IT’S COMPLICATED: Agatha Christie’s Best Triangles

Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody! All month, the Tuesday Night Bloggers are appropriately celebrating the theme of Love (and Murder) in Bloom. Here is a link to last week’s posts:

Week 1

And here is the latest batch:

Kate at Cross Examining Crime discusses some of her favorite movie mystery romances and comes up with some great films here.

Moira at Clothes in Books talks about her favorite women in love in Christie – a fabulous topic that she handles fabulously here.

Bev at My Reader’s Block has compiled a fabulous list of romantic quotations from a wealth of classic mysteries here.

Classic writers of detective fiction were discouraged from distracting the proceedings with romance. In his “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” author S.S. Van Dine covered the topic succinctly in Rule #3:

“There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.”

Vance stuck to this in his own work: consider the total asexuality of Van Dine’s annoying detective, Philo Vance, but few of the really good authors excised romance completely. Perhaps Raymond Chandler made the point more sensibly in his “Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel.” Commandment #8:

“(The mystery novel) must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.”

I interpret Chandler to mean that any inclusion of a love story must serve the needs of the puzzle, not compete with or dominate it. Thus, Patricia Wentworth’s eternally innocent young couples exist only to provide Miss Silver with the motivation to investigate and solve a murder. And Agatha Christie can center a plot around love because we know she will not make her lovers immune to her special brand of misdirection; love motivates, yet never distracts from, murder. Even a thriller like They Came to Baghdad, which centers around a young woman’s pursuit of a boyfriend, comes with a delicious sting in its tail and puts love firmly in its place.

Last week, I talked about several of Agatha Christie’s most notable couples, some of them heroic, others demonic! This week, I wanted to continue my thoughts on Christie and romance by looking at the romantic tangles in her books: the permutations of three or more people that lead to murder. I titled this one “Christie’s Best Triangles,” but as you will see, sometimes in a murder plot it takes four or more to tango!

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Romantic triangles are the fodder of great romantic drama. Think about Anna Karenina, A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter! Triangles are a staple in mysteries: when the love of your life is threatened by a potential usurper, things can turn murderous real fast! Some of Christie’s finest stories hinge on a tempestuous triangle – or quadrangle, or five or six or seven. Generally speaking, those triangles created in the 1930’s novels depend focus on the author’s skill with misdirection, while those found in the 1940’s or later tend toward richer characterization and fewer tricks. (Of course, my number one choice combines both.) Here are my five favorites:

#5: Arlena Marshall and her circle

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Yes, Evil Under the Sun was published in 1941, but it is every bit the classic 30’s mystery. The characters are fun but not very deep, except for a wonderful depiction of a troubled teen, who only figures into the romantic crises as a casualty of them. At the center of it all is Arlena Stuart, the fabulous stage actress, who has married yet again and has come to regret it. The loyal, stalwart Captain Kenneth Marshall is too staid for her. Thus, Arlena sets her sights on a hot schoolteacher named Patrick Redfern, who plunges wholeheartedly – and quite publicly – into an affair, despite the pain it causes his mousy wife Christine. Can Kenneth wrestle his wife away from the clutches of her boy toy, or will he turn for more than solace to his former girlfriend Rosamund Darnley? Will Arlena stay true to either of her men. Or will she fall for the fanatical Reverend Steven Lane? Or the rich but crass Horace Blatt?

SPOILER ALERT: The whole crux of the plot hangs on our misinterpretation of Arlena as a predatory vamp when she is, in fact, a dupe. My problem here is that we really don’t get any sense of this in the novel because we never get to know Arlena. Frankly, I love Diana Rigg’s over the top portrayal in the star-studded film, but it’s all wrong. Nobody in their right minds would love this self-involved parody of a star, so the stakes are lowered considerably. The producers were clearly striving for comedy, and while the proceedings are lively and fun – and more exciting than the arguably more faithful Suchet TV version – we never buy that Arlena was a born victim long before her death. END SPOILER

