By Ian G. Wilson
P.G. Wodehouse seems an odd dedicatee for Hallowe’en Party, Agatha Christie’s grim whodunit, but evidently the well-known creator of the comic team Jeeves and Wooster was a fan of the Queen of Crime’s work. Still, every time I read this novel, the inscription jumps out at me, so far in juxtaposition seem the spheres of these two luminaries of 20th century British genre fiction, and the differences become all the more marked as you turn the pages of Christie’s 1969 Hercule Poirot mystery.
In Hallowe’en Party, all the trappings of polite British upper class society have disappeared. There are no grand manor houses, faithful servants, peers of the realm, or exotic vacations. Everything is contained within the modern suburb of Woodleigh Common, with pleasant upper-middle-class houses given names like “Apple Trees.” Middle-aged single women, a few men, and children of various ages and sexes make up the cast of characters. This is England in the late 1960’s, when pop stars had become fashion icons, rules for dating and sex were being rewritten, and standards of punishment for crimes had become, in the minds of many, lax. In fact, changes in society are a central theme of the story, looming over even the inimitable Poirot and Christie’s typically ingenious plot. Characters have joined one of two camps: the more conservative among them looking back at the old days and the progressive element firmly believing in the modern.
The abolition, in 1965, of hanging as a penalty for murder in England was a source of considerable debate, some favoring treatment and rehabilitation for criminals, some preferring to see punishment–what they viewed as justice. There is frequent reference throughout Hallowe’en Party to crimes committed by people who are then “remanded for a psychiatrist’s report” rather than thrown in jail or executed. It seems in Christie’s world that crime has become more complicated, with murderers acting impulsively and without clear motive, very unlike the types of highly premeditated, carefully planned killings that form the basis of so many of her books. Dr. Ferguson, who is called to the scene of the murder, says to Poirot of the killer’s motive:
“‘But there are other reasons. Mentally disturbed seems the usual answer nowadays. At any rate, it does always in the Magistrates’ courts. Nobody gained by her death, nobody hated her. But it seems to me with children nowadays you don’t need to look for the reason. The reason’s in another place. The reason’s in the killer’s mind. His disturbed mind or his evil mind or his kinky mind. Any kind of mind you like to call it.’”
Christie here is tackling a subject which is as grim as murder can get: the killing of a child at a party. Even the usual elements of comic relief afforded by discussion of Poirot’s mustaches and tight patent leather shoes are muted. Poirot’s quaint mannerisms and speech, which are made so much of in earlier tales, are limited to a few words of French. There is no talk of “little grey cells.” He has instead become hardened, tirelessly seeking out facts to solve the crime. He is an agent of old style justice:
“‘I should say,’ said Miss Emlyn, ‘that you are more concerned with justice than with compassion.’
‘Compassion,’ said Poirot, ‘on my part would do nothing to help Leopold. He is beyond help. Justice, if we obtain justice, you and I, for I think you are of my way of thinking over this—justice, one could say, will also not help Leopold. But it might help some other Leopold, it might help to keep some other child alive, if we can reach justice soon enough.’”
This easing up by Christie on the peculiar characteristics which have made Hercule Poirot one of the most loveable detectives in fiction may have come from an increasing dissatisfaction with her sleuth. She famously called him “an egocentric creep.” But there is also the sensation of aging, both in the creator and the character. Christie was 79 years old at the time she wrote Hallowe’en Party. Poirot had first appeared in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920. Poirot refers in Hallowe’en Party to keeping his hair black by use of a bottled product. In some parts of the novel Christie almost seems to be sighing over the state of modern affairs through her characters much as people would do today while reading the newspaper.
Agatha Christie is not noted as a wordsmith. Her reputation lies distinctly with her ability to spin a deft plot, to lead readers astray, and to make a killer appear out of a mass of conflicting evidence. This she does here, as expected. But that is not to say she is incapable of a good turn of phrase or poetic descriptive passage:
“He stared. Stared across a hollow that lay at his feet where the path ran round the other side of it. Stared at one particular golden red branching shrub which framed something that Poirot did not know for a moment was really there or was an effect of shadow and sunshine and leaves.”
Though heavy on dialog, which is in the nature of whodunits, Hallowe’en Party abounds in such delightful moments of exposition. Characters, too, are memorable. Miranda, the best friend of the victim, has an elfin charm about her, at once childlike and agelessly mature. Superintendent Spence, Poirot’s retired police friend, is stolid and affable. Miss Emlyn, the headmistress of the local school, is appropriately prim, but also a woman of considerable intellect and one who keeps her own counsel.
So, for your October reading pleasure, I recommend Hallowe’en Party, but with a warning: there are no ghosts, haunted houses, or other trappings of the holiday about the book. It is a solid murder mystery that happens to occur around Halloween, not one that makes great use of Halloween for atmosphere. There is, however, a witch.
Hallowe’en Party is available now at GPL.