(MIS)DIRECTED BY AGATHA CHRISTIE

I want to apologize for having been scant in my posting recently. When you’re a high school drama teacher, things get pretty intense around showtime, and the title I selected for our fall musical, Disaster, was so chock full of special effects that putting it together took more of my energy than I thought it could.

IMG_9428-X3                   Just for fun, I’m illustrating this post with pictures from Disaster!

Still, I had been persevering in my attempt to conclude my recent series on misdirection with an in-depth study of some of Agatha Christie’s methods. What happened must have been a result of my crazy mindset: the post kept growing and growing, discussing first one novel, then two, then three . . . with no end in sight. Unless I planned on publishing a book, I had to get a grip on this thing!

And so, I have pulled back and will be discussing only two of Christie’s novels here. Warning: in examining the methods of a master at her craft, I plan to discuss the solutions, but I have carefully saved the real spoilers for the section labeled “The Trick.” Thus, you should feel safe from serious spoilage if you skip these parts. However, if you want to come at either of these titles without any prior knowledge, you would do well to save your reading of this post for a future time. (But please do come back!)

IMG_8899-X3          Much like the ship in Disaster, my head felt upside down this whole month!

First, some personal history . . .

When my younger brother was around 11 or 12, he decided to become a magician. I don’t know if this was prompted by the fact that our family is really related to Harry Houdini, or because our cousins lived down the street from a magic store. Whatever the inspiration, my brother set to it with a ferocity I had never before seen in him. He began to perform tricks for the family, and before long, he was entertaining – and making money –at birthday parties.

His feats of prestidigitation were intimate. No disappearing cabinets or women sawn in half, just sleight of hand with cards and balls and scarves. Watching his talents evolve, I could see that being a good magician is damn difficult. It takes an extraordinary amount of practice to develop the dexterity to perform an illusion. In fact, the smaller the trick, the more necessary that it be performed without error. Then there’s the matter of the “bells and whistles”. You must create your own version of the lovable huckster in order to create a sense of trust with your audience and get them eating out of your hand, so that when you tell them to look left, they look left – allowing you to finesse to the right.

IMG_9032-X3           No eating out of one’s hand here: in Disaster, the hands (and torso) get eaten!

Being a great mystery writer is, up to a point, like being a good magician: you constantly have to convince people to look at things the wrong way. The greater the stock of tricks you have up your sleeve, the more interesting and varied is your act. The main difference between the two professions is that mystery writers are required to reveal their secrets at the end of every novel. This means that they constantly have to think up new techniques, or at least variations on the old ones, in order to to fool their audience every time.

Agatha Christie was a master at this. Maybe she didn’t invent the magic, but she extended and perfected its scope. Christie’s notebooks, which offer a fabulous glimpse into the writing process she notoriously guarded while she was alive, don’t suggest that she pulled old patterns out of a hat, unlike Erle Stanley Gardner with his famous (or infamous) plotting wheels. But a close examination of her work suggests that Christie worked like a maestro with a finite set of possibilities, reshaping a basic dramatic scenario – such as a romantic triangle – into something both new and unquestionably hers.

From the start of her career, Christie showed promise that she would not just be “your grandmother’s mystery author” (an appellation which idjits today misapply to her). For example, in writing The Mysterious Affair at Styles, she wanted to hew as closely as possible to the traditional mysteries she herself enjoyed by a. centering her plot around a situation of domestic strife, and b. having the whole thing solved by a compellingly eccentric figure. She chose that most common of situations, the murder of the head of a household while surrounded by her family, each of whom she had argued with or disappointed in some fashion. Christie knew that the most likely murderer in these circumstances must be the husband, so she fashioned a character whom one could gleefully imagine to be the killer: a much younger man, swathed in whiskers, living off his wife’s fortune in exchange for obsequious devotion, disliked by the family, and possibly unfaithful. Christie heaps the suspicion upon poor Alfred Inglethorpe until he is finally arrested – signaling to most savvy mystery readers that his name can now be crossed off the list of possible culprits. For it couldn’t be that easy, could it? This is how a first time mystery writer proves her mettle – by showing from the beginning how to mess with the instincts of the savvy mystery reader.

IMG_9256-X2                         In a Christie novel, the bad guy always gets his comeuppance!

