THE BOOK Fontana 1973 pp 191
Tom Adams’ cover is one of his finest. In the forefront is a straightforward representation of an event in the story. The background is a brilliant evocation of Gipsy’s Acre and the modern house that the architect Santonix built there.
The dedication is to Nora Prichard ‘from whom I first heard the legend of Gipsy’s Acre’. Nora was Matthew Prichard’s paternal grandmother. 1
Michael Rogers, a young ne’er-do-well from a poor background with an eye, and desire, for the finer things in life, dreams of building a magnificent house on a plot of land known locally as ‘Gipsy’s Acre’. He woos and marries Ellie Guteman, a rich American heiress, and his dream comes true …
But warnings from all and sundry have been ignored by the happy couple, and the dream turns horribly sour.
Mike Rogers is the narrator throughout. Unlike other Christie narrators, such as Captain Hastings, Jerry Burton, Dr Sheppard, Nurse Leatheran, Anthony Cade and Charles Hayward 2, he has no Poirot, Marple or Battle looking on and providing cryptic hints as to what is actually happening.
Thus we see all the events through his eyes only, and have to judge the other characters in the book based on his descriptions. We have to base our understanding of his character on the same basis, and on first inspection he comes across as an easy-going, likeable and attractive young man. Yet there are plenty of hints, throughout his own narrative, to other sides of his character, and this makes him the finest, most complete character study in any of Agatha Christie’s works.
His wife Ellie is often compared to the character Linnet Doyle from Death on the Nile, and she faces a similar betrayal, but, unlike Linnet, she is pure and generous at heart while remaining no-one’s fool: she has a sense, almost an acceptance, of what is going on without comprehending the horror of it.
It is one of the most interesting and unusual aspects of the book that, whilst its readers have no idea what is happening, all the main characters in the story seem to know only too well.
QUOTES AND ATTITUDES
There is not a huge, twining plot in this book, but there is a great deal of revealing conversation that provides most of the clues.
Here, Mike discovers the level a of resentment towards ‘gipsies’ around Gipsy’s Acre; they are not to be trusted:
‘Why doesn’t anyone like gipsies?’
‘They’re a thieving lot,’ he said, disapprovingly. Then he peered more closely at me. ‘Happen you’ve got gipsy blood yourself?’ he suggested, looking hard at me.
I said not that I knew of. It’s true, I do look a bit like a gipsy.
There are many comments about gipsies in the book, but this is the key one, connecting them to Mike. Here is another:
‘The gipsies used to camp here a lot when I was a boy,’ he said. ‘I suppose I got fond of them, though they’re a thieving lot, of course. But I’ve always been attracted to them. As long as you don’t expect them to be law-abiding, they’re all right.’
The speaker, Major Philpott, is attracted to Mike as well. Mike’s architect friend Santonix can see straight through him:
‘Born poor doesn’t mean you’ve got to stay poor. Money’s queer. It goes where it’s wanted.’
‘I’m not sharp enough,’ I said.
‘You’re not ambitious enough. Ambition hasn’t woken up in you, but it’s there, you know.’
Mike’s ambition proves to be boundless. Santonix, too, is attracted to Mike, but feels something else as well when talking to him:
‘Don’t you recognise, haven’t you often felt, that I am partly evil myself? Always have been. That’s why I know when it’s near me, although I don’t always know exactly where it is …’
Santonix can sense the presence of evil with Mike just as Shakespeare’s Witch can feel a ‘pricking of her thumbs’ when Macbeth comes towards her; neither Mike nor Macbeth is aware of the evil in themselves.
Michael’s mother is under no illusions about him:
‘You don’t want me to see her in case I should say to you “Don’t”. Is that it?’
‘I wouldn’t pay any attention if you did.’
‘Maybe not, but it would shake you. It would shake you somewhere inside because you take notice of what I say and think. There are things I’ve guessed about you – and maybe I’ve guessed right and you know it.’
And Mike has no illusions about himself either:
I wanted – there were the words again, my own particular words – I want, I want … I could feel all the feeling surging up in me. I wanted a wonderful woman and a wonderful house like nobody else’s house and I wanted my house to be full of wonderful things. Things that belonged to me. Everything would belong to me.
Mrs Rogers had warned her son about ambition:
‘I don’t know what good ambition’s ever done to anybody. It’s the kind of thing that turns to dead sea fruit in your mouth.’
‘Dead sea fruit’ is an expression for something that appears to be beautiful or full of promise, but is in reality nothing but illusion and disappointment (which Mike will soon discover for himself).
As his original plan comes to fruition, Mike’s ambition grows:
‘And then’. They were the two words of the future. I used them in the same way I had once used those other two words ‘I want’ …
He finally thinks he has everything:
I was me – me – me as I wanted to be. Me as I’d always wanted to be. I’d got everything I’d wanted and I was going home to it.
As it turns out, he has just lost everything. Looking back, he remembers the last time he felt truly happy: Ellie had just sung Endless Night, and Mike asks her to sing another song by William Blake:
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away …
SWIGATHA RATING 10/10
This is a genuine psychological thriller, not so much a who-dun-it as a who-am-I, the answer to which everyone seems to know bar the narrator. Most readers will be surprised by the denouement, but on re-reading it I found that the answer leapt from every page.
It is one of the best things that Agatha Christie ever wrote, and in Michael Rogers she has created her finest and most credible villain. This astonishing late flowering is in a different league to the other stories written around the same time.
Of all the 80 or so books that made up my re-read of the Christie canon, this is this one that has surprised and delighted me the most.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Whether intentional or not, the sensation of the presence of evil is explored further in Agatha Christie’s next book, featuring Tommy and Tuppence, entitled By the Pricking of My Thumbs ...
There is an interesting film made in 1971, starring Hywel Bennett, Hayley Mills and Britt Ekland – very much stars of that time, and perfect for their parts; the supporting cast is a bit weak. The film sticks pretty closely to the original plot, but removes all the ‘gipsy’ elements, apart from the name of Michael’s dream house.
There was also a version made as part of the ITV Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series. That sentence alone should be enough to put you off.
1 Agatha Christie was his maternal grandmother.
2 Jerry Burton narrates The Moving Finger (featuring Miss Marple); Dr Sheppard : The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Poirot); Nurse Leatheran : Murder in Mesopotamia (Poirot); Anthony Cade : The Secret of Chimneys (Battle). Charles Hayward, narrator of Crooked House, confides in his father, the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard.