“Nothing could be more agreeable than a juicy English apple—And yet here were apples mixed up with broomsticks, and witches, and old-fashioned folklore, and a murdered child.”
Everyone in Woodleigh Common agrees that Joyce Reynolds is not a nice little girl. So when she brags of having witnessed a murder, fellow guests at the Halloween party dismiss it as another of her tall tales. All except one—the murderer. By the end of the evening, young Joyce is dead, drowned while bobbing for apples.
Unfortunately for the killer, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is also at the party. Soon her friend Hercule Poirot is on the case. What he finds is a perfect-looking community that is seething with dark secrets, a shiny red apple full of worms.
Hallowe’en Party is a perfect example of both the flaws and the virtues of Agatha Christie’s late works. Yes, the writing is rambling and unfocused. Yes, the mystery plot is half-baked. And yet there’s something very touching about Hallowe’en Party’s sometimes melancholy, sometimes humorous reflections on youth, old age, and the inseparability of past and present.
The motive for the crime could not be better. Since he doesn’t know exactly what Joyce might have seen, or when, Poirot has free reign to pry into all manner of old scandals. In the process, he encounters a wide range of characters, some colorless, others quite fun (the fortune-telling charlady Mrs. Goodbody comes to mind). The rootless citizens of a modern suburb like Woodleigh Common could be hiding practically anything behind closed doors. “They’re nice people, I should think, on the whole, but who knows?”
Poirot is especially intrigued by the seemingly natural death of an elderly woman who unexpectedly left her fortune (and her fairy-tale garden) to the au pair. When threatened with forgery charges, the girl disappeared and the inheritance was restored to the old lady’s niece Rowena Drake, who just happened to host the fatal Halloween party. There are other possible murders in play as well, and no suspect is off limits; this is the first Christie book I’m aware of to explicitly designate teenagers as suspects.
No one is too young to be a victim or a killer. All the kids here seem old beyond their years. Even thirteen-year-old Joyce sighs wearily that she saw the murder “a long time ago, when I was young.” The teenagers at the party seem weighed down by responsibility, with Joyce’s sister frantically cramming for A-levels and teen dandies Nicholas and Desmond condescending to “kids” just a few years younger. “They would not have described themselves as boys,” Christie notes, “their manner was carefully adult. So much so that if one shut one’s eyes their conversation would have passed as that of elderly clubmen.”
The teenagers taking themselves so seriously is mostly played for comic relief, but the jaded children of Woodleigh Common are in real danger, from the society they live in if nothing else. Christie makes a sincere effort to grapple with the changing landscape of the swinging sixties. Unfortunately, this mostly involves a number of interchangeable oldsters lecturing Poirot about how the streets are full of sex criminals now that all the asylums are closed. There are so many of these virtually identical monologues that one can only imagine Christie kept forgetting she’d already put one in. “Wait a minute,” she must have thought, “have I pointed out yet that we’re far too lenient with juvenile offenders nowadays? Better mention it again just in case. My readers need to know!” Nonetheless, several characters do acknowledge the fallacy of nostalgia, concluding, “Well, there’s no good going on saying that things were better in the old days. Perhaps we only thought so.” Of course, the reader knows things weren’t much better in the old days, because there are dozens of Agatha Christie novels telling us so!
Poirot takes a few walks down memory lane himself. Along with his old friend, the endearingly scatty Ariadne Oliver, he is also reunited with Superintendent Spence, creating the Mrs. McGinty’s Dead cinematic universe we were all crying out for. Kenneth Branagh, take note. (And I hope everyone’s read that one, because it gets spoiled very thoroughly here, along with updates on the surviving characters.) There are even callbacks to Poirot’s early love, the vegetable marrow.
One of the most appealing qualities of Hallowe’en Party is the personal insight into Poirot that it provides. He is very human here, his little vanities more poignant than absurd.
He was a man who thought first always of justice. He was suspicious, had always been suspicious, of mercy—too much mercy, that is to say. Too much mercy, as he knew from former experience both in Belgium and this country, often resulted in further crimes which were fatal to innocent victims who need not have been victims if justice had been put first and mercy second.
Or, as he more succinctly expresses to Mrs. Oliver, “You and I have a principle in common. We do not approve of murder.” Many of the people he encounters in his investigation pay lip service to the tragedy of a child’s murder, while simultaneously waving it off as the kind of thing that happens these days. Only Poirot and Mrs. Oliver feel the pure brutality and offensiveness of such a crime, deep in their bones.
Christie’s late novels are often dismissed as being for completists only. I wouldn’t go that far, as I think even her weaker books have a lot to offer. Then again, I have a soft spot for Hallowe’en Party because it brings back memories of childhood. So it’s probably true that longtime Christie readers will get the most out of these final books. They are full of bittersweet reminders of her past, which is irretrievably entwined with our own.
What Hallowe’en Party gives us is a book of good intentions and some smart awarenesses of its own shortcomings that the author is perhaps not motivated to expand much beyond the ideas stage too many times. Written 20 years earlier, I think some of those unintentional flaws mentioned above would have been tidied up and the whole made more satisfying, but through the cracked lens that is this less-than-brilliant final run of books I’m again more than willing to give Christie some leeway and allow a little admiration alongside the undeniable disappointment.
The mystery is nicely complex, but, with hindsight, part of the solution is very obvious indeed. Pretty sure I didn’t spot it the first time through – or even the second time, come to think of it. The overall picture would take a lot of solving, one aspect in particular seeming to be an intelligent guess on Poirot’s part rather than being based on any evidence, but this isn’t the first time such a thing happens in the books. The plot drags a little in the middle third, but picks up again towards the end with an exciting climax, involving a smart bit of misdirection on what the reader thinks they know what happened.
The plot is more streamlined than usual for this period, but does wobble a bit. Poirot’s interviews get rather repetitious as everyone he talks to is convinced that it must have been either a modern youth or a sex offender and launches into a jeremiad about the wickedness of 1960s Britain. It is noteworthy that the most probable solution is that the murderer is either a paedophile (something not found in early Christie – when the murderer tried to kill a boy in “The Lemesurier Inheritance”, written in the mid-1920s, it was for entirely different reasons) or a child murderer, someone too young to be responsible for their actions (although one should have an idea of the difference between right and wrong by the time one is eleven or twelve).
Hallowe’en Party is available in paperback and ebook editions from HarperCollins.