The 1920’s rolled on, and Christie continued to hone her skills and prove to her readers that nothing and nobody was sacrosanct when it comes to a whodunit. Her most famous novel of the decade was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), which made her fortune even as it provoked outrage. (Perhaps the rules created by Ronald Knox in 1928 and S.S. Van Dine in 1929 were partly a response to Christie’s shameless behavior.) But Christie had already toyed with the same idea much earlier that decade (putting to rest the accusation that she had stolen the idea from Anthony Berkeley). And if Ackroyd is the more notorious, she continued to pull tricks out of her hat. I call your attention to 1929 and The Seven Dials Mystery where, starting at page one, Christie sets you up for a stunning surprise fall.

In the twenty-one years between 1930 and 1950, Christie produced thirty-one of her sixty-six detective novels, including nearly every classic in her canon. A close examination of two titles, one from the onset of each decade, illustrates a few of her best tricks and establishes her mastery in the domain of misdirection.

The_Sittaford_Mystery_First_Edition_Cover_1931

 

I: THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY (1931)

Background: Why I Chose This One

Sittaford is only the second time in her career – and the first in seven years – where Christie works without the safety net of a series detective. (Superintendent Battle features in both novels set at Chimneys.) And since The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) is primarily an adventure/thriller with mystery overtones, this is Christie’s first standalone detective novel.

And it is a doozy. It is one of her rare domestic whodunits where setting – both in terms of topography and atmosphere – is key to the book’s success. It combines the intimacy of a family drama with the charm of a village mystery . . . and adds a layer that is distinctly Victorian, hearkening back to Dickens’ Great Expectations and even more to Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. It exploits the popularity, prevalent in the day, of spiritualism as a social activity. Christie exploits her readers’ love of melodrama, throwing escaped prisioners, thwarted romance, and a hint of the supernatural into the mix to prevent our seeing the clear, straight road toward the truth that is right in front of our eyes.

Set-up

The fictional settlement of Sittaford was inspired, like many settings in her novels, by areas near Devon where she was born. (Many of the houses in Christie’s fiction are modeled after homes where she lived, and Sittaford House is no exception.) It was built by Captain Joseph Trevelyan to be a bachelor haven after his retirement from the Navy. But Trevelyan loves money even more than he hates women or lack of comfort, and he willingly rents his beloved home to a lady and her daughter from South Africa, who pay him top dollar, and then leases a place at the bottom of the mountain in the town of Exhampton.

Mrs. Willett and her daughter Violet are friendly tenants – too friendly for the tastes of Trevelyan and his best friend, Major Burnaby, who rents one of six cottages on the Sittaford property. Burnaby can’t help being suspicious as to why so gregarious a woman should choose such an isolated spot for her residence. Still, he feels beholden to accept her invitation to drop by one winter afternoon. Trevelyan has an excuse not to accept: the snow banks are so high that the roads are impassible and even an inveterate hiker like Trevelyan can’t make the trip.

The-Sittaford-Mystery

And so Christie begins Sittaford with a closed circle of neighbors in a country mansion, closed off by the snow, who settle before the fire and try to figure out what to do with themselves. A séance is suggested, and after an agreeable hour of questionable rappings and highly dubious connections with the Great Beyond – an allegedly real psychic event occurs: a spirit warns that, at this very moment, Captain Trevelyan is being murdered. Major Burnaby, a rational man, can’t help being rattled by this message, which had been addressed to him personally. He decides to make the treacherous hike through the snow and down the mountain to Exhampton. Several hours later, he arrives at Trevelyan’s house and discovers the Captain is indeed dead, brutally coshed over the head. What’s more, the medical examiner proves that the time of death coincides with the time the spirit at the séance made its announcement.

For this point, the literary landscape widens into a family mystery involving the heirs to Trevelyan’s fortune: his sister, her husband, her two sons, and her daughter and her husband. When one of Trevelyan’s nephews is arrested, the evidence against him piling up ever higher, Emily Trefusis, the young man’s fiancée, arrives to play amateur sleuth and clear her beloved’s name. She meets a journalist named Charles Enderby, who joins her in a race against time, all the while flirting shamelessly with her. Despite many distractions, Emily at last uncovers the single clue that peels back layers of complication and points to the real killer.

Christie at Work

Sittaford contains a large cast, even for Christie. The most likely suspects would seem to come from the family circle, and the author dangles a number of possibilities before the reader. James Pearson, the accused man, isn’t a particularly sympathetic figure, and the fact that Christie has included Charles as a romantic rival for Emily’s affections may prepare the astute fan for another solution targeting the most likely suspect! Then there’s James’ brother Brian, who seems to be geographically out of the picture.This, of course, turns out not to be true: in fact, Brian is a major link between the family and the residents of Sittaford House, since he is betrothed to Violet Willet. Sylvia Dering’s husband also seems up to no good, and how much of an invalid is Jennifer Gardner’s husband?