#4: Gerda and John Cristow, Henrietta Savernake

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In The Hollow (1946), John Cristow is a healer on the verge of a striking medical breakthrough, yet his bedside manner is far more humanitarian than his treatment of the women in his life. His long-suffering wife, Gerda, and his mistress, the brilliant artist Henrietta, have settled into an uneasy but workable arrangement where each stakes her own claim to a certain part of the doctor’s heart and mind. Gerda provides home, children and respectability, while Henrietta provides passion and an intellectual equal. Except for the fact that everyone feels vaguely dissatisfied, the arrangement works, until further complications ensue: Henrietta is pressured by her cousin/admirer Edward, which causes friction from Midge Hardcastle who also loves Edward; while John is shocked into inappropriate behavior by a visit from an old flame, actress Veronica Cray. As a character, Veronica is a relic of old 30’s novels, a completely unrealistic depiction of a star (a problem Christie seemed to have with most of her theatrical characters), which is a weakness in a novel that is, in every other respect, rich in characterization. Still, from beginning to end, the relationship between husband, wife, and mistress is paramount, no more so than when the revelation of the victim’s dying message is made clear.

#3: The entire cast of Towards Zero

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As far as romantic hijinks go, you can’t get more complicated than the visitors at Gull’s Point in Towards Zero (1944). Tennis star Neville Strange brings his second wife Kay to visit at the same time that his ex-wife Audrey is vacationing there. Kay sees no reason not to invite her constant admirer Ted Latimer to hang about and flirt with her, while Audrey is relieved to have old friend Thomas Royde present, even though Thomas harbors deep feelings for her. This doesn’t sit well with Mary Aldin, who has a crush on Thomas. And nobody has mentioned the mysterious Mr. McWhirter, whose failed suicide attempt near Gulls Point brings him deeply into this group’s sphere. The genius of Towards Zero is that we are not sure until the end where the real darkness of this romantic tragedy lies, but when it is revealed it is a doozy. It seems ironic that, with all these wrong-headed romantic impulses clashing about, that it is the charming, elderly hostess who gets her head bashed in with a niblick. Have we been looking at this situation from the wrong way round all along? Luckily for us, this is Christie’s world, and the answer is a resounding yes!

Runner-Up: Caroline Crale, Elsa Greer and Amyas Crale

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Five Little Pigs presents perhaps the most straightforward and effective romantic triangle in all of Christie’s novels. Here there are no tricks, just three complex people grappling with powerful emotions. The marriage between Amyas and Caroline Crale has always been tempestuous, given his artistic temperament. His sensual desires have made him a serial philanderer, to the point where Caroline rolls her eyes at “you and your women!” But she justifies it by allowing that a person like Amyas must be given room to indulge his little fancies, and she allows him to “blow off steam” because he always returns to her and their child. (May I make clear that I don’t “allow” Amyas any such right – he is a cad through and through!) She has not accounted for Elsa Greer, however, whose youthful selfishness matches Amyas’ larger than life ego. Elsa has set her sights on her prey, and she means to have him for herself for good. The scenes where she lounges about the house, announcing her plans in front of Caroline about how she will redecorate, crackle with tension. There is no weird reversal here, no typical Christie trick, just a situation rife with drama that turns murderous and affects the other “little pigs” in the vicinity. Say what you will about the nature of murders in retrospect, Christie has set up a situation that moves beyond mere puzzlement and into the realm of tragedy.

. . . and the WINNER is:

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Jacqueline de Bellefort, Linnet Ridgeway and Simon Doyle

As straightforward as the triangle in Pigs may be, my favorite romantic entanglement is the epitome of deviousness as only Christie could manage it.

1939’s And Then There Were None seems to mark the point where Christie began to combine deeper elements of characterization and social commentary with the trickery of a good puzzle. Yet, in 1937’s Death on the Nile we see the beginnings of this trend, at least in the two main female characters, even though the emphasis is still on the puzzle. (I have a feeling that, given my upcoming Christie/Carr “showdown” with JJ at The Invisible Event, where Nile achieved the status of “Number One Christie,” I will be talking about this book a lot more in the near future.)

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In both the 1978 film with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and the 2004 adaptation for David Suchet’s series, Linnet Ridgeway is, unfortunately, portrayed as an utter bitch. Lois Chiles didn’t have the acting chops to find hidden depths in her character, although, in all fairness, Anthony Shaffer wrote her this way. In 2004, Emily Blunt, far and away a stronger actress, is given the same direction, which is a shame as she is a fine actress capable of deeper subtlety. When she meets Simon Doyle, she looks like a hungry cat waiting to pounce.

