Friday, August 22, 2014

FFB: The Hollow - Agatha Christie

When Agatha Christie discussed The Hollow (1946) in An Autobiography she mentioned that including Hercule Poirot as the detective was a huge mistake.  Consequently, when she decided to adapt it for the stage she removed him entirely.  I imagine if he were missing from the novel not much would be lost because what Christie was doing in The Hollow was decidedly different than most of her Poirot novels; the content borders on the profound. It is intensely serious and maybe the most personal of all of Christie's detective novels.

This book comes in her mid-career, only two years after the publication of what Christie called "the one book that has satisfied me completely." That book is Absent in the Spring, one of her mainstream novels nominally lumped together as her Mary Westmacott romances though to call them romances is to do them a disservice. The Hollow is the least Christie-like of her detective novels of the 1940s; it might even be called the most Westmacott of her detective novels for it shares a lot with what is found in the pages of Absent in the Spring. Identity, self-delusion, misplaced and misinterpreted affections are all on display. Above all, is one of her most recurrent themes -- the dangers of possessive love. It barely makes the grade as a detective novel, though there is some detection by the variety of characters and Poirot who is, in fact, a supporting character and not the lead. The Hollow is Christie's earliest attempt to write a wholly modern detective novel and uses the tropes and gimmicks that are her hallmark in a most realistic manner.

Ostensibly, The Hollow tells the story of a crime of passion. But as anyone who reads any detective novel knows appearances are always deceiving. What you see isn't always the truth. Gerda Christow is found by the swimming pool of the Angkatell estate with a gun in her hand. Her husband has been shot and three people come running to the poolside. As John Christow lies dying from his fatal bullet wound he cries out, "Henrietta..." who happened to be one of the three almost eyewitnesses who came running. When Henrietta screams at Gerda she drops the gun into the pool. She doesn't seem to remember anything: how she got there, where the gun came from, or whether or not she pulled the trigger. The gun is retrieved from the pool now spoiled of any fingerprint evidence and police lab reports prove that it was not the gun used to kill her husband. What happened to the gun that was used? And what was Gerda doing there?

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.

Poirot may not take center stage in this novel but that is not to say that he is not instrumental in uncovering the truth. Henrietta Savernake, a sculptor and close friend to the Christows, has a notable scene in which she and Poirot discuss knowledge vs. truth. Henrietta likens crime solving to a creative art. She asks Poirot if he considers himself an artist. In response Poirot counters that it is a passion for the truth that trumps any creative power of a detective. "A passion for the truth," Henrietta says. "Yes, I can see how dangerous that might make make you." The two continue to bandy with words and semantics and Henrietta implies throughout the conversation that she knows more than she is willing to give up. She challenges Poirot to act on his knowledge if he comes to know the full truth. By the book's close Poirot acknowledges that Henrietta was his most formidable antagonist to date.

Anyone interested in discussing Christie as a novelist beyond her skills as a master of the detective novel ought to read The Hollow. The murder is treated not as a puzzle but as a true mystery of human behavior. Complications arise, questions both investigative and philosophical arise out of the nature of this crime. Christie tells a story of devotion and love and protection in a world where violence is increasingly ambiguous. Has a murder actually been committed? In the end Poirot once again acts not so much as the agent of truth but as an agent of mercy.

NOTE: Those of you who live in the US and still like to buy used books in brick and mortar stores should know that many of the 1960s and 1970s paperback editions of The Hollow were reprinted under the title Murder After Hours. There are umpteen hundred copies of this book out there in US, UK and Canadian editions and under both titles. The majority of copies for sale through online bookselling sites are very affordable.

17 comments:

  1. Mr. John: I've only started to visit your blog in the last few weeks but I am extremely impressed and from here on out I know I'll be a regular reader. Even though I came here hoping you'd be able to introduce me to worthy but obscure authors (short answer: YOU SURE HAVE!!!!!!!!!!), I've now learned that your analysis of familiars (like Christie, above) is also v. intriguing and worthwhile. Much thanks for what you've done so far and thank you in advance for what is to come. I'll probably end up reading all your previous entries. Ha. No "probably" about it. Grade: A+

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  2. Terrific review John - HOLLOW certainly feels like an anomalous work and deserves to be taken this seriously. In my mind I tend to lump it with TAKEN AT THE FLOOD (aka THERE IS A TIDE) as her attempts at 'straight' fiction with much more emphasis on character. I really will have to get that Westmacott as these seem to have been much more revealing - I certainly liked UNFINISHED PORTRAIT much more than i thought I would!

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  3. This is not my most favorite of the Christie books, John. I always found it to too melodramatic. I occasionally get it mixed up with one of her other books and so have managed to forget (except very vaguely) most of the details. I've only read this one about three times over the years as compared to the many MANY re-readings of my favorites.