IMG_8535-X3                Greedy relatives are like piranhas, circling around their unwary prey!

Then we have to consider the so-called supernatural phenomena: unless Christie has decided to include an actual psychic incident, the most likely person to have initiated a fake apparition would have to be somebody at the séance, but nobody there seems to have a motive. Major Burnaby was the victim’s only true friend, and the others present are newcomers. Ultimately, though, many of them turn out to have secrets and/or connections to a member of Trevelyan’s family. Is it possible that some sort of conspiracy could be at the root of this murder? Christie has previously employed the “criminal duo” several times. But then, we also have the shadow of Dartmoor Prison looming over the community. A dangerous prisoner has escaped. Could he be the killer?

We also have to ask ourselves what the Willets have to do with all this. Their story unspools with all the melodrama of a Dickensian tragedy, and the question arises as to whether or not they are connected to Trevelyan, and have the extraordinary circumstances surrounding their presence contributed, even circumstantially, to his death?

If you would read the following section, you stand to learn the identity of the killer. You may continue or skip ahead.

The Trick

Christie juggles a dozen suspects and several possible threads of inquiry before us in order to hide the extraordinary simplicity of this crime. Mysterious strangers, escaped prisoners, missing heirs, lying relations – all of them are a smoke screen to help us forget a few simple facts:

  1. One person, and one person only, was present at both the séance and in Exhampton on the night on the murder: Major Burnaby.
  2. Along with his best friend, Burnaby excelled at winter sports. This fact is mentioned several times from the novel’s beginning.
  3. A pair of skis of the wrong size were found in Trevelyan’s closet.

Put this all together, and you understand how Burnaby’s alibi that he was walking over two hours from Sittaford to Exhamption is blown out of the water.

Christie also employs one of the basic tenets of her craft: the key to a murder lies, at least partly, in the character of the victim. Understand that Trevelyan was a competitive man who liked winning contests and who entered under other people’s names and addresses in order to beat the system, that he had done this very thing using Burnaby as his shill, that he had won five thousand pounds and that the check had been sent to Burnaby – and you have such a mundane and lovely motive that one could scarcely believe it trumps the more dramatic elements of the story.

Christie often made her killer a person who was at least on the periphery of helping the police with their inquiries. Burnaby plays the staunch but grieving friend to perfection and proves to be an important – but entirely misleading – witness. I have to say that when I read this, I saw through the subterfuge because I made the connection between the winter sports and Burnaby’s voyage. But my certainty wavered quite a bit through Christie’s expert handling of a myriad of fancy red herrings.

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How TV Treated It

I hate to carp, but when ITV got Christie wrong, things really went kerflooey! In an attempt to extend the run of its later Miss Marple series, a number of standalone Christie’s were rewritten to include dear Aunt Jane, with results that ranged from merely puzzling (Ordeal by Innocence, Toward Zero) to insulting (Murder Is Easy, By the Pricking of My Thumbs). With Sittaford, things are hopping along until the murder and then, in typical “we know better than Christie” fashion, the writers destroy the thing, even to the point of switching out murderers in a way that would make you laugh if you weren’t throwing your dessert at the TV screen.

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II: EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1941)

Background: Why I Chose This One

There’s no getting around it: Evil Under the Sun automatically invites comparisons with Christie’s 1937 classic, Death on the Nile, one of my favorite novels. There are several reasons for this. Certain aspects of the set-up, plot and solution contain a number of similarities. Both plots place Hercule Poirot on vacation, and both contain romantic intrigue at their centers. These elements were highlighted in the film versions that succeeded each other in 1978 (Nile) and 1982 (Sun) through stylistic similarities.

I think Sun is a wonderful book and that Christie varies her tricks in interesting ways here. There are some elements, which I will go into, that I feel succeed even better than in Nile. But for me, Sun feels like a lesser book than Nile, primarily because the earlier novel has, at its heart, a more involving center than Sun does. Nile’s central triangle of Linnet, Simon, and Jackie could work in a mainstream novel. For all the stolen jewels and embezzling lawyers and angry young socialists, passion lies at Nile’s heart. In fact, one could argue that Sun has very little passion in it at all, which ultimately is the point of Christie’s subterfuge.

