In which young Colin Lamb (not his real surname) is tasked to unearth an espionage hub, at the same time that he accompanies his pal Inspector Hardcastle in solving the mystery of the murder of an unidentified man found in someone else’s house, surrounded by clocks! Colin decides to enlist the help of his old friend Hercule Poirot – as a challenge to the revered (but elderly) detective to solve the crime from afar without meeting the suspects. And without his help, Hardcastle would have been lost. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
The book is dedicated “to my old friend Mario with happy memories of delicious food at the Caprice”. The Caprice was a much-loved restaurant in St James’s London, opened in 1947 by Mario Gallati, who was formerly a Maitre D’ at the Ivy. A haven for celebrities and superstars, it was one of Diana, Princess of Wales’ favourite restaurants, along with Mick Jagger and Elizabeth Taylor. Mario Gallati ran the restaurant until 1975, and it closed in 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The Clocks was published in the UK in six abridged instalments in Woman’s Own magazine in November and December 1963, and in the US a condensed version of the novel appeared in the January 1964 issue of Cosmopolitan. The Woman’s Own publication coincided with the full book being first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 7th November 1963, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1964.
The book had unorthodox origins. In 1949, Christie set a competition where she wrote the start of a short story, and competitors were invited to complete it. Her start involved a typist named Nancy who let herself into the front room of a house, to discover a dead man, a blind woman and a collection of clocks. The competition was to work this up into a tale and a solution. Whilst there are a number of differences between what she wrote for the competition and what appears in The Clocks, clearly she went back to this idea to start her new novel. Maybe the fact that she originally thought of the presence of the clocks in the room as a jumping-board for others to come up with an interesting story accounts for the fact that Christie herself didn’t really know what to make of all those clocks herself, as is revealed in the ending to the book.
This is an unusual read in many respects. I’m sure I’m not alone in that I’ve read this book several times over my life and each time I cannot remember a thing about it apart from its riveting opening scene, one of Christie’s paciest and most rewarding starts. Once the crime has been established, and we understand that Colin is working on two projects side by side, the first part of the book becomes a rather friendly, popping round for tea at the neighbours’ sequence of conversations, as Colin and Hardcastle try to identify what’s gone on. As we slowly realise that we’re being introduced to all the potential suspects in the book, we gain a sense of claustrophobia, as the world of The Clocks is firmly rooted in Wilbraham Crescent and its off-shoot streets.
It’s a tremendously engaging book, and one of her more difficult-to-put-down works, and the excitement and suspense continues to rise as it proceeds, and you feel whatever external powers of evil there are, close in on our detective heroes. Yet at the end it all seems to peter out; the solution is relatively hard to follow and comprehend, there’s a jump of logic/intelligence that I think I understand – but it’s weak, and one of the book’s most intriguing aspects – that of the clocks themselves – at the end comes to absolutely nothing. Thus a crescendo of interest soars as the book progresses, all to become a last minute diminuendo in the final analysis.
The narrative approach to the book is a mix of Colin Lamb’s own account of his activity and Christie’s narrative voice. It’s not obvious why Christie has structured it in this way; indeed, at one point I wondered whether Colin’s involvement was going to have something of the Roger Ackroyd’s about it. Unfortunately, Colin isn’t that well drawn a character to make his narration stand out beside Christie’s; but as the two are telling precisely the same story, within precisely the same timescale, it doesn’t add or detract either way. In Christie’s universe, Colin is one of Superintendent Battle’s children; she confirmed it as such in a 1967 interview. This explains why he conceals his real surname and why such a young man might be such good friends with such an old one – Poirot. Detection running through his veins may also explain why he has such an incredible but fanciful insight into the parentage of Sheila.
But it’s Colin’s friend Inspector Dick Hardcastle, whose job it is, to detect who the dead man is, and by whom he was killed. Hardcastle doesn’t have Colin’s flashes of inspiration; in fact, he comes across as rather cumbersome and slow of mind. Christie describes him as “a tall, poker-faced man with expressive eyebrows”, who appears on the scene “godlike, to see that all he had put in motion was being done, and done properly.” When he realises that Miss Pebmarsh is blind, he is clumsy and unintentionally offensive with his language, challenging her ability “to see those clocks”. “”See?” Hardcastle was quick to query the word. “Examine would be a better word, “ said Miss Pebmarsh, “but even blind people, Inspector, use conventional modes of speech that do not exactly apply to their own powers.”” Nevertheless, when he realises that if he had reacted differently in another scene then he might have averted another death, he blames no one but himself; “left alone he made an effort to subdue his rising anger and self-condemnation.”
