THE BOOK Fontana 1968 pp 192
Tom Adams’ cover refers to the two clues that unravel the second murder – a coffee cup and the feathers of a dove that featured in a poem that is twice quoted. Adams produced four covers for this title and three of them reference the dove.
The older cover is the actual edition I first read. The question on the front is typical of the time – cf the edition of The Hollow from the same period: She held the gun – but was she the killer?
The dedicatee is ‘Billy Collins, with affection and gratitude’. This is William Collins, who persuaded the author to switch publishers in 1926 and release herself from an incredibly lop-sided contract with Bodley Head.
On his return from a two-year Arctic expedition, geophysicist Arthur Calgary discovers that Jacko Argyle has died in prison while serving a sentence for the murder of his adoptive mother, Rachel. Calgary realises that he could have confirmed Jacko’s alibi for the time of the murder.
He travels to the family home, nervous as to his likely reception but confident that, at least, they would be pleased to have Jacko’s name cleared.
The reaction of the family members proves not to be quite what he had expected …
The story is pretty much confined to the house, Sunny Point, and its inhabitants. The murdered woman, Rachel Argyle, had adopted five children, four of them WWII refugees. Mary Durrant, Micky, Tina and Hester are each strongly delineated, by contrast with the other, older members of the household (Rachel’s husband Leo, his secretary Gwenda Vaughan and Kirsten, the ‘home help’).
The children are all grown-up, but (apart from Jacko) still live at or near to their childhood home. They remember their ‘mother’ with a mixture of devotion (Tina), loathing (Micky), exasperation (Hester) and indifference (Mary). There are some similarities between this book and another dealing with murder in the past (Five Little Pigs): the wrong person convicted and dies in prison, the other members of the household are interviewed to see what they can remember, and so on. In this book, however, rather too much time is spent with characters asking each other who they think did it or whether they know who did it.
Still, at least the characters are not straight from central casting: Tina is a ‘half-caste’ daughter of a prostitute, Micky was sold by his mother for £100 and Hester is the unwanted illegitimate daughter of an Irish girl. And it is strongly implied at the end that there is new hope for all three of them: that is the gift that Calgary’s unwelcome intervention ends up bestowing on them.
QUOTES AND ATTITUDES
Calgary meets Hester Argyll and is taken aback by his reception:
‘Going on about justice! What does it matter to Jacko now? He’s dead. It’s not Jacko who matters. It’s us!’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s not the guilty who matter. It’s the innocent.’
This is very much a common Agatha Christie theme: it is more important that the innocent are free of suspicion or threat, than that the guilty should be apprehended.1
Arthur Calgary meets Tina Argyll:
Her skin was dark, darker than an English skin could ever be. Her bones, too, were smaller. This was the half-caste child that Mrs Argyle had taken as a daughter into the family.
Mary’s husband discusses Tina, her half-sister:
‘Tina’s always the dark horse, to my mind.’ said Philip. ‘Perhaps it’s the half of her that isn’t white … ‘
Dr MacMaster raises an interesting point:
‘We all know what human nature is like. Do a chap a good turn and you feel kindly towards him. You like him. But the chap who’s had the good turn done to him, does he feel kindly to you?’
Here he compares notes with another doctor:
‘She sounded – I can’t explain to you how she sounded.’
‘Irish blood,’ said MacMaster.
‘She sounded altogether stricken, terrified. Oh, I can’t explain it.’
‘Well, what do you expect?’ the doctor asked.
Doctors rarely come out of Agatha Christie books well.
Meanwhile, Micky Argyll is still haunted by his adoptive mother:
She was dead, wasn’t she? Why worry? What was the matter with him? Was it – that he couldn’t hate her anymore because she was dead? So that was death … He felt lost without his hatred – lost and afraid.
He yearns for the comforts of his (slum) home and (drunken) birth mother, who had sold him to Rachel Argyll:
‘I didn’t want to be taken away from my own home.’
‘You might have been bombed,’ Tina pointed out. ‘You might have been killed.’
‘What would it matter? I wouldn’t mind being killed. I’d have been killed in my own place, with my own people around me.’
But by the end, he is reconciled to his adoptive mother as he visits her grave:
‘There you are mum,’ he said. ‘I was a rotten son to you, and I don’t think you were a very wise mother to me. But you meant well.’
Some words of wisdom from Supt Huish about Kirsten:
‘She’s of the age when women go slightly off their rocker in one way or another.’
My edition could have done with some proof-reading. Here Calgary is accusing someone of killing Tina, and then justifying the accusation by announcing that she is still alive:
‘You are saying I killed Tina and Philip?’
‘Of course you killed them,’ said Calgary. ‘Tina has recovered consciousness.’
There are three works quoted in the book, of varying degrees of significance but all of interest:
If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me.
I am afraid of all my sorrows. I know that thou will not hold me innocent.
The Book of Job
O fair dove! O fond dove!
And dove with the white breast!
Let me alone, the dream is my own,
And my heart is full of rest,
My heart is full of rest.
Jean Ingelow 2
Venus toute entière à sa proie attacheé
Jean Racine 3
SWIGATHA RATING 6/10
This one is definitely a ‘detective story that has a kind of passion behind it’, but you could re-write the last 20 pages and insert almost any of the characters as the guilty party without making a nonsense of the previous 170. In fact, the BBC adaptation that was made in 2017 did just that.
For a writer of a species of fiction known as ‘whodunits’, it is strange that often Agatha Christie doesn’t seem to care ‘who’. Once again, like in Five Little Pigs, the killer just walks away after being found out. This is a very interesting ‘Christie’ but as a whodunit (and unlike Five Little Pigs) it is not in the top rank.
This BBC ‘Christie for Christmas’ was delayed and not shown until 2018, because of allegations of sexual impropriety against one of the cast. When it did come out, many were shocked by its distortion of the plot and the characters; many more loved it.
1 Agatha Christie, An Autobiography:
One of the pleasures of writing detective stories is that there are so many types to choose from … the light-hearted thriller … the intricate detective story with an involved plot … and then what I can only describe as the detective story that has a kind of passion behind it – that passion being to help save innocence. Because it is innocence that matters, not guilt.
2 A well-known English (in her time) Victorian poet
3 from Phaedre. It translates (very) roughly as Venus, clinging on to her prey for dear life. This somewhat unflattering comparison comes to Philip Durrant’s mind as he considers his wife.