Although the apparatus for the murder in both novels is suitably complex, the wrapping is glitzier, more shallow, in Sun. Perhaps some readers prefer this book to Nile for this very reason. Yet I believe that Christie is striving for something deeper, more novelistic, with Nile. Even the movie version of Sun pushes too hard, substituting the situational comedy of Nile with camp. The end result, while hilarious, subverts the inherent seriousness of a murder investigation. (The book doesn’t do this, by the way, and I will discuss at the end some of the changes that were made.)

IMG_8882-X3                        Despite appearances, this is not a scene from Death on the Nile.

Set-up

After a decade of being a cosmopolitan traveler, Hercule Poirot decides, somewhat out of character for him, to holiday at a seaside resort off the coast of Devon (Christie was understandably fond of Devon!) where he bears witness to the dark current of feeling surrounding an aging actress named Arlena Marshall. Much is made from the start about an aura of evil that surrounds certain people, and Poirot feels this about Arlena from the start. When, not surprisingly, she is murdered nearly a third of the way through the novel, Poirot offers his services to the local police, who are stymied by a case where nearly everyone involved has an alibi. In the end, he roots out the source of evil and unmasks a particularly nasty culprit.

Christie at Work

The author wastes no time here in introducing her characters and weaving clues into the narrative. My friend JJ would admire this economy, as he made a compelling (if unconvincing) argument that Death on the Nile could have skipped the first couple of chapters and begun in Egypt.

We come upon Poirot ensconced at the hotel’s bathing beach “resplendent in a white duck suit, with a Panama hat tilted over his eyes, his moustaches magnificently befurled.” He is surrounded by several admiring tourists: the Gardeners, an American couple, Major Barry, a typical Christie pukka sahib, and an athletic spinster named Emily Brewster. One of the things I like most books like Nile and Sun is the presence of characters like these who serve primarily as witnesses rather than suspects and provide a richer canvas within which to set the mystery. For about five seconds, a reader used to Christie’s tricks might cast a suspicious eye over Odell C. Gardener, but these people are really there to provide commentary, both on the case and on what it’s like to spend a week in one of these tourist hotels. Miss Gardner becomes both an important witness to the crime and an unwitting provider of a key clue, and Mrs. Gardener reminds us of Mrs. Hubbard in Murder on the Orient Express by being garrulous and domineering, the way all of us Americans are supposed to behave in Europe!

The conversation these people have together naturally serves as exposition as the key players in the case conveniently trot down the beach, but of course, some of their remarks, dismissed as the casual repartee between strangers on holiday, drops vital clues in our laps, a specialty of the author. For instance, we are lured by Christie to pay close attention to the beach discussion about evil, timed almost perfectly to coincide with Arlena’s first appearance, “like a stage entrance,” on the beach. It makes us put aside early casual remarks about the rows of sun tanners on the beach – (“Bodies – arranged on slabs – like butcher’s meat!”) – or Miss Brewster’s complaints about seasickness. The observation of each member of the beach party contributes to the idea that evil exists at the Jolly Roger and Arlena is its source. This is what Christie wants you to think! Unlike Linnet Doyle in Nile, we see very little of Arlena in conversation, and we never enter into her mind. She is drawn in broad strokes, exactly like one of the characters she played. Miss Brewster calls her a bad lot, influenced by what she has read about actresses. Major Barry’s opinions are influenced by Arlena’s resemblance to a femme fatale he knew in India. Two other characters who have joined the party have even harsher opinions, but both of them can be counted as full-fledged suspects when Arlena is killed: Christine Redfern calls her “rather a beast” for reasons that will become obvious soon enough, and the Reverend Stephen Lane spouts off about Ecclesiastes and harlotry with eyes gleaming fanatically just long enough to let you know he’s not quite right in the noggin.

IMG_8831-X3                                  “Butcher’s meat?!? I’ll take the prime cut, please!”

Poirot too, senses the presence of evil and sees Arlena as its nexus, but wisely won’t commit to the idea that she, herself, embodies that trait. This is another case where the key to understanding the crime at least partly lies in understanding the victim. It’s easy to accept that Arlena is a bad lot because her actions have a powerful effect on a large number of people around her. Her affair with Patrick Redfern puts two marriages in danger; her husband’s sympathetic ex-girlfriend is also on the scene, and his daughter dangerously represses her hatred of her stepmother.

