Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Appointment with Death

I’ve been re-reading some of Agatha Christie’s novels recently. I was a keen fan of her fiction when I was young but hadn’t actually read any for many years. The curious thing is that although I’m enjoying her books immensely I’m not enjoying them for the same reasons I did years ago.

I had remembered Christie as being brilliant at plotting but otherwise not a very distinguished writer. Now I’m finding myself less impressed by her plots but rather more impressed by her actual writing, and even by her characterisation.

Characterisation is usually considered to be something that the writers of the golden age of detective fiction not only tended to ignore, but ignored deliberately on the grounds that it slowed down the action and distracted the reader from the all-important plot. These golden age writers have also usually been regarded as being rather uninterested in psychology, in contrast to a new generation of crime writers who came to prominence in the 1940s, a generation obsessed by the psychology of crime.

Which brings me to Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, published in 1938. This book is in fact very much a psychological crime novel. The heart of the novel is a spectacularly dysfunctional family whose destructive dysfunctions are explored by the author in considerable depth. At the centre of the family is the matriarch and she is a classic case study in what Poirot comes to describe as mental sadism. The horrifying result of this old lady’s bitter malevolence is a family all the members of which have been twisted into psychological basket-cases.

Poirot’s investigation of the murder relies heavily on psychology. He is more interested in whether certain members of the family could have been capable of committing murder, and more importantly capable of committing murder in a certain manner, than he is in alibis or footprints or other such clues. 

Poirot’s analysis of the inner workings of the unfortunate family is shrewd and profound.

While there isn’t much space in what is after all a fairly short novel for each individual to be developed in great depth Christie nonetheless shows considerable skill in producing quick sketches of character that capture the capture the essentials of each member of the family. And she is equally skilled in teasing out the dynamics of the relationships between the characters. 

This is all rather good stuff, and it makes the final solution slightly disappointing in that I felt that Poirot had produced a rabbit out of a hat. It seems odd to say that the one flaw in an otherwise excellent Agatha Christie novel should be the plot, but that is nonetheless how it struck me.

Despite my misgivings about the solution there is a great deal to enjoy in Appointment with Death. Christie could be delightfully witty and amusing but as usual she strikes the right balance, with enough humour to be enjoyable without turning what is overall a rather serious story into a mere spoof. 

And in spite of the fact that the author grew to dislike her most famous creation Poirot remains a marvelous character. He is the source of much of the amusement but is never a figure of fun. His personality quirks are pronounced enough to be interesting without being irritating. He is not just a collection of mannerisms. And he has substance. His reasons for taking on a case that he has been advised to leave well enough alone are consistent with his character. For Poirot there is no such thing as a murder that can be justified on the grounds that the victim was evil and deserved to die. Murder is wrong in its very essence. Poirot can feel sympathy towards someone driven to murder, but it will not stop him from seeing that justice is done.

Appointment with Death is a good example of the ways in which the golden age detective story often had a good deal more to it than dazzling plotting tours-de-force. Recommended.

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