And what of Poirot? It’s been three years since we’ve seen him – four, if you exclude his presence in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, where the stories were actually written decades before that publication. His servant George advises Colin that “sometimes he gets a little depressed”, and we first see him seated in front of an electric bar heater, surrounded by books that he reads to keep his little grey cells active. He is desperate to be captivated by an intellectual challenge, and reels off classic whodunit after classic, admiring the methods of their famous detectives. It feels a little as though old age has relegated Poirot to sleuthing from a distance, second-guessing detective fiction, rather than being allowed to become actively involved in any cases – and it’s a rather sad feeling. Christie has Poirot going on at length about these writers, which, although has a relevance later on in the book, comes across as rather obsessive and, frankly, dull.
It is, however, amusing when Poirot criticises the works of his friend and ours, Ariadne Oliver, because, by doing so, we know that it’s actually Christie criticising herself – as Mrs Oliver is how Christie portrayed herself in some of her later novels. Whilst she doesn’t actually appear in this story, she is referred to a number of times. Miss Martindale has her signed photograph on her office wall. Colin likens some of the more fanciful aspects of the case to a typical Oliver book (very tongue in cheek). And Poirot hates the way she over-uses the convention of coincidence, and scorns the fact that she doesn’t know the first thing about the foreign country from whence her detective hails. Sounds familiar! Miss Lemon is still Poirot’s secretary, writing the letters that he instructs; and he also refers to two of his previous cases, the tale of the kidnapped Pekinese dog that was The Nemean Lion from The Labours of Hercules, and “the Girl Guide murder case” that was Dead Man’s Folly.
At the end of the book Poirot loses his temper with Colin, as the latter presses him for a reason why he decides to come to Crowdean and explain his solution to the crime there, rather than staying in London. “Since you are too stupid to guess […] I am human, am I not? I can be the machine if it is necessary. I can lie back and think. I can solve the problems so. But I am human, I tell you. And the problems concern human beings […] I came out of human curiosity.” Poirot misses his old life more than he is prepared to say.
As just mentioned, we’re in Crowdean, a seaside town of moderate size and holiday interest, and the pages of the book are set in a warren of suburban anonymity. Wilbraham Crescent features so much in the book that it’s almost a character of its own. Given Christie’s earlier propensity for adding maps and plans to some of her books, I think she missed an opportunity to provide a helpful street plan of the area in its early chapters, which would explain more clearly why people get lost on that street trying to locate some of the numbers.
I very much enjoyed the way Christie has all the locals talking about the case and inventing wild assumptions about it that have absolutely no grounds in truth – rather like Rumour in an old Greek tragedy. However, the discovery of the child Geraldine, observing everything going on in the neighbourhood from her tower block window, and the easy way that Colin pumps her for information and evidence, feels too convenient for words, and is obviously not one of Christie’s best devices. Nevertheless, despite a few failings in the structure and the logic of its deductions, it’s a cracking read, and, rather like The Pale Horse, you’ve still got no idea whodunit with less than 20 pages to go.
Now for the references, starting with the locations. The book is almost entirely set within the confines of Crowdean, Sussex; a fictional place with fictional roads, but whose names might suggest that Crowdean is an amalgam of Brighton, Newhaven and other small seaside towns. It is ten miles from another fictional town, Portlebury. The only other places mentioned are the fictional Shipton Bois, a one-horse market town in Suffolk, and some obviously real locations in London near Beck’s office. Sheila Webb’s London address – 17 Carrington Grove – is made up. Miss Pebmarsh works at the Aaronberg Institute, which sounds like a splendid organisation, but it’s purely the result of Christie’s fevered brain. With a nod to the writer’s tendency to make up names based on geographical locations, Poirot draws our attention to the fact that the dead man had a card in the name of Mr Curry and the person who identified the body was Mrs Rival – and that Curry Rival is the name of a village in Somerset. Actually he’s wrong – it’s Curry Rivel – but we get the picture.
In other references, Mrs Hemming emerges at her front door wearing a tea gown. I’ve never heard of one of those before, and by 1963 they would have been very out of date. Popular in the mid-19th century, they were designed to be worn whilst entertaining informally (maybe at dinner) indoors. It was wrong to be seen wearing a tea gown outside. According to Wikipedia, they were characterised “by unstructured lines and light fabrics”.