Christie plays up the history of the area, with its secluded coves and stories of pirates and pixies. Frankly, the subplot involving modern pirates and drug sales feels extraneous to me, existing merely to provide another suspect – and a much lesser one – in the same way that the telegram about apples and pears in Nile stuffs extraneous baggage about international terrorists onto an already overcrowded boat. But the geography in Sun, as in Sittaford, does become integral to the plot, and Christie doesn’t have to cram page after page of descriptive passages about the place to accomplish this, unlike a certain Ms. James!

evil-under-the-sun

As a mystery, Evil Under the Sun plays like a well-oiled machine: the introduction of the suspects allows for the fulmination of anger and angst. The recounting of the day of the murder is a lovely thing, as people head to and fro to their positions, with all leading to Patrick Redfern and Miss Brewster coming upon the body on the beach.

Because Sun shows Christie at her most traditional, the next three chapters of interviews can seem rather Marsh-ian as characters go over what we’ve read before and everybody of note seems to establish an alibi. The only alibis we can be sure of, however, are those of the people we have been following throughout, and that list would seem to include only Emily Brewster and Patrick Redfern, neither of whom has a known motive for killing Arlena anyway.

There follows a section where Christie provides what she does best: she scatters a number of objects and incidents about that either seem trivial or could be interpreted in a number of ways. Her novels always approach the 80% mark by having the sleuth make a crazy list of inconsequential things, and here is no exception: “Gabrielle No. 8/A pair of scissors/A broken pipe/A bottle thrown from a window/A green calendar/A packet of candles/A mirror and a typewriter/A skein of magenta wool/A girl’s wristwatch/Bath-water rushing down the waste-pipe.”

In the category of clues with multiple interpretations (i.e., “The Evidence of the Butler and the Calendar”), the police uncover a letter purportedly from another of Arlena’s lovers:

“Darling Arlena,

God, I feel blue. To be going out to China – and perhaps not seeing you again for years and years. I didn’t know any man could go on feeling crazy about a woman like I feel about you. Thanks for the cheque. They won’t prosecute now. It was a near shave, and all because I wanted to make big money for you. Can you forgive me? I wanted to set diamonds in your ears . . . .”

. . . and so on. Colonel Weston, the investigating officer, chalks this off as further evidence of Arlena’s tendency to play with men’s emotions like a spider in the web. Poirot, too, sees the letter’s importance but says nothing for the moment. Does the reader see the trap that Christie is laying for us?

IMG_8686-X3                              There’s no gambling nun in Sun, but ours was hilarious!

As the novel rushes to a climax, some alibis are blasted, and several new suspects emerge, including a surprising one. Two other noteworthy events occur, one of which I think highly, the other . . . not so much. I’m critical of the sudden mention of a series of past crimes. I don’t think this is woven particularly well into the narrative as a whole, although it turns out to be of supreme importance in the end. The more satisfying incident, in pure Christie fashion, is the more mundane: Poirot organizes a picnic. Once again, the supporting characters are given leading roles: most of the conversation involves the Gardeners and Major Barry. The only matter to which attention is called is the tendency of Mr. Blatt to take pictures of everybody – surely that’s a harmless practice engaged in by millions of tourists everywhere.

 

The party culminates in a near-death that appears to be suicide, a gathering of all parties involved, and a revelation by Poirot that reverses most, if not all, of our assumptions from the start. Game, set, and match!

Again, you might want to skip the next part if you have not read this novel.

The Trick

Christie puts herself at great risk with savvy mystery readers when she accords a major character an “airtight” alibi. As in Nile, Christie shows us how people can be made to believe anything if one can only play with time. Christine’s alibi depends on a child, and is therefore the one most susceptible to breaking; however, Christie balances this against the fact that, time and again, Christine is established as too small and weak to have strangled Arlene. There is no getting around this, and so the reader is forced to look elsewhere.

The author’s First Lesson is, “When in doubt, suspect the spouse,” and once Kenneth Marshall’s alibi is blasted apart, he stands as a pretty strong candidate. It could be the husband, even if Marshall is never presented as a man who would be so stirred by jealousy or in need of an inheritance that he would murder his wife on holiday and endanger the well-being of his daughter. Christie also dangles Horace Blatt and the Reverend Stephen Lane before us, and those of us craving a surprise ending might even plumb for the docile Mr. Gardener or the hoary Major to have succumbed to a surge of blood lust.

