THE BOOK PAN 1968 pp190
PAN’s front cover is not especially inspired (although the blurb on the back is very enticing to a bookshop browser). The Tom Adams cover for Fontana is, however, for once truly ugly … in my opinion. So ugly that, instead of scanning it in, I have chosen to go with a first edition copy that someone gave me for a birthday present.
The PAN is the first swigatha that I ever bought which wasn’t a second-hand copy (it came, commendably, from the school shop). Someone has since seen fit to apply a hole-punch to it, but I am very attached to it.
The dedication is to ‘Humphrey and Peggy Trevelyan’; Trevelyan was a middle-east diplomat at the time that Agatha and Max Mallowan would visit there on their digs.
Hercule Poirot is invited by Ariadne Oliver, the well-known crime fiction writer, to hand out the prizes at a Murder Hunt that she is organising for a fête at Nasse House, in Devon.
He never gets to do so; Mrs Oliver’s fabled female intuition had persuaded her that something was ‘not quite right’ at Nasse, and her fears prove to be justified when a 14-year-old girl guide is found strangled in its grounds.
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
Agatha Christie might not have recognised herself as a feminist, but she was certainly a strong-willed, independent woman and her opinions of certain types of English male can be detected in many of her novels.
In this one, all the male characters (apart from Poirot and the gardener Merdell) are unsympathetically drawn: ‘Sir’ George Stubbs, ‘Captain’ Warburton, the eugenicist Alec Legge, the moaning Michael Weyman, the hen-pecked local MP Masterton, the chauvinistic de Sousa – even the two investigating police officers.
All the strong or sympathetic characters are female.
The main character in the book, however, is Nasse House itself and its grounds, which very obviously are based on Greenway, Agatha Christie’s Devonshire home, and its surroundings. She even adds the Youth Hostel that used to neighbour Greenway into the plot.
The one locational element that she invents is the eponymous, out-of-place Folly. Whether sub-consciously or not, she also chose the name Folliat for the family that had originally owned Nasse.
Mrs Folliat has apparently sold it to Sir George Stubbs, but lives in its grounds, and acts for all the world as if she were still its châtelaine in the way she greets the locals arriving for the fête; unlike the Folly, Mrs Folliat is definitely in the right place.
This story could be seen as a lament for the fate of old families, forced to sell their ancestral homes to coarse businessmen made good.
But, of course, being a swigatha, it isn’t quite as simple as that; people are not quite who they seem to be. This was a constant motif in Agatha Christie’s books at the time: how can we know, these days, that people are who they claim to be?1
The two that we can trust to be who they are are Mrs Oliver and Poirot, the author’s main mouthpieces in this story.
Mrs Folliat laments the dearth of servants to order about:
‘Life isn’t like that in England these days. I wish it were.’ She sighed. ‘Nowadays one has to do nearly everything oneself.’
Captain Warburton discusses his hostess:
‘But I believe she comes from the West Indies … One of the old families there – a creole, I don’t mean a half-caste. All very inter-married, I believe, on these islands. Accounts for the mental deficiency.’
The author speaks, via Hercule Poirot (as she often did):
‘In the late war, during a severe air-raid, I was much less pre-occupied by the thought of death than of the pain from a corn on my little toe.’
Here, Poirot responds with a brilliant put-down to someone possibly unaware of his own feeble-mindedness:
Alec Legge remained serious. ‘I should like to see every feeble-minded person put out – right out! Don’t let them breed. If, for one generation, only the intelligent were allowed to breed, think what the result would be.’
‘A very large increase of patients in the psychiatric wards, perhaps,’ said Poirot dryly.
Sir George Stubbs is not what he claims to be:
‘He isn’t really Sir George – was christened it, I believe.’
Jim Warburton is not what he claims to be:
‘Silly the way he calls himself Captain. Not a regular soldier and never within miles of a German.’
Etienne de Sousa’s male chauvinism is at least at odds with Alec Legge’s ideals.
‘At fifteen Hattie was mentally undeveloped. Feeble-minded, do you not call it? She is still the same?’
‘It would seems so – yes,’ said Poirot cautiously.
De Sousa shrugged his shoulders. ‘Ah, well! Why should one ask it of women – that they should be intelligent? It is not necessary.’
The Devon Police approach to investigation takes a line out of de Sousa’s book:
‘Women,’ said the Inspector sententiously, ‘tell a lot of lies. Always remember that, Hoskins.’
‘Aah,’ said Constable Hoskins appreciatively.
And men don’t … well, they sure do in this book, Finally, Poirot and Mrs Folliat discuss 14-year-old Marlene Tucker’s death:
‘We old folks expect to die, but that child had her life before her.’
‘It might not have been a very interesting life.’
‘Not from our point of view, perhaps, but it might have been interesting to her.’
SWIGATHA RATING 5/10
The story begins with the murder of Marlene Tucker, and it must be counted as somewhat unusual (for a whodunit) that, although we know what they called themselves, we never find out the actual name of Marlene’s killer. It is even more of an oversight when one considers that the Murder Hunt entries have ‘Name of Murderer’ on them, as shown by the above cover.
The three main clues are fairly, and cleverly, placed in the mouths of two people whom most people in the story would tend not to believe, but I think the book itself was put together hurriedly; maybe it was the work of a tired writer – she had so much else going on at the time and was 66 years old …
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
This story was based on a novella (Greenshore’s Folly) that Agatha Christie had previously written to raise funds for a stained-glass window for her local church. That novella, incredibly, was rejected on the grounds of size, so she wrote a totally different Miss Marple short story for them instead called, confusingly, Greenshaw’s Folly: maybe she was determined to get her tribute to Greenway House published somehow.
Anyway, it did get published, and was included in the collection ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’. The original Greenshore’s Folly was finally published by Agatha Christie Ltd in 2014.
Ariadne Oliver turned up in a further four stories, next teaming up with Poirot in Third Girl.
ITV’s Poirot made a very decent fist of an average story. It was well-cast, and this adaptation played it very straight with the plot. The star of the cast played Nasse House – they were allowed to use Greenway itself, and it is perfect for it. This was the last Poirot episode to be made by ITV; they certainly went out on a high. Peter Ustinov also did one of his 1980s Poirot turns for US TV.
1 Here are a few examples: A Murder is Announced (1950), Taken at the Flood (1948), Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952), After the Funeral (1953), Hickory Dickory Dock (1955) …