Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Clocks, by Agatha Christie

Sheila Webb, a young and emphatically attractive typist-for-hire is sent out on a job by the secretarial bureau that she works for. Instructed to let herself in and wait in the sitting room, Sheila makes a traumatic discovery: a well-dressed, respectable looking apart from being obviously dead corpse, surrounded by six clocks some of which are set to 4.13, an hour fast. Tearing out of the house screaming murder, Sheila collides with young private detective/spy Colin Lamb who sets about getting things in order- he calls his old friend Inspector Hardcastle to investigate. Mysteriously, the house's owner, Miss Pebmarsh claims she did no such thing as to request a typist, let alone ask for Sheila specifically. Together Colin and Inspector Hardcastle must get to the bottom of the neatly dressed body and the clocks. When another body is discovered in a phone box, a woman connected with the case that seemed to have a secret of her own, decide that they need a little help (little indeed) from Hercule Poirot.

I enjoyed this late offering from AC, mistress of the crimson herring. It had a nice mix of international espionage (Lamb is searching for a potential spy based on half a clue and a hunch when he collides with Sheila) and neighbourhood curtain twitchery. I love how masterfully Christie suggests murder and mystery in even the most respectable and affluent areas. She's an absolute demon for misdirection and there's ideas and idea-ruining-discoveries flying in all directions. This felt more of a traditional murder thriller, as the investigation was such a uniquely twisting one that suspicion never really rests on anybody- there are discoveries that seem to suggest the possibility of this neighbour or this motive, but never enough that the reader thinks gotcha! as with other AC novels that I've read. The reader is at as much of a loss as the detectives.

I found myself raising eyebrow a little at Colin's immediate feelings for Sheila, despite his initial denial of them- no fooling Hardcastle though. He's obviously working now not to find the truth, but to see her cleared of all suspicion because he's fallen head over heels for his damsel scream queen. As the investigation progresses in the usual order; interviewing the collection of oddball neighbours, each household opening up potential lines of enquiries, riddled with red herrings; attempting to identify the body and discovering the origins and the meaning of the clocks...but promising lead after promising lead fails to reveal a satisfactory motive or the victim's identity. 

This tangled web of murder, lies, and deceits has Lamb and Hardcastle stumped- the genteel neighbourhood of Wilbraham Crescent is truly unfathomable. This is where Poirot comes in. Colin becomes his eyes and ears, recounting the whole story to him and his "Little Grey Cells" in the hope of identifying the murderer courtesy of Poirot's inimitable and evidently successful strategy.

The narrative style is at times a bit disjointed, flitting between first and third person accounts, at-the-time information from Colin Lamb, then retrospective accounts from Inspector Hardcastle. While I really liked Hardcastle as a character (his 'I'm older than you, cleverer than you and more official than you act was frustratingly funny) I'm not sure that his turns at the narrative brought much to the story itself. I think Colin, a more traditional, Christy-ish "Young detective with a conscience and lots of questions about the nature of detecting" type, a bright young thing, was a more readable and more relevant narrator. It would've really tightened everything up if it had stuck with Colin as narrator. Poirot felt a bit shoe-horned it too, to be honest. Much as I love him, he was kind of be-throned in his apartments, revered by a young follower and it kind of recalled the crazy old Kurtz-king from Apocalypse Now. Sorry.

Ultimately while not one the canon Poirot novels, perhaps due to his slightly abbreviated 'also starring' appearance. The Clocks does, however, benefit from an incredibly strong and very memorable opening, an excellent, likeable narrator detective in Colin Lamb, a host of convenient coincidences and a ton of trademark red herrings and carefully constructed, twisting plot-lines. Even if the eventual explanation is disappointing for such an elaborate set-up.

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