The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hallowe’en Party (1969)

Halloween PartyIn which Mrs Oliver is staying with a friend in Woodleigh Common and is present at a children’s Hallowe’en party that ends in a grotesque death involving apples, which puts Mrs O off her favourite fruit for life. She calls for assistance from her old friend Hercule Poirot, who speaks to everyone involved with setting up the party, but it’s not until another tragedy takes place that he’s able to identify the murderer.  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

P G WodehouseThe book is dedicated to “P. G. Wodehouse whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me that he enjoys my books.” Wodehouse, of course, was a prodigious writer of humorous novels and short stories all the way through the first three quarters of the 20th century. Hallowe’en Party was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1969, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in the same month. It was also serialised in the UK in Women’s Own magazine, in seven instalments in November and December 1969, and in the US in Cosmopolitan magazine in December 1969.

Children's gamesI was very surprised when I started researching for this blog post to read that contemporary reviews of this book were largely not complimentary, because I really enjoyed re-reading this book. I thought it was an intriguing and fascinating plot, which brings the modern reader face-to-face with some uncomfortable truths – the sexualisation of children and the subsequent potential for their abuse and murder. The main problem with the book perhaps is that there are several loose ends that are not tied up, but I didn’t mind that too much; loose ends, like life, aren’t always tied up, and they don’t adversely affect the plot as a whole. There’s also a lengthy reflection about gardens that, try as I might, I fail to see the reason why it occupied quite so much of Christie’s attention.

private detectiveYet, the preliminary story-telling is amusing and entertaining; and Poirot’s thorough and logical series of interviews to come up with a solution is not that different from the equivalent sequence in Murder on the Orient Express, although perhaps a little more ploddy. Nevertheless, Christie employs the tactic of introducing short chapters/chapter parts towards the end of the book to make the final revelations even more exciting. However, despite that excitement, I largely guessed the identity of the guilty party from a very big clue that Christie telegraphs a mile off, so from that point of view it’s a little disappointing. But then there’s always an element of satisfaction when you beat Christie and guess the solution correctly!

retroThere’s quite a retro feel to this book, with not only the return appearance of the new detective team of Poirot and Oliver, but we also welcome back the retired Superintendent Spence, whom we last saw seventeen years earlier in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, a case which the two men recollect in some detail as they imagine what some of the characters and suspects would be doing nowadays. There are also mentions of Poirot’s work in The Labours of Hercules, and Miss Emlyn, the school headmistress, is a friend of Miss Bulstrode whom we met in Cat Among the Pigeons. One of the recurrent plot lines of this book is that of witnessing a murder, although the witness didn’t realise it was a murder at the time. This feels like it borrows from the plots of A Caribbean Mystery and Third Girl, and Mrs Oliver also mentions that she would never again help in running a murder game at a party, which is a direct reference to the plot of Dead Man’s Folly. Poirot and Spence are at pains to declare their appreciation of each other, albeit lightly, with Spence saying of himself “I should never think of myself as a distinguished man”, but Poirot correcting him, “I think of you as such.” Spence also says to Poirot: “may your moustaches never grow less”.

vicar2It’s always fun to spot new aspects to Christie’s characters, and in this book, we discover a fascinating insight into Poirot’s past: “his mind, magnificent as it was (for he had never doubted that fact) required stimulation from outside sources. He had never been of a philosophic cast of mind. There were times when he almost regretted that he had not taken to the study of theology instead of going into the police force in his early days. The number of angels who could dance on the point of a needle; it would be interesting to feel that that mattered and to argue passionately on the point with one’s colleagues.” Poirot a theologian? I would have thought he was much more into empirical evidence than spiritual.

Blind JusticeIt’s also an aspiration that you might feel is at odds with his overwhelming support for justice. “He was a man who thought first always of justice. He was suspicious, had always been suspicious, of mercy – too much mercy, that is to say. Too much mercy, as he knew from former experience both in Belgium and this country, often resulted in further crimes which were fatal to innocent victims who need not have been victims if justice had been put first and mercy second.”

Black patent leather shoesWe always knew about his tendency to wear smart, tight patent leather shoes, but in this book he’s started to suffer for his fashion style. On a few occasions it’s noted that he’s in pain. Mrs Oliver makes the sensible suggestion that he should ““take your shoes off […] and rest your feet.” “No, no, I could not do that.” Poirot sounded shocked at the possibility. “Well, we’re old friends together,” said Mrs Oliver, “[…] if you’ll excuse me saying so, you oughtn’t to wear patent leather shoes in the country, Why don’t you get yourself a nice pair of suede shoes? Or the things all the hippy-looking boys wear nowadays? […]” “I would not care for that at all,” said Poirot severely, “no indeed!” “The trouble with you is,“ said Mrs Oliver […] “that you insist on being smart. You mind more about your clothes and your moustaches and how you look and what you wear than comfort. Now comfort is really the great thing. Once you’ve passed, say, fifty, comfort is the only thing that matters […] if not, you will suffer a great deal and it will be worse year after year.”” The voice of reason versus the voice of vanity.

