“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.