When it was first published in 1946, Agatha Christie’s 22nd Hercule Poirot mystery was originally titled The Hollow. In the 1950s, however, Dell reprinted it under the more titillating title Murder after Hours. What they really should have called it, though, was “Murder after 90 Pages,” because that’s how long it took for someone to finally freaking die. After that the book was pretty darn good, but getting up to that point was a hard slog.
The first 90 pages of the book (sans death and destruction and intrigue) are mostly consumed with fleshing out the menagerie of quirky yet utterly English characters that populate the book. And don’t get me wrong, they’re very good characters. Christie is a master at creating deep, believable personalities. If you’re an aspiring writer it would be worth the price of admission just to watch and learn with the characterization alone. But when the first word in the title of the book is “murder” (freakin’ MURDER!), one tends to expect the deed to come along a little bit earlier than 1/3 of the way in. Then again, false advertising was the name of the game for 1950s publishing, so maybe I should have anticipated that.
Anyway, I suppose you’ll all be wanting a plot summary. I’ll try to sum up this very peculiar and very English cast of characters as succinctly as possible.
First there’s John. He’s the murderee in this equation. He’s a brilliant doctor, married with two kids, and something of a narcissist. He’s cheating on his wife with Henrietta, a sculptress and free-thinking artist (more on her later). In short, he’s a King Kong-sized jackass, but for some reason everyone seems to like him. Then there’s Gerda, John’s simple yet adoring wife. She’s often viewed as being dense or slow, but there’s a little more going on between her ears than she lets on. A very little more, but it’s there. Henrietta is John’s mistress, an intelligent and liberated lady who likes driving cars (remember, this was published in 1946) and makes her living as a sculptress. Next is Edward, a landed gentlemen with his head in the clouds and his heart fixed upon Henrietta in hopelessly unrequited love. Midge, Edward’s cousin, is a seamstress in
, one of the few in the family whose life is not one of leisure, mostly due to her mother having married a commoner. Rounding out the cast are Lady and Lord Angkatell, the owners of the Hollow (the country manor at which most of the novel takes place). The Lady is flighty and seemingly insane, while the Lord is something of a limp fish without much personality. And finally there’s M. Hercule Poirot, lour favorite Frenchman who just so happens to be vacationing at the neighboring house to the Hollow. London
So after 90 pages of introducing all the characters, John gets knocked off. Just about everyone in the house stumbles upon the scene at the same time, each coming from separate paths to arrive at the pool area at the exact same time. Poirot comes in about this time as well and witnesses John’s last moments as he moans “Henrietta” before expiring. Poirot doesn’t investigate the murder head-on. He sits on the sidelines and chats with the police, pondering different clues, and generally tries to keep himself out of it… somewhat. The leads take the investigators to and fro, but never in the right direction. Suspicion is cast upon everyone. And through it all Poirot begins to suspect that everyone in the house knows who killed John but no one is saying. Using his brilliant powers of deduction (or more precisely, induction) he laconically sniffs out the murderer and… well, we’ll leave it at that.
As I said before, Agatha Christie is a phenomenal writer. Her sense of character, of dialogue, of imagery, are all top notch. It really is a joy to read her work. The effortless skill with which she writes is nothing short of amazing. But there were a couple of things that brought it down for me. One, the primary story here wasn’t the mystery. It was about the inner-workings of some very dysfunctional relationships in an old English family. That’s all well and good, but it’s not my cup of tea—at least, not an entire book dedicated to it. Secondly, the ending felt something like a Deus Ex Machina. By that I mean that Poirot kind of miracled up the solution. There wasn’t a defined evidence trail to speak of, just a mish-mash of conflicting theories and circumstantial evidence from which he divined the solution with some sleuthing sixth sense. It just rubbed me the wrong way is all.
To sum up, it was great writing with deep, well-rounded characters, but it was lacking something in the mystery department, which for a mystery novel isn’t exactly a good thing. This is my Agatha Christie book, so I don’t have anything else to compare it to, but just from knowing how book series usually go I imagine the first ones are better than the later installments. I’ve got some other books by her that I’ll be reading in the future, so I’ll find out later if my theory is correct. For now I can only comment on this one, and my comment is three stars.