“Blood and blue water—like the jacket of a detective story. Fantastic, unreal. The sort of thing that doesn’t happen to oneself.”
All the usual guests are confirmed for Lucy Angkatell’s house party. Her cousins, Midge and Edward, will be there. So will the brilliant doctor John Christow and his dull, plodding wife Gerda. And so will Lucy’s other cousin, Henrietta Savernake, a sculptor whose beauty and intelligence have placed her at the center of two separate love triangles.
There’s no reason to expect this weekend to be different from countless others, but an uninvited guest is about to crash the party: murder. The stage is set for a crime of passion quite unlike anything else in Agatha Christie’s ouevre.
A common criticism of Agatha Christie is that she is a great plotter but a mediocre prose stylist. While it’s true that her writing is rarely flashy, I would instead describe Christie’s style as economical. Writing clearly and precisely, she includes just as much characterization or description as the story requires and no more—not because she is incapable of providing it, but simply because it would be surplus to requirements. The less that is said outright, the more the reader must infer, often being taken in by stereotypes and providing their own misdirections and red herrings in the process. In The Hollow, however, Christie chooses to reveal more, with haunting results.
Hercule Poirot is deeply annoyed by the sight of Gerda Christow standing over the body of her husband, a gun in her hand. He assumes his new neighbors have learned that a famous detective is staying in their midst and staged a poolside prank for his benefit. “Artificial—for a moment Poirot grasped at the word. Yes, there had been something artificial about it all.” Even after he discovers that John Christow has been murdered for real, something about the crime disturbs him. Isn’t the whole thing just a little too obvious?
By the time Poirot first encounters this group of suspects and victims, the reader already knows them well. Christie spends a great deal of time exploring these characters and setting up their conflicts. Two charismatic central figures cut a swath through the group. John and Henrietta are in love with life as much as they are with one another. An unrepentant hedonist, John approaches life the same way he does his patients, as an endlessly fascinating problem to be solved. Henrietta relates to the world through her sculpture; it’s the language she lives by.
It’s hard not to see Henrietta as a stand-in for Christie herself, a means of exploring the joys and sorrows of a creative life. “Thank goodness,” Henrietta thinks as she reaches the turning point in a sculpture, one that’s been eluding her for weeks.
It was nice, she thought, to be a human being again…and not that other thing. Nice to have stopped feeling restless and miserable and driven. Nice to be able to stop walking about the streets unhappily, looking for something and feeling irritable and impatient because, really, you didn’t know what you were looking for! Now, thank goodness, there would only be hard work—and who minded hard work?
Their hostess Lady Angkatell suspects that inviting Henrietta, John, and Gerda to the same house party may lead to trouble, but, at Henrietta’s urging, she does so anyway. The charmingly oblivious Lucy Angkatell is an endless source of comic relief, delighting in her proximity to murder while pondering the etiquette of the situation.
After the ducks there was a caramel custard which, Lady Angkatell said, showed just the right feeling on the part of Mrs. Medway.
Cooking, she said, really gave great scope to the delicacy of feeling.
“We are only, as she knows, moderately fond of caramel custard. There would be something very gross, just after the death of a friend, in eating one’s favorite pudding. But caramel custard is so easy—slippery if you know what I mean—and then one leaves a little on one’s plate.”
As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that there is more to Lucy than her frivolous surface may suggest.
Lucy shares with her cousins Edward, Midge, and Henrietta, a profound love of the Angkatell estate, Ainswick. The others view Ainswick as a fairy-tale refuge from their otherwise drab lives, to be enjoyed for brief, treasured holidays and dreamed of during the rest of the year. When Edward (as the next male in the line of succession) inherits the house from Lucy’s father, it’s his dream come true. For Lucy, however, it’s a cruel exile from her childhood home, a place she’s tried to recreate at The Hollow. As the name of the house suggests, however, it’s a hollow substitute for the real thing. Henrietta’s affair with John Christow means that Henrietta will not marry her cousin Edward. And Edward will never marry anyone else, not even the devoted Midge, meaning that Ainswick will pass into the hands of distant relatives. It may seem silly to commit murder to keep a house in the family, but Ainswick is more than just a house to the Angkatells.
Almost forgotten amid the more florid drama is John’s wife Gerda, the one with the smoking gun. She claims to have picked up the gun while still in shock at having discovered her husband dead. The long-suffering Gerda certainly has a motive for murder, more than a decade’s worth of motives, in fact. Her interactions with John are painful to read as the already high-strung Gerda drives herself mad trying to anticipate the wishes of someone whose desires change with the wind. Deciding whether to send their meal back to the kitchen to be kept warm when John is late (again) ties her into mental knots.
