THE BOOK Fontana 1969 pp 189
Tom Adams’ cover is a straightforward representation of elements associated with Halloween, with the apple morphing into the top half of a skull that he had used in his painting for The Hound of Death. The other cover gives an indication of how much we have been spoilt by Mr Adams: the oddly-shaped pumpkin is pitifully un-sinister and the unclothed girl has no part in the story.
During a Halloween Party given for teenagers, 13 year-old Joyce Reynolds boasts to Ariadne Oliver, writer of crime fiction, that she once witnessed a murder. At then end of the party Joyce is found drowned, with her head in a pail of water that had been used for bobbing for apples.
Mrs Oliver contacts Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate …
The cast of this story are unusual for an Agatha Christie book, because so many of the key roles are given to youngsters: Joyce, her older sister Ann and her younger brother Leopold, the elfin adolescent Miranda, and the intrepid teenagers Nicholas and Desmond, who are given an extraordinary level of responsibility by Poirot towards then end.
There are many suggestions throughout the book that imply that the innocence of childhood is a myth.
By contrast, the adult characters are almost peripheral until the emergence of Michael Garfield, a landscaping Narcissus with an obsession about creating his own Garden of Eden.
I think that there are two stories here that have been shoe-horned into one. The first is a standard who-dun-it about the drowning of a girl who may have witnessed an earlier murder; this is a story that denies the innocence of childhood.
The second concerns the strange relationship of a twelve-year-old girl and a man who keep meeting in a haunted quarry garden; childhood innocence is acknowledged in this particular Eden, albeit as something dangerous.
QUOTES AND ATTITUDES
There is a great deal of repetitive dialogue, which in some cases point to an underlying theme but in others indicate sloppy editing.
Here are three takes on mental health provision at the time from Inspector Spence, Rowena Drake and Dr Ferguson respectively, all within the first 60 pages, and all saying the same thing:
‘We had our mentally disturbed, or whatever they call them, but not so many as we have now. I expect there are more of them let out of the place they ought to be kept safe in.’
‘ … someone of highly disturbed mentality, I suppose, the kind of people who are let out of mental homes simply because there is no room for them there, as far as I can see.’
‘A lot of people who ought to be under mental restraint aren’t under mental restraint. No room in the asylums.’
Although the deaths that occur in the story are the murder by an adult of a girl aged 13 and a boy aged 10, there are repeated examples given by Spence of the murderous nature of young children:
‘Boy of 13. Wanted to kill someone so he killed a child of 9 …’
… it was not unknown in the present age for children to commit crimes, quite young children. Children of 7, of 9 and so on ….
… 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 14 to 12 years of age. Such cases had occurred in recent newspaper reports.
Next, there is the matter of Poirot’s footwear. It is difficult to believe that the author was making a particular point here (all these examples occur within twenty pages of each other):
‘You know, if you’ll excuse me saying so, you oughtn’t to wear patent leather shoes in the country.’
‘But why don’t you wear proper country shoes?’
‘Madame, I like to look soigné in my appearance.’
‘You’d be more comfortable in canvas shoes or sandals.’
‘Ah, ça, non.’
‘I see you are sartorially ambitious.’
Finally, even Poirot agrees with them:
‘My feet. I am not very suitably attired as to footwear for the country. A change of shoes would be desirable.’
This is not one of those books that could have been set in any period. Here’s one of the quotes that pin the story into the late 1960s and the era of flower power (I love the idea of Flower Pot!):
‘You know the sort of thing. Peculiar drugs and – what do they call it? – Flower Pot or Purple Hemp or L.S.D., which I have always thought just meant money, but apparently it doesn’t.’
‘I suppose it costs it,’ suggested Ariadne Oliver.
Like David Baker in the previous 1960s Poirot novel, Third Girl, this story has a representative of the ‘Beautiful People’, Michael Garfield. He has a limitless store of self-regard, and at the end Poirot softly intones an extremely appropriate old French song to sum him up:1
Regarde dans l’eau
Regarde, Narcisse, que tu es beau.
Il n’y a au monde
que la beauté
et la jeunesse,
Hé-las, et la jeunesse.
Regarde Narcisse …
Regarde dans l’eau …
SWIGATHA RATING 5/10
I have to admit that I enjoyed this book more than I had expected / remembered, but it definitely reads as if an editor has never touched it: for example, all the discussions about mental health, killer children and Poirot’s shoes. There is also an intriguing discussion with the headmistress Miss Emlyn, who guessed the identity of the murderer immediately, which is never followed up, presumably forgotten by the author.
It is difficult to swallow a ten-year old boy as a blackmailer, and Poirot’s selection of a pair of teenagers to keep on the trail of a killer and save the life of Miranda seems very unlikely.
The revelation about Miranda’s parenthood doesn’t hold water, indeed the book would benefit from the complete removal of the character of Michael Garland because of the ridiculous plot complications it introduces.
A simplified plot and shorter book would work perfectly well, and be far more credible, with no need to change the clues, the killer’s motives or character.
Still, I enjoyed it!
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Poirot and Mrs Oliver were re-united for the final time in Elephants Can Remember, three years later.
ITV’s Poirot film ignores all the talk of the mentally deficient and tones down the child elements: Nicholas, Ann and Desmond disappear, Leopold is almost twice the age of the book character and no-one discusses seven-year old delinquents. Poirot’s shoes DO get a mention, but just the once.
It is one of the better later Poirot adaptations, but for some strange reason Ariadne Oliver (played by the terrific Zoe Wanamaker) is kept confined to bed for almost all of it. This does not happen in the book; maybe she was actually unwell at the time of filming.
1 The things that Poirot quotes / hums / sings softly are usually worth digging out, but I have not been able to find the origins of this song anywhere. Here is a rough translation:
Look on the water,
See how beautiful you are.
There is nothing to this world
But beauty and youth, alas,
Beauty and youth.
Look on the water.