“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Edgar Degas
Today, I’m going to attempt something I (*koff koff*) never do: I’m going to try and change people’s minds. To do that, I will assume that if you are here, you have already read The Hollow and have formed an opinion. If you have not read it yet, please do so. (We’ll wait . . . . . ) Just know that I am prepared to discuss everything about this one, and the uninitiated must beware: there will be SPOILERS, not only for this novel but for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, and Dumb Witness. You have been warned!
One of the reasons I became a blogger was to create the opportunity to engage in an in-depth study of, and conversation about, Agatha Christie’s writing. How fortunate that I have met so many insightful folks here who have strong, often differing opinions of her work. Whether you see Christie as top drawer (that’s me) or find her overrated (What the – ?!), the magnitude and scope of her work makes her presence felt in any study of classic mystery fiction. Her ability to plot crime stories is beyond dispute; I could argue that it is unsurpassable.
An intriguing aspect of our discussions involves the huge difference in opinion as to what constitutes “top-drawer” Christie. I know much of this is a matter of taste, and who am I to argue with someone who praises At Bertram’s Hotel to the skies? There are some wonderful elements in that book, especially at the beginning, and the hook might be just enough to carry certain readers toward an inclusion of this title on their favorites lists. Recently, my buddy Kate at Cross Examining Crime looked anew at 1937’s Dumb Witness and found much to love. I imagine that few people would place this one at the top of the list, but then again I may be wrong. Maybe they love the village setting, or the spinster victim, or the way Poirot and Hastings investigate this one. Maybe they just love that little dog! I personally think Dumb Witness falls down at the end due to the inclusion of one of the clumsiest clues ever. And there’s the timing: this novel falls in the midst of Christie’s golden period, where comparison to titles like The A.B.C. Murders, Death on the Nile and And Then There Were None makes the assets of Dumb Witness pale in comparison.
Even when we are dealing with a much stronger piece of writing, I’m surprised by the wide range of the reactions to it. Take The Hollow, Christie’s sole offering for 1946. To my mind, The Hollow is magnificent Christie, yet many people don’t see it. It isn’t my all-time favorite Christie, and it isn’t perfect. Few works of art are, and I am prepared to discuss its flaws as well as its merits. But it is magnificent for many reasons, and here they are.
To start us off, let me just say a word about Mary Westmacott.
The 1920’s saw Christie’s rise as a successful writer of detective stories. But even as her first decade as an author wound to a close, she began to chafe at the limitations of her chosen genre. She wanted to create characters of psychological depth and let her plots serve larger themes. She felt – mistakenly, as it turns out – that she couldn’t accomplish this by writing mysteries; thus, the alias of Mary Westmacott was born.
Christie and her family have expressed great fondness for the half dozen novels she wrote under this nom de plume. Her publishers and readers were less generous in their praise, and I would venture to guess the popularity of these novels rose after the author’s true identity was revealed. Christie’s daughter Rosalind’s opinion suggests that there was mass confusion over how these books were advertised and how they have been perceived:
“The Mary Westmacott books have been described as romantic novels but I don’t think that is really a fair assessment. They are not ‘love stories’ in the general sense of the term, and they certainly have no happy endings. They are, I believe, about love in some of its most powerful and destructive forms.”
When I look at that description, a lot of personal things click into place. I always dismissed the Westmacotts as romance fiction, and in all fairness, the covers and the marketing supported this idea. It’s not for me to say whether or not Christie succeeded as Westmacott in her goal of writing “about love in some of its most powerful and destructive forms.” At her best, Christie achieved this very thing in the mysteries themselves. I believe that The Hollow ranks as one of the best novels Christie ever wrote. It is a novel with murder in it, and while the crime plot is quite good, as a novel, it works even better. And that, perhaps, rankles those of her mystery fans who view Christie’s work – first, last and always – as crime fiction.
Let’s start then by looking at The Hollow as a mystery. It is her first post-WWII novel and a return to the “traditional country house” mystery after six years of relative experimentation. (Whether this was an effect of the war on the author, a coincidence, or just a product of my own imagination, the titles we find from 1939 to 1945 make up some pretty subversive material for Christie.)