FinlandAs for Mrs Oliver, there isn’t much here that we didn’t already know. When some of the children ask her why her detective is a Finn, she replies “I’ve often wondered”. When they ask if she makes a lot of money from her books, ““in a way,” said Mrs Oliver, her thoughts flying to the Inland Revenue.”” When questioned if she puts real people into her books, she denies that she does it, but after further probing from Poirot, she admits that she takes the look of someone that she might have met in real life and puts a person with that look into a book; but if she were to discover anything about the person’s character it wouldn’t work, she has to create her own opinion of what the person’s character might be.

Agatha ChristieAll this continues to suggest that Christie put herself into her books in the guise of Mrs Oliver, and completely contradicting Mrs O’s own statement about “putting people into books”. She put herself into the books, after all! Poirot is, unsurprisingly, the person who knows Mrs Oliver best of all. When she consults him about the incident during the party, she arrives in a what I can only describe as the most frantic tizzy imaginable. Poirot’s observation: ““It is a pity,” he murmured to himself, “that she is so scatty. And yet, she has originality of mind. It could be that I am going to enjoy what she is coming to tell me. It could be – “ he reflected a minute “- that it may take a great deal of the evening and that it will all be excessively foolish. Eh bien, one must take one’s risks in life.””

St Mary's Church WoodleighApart from Poirot’s London flat, there’s only one new location in this book, the commuter town of Woodleigh Common, described as thirty to forty miles from London, and near Medchester, where the solicitors Fullerton, Harrison and Leadbetter are based. Woodleigh Common is a figment of Christie’s imagination, but there is a Woodleigh in the South Hams district of Devon, with which Christie would almost certainly have been familiar.

Snapdragon gameThere are quite a few other references and quotations to check out in this book. Critical to the crime is a game that was played at the party, entitled the Snapdragon. I’d never heard of this game. I’m shamelessly going to quote from Wikipedia: “Snap-dragon (also known as Flap-dragon, Snapdragon, or Flapdragon) was a parlour game popular from about the 16th century. It was played during the winter, particularly on Christmas Eve. Brandy was heated and placed in a wide shallow bowl; raisins were placed in the brandy which was then set alight. Typically, lights were extinguished or dimmed to increase the eerie effect of the blue flames playing across the liquor. The game was described in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) as “a play in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them.” According to an article in Richard Steele’s Tatler magazine, “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit.” Snap-dragon was played in England, Canada, and the United States, but there is insufficient evidence of the practice in Scotland or other countries.”

SiseraPoirot had expected to spend the evening discussing the Canning Road Municipal Baths murder with his friend Solly. I’m not entirely sure – but I think this is an invention of Christie’s; odd, because it sounds slightly familiar. Old sins have long shadows, quotes Poirot when talking about the death of Janet White. This isn’t actually a quotation but an old proverb. Miranda quotes “birds in their little nests agree”; this comes from Love Between Brothers and Sisters, one of the divine songs for children by Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748). She also says to Poirot, “do you think the old saying is true – about you’re born to be hanged or born to be drowned?” She’s actually referring to an old French proverb that says, “He that is born to be hanged shall never be drowned.” Miranda also enjoys the story of Jael and Sisera; that’s the second time Christie has referred to that old Bible reference – the first time is in N or M?

Grasshopper“I don’t know if it was Burns or Sir Walter Scott who said “There’s a chiel among you taking notes”, says Mrs Oliver. It’s Burns, from “On The Late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland”. Mr Drake’s car accident involved a Grasshopper Mk 7 – that’s the old Austin Seven car, the market leader at the time. And a final quote: “the fate of every man have we bound about his neck” – ““an Islamic saying, I believe,” said Poirot.” It’s actually from Chapter 17 of the Holy Koran.

Elvis PresleyChristie must have had a lot of fun coming up with the name Eddie Presweight, a pop singer whose face resembles the man that young Beatrice sees in her mirror during the party game. I’m assuming the “Eddie” was inspired by Eddie Cochran, the “Pres” comes from Elvis Presley, but the “weight” has me stumped. Any ideas, gentle reader?

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Hallowe’en Party:

 

Publication Details: 1969. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression, proudly boasting the words first time in paperback, published in 1972, bearing the price on the back cover of 30p. The superb cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a red apple morphing into a skull, dripping water, and with images in hand mirrors and a very sinister carved pumpkin.

How many pages until the first death: 17 – excitingly rapid.

Funny lines out of context: sadly none.

Memorable characters: Not the strength of this book. Most of the main characters are rather scantily drawn; perhaps the most interesting is Miranda, the very thoughtful and intelligent daughter of Mrs Oliver’s friend Judith Butler. I also rather liked the two boys, Desmond and Nick, who behave with remarkable decency and solemnity for boys their age!

Christie the Poison expert: An unspecified “golden liquid” was to be used as a poison to murder – but when this is thwarted, it’s used for suicide.

