This book was ringing alarm bells in my memory from the start. It was only when I got to this scene…
…that I remembered having watched the TV adaptation a few years ago. Bummer. I very nearly gave up right then – who wants to read a murder mystery when you already know who committed the dirty deed? – but I decided to continue and, with hindsight, it was absolutely the right decision. This isn’t a bad book at all.
At first glance, The Hollow is a pretty typical country house murder mystery; a group of friends gather at the home of a mutual acquaintance only for one of the party, the dazzling Doctor John Christow, to get bumped off near the swimming pool just before lunch. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? When famous detective Hercule Poirot stumbles on the murder scene moments after the shot rings out he’s immediately convinced that things are not all they appear. Is this a carefully staged scene arranged by the guests as part of the afternoon’s amusements? Or is there something more sinister at play here?
What I haven’t yet said, of course, is that by the time Poirot arrives on the scene the story has really been underway for quite some time already. It’s unusual for Christie to leave the arrival of the famous detective to such a late stage in the novel. I think I’d almost expect it of Miss Marple but for Poirot it seems quite out of character. Apparently – according to Wiki – Christie herself was irritated by Poirot’s tardiness and felt that his sudden appearance out of nowhere was jarring for the reader and spoiled the flow of the plot. I can’t say I agree but it did have the odd effect of making Poirot seem almost superfluous to his own story.
In spite of this, I have to say that I think this is one of the best Agatha Christie novels I’ve read in a little while. All the usual ingredients are here – the red herrings, the witty dialogue, the double bluff – but this time there seems to be an extra layer of character development and a more careful set up. The philandering Doctor Christow who, I suspect, would usually be condemned to only the briefest of introductions, is given a good few chapters of background story and there’s a reasonably thorough analysis of his relationships with some of the other characters. When they describe the late doctor as the most ‘alive’ man they ever knew, you can almost believe them.
The character development isn’t limited to just the victim and I was surprised to find that I really quite liked a few of the suspects. Usually Christie peppers her stories with some thoroughly nasty characters; people you can easily believe would be capable of committing the crime. But she doesn’t really do that here; on the whole they appear pretty harmless. I was particularly pleased with the victim’s mistress, the sculptress Henrietta Severnake, and the scatter-brained hostess, Lady Angkatell. They made me almost hope that there wouldn’t be a murderer after all, that whoever it was would somehow end up getting away with it.
It’s all very odd and not what I was expecting at all. But I enjoyed the twists and turns of this novel and wish there were more like it.