Seven people are arranged to gather together at the Hollow for what promises to be a respite from the stresses on their lives. Sir Henry and Lucy Angkatell value family more than anything else. Midge Hardcastle, their poor relation, chafes at the grubby demands of her working life. David Angkatell is a student at Oxford (“or is it Cambridge?” Lucy wonders.) The university doesn’t matter, for David represents every upper-class post-war young adult with no certain future or dream; it’s reflected in his sulky nature and sharp but ineffectual tongue. The three remaining invited guests should provide fodder for real emotional combustion: Dr. John Christow is an old family friend, a brilliant but prickly doctor obsessed with his work. He brings his wife, Gerda, who seems unable to do anything right as wife, mother or weekend guest. Rounding out the party is Henrietta Angkatell, a promising modern artist and John’s mistress. Yet John, Henrietta and Gerda seem to have struck a peace in their lives. John enjoys the riches of a respectable existence thanks to Gerda, while in Henrietta he finds an intellectual equal. In John, Gerda has a provider for her children, someone to disentangle her from those almost daily household crises, and in Henrietta she has found a sympathetic friend. It’s telling that at the start of the novel, Lucy is not worried about the romantic feelings of this trio but of Gerda’s inability to carry on a conversation or to succeed at party games. Amongst the family, there seems to be an implicit understanding and acceptance of this arrangement.
Yet into every novel – mystery or otherwise – complications must fall, and here they take on the form of Three Unwanted Guests. The first is rich cousin Edward Angkatell who has invited himself down for the weekend in order to corner Henrietta and propose to her. Not only does this confound the artist and bring up tension between Edward and John, it stirs up passion in the normally stalwart Midge, who has loved Edward all her life.
The second intruder is a movie star named Veronica Craye, who has rented a bungalow near the Hollow for a rest. The idea of Veronica, who reeks of Hollywood glamour and fakery, seeking peace and quiet in this part of the countryside would seem ridiculous – except Veronica is John’s old love, and, in the mercurial way of all of Christie’s actors, she has decided she wants him back. Veronica selfish ego sows seeds of dissension in an amicable romantic triangle? She sees John as a prize, and she’s not willing to share him with anyone. Also, their past relationship seems mainly carnal, (although Christie is always reticent when delving into her character’s sex lives.) We know that John has fathered children with Gerda and that he comes home to her at night. We imagine that John and Henrietta have sex, but all we see of their affair are meaningful, mutually affirming conversations. But Veronica makes her first entrance flaunting her sexuality in front of everyone, and the usually in-control John becomes tongue-tied. She exerts her power with her body, ironically reducing John’s power as a man and causing deep resentment in both Gerda and Henrietta.
The third inconvenient guest happens to be Hercule Poirot, who is renting yet another bungalow for some rest. One of the biggest arguments that rages over The Hollow is Poirot’s presence. He feels almost tacked on for marketing purposes, and it would seem that Christie agreed with this sentiment. In the theatrical version of the novel (the first Christie play I ever directed), Poirot is absent. (So, by the way, is David Angkatell, who, as a suspect, is pretty extraneous.) I have gone back and forth on this issue, but I would argue for Poirot’s presence. We’ll get to the reasons why in a moment, but here I acknowledge that, in terms of his character, it makes no sense for Poirot, the man who has traveled extensively through the Middle East and vacationed at St. Loo to choose this spot for a rest. The muddy grounds soil his patent leather shoes, and there is simply not enough to do nor enough people around through whom Poirot can bask in his fame. But we’ll let that go for now.
Christie carefully builds relationships and sets the stage for the murder, which doesn’t occur until just over a third of the way through the book. There are no second or third deaths to goose us along, no would-be blackmailer to be silenced. The focus is on John Christow’s death and, as it turns out, the hastily assembled plot by the Angkatell family to protect his killer from exposure. This plan reflects a highly unusual aspect of the murder in The Hollow: it is one of the few deaths in a Christie novel that is pretty much unpremeditated. Yet don’t readers love Christie for the labyrinthine murder plots her killers dream up? Even a “spur of the moment” crime like that found in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is committed by someone who had entertained the possibility that murder might be necessary, at least enough to stage an elaborate ruse to provide themselves with an alibi. (Really, folks, how long do you think it took that murderer to dream up that plan?)