Poirot makes the same reference to Sherlock Holmes’ Adventure of the Six Napoleons, (“the depth at which the parsley has sunk into the butter”) as Dr Haydock in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. He also cites the Charles Bravo and Lizzie Borden cases, both of which Christie referred to in Ordeal by Innocence. Colin refers to Adelaide Bartlett, who may have murdered her husband in the Pimlico Poisoning case of 1886, and Poirot mentions the child murderer Constance Kent, who is also mentioned in Crooked House.
In further literary references, Poirot has a range of books that he is enjoying, some of which are real, and some are fictional. He’s sharpening his little grey cells on The Leavenworth Case, an American detective novel and the first novel by Anna Katharine Green, dated 1878. He loves The Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Maurice Leblanc’s turn of the century French equivalent of Sherlock Holmes. He finds The Mystery of the Yellow Room a classic, Gaston Leroux’s 1908 locked-room mystery. He admires Cyril Quain as the master of the alibi – commentators identify Quain as Freeman Willis Crofts; Florence Elks and Louisa O’Malley are also cited, and various opinions abound as to whom they could refer. Garry Gregson, whose writing plays a slightly more important role in the book than everyone else’s, is pure invention. Dickson Carr, G K Chesterton and Conan Doyle also get the odd look-in.
Few readers wouldn’t recognise Poirot quoting The Walrus and the Carpenter in Chapter XIV, but his quote “dilly dilly dilly – come and be killed” is not so recognisable to a modern readership. This is from Samuel Foote’s two-act farce The Mayor of Garret (1763), and became both a nursery rhyme and a music hall song. The dilly in the quote is a duck, with a Mrs Bond going out into the farmyard to catch herself a duck for dinner. “Dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, come to be killed, / For you must be stuffed and my customers filled!”
Regular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There’s only one in this book – the sum of £7 10/- is found on the dead man’s body. That’s the equivalent of about £110 today. Just about the amount of money you might take out with you to cover you for most needs on a day out.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Clocks:
Publication Details: 1963. My copy is the Crime Club hardback first edition, but lacking the dust jacket. I bought it for 25p at a fete in about 1970 – about £2.50 at today’s rates. Not bad for a Christie first edition. It’s probably held its value!
How many pages until the first death: 5. One of the paciest and most entertaining starts to a Christie novel, and that early death really lets you get on with the important business of solving the crime.
Funny lines out of context: Some funny lines, both in and out of context.
“Its painstaking eroticism left her uninterested – as indeed it did most of Mr Levine’s readers, in spite of his efforts. He was a notable example of the fact that nothing can be duller than dull pornography.” (Not a line one would normally associate with Christie!)
“”Edna sighed and put in a fresh sheet of paper: “Desire had him in its grasp. With frenzied fingers he tore the fragile chiffon from her breasts and forced her down on the soap.” “Damn,” said Edna and reached for the eraser.””
(Imagine you’re at a Julian Clary pantomime) “It was just after two o’clock that I walked into the station and asked for Dick.”
The major characters aren’t that memorable, regrettably, with neither Colin nor Hardcastle being particularly interesting. I liked the portrayal of the mad cat woman Mrs Hemming, and Miss Pebmarsh is well drawn, with her crystal clear thought processes and no-nonsense attitude. The dopey Edna and the inebriated Mrs Rival are also entertainingly written. Curiously, one of the most interesting characters is that of Wilbraham Crescent itself, a constant presence in the book and one that takes on human force from time to time, such as when Colin wished the stones of the street could speak. “Wilbraham Crescent remained silently itself. Old-fashioned, aloof, rather shabby, and not given to conversation. Disapproving, I was sure, of itinerant prowlers who didn’t even know that they were looking for.”
Christie the Poison expert:
Knifing and strangling are the favoured methods of murder in this book, but chloral hydrate is also used as part of the story. At the time of writing it was often used as a sedative before minor medical or dental treatment, or to treat insomnia, but is currently unlicensed within either the UK, the EU or the USA.
Class/social issues of the time:
Following on from the in-depth look at modern living that strongly characterised Christie’s previous book, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, it’s perhaps surprising that it isn’t developed more in this book. There are, however, a couple of references to modern housing about which, despite the comfort they bring, Christie still manages to cast aspersions. She describes the quirkiness of Wilbraham Crescent with a kind regard, calling it a Victorian fantasy; “the houses were neat, prim, artistically balconied and eminently respectable. Modernisation has as yet barely touched them – on the outside, that is to say, kitchens and bathrooms were the first to feel the wind of change.”
