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.
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.
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.
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.
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