IMG_8622-X3                                       Neither of these people killed Arlena Marshall!

The two characters that we tend to dismiss are Patrick Redfern and Miss Brewster. Neither appears to have a strong enough motive, and Christie has carefully shown us that, from the moment Arlena left the beach (in view of Poirot) to their discovery of the body, neither Patrick nor Emily was left alone with the victim.

But, of course, this last statement is not true. Patrick was left alone with Arlena . . . after Emily went back to summon the police. If we believe that he has remained behind with a dead woman, then we dismiss this period of time as unimportant. And yet the scene of the discovery of the body is drawn so quickly and dramatically that we don’t take a moment to consider that Miss Brewster never examined the “corpse” herself. She depended upon Patrick’s word that the body lying in front of them was a. dead and b. Arlena Marshall. (This moment, in retrospect, is why I glommed onto the solution of J.D. Carr’s The Emperor’s Snuffbox before the end of Chapter One.)

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Returning to the first scene of the novel, we see how a comical interplay between tourists masks the first important clue. The older hotel guests gaze with disdain on the suntanned bodies on the beach “arranged on slabs – like butcher’s meat!” This comment might give us pause, referring as it does to death – a sure portent of Arlena’s fate. But think of how Poirot has described them a moment earlier:

“Regard them there, lying out in rows. What are they? They are not men and women. There is nothing personal about them. They are just – bodies!”

Christie has laid out her case for the impersonation of Arlena Marshall by Christine Redfern. Now the items on Poirot’s list form a pattern: the bottle and the bath indicate Christine’s application and removal of artificial suntan, the girl’s wristwatch refers to her faked alibi, and “Gabrielle #8” alludes to Arlena’s presence in a hidden cave while Emily was being fooled by Patrick.

 

The picnic also takes on great significance because it is here that Poirot proves that Christine’s so-called vertigo is a fake. (I think it kind of Christie that she has Emily Brewster, the original dupe in the murder scheme and a true sufferer of vertigo, provide the proof of Christine’s dishonesty.) The letter Poirot found, which I quoted from above, gives us a strong clue as to the motive as it clarifies aspects of the victim’s character. We are meant to focus on the possibility that Arlena had yet another lover, but the important fact is that this man took money from her and fled. And, in fact, Arlena’s life is a series of bad relationships where she, in fact, is discarded rather than the other way around. It’s a nice trick that the woman, presented as a predatory cat, is in fact the mouse – a born victim. What doesn’t sit as well with me is the almost sudden revelation that Patrick and Christine are serial predators. The Alice Corrigan case is tossed in almost as an afterthought, as if giving it more weight in the novel will call too much attention to the similarities between Alice’s and Arlena’s deaths.

Evil Under the Sun - rigg smoth

How Film and TV Treated It

The movies didn’t stint when it came to a treatment for this novel. Anthony Shaffer had proven himself an adept plotter of mysteries throughout his career as a novelist (Withered Murder) and playwright (Sleuth, Murderer, Whodunnit), and his uncredited co-writer, Barry Sandler, had also worked on the flawed film version of The Mirror Crack’d. (So had the film’s director, Guy Hamilton.)

Clearly the producers wanted to capitalize on the success of Death on the Nile, with a star-studded cast, featuring Maggie Smith, Jane Birkin, and Peter Ustinov from the earlier film. As in Nile, the list of characters was streamlined, sometimes having two people combined into one, as with Smith’s character. A choice was made to lighten the tone and emphasize a feeling of camp. Diana Rigg is hilarious as Arlena, and her rivalry with Smith’s Daphne Castle is played for laughs. We get more Arlena in the film than in the novel, but we feel her loss in a different way: when Rigg departs, a lot of the fun goes out of the film.

Another decision made was to transform the novel’s wonderful secondary characters into full-fledged suspects. Emily Brewster becomes a fey theatre critic played by Roddy McDowall, and the Gardeners (James Mason and Sylvia Miles) are New York producers (although nothing could make James Mason seem crass!). All three of them have reason to kill Arlena. Denis Quilley, who had appeared earlier as Foscarelli in Murder on the Orient Express, struck just the right note as Kenneth Marshall. Unfortunately, by casting a much younger actress in the role of Linda, all the best things about that character in the novel were left out of the film.

