The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Hollow (1946)

The HollowIn which devoted doctor John Christow is found dead by the swimming pool, with his wife Gerda holding a gun in her hand. An open and shut case, surely? But as investigations start to take shape, it’s a much murkier affair than first thought. It takes Hercule Poirot, retired Belgian detective, to have the brains to sort the wheat from the chaff and identify the real murderer. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Francis L SullivanThe book is dedicated “for Larry and Danae, with apologies for using their swimming pool as the scene for a murder”. Larry was better known as Francis L Sullivan, an actor who had played Hercule Poirot on the London stage in the plays Black Coffee and Peril at End House, and would go on to appear in Witness for the Prosecution on Broadway, for which he received a Tony Award. He died in 1956. The Hollow was first serialised in the US in a four-part shortened version in Collier’s Weekly in May 1946 under the title The Outraged Heart. There was no serialisation in the UK. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in 1946, and in the UK in November of that year by Collins Crime Club. A later paperback edition in the US by Dell Books in 1954 changed the title to Murder after Hours, but the book is primarily known as The Hollow in the US too.

Slow to startRe-reading this book was rather an odd experience. I found it very slow to start, and I felt little or no interest in any of the characters for several pages until the whole crime element gained traction and the story really got going. Once we’d met Poirot and he was taking an active interest in the crime alongside Inspector Grange, it became unputdownable; before then it had been the reverse! Critical opinion at the time praised this book highly, and it was largely thought to be one of Christie’s best works. However, I think much of it succeeds or fails on how endearing or otherwise you find the character of Lady Angkatell; can anyone be that daft as a brush and remain a functioning individual? Ironically, Christie herself thought she had ruined the book by including Poirot in it; my own feeling is that, on the contrary, he makes it.

SculptorStructurally, this book feels at odds with most of Christie’s output to date. It starts, with no explanatory introduction, with a relatively in-depth and confusing conversation between two characters, about whom you know nothing except their names. Christie plunges us straight into the nitty-gritty of these characters, without any background insights. The second chapter again confuses us with the account of Henrietta Savernake making a sculpture of Doris Saunders; again with no explanation as to who these characters are and why this should be happening. Knowing that Christie rarely wastes words, it’s unclear why she spent so much effort on explaining the creative process behind sculpting; and, even when you’ve finished the book, it still strikes me as unnecessary padding. True, there is an element of bookending the story – starting with an artistic creative process and ending with a complementary process, which you may consider makes a satisfying whole. But the final moments of the book are also rather weird, ending, in my humble opinion, with more than a whimper than a bang.

Pretty Country CottageThis is our first catch-up with Hercule Poirot for four years (he was last seen in 1943’s Five Little Pigs). Four years on, he’s even older (naturally) and more withdrawn from work than he was before. He has now retired to the country – for weekends at least – living at Resthaven, a neatly symmetrical little place that satisfies his need for order, with just a Belgian gardener, Victor, and his wife/cook, Françoise. You sense that Poirot decided on this move against his better judgement. There’s nothing in the English countryside, with its great variety of wildness, discomfort and lack of sophistication, that’s going to make him happy. He’d be much better off in a warm apartment in London, with all its distractions and people to stimulate his little grey cells.

PoirotNevertheless, he is delighted to receive the lunch invitation to the Angkatells because he is, as he says, “un peu snob”; he walks the long way round to their front door rather than cutting through the back shortcut because of his sense of formality and because he is a “stickler for etiquette”. The snob in Poirot is very easily flattered – even though he indeed recognises it for what it is. Consider the reasons why Henrietta comes to him, rather than Inspector Grange, to discuss the case. “”Well, M. Poirot, what does one do? Go to Inspector Grange and say – what does one say to a moustache like that? It’s such a domestic, family moustache.” Poirot’s hand crawled upwards to his own proudly borne adornment. “Whereas mine, Mademoiselle?” “Your moustache, M. Poirot, is an artistic triumph. It has no associations with anything but itself. It is, I am sure, unique.” “Absolutely.” “And it is probably the reason why I am talking to you as I am.””