Class/social issues of the time:

As the 60s continued to hurtle towards the 70s, you sense Christie getting more and more at odds with modern life. Spence and Poirot reflect on the difficulties within modern relationships. ““I’d say, you know, roughly, Poirot, that more girls nowadays marry wrong ‘uns than they ever used to in my time.” Hercule Poirot considered, pulling his moustaches. “Yes,” he said, “I can see that that might be so, I suspect that girls have always been partial to the bad lots, as you say, but in the past there were safeguards.”” They regret that modern parenting hasn’t seen fit to impose itself on the relationships of young adults like it did in their day. Mrs Drake also disapproves of modern parenting, when reflecting on the appearance and behaviour of some children: “they’re not brought up very well nowadays. Everything seems left to the school, and of course they lead very permissive lives. Have their own choice of friends…”

A side theme that Christie occasionally explores and seems very out of place today is the sexualisation of children and the possibility that children can be sexually attractive in some ways; it’s fascinating how the whole notion of paedophilia was somehow less shocking at that time than it is today. Mrs Oliver refers to 12-year-old Joyce as “rather mature, perhaps. Lumpy” […] “well developed? You mean sexy-looking?” asks Poirot; “yes that is what I mean”. There are other oblique references like this that you simply wouldn’t expect to find in this kind of book today. The two boys – 18 years old and 16 years old – believe there’s “got to be a sex background to all these things” – and imagine perhaps that the new curate might have exposed himself to young Joyce. They also imagine one of their teachers to be a “lesbian” – the first time such a word appeared in a Christie book.

Following on from Poirot and Mrs Oliver’s discomfort with the beautiful young men in Third Girl, here there is another young man who captivates their attention with his looks – Michael Garfield. “A young man […] of an unusual beauty. One didn’t think of young men that way nowadays. You said of a young man that he was sexy or madly attractive and these evidences of praise are often quite justly made […] if you did say it, you said it apologetically as though you were praising some quality that had been long dead. The sexy girls didn’t want Orpheus with his lute, they wanted a pop singer with a raucous voice, expressive eyes and large masses of unruly hair.” Constantly impressed with his appearance, they just don’t know how to deal with him.

1969 was a time when it was reported that mindless violence was everywhere, and abductions and killing of children were two a penny. Petty crime was worse; lawyer Jeremy Fullerton professes himself to be “contemptuous of many of the magistrates of today with their weak sentences, the acceptance of scholastic needs. The students who stole books, the young married women who denuded the supermarkets, the girls who filched money from their employers, the boys who wrecked telephone boxes, none of them in real need, none of then desperate, most of them had known nothing but over-indulgence in bringing-up and a fervent belief that anything they could not afford to buy was theirs to take.”

Mrs Drake also: “It seems to me that crimes are so often associated nowadays with the young. People who don’t really know quite what they are doing, who want silly revenges, who have an instinct for destruction. Even the people who wreck telephone boxes, or who slash the tyres of cars, do all sorts of things just to hurt people, just because they hate – not anyone in particular, but the whole world. It’s a sort of symptom of this age.” And Inspector Raglan’s suspicions fall on the boys simply because of their age. “The percentage of murders committed by this age group had been increasing in the last few years. Not that Poirot inclined to that particular suspicion himself, but anything was possible. It was even possible that the killing which had occurred two or three years ago might have been committed by a boy, youth, or adolescent of fourteen or twelve years of age. Such cases had occurred in recent newspaper reports.” There’s also a lot of consideration given to the possibility simply that mental instability can be a motivation for murder – Dr Ferguson subscribes to this chain of thought, and the whole of chapter nine is given over to his ghoulish beliefs.

Among the less violent or gruesome issues that arise, there are a couple of references to the abolition of the 11+ – that was the exam you took aged 11 to decide whether you could progress forward into the grammar school route (if you passed) or the secondary modern (if you failed). I took my 11+ in 1971 (and passed, heh heh) so I don’t know why they say it had already been abolished in 1969 – different rules for different places, I suppose.

“Do you tell fortunes?” asks Poirot of Mrs Goodbody. ““Mustn’t say I do, must I?” she chuckled. “The police don’t like that. Not that they mind the kind of fortunes I tell. Nothing to it, as you might say.”” This isn’t the first time there’s been an allusion to the fact that certain types of fortune-telling were illegal – and indeed they still are today in many parts of the world. It was originally classified as witchcraft and made illegal in 1563. Until as recently as 1951 a medium could be prosecuted under sections of the Witchcraft Act of 1735 and the Vagrancy Act of 1824.

Classic denouement:  Not quite. The police gather together some suspects for a final questioning which reveals the identity of the wrongdoer. But any guilty parties are not present for that revelation, and we only find out the finer details from Poirot in discussion with Mrs Oliver after it’s all over.

Happy ending? The only sense of “happy ending” is that the innocents have been sorted out from the guilty, and they have the chance to go on to lead successful lives. There’s no big marriages, fortunate windfalls or anything like that.

Did the story ring true? For the most part, yes. The loose ends that remain loose don’t affect the credibility of the story or the solution, just feel a bit untidy. There is something of an unlikely revelation in the last two pages but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. Marks deducted for untied up loose ends, but it’s still a very enjoyable and entertaining read.

Thanks for reading my blog of Hallowe’en Party, 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 Passenger to Frankfurt, a spy story of which I have absolutely no recollection, and published to mark Christie’s eightieth birthday. 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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