Could some readers’ dissatisfaction with The Hollow stem from its murder’s status as a crime of passion? Christie doesn’t try to hide the fact. We see the crime take place. (It was one of my favorite moments when staging the play.) The tableau at the pool immediately suggests to Poirot a crime of passion: a man’s wife, aware of his multiple infidelities, is found standing over the body with a gun. Yet the one crimp in that scenario is that the gun she is holding is not the murder weapon. This does imply premeditation. But exactly what is being planned? What purpose does switching the guns serve, except to exonerate Gerda? And Christie seems to have established that Gerda, of all the characters placed on the scene, is the least capable of concocting a complex alibi.
And yet, this is exactly what has happened. Could Gerda’s newfound mental abilities be a flaw in plotting or characterization? Or has everyone, the reader included, underestimated Mrs. Christow? Christie’s murderers are normally very clever people; the main exception that comes to mind is in Lord Edgware Dies, where Poirot himself comments on how hard it was to battle “the simple cunning of a vacuous mind.” We also find similarities between Gerda and Bella Tanios from Dumb Witness. Bella certainly makes some dumb mistakes, but her plan is far more calculated and cruel than Gerda’s, and Bella’s motive is more purely selfish while Gerda’s stems from a broken heart.
I suppose that, facing this murderer’s native cunning, any inspector or amateur sleuth would have come around to the truth. What gives The Hollow a special twist and supports the inclusion of Poirot in the story is what it shares with Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Once again, Poirot is challenged by a conspiracy, but one that seeks to conceal a murderer rather than punish one. And what adds to the novel’s humanity is that this conspiracy is created by the victim himself through his dying message: “Henrietta!” His mistress knows John well enough to understand that at the moment of death he is not going to single her out over his wife. He is sending Henrietta a signal: “I provoked Gerda to this act – if you love me, you must protect her!” And that is what Henrietta does, with the aid of the Angkatells. Poirot’s keen instincts sense the existence of a plot almost immediately – his first impression when he comes upon the murder scene is that he is bearing witness to a stage set – yet the family ends up leading Poirot on a merry chase.
If The Hollow were just about its murder, I would place it at the top of the “B” list, but its grade rises when characterization is taken into account. Critics regular accuse Christie of populating her novels with “types”; the counter-argument generally consists of spitefully tossing a handful of titles and/or characters in the critics’ faces: Death on the Nile (at least the central triangle), Sad Cypress, Five Little Pigs, Towards Zero, Taken at the Flood and Ordeal by Innocence . . . and The Hollow. The romantic sextet at the heart of this novel illustrates love as a messy, complicated and frequently unsatisfying emotion. If Gerda reminds us of Bella Tanios, John Christow and Henrietta Angkatell both call to mind Amyas Crale of Five Little Pigs, and they provide the forum for the author to tackle some of her favorite themes: the price of ambition and the folly of the artist.
Christie talks very little about her writing process in her Autobiography, as if she either placed little importance on it or simply didn’t see it as very interesting. She describes her entry into the mystery-writing field as more of a lark, the result of a dare from her sister. Christie read mysteries, she liked them, and she felt she understood what made them tick. Reading how she was inspired to write The Mysterious Affair at Styles proves this, as she chose what was popular with the public: an intimate family murder, death by poison, an eccentric detective. One of the most telling statements in her description of this process was this (the italics are hers, the underlined word mine):
“I could, of course, have a very unusual kind of murder for a very unusual motive, but that did not appeal to me artistically. The whole point of a good detective story was that it must be somebody obvious but at the same time, for some reason, you would then find that it was not obvious, that he could not possibly have done it. Though really, of course, he had done it.”
Interestingly, this description of her very first murder plot exactly matches The Hollow! Yet one of her most brilliant skills was the way she could vary a scenario and render it unrecognizable to a previously used, virtually identical plot. Let’s acknowledge the similarity so that we can see, in comparing Styles to The Hollow, how twenty-six years of writing have honed Christie’s skill as a portraitist and how her works are becoming richer in theme when she chooses them to be.
