your blog.

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      2. Well, ACM is a far EASIER read than THM, that’s for sure. I don’t remember struggling so much with Carr before, although his writing style is far more . . . turgid than Christie’s straightforward prose. I do think work has had something to do with it. Also, I just so happened to tackle a Queen that I hadn’t read before – The Egyptian Cross Mystery – and, lo and behold, it was also about a series of bizarre crimes centering around three Eastern European brothers. (And it was also second rate Queen, imho.) That comparison will figure somewhere into my blog.

        Finally, I think you hit the nail on the head for me in a previous conversation. Since an impossible crime novel focuses on the how, it’s all about how this part is presented. Right now, I’m still only one murder down and I get it: guy goes in the room and never comes out, no tracks on the snow. Lots of information presented about hidden stairways to the roof, trapeze artists, and circus performers. I suppose I could hazard a guess. But meanwhile, I want to get into the characters and the motives. I just finished a nice little exchange between old Mr. Drayman and Hadley, where the lodger reveals the story behind the three coffins. That was interesting until Dr. Fell started harummphing and h’mfing about noises coming from the coffins. Was my liking of the good doctor the innocent opinion of a teenager? Why am I finding him irksome here? I read your review and I’m so glad that you, a true aficionado of all things Carr and impossible crimes, found it a struggle. And yet, you ultimately loved it. I, too, want to be struck by the thunderbolt of love here!

        Therefore, it seems more important than ever that, after this, I go back to some Carr that I liked and try and get back that Carr-ian mojo I seem to have misplaced.

        And, like Kate, I wonder what books you have felt the need to give up on. Chances are, I bought some of them at a Kindle sale.

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      3. As I think I said in my review, everything is turned up to 11 in THM – including Fell’s general irritation with the world at large and his humphs, harrumphs, cane-tapping. He’s probably at his least likeable here, but it’s so focussed on plot that I think every single sentence forces it forward in some way and so the odd character beat goes astray. It’s all a rather gaudy, and very close to sensation fiction in its realisation, and you’re perfectly correct that it does all combine to make it rather a challenge.

        If it’s any help, I still this this is a masterpiece, and I agree that The Egyptian Cross Mystery is somewhat of a dud which I had to struggle through.

        As for quitting books…well, I’d hate for my rejection of them to be miscontrued as a criticism of the books themselves. I’m in a sort of “Oh, dear crikey, will the work ever abate?” space like yourself plus I’m moving house in a month, so I think there’s a goblin in the back of my head that’s desperate to get rid of anything so that a) I have time to dedicate to work and b) there’s less to move. This, plus knackeredness, is something of an unholy storm.

        And, y’know, if it’s skip a book here and there or stop spending so much time of this blogging lark…well, Sophie’s Choice or what, what?

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      1. I’m sure the difficulties all lie with me and my fuzzy head, Kate! I have spent January in the throes of professional angst getting up the winter musical at school. It has opened to good reviews, and now I should be able to relax and start to focus on my reading . . . oh, wait, the tryouts for the spring play are two weeks away! As Charlie Brown says, “Aaauuugghh!”

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  4. By the way, Kate and JJ, I had a former student come in to help me start to jazz up my blog page. I haven’t figured out how to create a hot graphic for the top yet, but I did add an avatar (notice how hard edged it is, just like JJ’s Guy Fawkes/Hollow Man/Paul Halter look!) and I went back to EVERY post, tagged them to start connecting ideas and changed all the links to a hyperlink (just like you tried to explain to me, Kate, but I needed someone to guide me step by step! Oy!) I’m determined to appear on everyone’s list of “favorite mystery blogs” by the year 2040, and I want to be worthy of that honor!

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    1. It took me a while to get to grips with my various blog features as well and I did have a friend help me at the beginning with some of the aesthetic stuff. To get a picture for your header, you need to go to dashboard and then click on the tab appearances which should be in the black left hand side column and then click header. On the page it takes you to, there should be a white column on the left hand side – click header image and follow the subsequent instructions after that.

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    2. The sad truth is, Brad, that I’m not attractive enough at any age to put a picture of me in my avatar. It occurred to me to do the old “find a photo of an attractive person on Google” thing, but with Bodies from the Library coming up this summer I’d be rumbled (unless I claimed that JJ was a Nero Wolfe-type and I was his Archie, but my ego won’t allow that)..

      On which topic, love the header image. From left to right I’ve got Wimsey, Marple, Fell, Brown, Maigret(?), Poe, Holmes, Poirot, Chan(?), could be pretty much any gentleman detective but I’ll go with Sheringham, Wolfe…although any corrections welcome.

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      1. Tbh if you actually turned up looking like your avatar at the Bodies from the Library conference I would probably have a heart attack. Going to be interesting trying to track down bloggers such as The Puzzle Doctor at the conference seeing as his avatar pics are either a cat or a hedgehog…

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      2. I’m just going to turn up and claim to be Rich or Sergio; then if either of them are there, I’ll challenge them to prove it. Actually, we should all do that, there’s something fittingly Christiesque about everyone consciously swapping identities.

        Although, knowing our luck, someone would go and get murdered…

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      3. So you look like a cross between Nero Wolfe AND Archie? That is, to say the least, intriguing, JJ! Besides, your wit and intellect are highly attractive, so you don’t have anything to worry about! And you say you’re MOVING? Say no more! The stress of changing abodes would put anyone off his literature!

        I would suggest the gentleman (second from the right) is Ellery Queen, judging by his pince nez (so it’s EARLY Queen.)

        How can we get a blog-wide fundraiser started so that I can attend Bodies in the Library??? I so wanted to hit London this summer, but I’m spending all my money on a trip to New York this summer (I live in California) so that I can attend a drama teacher’s conference AND see Hamilton, the hit of Broadway!

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      4. Queen! Of course! Apologies for my denseness. Poe seems like an odd inclusion there, as the only real person. I guess Dupin isn’t recognisable enough 🙂

        And, yes, it’s true that I am both witty and intellectual. And modest. You have to be when you look like me.

        I’m in New York myself for a few days over Easter…hoping to fit in lots of coffee and lots of bookshops (the two things should work quite well together!). Alas, I fear sight-seeing may be on the cards…

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  5. Thanks for a great review of one of Christie ‘s least enjoyable books. I’ve read all of her crime novels many times but I’ve always struggled with this one; now I understand why. I didn’t even remember that Poirot was in it! I think that the problem is that the murder is somewhat sidelined by all the spy stuff, and (from what I remember) the character of the victim, and therefore the motive, are underdeveloped and almost thrown in as an afterthought. For me it’s a contender for worst Christie, beaten only by Postern of Fate.

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    1. So true! The only real mystery about the victim is his identity, not anything about his character or actions. Christie saw no need to give us more, and I agree with you that it considerably weakens this mystery.

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  6. Well, Kate, I AM about to start my classic mystery unit in Drama class. But the district is already paying the registration for my teacher’s conference in NYC! I don’t think they will let me “double dip!”

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  7. JJ, You will have to tell me what bookstores I should check out. (I know about The Mysterious Bookshop in the Village, but there must be some great used bookstores around.) Oh, and don’t go buying everything! Leave some for me!

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