I thought Birkin and Nicholas Clay were somewhat obvious as the Redferns. This may have been due to my familiarity with the solution, but both of them seemed so obviously playing a role. The final unveiling of the “real” Christine makes for a fun moment in the end, but like most of the decisions made here, it lessens the impact of her evil nature.

The 2001 ITV adaptation had to be made, I suppose, in the interest of David Suchet completing the canon. Perhaps contractual obligations made it necessary to include Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon in these proceedings. At least we get Rosamund Darnley back. But we also lose the Gardeners, and Linda is turned into Lionel for no good reason whatsoever. And the idea that the hotel has become a health spa and Poirot is there to lose weight . . . well, the whole tired mess filled me with ennui.

IMG_8607-X3                  I love mysteries – and musicals – with lots of good female characters!

Afterward

I know some people steer clear of bloggers who discuss solutions, and to those of you who followed this to the end and could feel your anger building, I do apologize. I confess that I very much enjoy dissecting the works of the great writers. I guess I will always be that over-eager English student waving his hand to get the teacher’s attention and answer the question.

To be honest, I had fully intended to keep going here and span four decades: I was halfway through A Murder Is Announced and was gearing up for A Caribbean Mystery. But this post started to feel like the Winchester Mystery House, a legendary attraction here in Northern California famous for its insane owner’s inability to stop building. And so, here I lay my keyboard to rest. I have other fish to fry: a post is brewing about another one of those rediscovered 1930’s authors that are popping up all over the place; in fact, I have dipped my finger into at least six similar situations. All in due time!

Stay tuned. And thank you for your patience.

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18 thoughts on “(MIS)DIRECTED BY AGATHA CHRISTIE

  1. I’ve always admired the way Christie was so good at misdirecting readers, Brad. She ‘played fair,’ as I see it. But she was always so skilled at leading readers up the proverbial garden path. That takes the same sort of showmanship, if you want to call it that, that magicians have. She did that in more than one of her mysteries…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think also what separates her from someone like Carr, Margot, is that her stock in trade was manipulating the tiny details of everyday life. I understand those who love Carr’s melodrama and sense of the bizarre; I enjoy it, too. But Christie presented a more ordinary world and made the blandest of things – a shoe buckle, an offhand remark, a nickname – into something extraordinary.

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  2. Welcome back to the blogging-sphere!
    When you lay out the tricks Christie uses it all seems so simple but when I was reading them (early on in my mystery reading), I repeatedly blithely missed all (or a lot) of this. I have often wondered if a new Christie novel was discovered in a loft somewhere, would I now be able to solve the mystery much more easily, knowing what I know about the tricks mystery writers employ? (Answer: Probably not, but it’s nice to kid myself).

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    1. I ask myself this question all the time, Kate! The dream of uncovering a secret cache of unpublished Christies lies heavy with me. I’d like to think she’d fool me as she did oh so many years ago. (I also wish that Sophie Hannah had paid attention when she was reading Christie – which she claims she did – before starting on her folly.)

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  3. I love this book, but still prefer the original short story, Triangle at Rhodes. The beautiful woman who can’t keep men is a Christie constant. I couldn’t watch the film of Evil Under the Sun. It didn’t look like “enjoyable campy humour” to me – it was more broadened, coarsened slapstick. The humour of Death on the Nile emerges from characters and dialogue (and a good script). Ustinov’s Poirot shone more brightly in the later films where there was no attempt to recreate the 30s, but the 80s were a good stand-in. Faye Dunaway in Thirteen at Dinner stands out.

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    1. Lucy, I actually reread the story, but it was after I had written so many words that I simply did not take more space to mention it in this piece. I do agree that Valentine Chantry is a more interesting rendition of the siren than Arlena is, and I love how Christie can changeup the same basic situation with different tricks. The story is more character-driven than the novel is. Still, the novel doesn’t feel like a padded short-story in the way that Sparkling Cyanide or Endless Night often do.

      I’m not a huge fan of the Ustinov or Helen Hayes TV versions of Christie, but Faye Dunaway was a perfect choice to play Jane Wilkinson. She lent a dignity to the character that I don’t even find in the novel (and it’s one of my least favorite Poirot stories).

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      1. I feel that Faye Dunaway is more similar to the Jane Wilkinson of the book than Helen Grace in the David Suchet version. I like the few bit of lines in which Lady Edgware asks Poirot if he wants to see her happy and he replies with wanting to see everyone happy and she comes back with saying she wasn’t talking about everyone else, only herself. This is the essence of who Jane Wilkinson is and that line was delivered very well in the Ustinov film — surprisingly not used in the one with Suchet.