    I suppose I'm more a fan of Christie's lighter-hearted fare though I've found that in some of those, characterization plays an important part as well. Obsessive love is a theme that Christie often uses even in the midst of Poirot's more eccentric performances. I like Poirot, and I'll tell you a secret: When I was a teenager, I kind of had a crush on him - in the books, I mean. I revere brain power and eccentricity. Also had a crush on Sherlock Holmes.

    There's no hope for me, I know. Ha.

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  4. Great write-up and analysis. I find that I prefer character driven stories so this sounds good to me. At any rate, I'm still a newbie of Christie having read a total of one book by her: 4:50 from Paddington.

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    1. Since your taste goes for the darker crime fiction and true noir you ought to read HALLOWEEN PARTY. It's as far from "cozy" as she gets. Another good dark one is THE PALE HORSE with its fiendish murder method and some touches of the occult. No series detective in that one. For my money the closest thing Christie wrote to a noir novel is AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (aka TEN LITTLE INDIANS aka TEN LITTLE You-know-whats). You'd probably like that one. I don't like many of the Marple books, but A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED is close to perfection as far as a detective novel goes. It gets my vote for the best of the Miss Marple books. Brilliant plotting in that one and, coincidentally, a strangely similar finale as THE HOLLOW.

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    2. Thanks for the recs, John. Appreciate it.

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  5. I look forward to getting to this book. I am reading the Poirot books in order, thus it will take me awhile, unless I decide to skip ahead since you say this is not much most Poirot mysteries.

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  6. Have not read this one, John and am very intrigued now. I do have 4 Westmacotts on the shelf and one of them is Absent in the Spring! I'm anxious to get reading it now! I haven't read much Christie since my 20's and read quite a lot then but have forgotten most of it.

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    1. Got a nice copy of The Hollow on its way!

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  7. This is one of my favourites Christie but I never analysed it the way you have done, John - which is just about brilliant.

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  8. John, it never occurred to me that Christie does emphasise more on the plot than on the characters. I'm not referring to this novel since I haven't read it, but it does seem that way in some of the other novels I read quite sometime back. I might have seen THE HOLLOW on television, in POIROT INVESTIGATES. The poolside scene sounds very familiar.

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  9. I'm not very familiar with Christie, as I only read a few of her books when I was pretty much a child. I can't tell if she's someone I'd like as adult. I suspect they may not be dark enough for my tastes.

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  10. An excellent analysis, and I really like your point about "Christie's earliest attempt to write a wholly modern detective novel". It's dangerous to speculate about how social change affected writers' books, but I wonder if there was a psychological drive towards ... newness and rebirth, perhaps ... at the end of WWII that may have moved her in the direction of modernity. Anyway, thanks for the insights!

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  11. A great review, John—one that, well, very much echoes my assessment of this Christie masterpiece. "The Hollow" is probably second only to "Five Little Pigs" ("Murder in Retrospect") in my catalogue of favorite Poirot novels. Your observations regarding the importance of relationships and the use of multiple viewpoints go straight to the heart of what makes this novel work so well. What I remember most fondly about the book is the opening sequence of interior-monologue set pieces that brilliantly draw you into the story before any suggestion of murder comes into play.

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    1. Thanks, Mike. Did you write a review of The Hollow on your blog? I'll have to go look through your posts. Many blog reviewers talk about the dotty Lady Lucy Angkatell in their posts when reviewing this book. Lady Angkatell is there for comic relief, yes, but she also serves an entirely more subtle, slightly insidious purpose.

      I'm slightly upset because this post does not appear as I originally published it in on Friday afternoon. There was one additional paragraph that somehow got deleted in my numerous corrections to this post. I talked about Poirot's observations of Lady Angkatell's intuitive thought process and how dangerous it was. She seemed to be able to manipulate people to think a certain way about a person by making the mildest of suggestions. A trait that I saw echoed in the murderer's M.O. in Curtain which was written just before The Hollow. I'd like to restore that paragraph but I threw out my notes on this book once I thought I was done. Ugh! I'll never remember the exact wording so I'm not bothering adding it again.

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  12. I agree with John about The Hollow, most definitely. I reviewed Absent in the Spring on my blog a while book; it's a good straight novel that draws wonderfully on Christie's mystery technique. Nothing "romantic" about it!

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  13. A very perceptive review, and you make good points about the book's strengths. It's not one of my own favourites, because I feel the plot lacks the flair of Christie's best, but I saw an open air production of the stage play based on the book last year (held in the grounds of a wonderful National Trust property) and it made a marvellous evening's entertainment.

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