The Clocks

THE BOOK  Fontana 1969  220pp

Fontana’s cover has many echoes of other 1960s covers that Tom Adams did for them, but it was not one of his: it is another of Ian Robinson’s. The one on the right is an Adams: he did it for the US edition.  

I prefer the simpler cover, which adorns the book I originally bought and read as a 14-year-old; it still holds up well. At the back of it are three pages of Also available in Fontana Books, with three-line write-ups on a variety of books, including the first three Poldark novels. The write-up for Appointment with Death is enthusiastic:

Poirot has surpassed himself! Never has he been so brilliant, so accurate, so fair and so logical.” Evening News

Love it!

THE STORY 

Sheila Webb, a stenographer, is sent by the Cavendish Secretarial Bureau to 19, Wilbraham Crescent. On arrival, she finds the house unlocked and then discovers a man lying dead in a room full of clocks, with four of them stopped on the same time, 4:13.1 Sheila screams, rushes out into the street and collapses into the arms of Colin Lamb, a secret service agent who just happened to be investigating Crescents in the area.

Lamb joins forces with Inspector Hardcastle to investigate the murder. When another employee of the secretarial bureau is later found dead in a telephone box in the same street, Lamb consults another old friend, Hercule Poirot …

CHARACTERS  

Most of the ‘action’ in the book takes place in the houses of Wilbraham Crescent which neighbour no 19. This small community contains Miss Pebmarsh, a blind woman with a remarkable ability to look after herself; Mrs Hemmings, a woman obsessed with cats; the McNaughtons, a whisky-toping retired couple; the Ramseys, a family whose father has defected to the Soviet bloc; and the Blands, a vulgar and tasteless builder and his wife.

Amongst that lot we also find a murderer, a Soviet spy and even Sheila’s mother, long considered dead. Added to that strange mix is a standard Christie character – the walking murder victim, who wanders around muttering to herself and others about how ‘it all seems funny’, and makes her way to Wilbraham Crescent to be killed.

For his work, Colin Lamb has had to change his name because his father had made such a big name for himself in a similar field. From the hints given, especially by Poirot, who knew him, and refers to him as ‘the Superintendent’, we can safely guess that Colin’s father is Superintendent Battle.

As for Poirot, when he finally enters the story after over 100 pages, we are told by his valet that he has been depressed; he is also becoming something of a bore on the subject matter of real-life crime and detective fiction writers (a warning to us all!).

QUOTES AND ATTITUDES

This book was written when the UK was still outside of the Common Market, its application to join having been rejected, in particular by France. Here, Mrs Curtin, the cleaner at No 19, explains to Inspector the anomaly of the clocks:

‘Each of these four clocks represented a time about an hour later than the cuckoo clock and the grandfather clock.’
‘Must have been foreign,’ said Mrs Curtin. ‘Me and my old man went on a coach trip to Switzerland and Italy once and it was a whole hour further on there. Must be something to do with this Common Market. I don’t hold with the Common Market and nor does Mr Curtin. England’s good enough for me.’

Brilliant! This should have been plastered all over the Vote Leave vans during the 2016 referendum.

Here one of the street residents describes Miss Pebmarsh, who teaches at an institute for blind children; the ramifications of the Education Act (which introduced grammar schools) are still being mocked some 20 years later:

‘I merely think her views are bigoted and extravagant. After all, there are other things besides education. All those new peculiar grammar schools, practically built of glass. You might think they were meant to grow cucumbers in, or tomatoes.’ 

Here is another post-war theme that Christie often returns to: the fact that no-one lives at home anymore, ‘home’ being defined as where they and their family have always lived:

The lame and the halt and the old didn’t live in their own houses any more, attended by a faithful domestic or by some half-witted poor relation glad of a good home. It was a serious setback to criminal investigation.

 … and criminal fiction authors! But she soldiered on.

The Cuban Missile crisis was still fresh in the memory:

‘They’re having revolutions all over the world nowadays.’
‘Let us not discuss the Bomb,’ said Hercule Poirot. ‘If it has to be, it has to be, but let us not discuss it.’

This is something of a non-sequitur from HP: no bomb spelt with a capital B has ever been part of a revolution.

SWIGATHA RATING  3/10 

Apart from the startling start and the slightly ludicrous end, there is little to the story for the most part, and the characters do not exactly rise from the page. The emergence of Sheila’s mother is ridiculous, and the coincidence of such a strange but inter-connected group of characters living in the same street is difficult to swallow.

As was becoming more common,1 Agatha Christie in her 70s was plundering her back catalogue for ideas, but fleshing them out was sometimes a bore, and that seems to be the case here.  

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT

There was a film made in 1966, starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and called Bedazzled, in which they played the Devil and an unwilling disciple; one of their routine acts of evil was tearing out the back pages of Agatha Christie books before they went on sale. In the film, the book that they desecrate is the first Fontana paperback edition of The Clocks (the one I have), which was first published in 1966. 

Poirot disappeared for another three years, re-appearing in Third Girl. Thankfully, he had finished his magnum opus on crime fiction by then.

ADAPTATIONS  

The Clocks was one of the later adaptations in the ITV Poirot series and, as a result, I approached it with some dread: some of the later series productions are dismally poor. Happily, this one turned out to be one of the best of those later Poirot episodes: a fine cast, actually seeming to take their parts seriously, with a terrific Inspector Hardcastle played by Phil Daniels. The scene where Sheila finds the body in a room full of clocks and Pebmarsh walks in is electric.

This film makes more of the book than it deserves, and for once re-setting the story in 1936 makes sense. What didn’t make quite so much sense was the decision to use a 2012 recording of Kiss a Dream at the start. The singer is obviously trying to sound like Frank Sinatra, but even Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t start making records until WWII had broken out in Europe.  

NOTES

1 This is the third time Agatha Christie used this ‘body-found-in-room-full-of-clocks’ scenario. The Seven Dials Mystery was the first, and there was also a short story, The Clock Stops, written for a competition in which the entrants had to guess the ending.