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  4. I like Sittaford mystery a lot and consider it highly underrated. The way Christie used the Setting both plotwise and for atmosphere (the later especially in the first few chapters) is excellent.

    But I do think the high number of characters is the book’s biggest flaw. With the exception of his sister Jenny, Trevelyan’s relatives hardly get any pagetime at all and are that thinly sketched, that I couldn’t take them serious as suspects. Christie normally gives her murderer at least adequate pagetime and characterisation. I think the best red herring is actually Emily herself. I love the scene, where the reporter tells her, that she is a suspect as well, since she plans to marry the now rich James.

    By the way, technically it’s the first novel without a series detective. (Spoiler:) Colonel Race appears in Man in the Brown Suit, but he’s basically working undercover without anyone (including the reader) knowing and serves as a red herring in this plot. Reading the books out of order had the disadvantage for me to cross race from the list of suspects at once. (End spoiler)

    And I must admit, I like the Miss Marple version of Towards Zero. Her inclusion almost felt natural. With the exception of adding Marple, they haven’t changed much else. And the way Battle solves this case in the book is pretty close to Miss Marple’s method, with one of the suspects reminding him of someone else. I have never seen the Marple-version of Sittaford, and I don’t plan to.

    And while I liked both film versions of Evil under the Sun, I thought both Arlena’s were too nasty. Diana Rigg is a great actress, and I enjoyed her a lot in this role, but both her and the Arlena in the Suchet-version were just much ruder than Arlena in the book. I suppose they changed Linda to Lionel in the TV-version to have him more believable as a suspect, given the killer was male.

    Spoiler: The Ustinov version of Evil under the Sun was one of the cases, where I saw the film before reading the book. I suspected Christine, simply because the movie took that much time setting up her alibi. I never suspected Patrick and I never deduced how they did. What I did get at once was the she had manipulated Linda’s watch. (End spoiler)

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    1. Toward Zero is one of my favorites, and I grant you that it is one of the least tampered in the Marple series. But she spoils the book’s atmosphere for me. And I love how Battle in the book uses his daughter’s experience at school to reach the truth.

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      1. I remember being disappointed with Towards Zero purely because I was sort of in love with Battle’s character and there wasn’t nearly enough of him in there. With years to reflect I think I’d like it a lot more now, so I’m keen to reread that one above quite a few others once I’m done with Christie first time around — the use of his daughter’s experience that you highlight has more than a sniff of Jane Marple to it, hein?

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  5. Evil Under the Sun is one of my favourite all time Christies, for many of the reasons you highlight here. That I read it on holiday on a Greek island myself didn’t hurt — always go meta if you can — but it’s a brilliant piece of plotting and chicanery. In fact, upon reflection, this and Towards Zero might make a good side-by-side comparison precusely because of how they approach their central conundra…

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  6. TZ is definitely due an in-depth analysis. Battle comes to an understanding in a different way than Miss Marple, stumbling upon a psychological insight like a man might do who was so pissed off about the way his daughter was treated that he doesn’t grasp at first the significance of Sylvia’s actions. Miss Marple would figure out Audrey Strange by comparing her to Mavis Tritt, the milliner’s niece, and her reaction after Mr. Bowman, the church organist, ran off with the verger’s daughter. (And no, I have no idea what a verger is.)

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  7. Verger : Church caretaker/ administrator/ sometimes gravedigger who (most importantly) carries a big stick.

    This is a great exploration of the way in which Christie lays out all the clues and yet still, mostly, manages to fool you. And a good point about Arlena’s character being utterly misread by most of the cast.

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  8. That was an excellent examination, at least the first one – the second, I haven’t read, so I will save it til later!
    Possibly you shouldn’t have mentioned titles you might have done this for – A Murder Is Announced is one of my favourites. The “trick” used in that is used in rather a few Christie books, though… there’s also a lot of interesting observations about village life at the time. Also, proof that Christie knows how to pick’em for the victims. Always makes me a little sad. And actually, I quite liked the TV version (McEwan one) – iirc Marple shows up late, and not that much is missed by substituting out another character so she can be there at the start. And everyone acts their socks off, even if Mitzi is silly (not that that’s new…) and I’m not a big fan of how McEwan plays Marple.

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    1. Helena, I as a third of the way through an additional section on A Murder Is Announced when I realized that this post stretched on for days! Another time!

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