As becomingly modest as she was regarding her own skill, Christie was fascinated with the artistic process. She took great pleasure in hanging around the theatre types who produced and performed in her plays. She was strongly – and mostly negatively – opinionated over the way her work was handled in films and on television. Part of this last was motivated by financial concerns, but she also complained mightily about casting decisions and about changes to the plots and tone of her books. When she herself changed one of her own plots, she made sure she was not wreaking havoc with the essential truth of the original. Compare the stage ending of Appointment with Death to the novel. They are startlingly different, and yet the psychological veracity of the characters is unchanged. One could argue that the new ending creates a stronger indictment of the central character than the first one and might have even created another Christie classic.
In one of my earliest posts, I discussed Christie’s utilization of various professions in her work. Two of her most frequently used – doctors and artists/actors – are present here. Veronica Craye represents the type of actor found in early Christie. She’s a sensualist and an egoist. Her acknowledged talent, her depth of feeling onscreen, is balanced by a shallow, self-centered personality. Veronical is a clear descendant of Jane Wilkinson from Lord Edgware Dies, published thirteen years previously, and so for the longest time I maintained that she did not belong in The Hollow. And yet, it is important for the plot’s sake that she not fit in. Veronica exists to upset the delicate balance that has existed between John, Gerda and Henrietta. She emasculates John by causing him to lose control of his feelings, and even though he finally comes to grips with his passion and rejects Veronica, the damage is done, the balance spoiled.
Henrietta and John are perfectly matched in their mutual admiration for each other’s talent. Unlike Gerda, who offers blind worship, Henrietta supplies respect and understanding. In Christie’s artists, the passion to create predominates. The negative effect of this shows up in their relationships. A spouse’s need comes second. Christie’s artists don’t know whether they want to be loved for themselves or for their art. We see this in simpler guise in Five Little Pigs: Amyas Crale is presented as a man of overweaning ego, lust and talent; the latter is so great that everyone puts up with the rest. Yet Christie cleverly buries the crucial clue that, above all else, Amyas adores his wife. Elsa, his model/mistress, is like Veronica, declaring that her passion for Amyas is the most important element in this triangle, something that demands a redirection of his loyalties that he is not about to give. She inspires him, but she doesn’t understand him. And more than anything, Amyas needs to be understood and accepted for who he is.
Both John and Henrietta possess some of these artistic qualities, although in more refined doses. John is not a doctor like we usually see in Christie – bluff, genial, dangerous! His goal to end Ridgeway’s Disease is treated as an artistic passion. Only Henrietta understands this, he thinks! Only Henrietta gets him. She feels the same way about John, who seems to understand why she must retreat to her sculpture at the most inopportune moments. On every level but the domestic, Henrietta and John are perfectly matched. Their loss is that the domestic matters to John: even if in every other way Gerda dissatisfies him, she has provided a home and children, the respectable trappings of a doctor. What prevents this from becoming an insurmountable problem is that Henrietta understands and accepts this aspect of her lover. Veronica is incapable of that degree of selflessness, and her resulting ultimatum leads to tragedy.
Christie weaves the needs and flaws of the artist through this novel in rich, subtle ways. The final confrontation between Veronica and John, leading up to the murder resembles a scene of a 30’s melodrama; the tableau at the swimming pool; Henrietta’s method of disposing of the murder weapon; the statue she carves of Gerda (“The Worshipper”) which provides Poirot with his confirmation of Gerda’s guilt. Richest of all is the scene at the end where Henrietta gives way to her grief – and then channels it into an act of creation as John had warned her she would do:
“If I were dead, the first thing you’d do, with the tears streaming down your face, would be to start modeling some damned mourning woman or some figure of grief.”
As Henrietta begins that very statue, she mourns her inability to love like “normal” people – like Midge and Edward, who have found their way each other in the end. One can note here that Christie’s first marriage died as she became a success in her art and her husband’s fortunes waned. She took greater care when she married Max Mallowan, often assisting him in his own archeological endeavors even as this work gave her inspiration for plot ideas. I don’t want to belabor this – it’s possible that her crime novels are more purely autobiographical than her treacly autobiography was, that she recreated Archie as a victim and a murderer many times, that her renditions of artists contained more of herself than she would have us believe (not just Mrs. Oliver but all her artists). And it’s possible that I’m talking nonsense! At the very least, The Hollow deserves your attention, not only for its solid mystery elements, but for Christie’s profound thematic treatment of the artist’s soul.