private-detectiveIt’s during this conversation with Henrietta that Poirot discusses the kind of clues that he is interested in – always a good insight into his modus operandi. Poirot speaks first: “”That is one of Inspector Grange’s men. He seems to be looking for something.” “Clues, I suppose. Don’t policemen look for clues? Cigarette ash, footprints, burnt matches.” Her voice held a kind of bitter mockery. Poirot answered seriously. “Yes, they look for these things – and sometimes they find them. But the real clues, Miss Savernake, in a case like this, usually lie in the personal relationships of the people concerned.” “I don’t think I understand you.” “Little things,” said Poirot, his head thrown back, his eyes half-closed. “Not cigarette ash, or a rubber heel mark – but a gesture, a look, an unexpected action…” And with that he verbally pounces on Henrietta with a challenging and difficult question.

Down drooping moustacheAs mentioned earlier, in this book we meet Inspector Grange, a stalwart from the Wealdshire Police Force, “a large, heavily built man, with a down-drooping, pessimistic moustache”. He speaks, “without excitement, just with knowledge and quiet pessimism”. He doesn’t have time for his Chief Constable, whom he believes to be a “fussy despot”. Grange is efficient, well-meaning, courteous to Poirot, calm and (for a Christie policeman) relatively wise. His film heroine is Hedy Lamarr. Christie completely side-steps Grange when it comes to the denouement and the official police have no part in the story after the Coroner issues his verdict.

Garden swimming poolOne aspect of the case that really perplexes Poirot is how he suspects that he has been presented with a staged scene. Invited to the Angkatells, the first thing he sees after Gudgeon the butler has shown him through to the swimming pool pavilion is a frozen tableau. Indeed, he thinks the Angkatells are teasing him, presenting him with an artificial murder game for him to pretend-investigate, as it were. Poirot’s little grey cells are not to be mocked so lightly. “By the side of the pool was the body, artistically arranged with an outflung arm and even some red paint dripping gently over the edge of the concrete into the pool […] Standing over the body, revolver in hand, was a woman, a short powerfully-built middle-aged woman with a curiously blank expression […] On the far side of the pool was a tall young woman […] she had a basket in her hand full of dahlia heads. A little farther off was a man […] carrying a gun. And immediately on his left, with a basket of eggs in her hand, was his hostess, Lady Angkatell […] It was all very mathematical and artificial […] Really, the whole thing was very stupid – not spirituel at all! […] And suddenly, with a terrific shock, Hercule Poirot realised that this artificially-set scene had a point of reality. For what he was looking down at was, if not a dead, at least a dying man.” Poirot’s continued suspicion throughout the book that he was looking at an artificial scene, even though it’s known that a real murder took place, partly makes one suspect a Murder on the Orient Express type solution. I’ll say no more on that topic.

Shovel DownAs usual, there are a few references to check out. Firstly, let’s look at the locations, to see how real or imaginary they are. The route from London to The Hollow goes via Shovel Down, which sounds more like gardening terminology than a place name. Shovel Down does exist – it’s an area of Dartmoor with some standing stones and other Bronze Age monuments. If Wealdshire (which obviously doesn’t exist) is meant to represent Cornwall, then I guess it’s possible that this is where Christie intends us to think. However, the journey that John Christow proposes, from Albert Bridge, to Clapham Common, Crystal Palace, Croydon, Purley Way, (all of which are real) then Metherly Hill and Haverston Ridge (both of which aren’t), doesn’t seem to take us towards Devon. Market Depleach, convincing though it sounds, is an invention of Christie’s, and as for the much mentioned and longed-for Ainswick, that too isn’t real, although there is of course a Painswick in Gloucestershire. And, of course, John’s and Veronica’s memories take them back to their romance in San Miguel, which could be anywhere. The most significant San Miguel is in the Philippines; again, Christie probably chose it because it’s a good name.

