Not so jolly

Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea, South Devon

Agatha Christie: Evil Under the Sun
HarperCollinsPublishers 2014 (1941)

The Jolly Roger Hotel on Smugglers’ Island is run by the ‘refayned’ Mrs Castle. Not unnaturally she is extremely anxious when a murder in high season threatens the establishment’s reputation as a place for relaxation, clearly unaware that in future years murder mystery weekends may enhance its attraction and increase visitor footfall.

Luckily, famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is in residence, ready to help the local police inspector and Chief Constable when perpetrator and motivation elude their investigation.

An island setting of course increases the chances of the murderer being one of the select company on holiday at the hotel, and this being an Agatha Christie novel we have the usual panoply of colourful characters on display as potential suspects.

Burgh Island Hotel (‘The Jolly Roger Hotel’)

Former stage actress Arlena (née Helen) Stuart, though married to Captain Kenneth Marshall, is clearly attractive to, and attracted by, males. And yet, within a few pages she has not only attracted much opprobrium from the other women and not a few of the older men — ‘evil’ is a common epithet — but, indeed, a worse fate: death by strangulation on a lonely and relatively inaccessible island beach, Pixy Cove.

‘Pixy Cove’, Smugglers’ Island

Who is responsible? Is it a ladykiller by name and lady killer by nature from the hotel, or an unknown assailant from the mainland? All that seems clear is that it could only be someone with large powerful hands who was capable of such a deed.

The police and Poirot interview the guests individually, to establish who had both motivation and opportunity and to establish psychological profiles. Was it the strangely cold husband, widowed for a second time? Or the apparently besotted young Irishman with a mousy wife he neglects? Could it be the former clergyman who rants against evil harlots, the retired Anglo-Indian colonel or the interfering local businessman who likes nothing better than going off sailing?

And what of the women? The daughter with a new stepmother, the hearty spinster, the successful dress designer, the neglected wife or the garrulous American matron with an attentive husband in tow? The author slowly pulls the covers off each and every one, revealing talents, blemishes, secrets and sometimes a touch of humour. Relationships and occupations, even personal names, are often not what they appear or are claimed to be.

Herring Cove (‘Gull Cove’ in the novel)

In fact, in my limited experience, Christie does what she always does: gives the reader fresh cause to suspect first one then another individual. Is the fire-and-brimstone vicar a psychopath? Is the neglected wife who sketches in Gull Cove all she seems? Does the quiet widower conceal a violent streak? Is the pubescent stepdaughter capable of murder?

To use an archaeological metaphor — one the well-travelled author would have been familiar with — the more dirt we scrape back in our excavation the more our hypotheses change to account for newly revealed layers, structures and artefacts.

In the end two facts strike me. One is that we seesaw from likely to least likely suspect and back as the narrative draws on until, at the eleventh hour, Christie throws in a whole new set of circumstances that change the landscape of the investigation. This is the skill of the illusionist who uses distraction and misdirection tactics even as they leave much evidence in plain sight.

Secondly, for all that we the readers may want to invest in the characters the author has created my impression is that it’s mainly the plotting that’s driving the narrative: a cryptic crossword with only one correct solution or a games strategy with a pre-planned resolution, either of which must command admiration for its inventive intricacy even as it strains our credulity.

Nothing wrong with any of that, of course, but for me it’s ultimately just an hors d’oeuvre rather than a sustaining meal, despite the reassuring presence of Poirot. Still, as light holiday reading, and as a novel set in a landscape one can actually visit, this kind of literature is hard to beat, despite the fact that The Jolly Roger Hotel turns out not so jolly after all.

Bigbury-on-Sea from the summit of Burgh Island

A photo gallery of Burgh Island Hotel (1929), little different from when Agatha Christie knew it in the late thirties and considered it to be in the ‘modern’ style.

The entrance and south terrace (above) and (below) the way down to the Bathing Beach, as it was called in the novel.

Some interior shots from the public rooms: in the entrance lobby, the dining room and the lounge.

The second title in my holiday reading, after Robertson Davies’s World of Wonders

27 thoughts on “Not so jolly

  1. I found myself quite invested in the stepdaughter’s story in this one, though the rest of the characters do feel a bit like chess pieces being shoved around the board. I often enjoy Christie’s ventures into writing for children and teenagers – I think she’s quite clear-sighted about them and doesn’t coddle them too much, as a lot of authors do. Her children are rarely pure and innocent… which kind of matches my experience of most of the little blighters! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I agree about the stepdaughter, quite possibly the most interesting character there—all that teenage angst and putting barriers up. Haven’t come across any of Christie’s fiction for younger readers, and now I shall have to research it… Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh sorry, reading my comment I see I’ve been very misleading – I meant when she writes about children and teens, not for them. Like the girl in Crooked House, or the two boys in 4:50 from Paddington.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A masterly summing up of one of my favourite Christie novels, Chris. I agree, more plot than character. She manages to convince me that I’m hovering over that Devon island every time I read it, but I find myself sitting a long way back from the characters playing eenie-meenie-miny-moe with them as I attempt to beat her to the solution.