Oh, dear, that mutton! She ought to have it sent back. Still no sign of John. Why couldn’t she, sometimes, decide right? Again those dark waves of misery swept over her. The mutton! This awful weekend with the Angkatells. She felt a sharp pain through both temples. Oh, dear, now she was going to have one of her headaches. And it did so annoy John when she had headaches. He never would give her anything for them, when surely it would be so easy, being a doctor. Instead he always said, “Don’t think about it. No use poisoning yourself with drugs. Take a brisk walk.”
The mutton! Staring at it, Gerda felt the words repeating themselves in her aching head, “The mutton, the MUTTON, THE MUTTON…”
Ironically, her staunchest defender is Henrietta, her husband’s mistress. But then again, who better to understand the difficulty of maintaining a relationship with John? The Christow marriage demonstrates the depth and complexity Christie brings to this novel. It would be easy to depict just a victimized, downtrodden wife, or a dazzling husband held down by a dull spouse. Yet there’s much more to this relationship. Both spouses need things that only the other can provide, and they are tied together by long-standing bonds of love, obligation, fear, and a hundred other things.
All of these people are lying or pretending, to each other and to themselves, while at the same time being absolutely honest. In the span of the same day, John can be madly in love with Henrietta, totally absorbed in his medical work, annoyed with Gerda, obsessing over another woman, vaguely dissatisfied with his life, and grateful for his marriage. None of it is a lie. It’s just that the way a person feels at any one moment of time is never the whole truth, either. That’s what makes truth so hard to pin down.
There is some debate as to whether Poirot is necessary to The Hollow. I think he is not only needed, but indispensable. Poirot’s presence imparts a gravitas and moral authority that a random police detective could never provide. Indeed, the book’s attention to characterization even extends to that random police detective: Poirot’s sidekick Inspector Grange is a thoroughly nice, conventional man who lacks the imagination to realize what may lurk beneath the surface. The book’s solution could not exist in its current form with an Inspector Grange as the main detective, nor would it have the emotional resonance that stems from the reader’s long history with Poirot.
One of the most revealing scenes takes place when Henrietta drops by Poirot’s cottage. She can’t help touching his things, rearranging them into a more “natural” (but equally artificial) form. But Poirot is Poirot, and order must be restored. These two recognize something in each other. When they see anything that looks wrong, they just can’t help themselves—the urge to put it right is irresistible. The problem is that their approaches are completely opposite.
“Aren’t you an artist, too, M. Poirot?”
Poirot put his head to one side.
“It is a question, that. But on the whole I would say, no. I have known crimes that were artistic—they were, you understand, supreme exercises of the imagination. But the solving of them—no, it is not the creative power that is needed. What is required is a passion for the truth.”
“A passion for the truth,” said Henrietta meditatively. “Yes, I can see how dangerous that would make you.”
Poirot and Henrietta understand one another perfectly but their viewpoints will never align…or will they?
The Hollow is a tantalizing mystery that manages to mystify even as it seems to reveal all. The solution is not only one of Christie’s cleverest, but also one of her most emotional. The ending is so powerful because of the care she has taken to establish the characters and their relationships; like the best solutions, it is both surprising and inevitable. The Hollow is a superb piece of stagecraft that displays the touch of a true artist.
ahsweetmysteryblog (please note, review contains spoilers)
To my mind, The Hollow is magnificent Christie, yet many people don’t see it. It isn’t my all-time favorite Christie, and it isn’t perfect. Few works of art are, and I am prepared to discuss its flaws as well as its merits. But it is magnificent for many reasons…
Christie’s writing is markedly different here. The emphasis is on character and not plot. Relationships are more important than who was where when the murder was committed. But most noticeably is the multiple viewpoint in the narration. It’s the most author omniscient of her Poirot books. Much of the narrative is spent in the interior life and thoughts of the characters. We get to know more than any other of her books what each character is thinking and what secrets they are harboring. Perhaps And Then There Were None, written seven years earlier, is the first instance of this kind of interior character work, but in The Hollow her effective technique makes the book a stand-out among her entire work.
Beyond a crafty solution, Christie has managed to create a novel with true emotional weight at the end. Not quite to the level of Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger or Fog of Doubt, but the sadness of it all is still very much there. I personally prefer Five Little Pigs over The Hollow, but the later is definitely a read I’ll recommend.
On a different note, I’m not convinced this is much of a fair-play mystery. Poirot’s big reveal and explanation consists mostly of “I knew what was going on all the time, aren’t I clever?” without any real explanation, so there aren’t really any clues, per se. As I said, I spotted the murderer, but only because it was a guess that made sense, rather than spotting the proof. The murderer does conveniently provide the proof – I rather think that if they’d stood back and told Poirot to prove it, he’d have been a bit lost.
I’m among the ones that have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book mainly due to the in-depth psychology of its characters and a well constructed plot.
The Hollow (also published as Murder After Hours) is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats from HarperCollins.