Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie

Cover image © HarperCollins.
The good thing about Agatha Christie is that there seems to be a book for every possible season, location or eventuality. With the sudden coming on of autumn in the UK, with the yellowing leaves falling and a crispy chill rising in the air, one of her later novels, Hallowe'en Party (1969), seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

This isn't your normal Halloween story though. Instead it seems like quite a typical Agatha Christie mystery, but with the simple fact that it all begins with what should be an innocuous game of bobbing for apples on Halloween. In fact, there is nothing more supernatural than the presence of a local woman who plays the part of the witch at the party.

The novel starts when crime novelist Ariadne Oliver, one time friend of Hercule Poirot, is staying with her friend, Judith Butler, in Woodleigh Common and is twittering away whilst all of the others are preparing for a children’s Halloween party.

During the preparation, a slightly annoying and arrogant teen, Joyce, declares that she has witnessed a murder. Naturally, no one is inclined to believe her considering her reputation for telling lies, or should that be, embellishing the truth.

Later that evening, whilst most of the children are in a different room with the snapdragon, Joyce is drowned in a galvanized iron bucket used for apple bobbing in the library.

Convinced that there must be more to this mystery than meets the eye, and in a mild state of hysteria, Mrs Oliver contacts Poirot at his London flat. What unfolds is a story that has a certain degree of complexity that not only deals with the immediate aftermath of the murder of Joyce, but also links to a couple of dark episodes from Woodleigh Common’s more recent past.

The story draws on many typical themes and characters of the English country mystery: a suspect final will and testament, a few outsiders (the nature of whose personalities are unknown), a mysterious disappearance, and a tightly knit community where everyone knows, and is possibly involved in, everyone else’s business.

Perhaps symptomatic of the times, and what makes this an interesting read, is that the novel seems to have a very different set of concerns to those of some of the earlier Poirot novels. The concerns of a modern world catching up with an aging author maybe.

References are made, at various points of the narrative, to: homosexuality, madness, care in the community of those with psychological problems, social deviance, and the loss of society’s moral compass amongst juveniles. It’s hard to decipher what Christie’s opinion is on the more permissive society of the 1960s, but you get the sense it might not be wholly positive.

Ariadne Oliver, playing the function of the detective's sidekick throughout the novel, is definitely not as entertaining a character as Hastings, but could be considered as the nearest thing to Christie actually writing herself into one of her novels, albeit satirically. As far as supporting characters go, she also definitely lacks the nouse of Jason Rafiel, who assists Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery.

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen: a very atmospheric Halloween experience.

Halloween Party is twisty enough to keep the ‘little grey cells’ warm and doesn’t necessarily unfold in the manner one would predict, but maybe lacks the atmosphere and precision of her earlier novels. As The Toronto Daily Star put it, back in 1969, “Poirot seems weary and so does the book.” Robert Barnard, perhaps more bluntly says, “It is littered with loose ends, unrealised characters, and maintains only a marginal hold on the reader's interest.”

Overall, as mysteries go, it is a decent read, but not as tense as its name might suggest, or as this reader had hoped for.

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