Ulysses and NausicaaAnd now some other references, that I didn’t recognise so thought I should check. When we first meet Henrietta she’s sculpting the head of Nausicaa. In Homer’s Odyssey, she is the daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia. Amongst other things, Nausicaa was the first person in literature to be described playing with a ball. Who knew? Dr Christow devotes his time to finding a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease; that, in itself, does not exist by that name, but commentators associate Christie’s description of it with Multiple Sclerosis. Henrietta also reflects on Peer Gynt, referring to the Button Moulder’s ladle. He’s a character in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, who threatens to melt Peer’s soul unless he gives him a list of his sins. All very dark and complex.

DelageThere are a couple of cars that were new to me; Henrietta drives a Delage, which was a classic, luxury French car – the Delage company ceased operation in 1953. And the police trail Henrietta in a Ventnor 10, but I’m blowed if I can find any information about that model. Can you help? When playing cards Lady Angkatell suggests a round of Animal Grab. This was an early 20th century card game like snap, but you had to make the sound of the animal who’s card you laid down. For example, if you laid a dog card you had to say “bow-wow”. It must have been… hilarious. Veronica Cray is said to have appeared in the film Lady Rides on Tiger. No such film exists, however, its title comes from an old Chinese proverb which says, he who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount. No prizes for understanding why.

detectiveOne of the reasons Grange doesn’t like his Chief Constable is because he considers him to be a tuft-hunter. I’ve never heard that expression before, but it means a snob, someone who seeks association with persons of title or high social status. So now you know.

MaudChristie must have been reading her poetry anthologies when she wrote this book because there are a couple of allusions to poems. Henrietta quotes to Poirot: “The days passed slowly one by one. I fed the ducks, reproved my wife, played Handel’s Largo on the fife, and took the dog a run.” It’s from Harry Graham’s poem, Creature Comforts. He was a popular writer of comic verse in the early part of the 20th century, a kind of Edwardian Pam Ayres. Poirot himself quotes the much better known “I hate the dreadful Hollow behind the little wood”, which not only gives the book its title but is also from Tennyson’s Maud, published in 1855. As for The Clue of the Dripping Fountain, a gripping read that John Christow had been devouring, alas there is no trace. But what a sensational book it must be.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book, the very precise amount of £342, which is the cost of a certain engagement ring that a character buys for another – I won’t tell you who, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise. That’s around £10,000 in today’s value, so he must have thought a lot of her.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Hollow:

Publication Details: 1946. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in May 1973, price 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams clearly shows the gun that’s sitting in the basket of eggs, that features in the story. No confusion there.

How many pages until the first death: 64. That’s a reasonably long wait, and I must say the book gets much more interesting once there is a murder to investigate.

Funny lines out of context: None that I could see, sadly.

Memorable characters:

Christie is on better form with her characters in this book, with the decidedly batty Lady Angkatell leading the field; a woman whose conversations are a list of non-sequiturs, and who, Poirot realises, has a dangerous ability to make people remember things in a different way because of her bizarre spin on facts. Funny or irritating, you decide, but she’s definitely memorable. I also liked the description of Gerda’s hopelessness; her inability to carve a joint of meat or to drive properly, simply because she’s always under the watchful eye of her husband. I think we all know someone like that. Henrietta’s a cool customer, maybe a little too perfectly drawn to be properly memorable; and I also enjoyed David’s quiet Socialist condemnation of everyone around him.

Christie the Poison expert:

She’s both a poison expert and a general chemistry expert in this book, with John and Gerda’s son Terence keen to construct a nitro-glycerine bomb with his pal Nicholson Minor, and a deadly, unspecified substance that laces a cup of tea and turns the victim’s lips blue – so probably cyanide.

Class/social issues of the time:

A couple of Christie’s favourite themes crop up just once or twice in this book; and one another theme makes a few unwelcome appearances. First, class. There’s an early scene where John Christow, contemplating his treatment of Mrs Crabtree, is surprised to learn that she wants to fight her disease. “She was on his side, she wanted to live – though God knew why, considering the slum she lived in, with a husband who drank and a brood of unruly children, and she herself obliged to work day in day out, scrubbing endless floors of endless offices. Hard unremitting drudgery and few pleasures! […] It wasn’t the circumstances of life they enjoyed, it was life itself – the zest of existence. Curious – a thing one couldn’t explain.” With those words Christow reveals himself to be a patronising, unempathetic snob, disgusted by the lives of the working class.