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Yet, in the novel, Linnet is not portrayed this way. She is young, vital, beautiful and very, very rich, but her independence is new: her grandfather has died and left her his fortune. In the lengthy opening that establishes the central conflict, Christie is careful to present Linnet as an attractive figure, even ostensibly a good friend. The presence of Joanna Southwood, a scheming hanger-on, provides a fine contrast to Linnet’s deeper sympathies for her old school pal, Jacqueline de Bellefort, who possesses a loving heart and the temperament to weather a long bout of ill luck that has left her a nearly penniless orphan. There are hints of a selfish streak in Linnet’s make-up, as when she discusses with Joanna her plans to pull down some “unsanitary” cottages on her estate. She argues that she can provide better housing to all her tenants, but then adds, “They’d have had to go anyway. Those cottages would have overlooked my new swimming pool.”

There is a streak of feminism, combined with rampant romanticism, in both Linnet and Jacquie’s make-up. Jacquie takes the lead in providing for her husband-to-be. She is in every way the provider and protector in their relationship. Linnet wants to be more than just a “catch.” When the socially prominent Lord Windlesham proposes to her and offers her the chance to be mistress of his vast estate Charltonbury – a place that calls to mind Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley – she inwardly balks at the idea of giving up Wode Hall, a much smaller estate but, nonetheless, her own:
“Naturally (Lord Windlesham) couldn’t take Wode seriously . . . It was not in any way to be compared with Charltonbury. Ah, but Wode was hers! She had seen it, acquired it, rebuilt and re-dressed it, lavished money on it. It was her own possession – her kingdom. . . . If she married Windlesham . . . she, Linnet Ridgeway, wouldn’t exist any longer. She would be . . . queen consort, not queen any longer.”

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And then, of course, there’s the matter of marrying for love rather than position. This, to our modern sensibilities, is an admirable quality:

“Jackie’s voice with that queer blurred note in it saying: ‘I shall die if I can’t marry him! I shall die! I shall die!’ So positive, so earnest. Did she, Linnet, feel like that about Windlesham? Assuredly she didn’t. perhaps she could never feel like that about anyone. It must be – rather wonderful – to feel like that . . . “

Christie’s abilities at misdirection are at their best when she presents honest moments and allows us to misinterpret them to our heart’s content. Why do we meet Poirot at a chic restaurant so early in the narrative? It’s because readers take his observations to be authoritative so that, when he observes the engaged couple and senses that Jackie’s devotion to her beloved may be greater than Simon’s is to her, we accept this as true, and the way is paved for Simon jilting Jackie for Linnet. If Linnet were as duplicitous as the films portray, why would Jackie be so trusting? In the novel, we sense that Linnet is truly fond of her old pal, even jealous of her love. Stealing Simon stems from a combination of her own awakening passions and her stretching of that newfound power as an heiress. She isn’t ruthless – Joanna calls her “a beneficent tyrant” yet also wonders what would actually happen “when you want to go down a street which has aboard up saying ‘No Thoroughfare.’”

Since we witness Linnet’s sympathies for Jackie but never see how hard she worked on capturing Simon’s affections, her marriage to him feels more realistically like a betrayal of Jackie on both their parts in the novel than in either film. It also provides a likely catalyst for setting off Jackie’s “Latin” thirst for revenge. Our sympathies lay with Jackie, but we don’t necessarily cry “Good riddance” when Linnet is ultimately murdered. We may not like how the Doyles came to be, but we agree with Poirot that Jackie should let go in every sense – stop stalking the couple and move on with her life. When Jackie refuses to do so and even brandishes her little gun, we conjure up more feeling for the characters than we might do in most classic mysteries.

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This continues when Linnet is murdered, shot at close range with Jackie pistol, with a dying message – the letter “J” scrawled in blood on the wall. We don’t want Jackie to be the killer, and it’s a relief to all of us when she proves to have an unshakeable alibi, not the kind you find in Carr which is dashed to pieces, but an honest to God, lots of witnesses, no funny business kind of alibi. Jackie did not kill Linnet! Now we can focus on the stolen pearls, the mysterious telegram, the embezzling lawyer, the Communist who loathes rich heiresses, and the rest of the passenger list. While Poirot investigates, we hope that now maybe Jacquie can recover from her temporary sanity, and that she and Simon might even find their way back to each other. They were a sweet couple at the start of the novel, and they deserve some happiness.

