Monday, August 23, 2010

The Hollow by Agatha Christie

The Hollow by Agatha Christie, 1946

I've always liked Agatha Christie mysteries, but very few of them really excite me (1934's Murder on the Orient Express and 1926's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd being two of the exceptions). They're quick, pleasant reads with familiar, cozy settings and simple characterizations. In a way, they're the literary equivalent of a crossword puzzle or a brain-teaser.

The Hollow really isn't much different from the typical Christie whodunit, but it's clear that Christie (1890-1976) was trying to branch out a little bit with this particular novel.

As always, the book revolves around a small group of English characters (most of them distantly and confusingly related) who come together for a weekend party in the countryside.

Among them is John Christow, a brash, arrogant doctor obsessed with finding a cure for a rare disease. He's also an insufferable jerk who bullies both his timid wife and his opinionated mistress. He also has a jealous ex-fiance in the background, hungry for revenge.

One morning, while hanging around alone by his host's swimming pool, John is shot:

[S]uddenly, John was acutely conscious of danger. How long had he been sitting here? Half an hour? An hour? There was someone watching him. Someone--

And that click was-- of course it was--

He turned sharply, a man very quick in his reactions. But he was not quick enough. His eyes widened in surprise, but there was no time for him to make a sound.

The shot rang out and he fell, awkwardly, sprawled out by the edge of the swimming pool.

A dark stain welled up slowly on his left side and trickled slowly on to the concrete of the pool edge; and from there dripped red into the blue water.
(page 71)

With half a dozen quirky suspects and a missing murder weapon, the police are baffled. Luckily, master Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot is just next door and hot on the track of the murderer.

As you can see, the actual murder doesn't occur until page 71, which is unusually late in the game for a Christie mystery and the preceding 70 pages are a little painful. Things move along at a snail's pace and very little happens.

Christie was a competent writer. Sometimes she would hit on a nice simile or display a dash of wit. She does well when dealing with interrogations and sleuthing and riddle-solving, but elongated scenes of domestic life are not her forte. Her characters are too thin to be interesting without a murder involved.

Still, Christie is trying to make this novel a little more personal and more character-based, and she partially succeeds. There's a little more of an emotional punch than usual.

The mystery itself is solid as usual. The clues are well-placed and the conclusion is surprising if not brilliant. Other than the overlong beginning, the book is well paced.

Hercule Poirot, Christie's fussy main detective, has always been a favorite of mine. He's just fun, with his complete lack of physical courage and his sharp psychological insight. Unfortunately, he seems to be shoehorned into The Hollow in a rather clumsy fashion. He's off-stage for large chunks of the novel and plays no significant role until the end.

Despite some uneven and unexpected elements, The Hollow is a pretty standard Agatha Christie whodunit. It's a good read--especially once you've gotten past the first 70 pages--but it doesn't wander far from the expected formula, which makes for an entertaining, but forgettable experience.

NEXT UP: The 1982 Stephen King novella collection Different Seasons.

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