    Nice pictures. It’s good to know that you’re not just lounging around on your holidays soaking up sunshine, ozone and fiction!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’m not indulging myself, Cath, this is all in the cause of researching for readers for this blog, no, not lazing around enjoying myself, somebody’s got to put in the pavement-pounding, pathfinding legwork to keep up the critique… 😁

      But it’s enriching, isn’t it, to be in the actual places that inspire fictional and historical accounts, to get a sense of place. I know that imagination is hugely important in reading, fulfilling a kind of compact between reader and writer, one where you’re transported via black marks on a page to wherever in or out of this world is desired. But it’s even more fun to be somewhere physically, picturing so-and-so musing or doing something as described or prescribed for that spot.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh I do agree. I went to Exmoor in the spring to research Lorna Doone. Even though Blackmore played around with the geography, it still sent a little shiver along my spine when I stood in the church where Lorna gets shot. Plus there’s a feel about Exmoor that is only Exmoor.

        Even my companions who have no interest in the novel found themselves caught up in the search for identifiable landmarks. It helped make a really enjoyable holiday – I mean research trip, of course.

        The things we do to create blog posts. I hope the rest of your research goes beautifully, and look forward to some interesting evidence of your hard work.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Evidence of hard work? Have you not spotted the drops of sweat on this post?!? I’ll have you know I positively sweltered Under the Sun to get this research just right!

          I’ve yet to actually read Lorna Doone though my parents took me to the Valley of the Rocks as a kid. My elocution teacher at prep school in Bristol (around 1960) was in a BBC TV serial based on the novel, and that’s the closest I got to Lorna and gurt Jan Ridd…

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          1. Apologies, Chris, I think sweat is not so apparent on screens as it would be on paper copy. I should have used my intuition and empathy to realise how much effort was implied by your description.

            I hope your toils were accompanied by a gently perspiring cooling libation… or two.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. I always find it fascinating with Agatha Christie to look at the books from the point of view of speculating whether they are really meticulously plotted from the beginning, or did she pick the culprit at random just before The End and tweak some sentences as necessary, or didn’t she know herself while writing and let them evolve? And, if one of the latter (my preferred systems of writing), is it some clever adaptation, or was that answer in the subconscious all along?

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    1. I always assumed she meticulously plotted from the start, Leslie, rather than tweaking (which to me would make things more creaky, I should imagine).

      Looking online (this comment at https://www.freelancewriting.com/creative-writing/the-writing-style-of-agatha-christie/ seems typical) I see that she
      “preferred to plot her crime stories from the murder itself. First, she would plan out the mode of murder, the killer, and the purpose. Second, she would factor in the various suspects and their own intents. Third, she would concoct potential clues and diversionary tactics to pull readers in different directions. She restrained herself from including excessive misleading clues because it would stifle the plot.”

      The common comparisons with the compiling of crossword puzzles seems most apposite for her mysteries. Your preferred systems of writing probably result in stories that are truer to life because real life is more random and unpredictable than the clockwork precision of a Christie mystery.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Interesting. Some people have been following red herrings on this one, because I remember reading a few times that she would put all such fish into place before deciding which one was the shark. More research shows how much planning she put into each, however, apart from putting the crime first and the other details later, I think those who indicated she used a pin have been too dim to follow the clues she put out and the logical sequence she followed.

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  4. I love Agatha Christie; I started the year with a little Poirot binge. I’ve got The Big Four waiting to be read next. I really want to read Evil Under the Sun too. I enjoyed the ITV adaptation of this one.

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    1. I’m a late returner to Christie: I read Nemesis when it came out in the 70s, plus one or two others, but nothing since until this week; I think I may raid the local library over the next while and see what they’ve got available! I watched a few of the Suchet Poirot episodes when they first aired and Evil Under the Sun stuck in the mind more than the others. Did you see John Malkovich as Poirot in the recently broadcast ‘ABC Murders’? On the BBC at Christmas I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I did see that one but I couldn’t get into it. I think it may be because I grew up as the David Suchet episodes were being made in the 1990s so to me he is Poirot and it didn’t help that ITV did a perfect version of the ABC Murders (which I finally read earlier this year and loved).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Catching up and jumping in here – I thought the Malkovich version was excellent. Much as I love Suchet’s Hercule, it was edifying to see that there can still be room for an alternative 🙂

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        1. I liked the Poirot back story brought in here: I don’t know how authentic it was in the Christie canon but it helped bring in a bit of psychological depth and more engrossing for the viewer.

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    1. Sorry, doing a bit of catching up here, Gert, don’t know how I missed your comment. This isn’t that one, as far as I remember, but that’s not to say that you’re wrong…

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  5. Reading a novel in the very place it was conceived and written must be a wonderful experience – thank you, Chris, for sharing it with us through your pictures! I haven’t read this particular Christie, so now when I read it I will have the scenery prepared already 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Ola, I hoped that the photos would help readers, both old and new, with visualising the novel, just as actually being there helped me. Less so with And Then There Were None but still…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #78 – Book Jotter

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