It’s when Colin is walking through Wilbraham Crescent that he notes “in one or two houses I could see through the uncurtained windows a group of one or two people round a dining table, but even that was exceedingly rare. Either the windows were discreetly screened with nylon netting, as opposed to the once popular Nottingham lace, or – which was far more probable – anyone who was at home was eating in the “modern” kitchen, according to the custom of the 1960s.” Remember Colin is a young man in his early 20s. This is not the kind of observation one would expect him to make. Rather, it’s Christie’s disapproval of abandoning the dining room for the kitchen that is being voiced.
It’s notable that the residents were being pestered by the Press. Hardcastle defends the Press, saying they have their job to do; but Mrs Lawton, who has clearly been pestered already, has no sympathy. “It’s a shame to worry private people as they do […] saying they have to have news for the public. The only thing I’ve ever noticed about the news that they print is that it’s a tissue of lies from beginning to end. They’ll cook up anything so far as I can see.” I don’t know if Christie had an unfortunate relationship with the Press – maybe they pestered her at the time of her disappearance and her divorce. She featured the busybodying journalist Charles Enderby in The Sittaford Mystery. Anyway, it looks like there’s no love lost there – and the concerns she raises about the freedoms of the Press are definitely as valid today as they were then.
That also applies to another political hot potato that rears its ugly head in this book – Europe! The Common Market (aka the EEC) had started in 1957, and by the time of The Clocks was a familiar framework in Europe, if not the UK. Hardcastle’s interview with Miss Pebmarsh’s cleaning lady, Mrs Curtin, reveals her to be very suspicious of it. When he questions her about the cuckoo clock, she leaps to some assumptions: “Must have been foreign […] Me and my old man went on a coach trip to Switzerland and Italy once and it was a whole hour further on there. Must be something to do with the Common Market. I don’t hold with the Common Market and nor does Mr Curtin. England’s good enough for me.” Mrs Curtin there, revealing how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Apart from Mrs Curtin’s European prejudices, there aren’t too many examples of the usual Christie xenophobia in this book. Mrs Bland avows that she wouldn’t “care at all for a foreign doctor. I wouldn’t have any confidence in him” – and at her husband’s suggestion they go on a Greek island cruise, she worries “there’d be a proper English doctor on board, I suppose”. Similarly, Mrs Ramsay rejects Colin’s idea that “ one of those foreign girls” would help her domestically; “au pair, don’t they call it , come and do chores here in return for learning English”. ““I suppose I might try something of that kind,” said Mrs Ramsay, considering, “though I always feel that foreigners may be difficult.”” Elsewhere there is an example of that occasional Christie theme that the police aren’t really quality people. Mrs Head tells Miss Waterhouse, “a couple of gentlemen want to see you […] leastways […] they aren’t really gentlemen – it’s the police.” She further explains that she didn’t take them to the drawing room, but the dining room. “I’d cleared away breakfast and I thought that that would be more proper a place. I mean, they’re only the police after all.”
Classic denouement: There are elements of a classic denouement, but it doesn’t quite make it. For one thing, it’s a highly complicated solution – even though Poirot maintains it is simplicity itself. Secondly, the suspects are not there – just Poirot, Colin and Hardcastle. However, Poirot still unveils his solution stage by stage, piece by piece, revelation by revelation, and it’s an incredibly exciting reveal. Some of the drama is lost by there being a further chapter that ties up Colin’s espionage case, and also two letters from Hardcastle to Poirot, informing him of additional discoveries and confessions after the event. Whilst we need that information for completeness, it does detract from the grand denouement.
Happy ending? There is a marriage – so we wish the happy couple well. Apart from that, and the fact that the guilty parties are dealt with, one senses that nothing will change in Wilbraham Crescent, which may, or may not, be a happy outcome.
Did the story ring true? There’s a surprising ordinariness to the environment that makes a strong contrast with the fanciful nature of the crime, and that, for the most part, helps to make the story pretty believable on the whole.
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an excellent read, and was certainly heading for a 10/10 all the way through, but the final solution is both a little overcomplicated and under-delivering, so it drops to a 9 in the final analysis. But it’s a very enjoyable book.
Thanks for reading my blog of The Clocks, 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 A Caribbean Mystery, and Miss Marple on holiday in the West Indies – but of course, she’s never far away from crime. I can’t remember anything about it, so I’m looking forward to re-reading it and, 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!