There’s also another example of Christie’s inability to understand mental illness, with Lady Angkatell’s account of why they read the News of the World. “”We pretend we get it for the servants, but Gudgeon is very understanding and never takes it out until after tea. It is a most interesting paper, all about women who put their heads in gas ovens – an incredible number of them!” “What will they do in the houses of the future which are all electric?” asked Edward Angkatell with a faint smile. “I suppose they will just have to decide to make the best of things – so much more sensible.”” It’s a thoroughly unpleasant exchange, laughing at people considering suicide.

The other recurrent theme is that of xenophobia/racism. There are mild elements of it in Inspector Grange’s belief that “foreigners […] don’t know how to make tea” and the reason Miss Cray admits she didn’t call on Poirot the first time: “I just thought he was some little foreigner and I thought, you know, he might become a bore.” When Lady Angkatell is denying that she set up the death scene, she avows – picking a race out of the blue to patronise – “one can’t ask someone to be your guest and then arrange accidents. Even Arabs are most particular about hospitality.”

There’s a whole lot more unpleasant exchange about Madame Alfrege, Midge’s boss at the upmarket shop. Not only does Christie give Madame Alfrege an outrageous speech defect, she also indulges in some anti-Semitism: “Midge set her chin resolutely and picked up the receiver. It was all just as unpleasant as he had imagined it would be. The raucous voice of the vitriolic little Jewess came angrily over the wires. “What wath that, Mith Hardcathle? A death? A funeral? Do you not know very well I am short-handed? Do you think I am going to stand for these excutheth? Oh, yeth, you are having a good time, I dare thay!”” And so the conversation continues. Later, Midge describes Madame Alfrege as “a Whitechapel Jewess with dyed hair and a voice like a corncrake”.

There’s also some very unfortunate use of the N word. Mrs Crabtree, her words carefully chosen by Christie to emphasise her working class accent and language, describes what it was like to have her hair permed: “It wasn’t ‘alf a difficult business then. Looked like a n*****, I did. Couldn’t get a comb through it.” But also titled people used that word; Lady Angkatell says she hoped her cook, Mrs Medway, “would make a really rich N***** in his Shirt […] chocolate, you know, and eggs – and then covered with whipped cream. Just the sort of sweet a foreigner would like for lunch.” This wasn’t an accepted name for a dessert at the time, but purely an invention of Christie’s. All I can say is, hmmm. Sir Henry describes the problems that Lady Angkatell can cause with her foot-in-mouth language: “she’s put deadly enemies next to each other at the dinner table, and run riot over the colour question!” I bet she has. It was about this time that Christie’s American readers began to disapprove of this latent racism in her books; I believe her American publisher’s simple solution to this problem was to remove these references from her new books without her knowledge. Seems wise to me.

Classic denouement: Not classic, but unusual; Poirot arrives just in time to prevent a murder taking place, and as a result, the unfolding of the details of the crime all takes place in retrospect, and justice isn’t seen to be done.

Happy ending? Although there is a wedding ahead, there’s also an intense air of gloom, with one character’s life doomed to die through illness, and another unable to come to terms with everything that’s happened. So, no, not happy at all.

Did the story ring true? One of the strengths of this book is that although the plot is unlikely – naturally – it does ring true, and you can completely understand how the characters would act in the way that they did.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s clever, it’s believable, and once it gets going it’s very exciting. However, it is dull to start, and the latent racism is unpleasant. Structurally, it also feels strangely anti-climactic. So, after much reflection, I’m giving it 7/10. If you think that’s harsh, I do understand your concern.

The Labours of HerculesThanks for reading my blog of The Hollow and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Labours of Hercules, twelve short stories which were expected to be Hercule Poirot’s swansong – but of course, that didn’t happen! I can’t remember any of the stories, so this should be a lot of fun. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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