SPOILER ALERT: It all turns out to be a part of Christie’s ability to expertly manipulate her audience. She has created a situation that leads us to jump to conclusions about characters, namely that Jackie is too emotionally overwrought to think clearly, and that Simon Doyle is pretty much a lunkhead whose head has been turned by a rich and pretty face. What is remarkable to me when we look back on Jackie and Simon is that, no matter how cold-blooded their plan turns out to be, what we remember the most about them is how deeply they loved each other. Simon, it turns out, was never tempted by Linnet at all: he stayed true to his love, although his weakness for the good life tainted everything. Jackie’s love for Simon is also tainted, as her obsession for him causes her to irrevocably cross an uncrossable moral line. One has to wonder: would she have murdered Linnet had her old friend not made a play for Simon?

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Even at the end, after they are responsible for three murders and much trauma on the S.S. Karnak, the defining thing about Jacquie and Simon is their love for each other. He turns to her in every moment of weakness, while she protects him again and again. The lengths she goes to are morally inexcusable, yet Christie redeems her at the end: Jacquie not only accepts responsibility, but she carries out punishment on both Simon and herself. And even that final horrible deed is an act of pure love since she cannot let Simon wind up on the dock.

If there is a flaw to Death on the Nile, it is that the connections between most of the other characters and Linnet pale in comparison to the central conflict. I like the characters a lot; they comprise a classic roster of Golden Age suspects. There may be a few too many of them, however, particularly since their motives are weak. Sure, there’s Andrew Pennington and his embezzling scheme, which is nicely woven into the plot to provide a moment of hesitation for that astute reader who jumps immediately to the correct solution (it certainly wasn’t me!). And the theft of the pearls is a fine red herring. But most of the other motives are so-so: the spy fears exposure since Linnet accidentally read his telegram; Mr. Fergusson feels Linnet represents the privileged class and “should be bumped off as a warning to others.” The ’78 film tried to “solve” this problem by giving every single character a clear-cut motive, giving each superstar a chance to shake his or her fist at Lois Chiles before the murder. But this tactic over-simplified the whole affair.

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The supplemental romantic intrigues work better by providing a light contrast to the tragedy of the leading triangle. The fate of who Cornelia Robson will end up with is a lovely little subplot (with a genuine surprise at the end), as is the angst-y back and forth between Tim Allerton and Rosalie Otterbourne. (Curiously, no movie producer would back this couple. The ’78 version cut Allerton and his mother entirely – a big loss if you ask me, no matter how understandable in terms of running time. The Suchet version went one better – or worse – by teasing this relationship and finally making it clear that Tim bats for the other team. This, like much of the forced inclusion of homosexuality in the Suchet adaptations, seemed not only extraneous but also cruel to Rosalie, one of the most interesting and beleaguered characters in the book and someone who surely deserves some happiness after a lifetime of tsuris!) END SPOILERS

I would love to hear what you think about my choices or about others of Christie’s permutations of troubled romance. My tastes in Christie tend to fluctuate daily. As I write this conclusion, I’m tempted to insert Elinor Carlisle’s romantic woes in Sad Cypress or the futile triangle between Lynn Marchmont, Rowley Cloade and David Hunter in Taken at the Flood. They are all further proof that, in matters of love, Christie knew how to take us well into the dark side.

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11 thoughts on “IT’S COMPLICATED: Agatha Christie’s Best Triangles

  1. Oh, absolutely, the triangle in Death on the Nile is memorable, Brad. So layered and nuanced, and Christie doesn’t let up, so to speak. I’m so glad you mentioned it. I like the way Christie handled the one in Evil Under the Sun, too. Have you ever read her short story, Triangle at Rhodes? If not, I think you’ll enjoy the triangle in that one, too…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the things I love about Triangle in Rhodes, Margot, is how Christie could take basically the same situation as Evil Under the Sun and completely flip it around. She’s like those chefs on Iron Chef or Chopped who take the same few ingredients and re-mold them into utterly different (but equally delightful) concoctions! 🙂

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  2. Great choices. Though I think we disagree on Jackie and Simon. For me if they loved each other that much, Simon wouldn’t have married Linnet and him and Jackie would have married and been poor. It’s the way they go after Linnet’s money which makes me a bit dubious of their claims of the murders being all for love. They wanted there love but they also wanted a big dollop of cash as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your point is well taken, Kate, but I think what I was trying to say here was that Christie presents Jackie as loving harder than Simon, and it turns out to be true. Simon’s moral compass is not really up for debate as we barely see the “real” guy. We only know that he got engaged to a poor girl; it’s perfectly possible that he would eventually abandon her for someone rich . . . except he DOESN’T do that with Linnet. Rather, he suggests to Jackie that he marry her and that she die young. Jackie is so much in love that she abandons all morality to keep that love going. She tells Poirot that if she hadn’t stepped in, Simon would actually attempt – and bungle – the job. She knew the kind of man she was marrying, and she allowed him to draw her to the dark side. In a sick, Charles Manson-sort of way, that’s love.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I kept hoping it would be Death on the Nile at #1! Such complex feelings, such an extraordinary plot. Christie does a terrific job of misdirection in this one, and you analyze it so well. She also gives it a moral compass that doesn’t really stand up – Linnet’s behaviour is nothing like as bad as Jacqueline’s (even apart from the obvious) but all our sympathies, weirdly, end up with Jackie. She is one of Christie’s great characters, any way you look at it. I was nodding at and loving a lot of your other comments on the other books, but Nile just overshadowed the others.

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  4. Definitely agree with DEATH ON THE NILE being the classic Christie love triangle. Interestingly, this exact same love triangle exists in Christie’s very first novel, THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES–same dynamics and all, where *SPOILER ALERT* the couple in love (Alfred & Evelyn) pretend to be estranged so that the man, Alfred can dupe and marry a rich woman (Emily) and then murder her for her money…. It is the exact same plot in terms of the the triangle; Christie just repurposed it much more fabulously for NILE!

    We discussed this in the first episode of our Agatha Christie podcast, All About Agatha. Link below if you’re curious!

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/all-about-agatha/id1155061645?mt=2#episodeGuid=tag%3Asoundcloud%2C2010%3Atracks%2F292627344

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kemper, (or Catherine?), I wouldn’t call the Styles triangle EXACTLY the same. Evelyn introduces Emily to her cousin Alfred and then feigns a dislike for him and warns Emily away. Yes, in reality they are lovers, but the subterfuge is handled differently. And the murder in Nile is so much more stagy and fabulous than in Styles! Plus, the whole purpose of the Styles plot is to get Alfred arrested and tried then found not guilty when his “alibi” is established. That’s why Poirot won’t let the police arrest him! But the Nile plot is designed to make it seem impossible for the killers to have committed the crime.

      Sorry to disagree; I really get into my Christie! I look forward to checking out your podcast!

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  5. Concerning what you said about Five Little Pigs:

    “His sensual desires have made him a serial philanderer, to the point where Caroline rolls her eyes at “you and your women!” But she justifies it by allowing that a person like Amyas must be given room to indulge his little fancies, and she allows him to “blow off steam” because he always returns to her and their child.”

    I know that Amyas returns to Caroline in the end after his little episodes with women, but why in the world would Caroline want to live like this? Clearly, this affects her. But to live this way seems so wrong! What would happen if this happened on the other foot, if Caroline was the wrong who indulged in her little fancies and dallied with other men in order to “blow off steam”? I know in the Suchet version Elsa and Amyas slept with each other — I think he did so in the book too, right? And if so, Elsa surely wasn’t the only woman either. I just can’t see how Caroline can stay in a relationship like that. It seems as if Amyas gets to have his cake and eat it too.

    There is a line from an old Billie Holiday song called “Don’t Explain” and there’s a line in there that I can apply to Caroline’s feelings with Amyas: “You’re my joy and pain”. Actually a lot of those lyrics in that song reminds me of Caroline and Amyas’ marriage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you completely! Not only do I believe that Christie does not excuse Amyas’ behavior, I think she capitalizes on Caroline’s relatively passive acceptance of Amyas’ selfishness which she thinks is the reason Angela poisoned him. If she HAD stood up more firmly to him, perhaps Angela wouldn’t have been driven to kill. And she might not have even gone this far if she hadn’t felt responsible for Angela’s scar. She’s a fascinating woman to be exactly because she’s so flawed: she loves her daughter but practically ignores the child in order to focus on Amyas, and she acts toward Angela as much out of a sense of guilt as of love.

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