THE BOOK Fontana 1980 pp 189
Dedication: ‘For Larry and Danae, with apologies for using their swimming pool as the location’. Larry was Francis L Sullivan, who had portrayed Poirot on the London stage in Black Coffee (1930).
The book I have is a fairly straightforward representation of a plot-line concerning the murder weapon, one of a collection of fire-arms housed at The Hollow, and the basket of eggs collected by Lady Angkatell.
I wish I had the version with Tom Adams painting on the front. That is a brilliant cover, depicting another of the guns, one that was deliberately dropped into the swimming pool on a fine autumnal day.1
The title is the name of a house, but also a reference to a poem by Tennyson which Poirot quotes half-way through.2
Hercule Poirot is staying at his house in the country and is invited to The Hollow for lunch by his neighbours, Sir Henry and Lucy Angkatell. When he arrives, he is shown outside by Gudgeon, the butler, and finds other members of the house-party standing around a swimming-pool – all apart from one, who is lying beside it, having been shot in the chest. His wife is standing over him, gun in hand.
Although Poirot is asked by the family to help with the investigation, he finds his path impeded by some of them, seemingly intent on preventing him discovering the truth.
Hercule Poirot is hardly in the story at all, and very un-Poirot-esque when he is (no strange exclamations in French, par exemple). It is difficult to envisage him as the owner of a house out in the country, moreover in a countryside that he has always professed to abominate, so one comes to the conclusion that he has been shoe-horned into it by the author (or publisher).
The other characters, on the other hand, are drawn much more strongly than usual for the cast of a whodunit: the delightfully vague and outrageous Lucy Angkatell, the fiercely independent Midge, the wan, listless, almost useless Edward, the super-intelligent if somewhat amoral sculptress Henrietta, the seemingly inadequate but sly Gerda and her dominant, life-embracing husband John.
This is more like a romantic novel by Mary Westmacott (her alter ego) than one by Agatha Christie, and it works well in its own right until the somewhat bonkers ending, which has one character trying to shove their head into a gas oven and then Poirot sitting at a tea-table watching approvingly as someone take a fatal dose of poison.
The rest of the story is all about relationships: between Edward and Midge, between Lady Angkatell and the servants, between Henrietta and John Christow, and between John Christow and just about everybody else, including a charming old cockney lady named Crabtree who is dying of a disease that Christow is researching.
The point is often made in the book that Christow is more alive than anyone else, even after he has died; the other characters are but echoes, and Echo there, whatever is ask’d her, answers ‘Death’ .2
I think that is a bit unfair on Lucy and co, but certainly Poirot is but an echo of his earlier self when he visits The Hollow.
QUOTES AND ATTITUDES
The two strongest characters in this story are Mrs Crabtree and Lady Angkatell. The author was clearly very fond of both. Here, Dr John Christow considers Mrs Crabtree, a patient dying of a disease for which he is trying to find a cure:
But she wanted to live – she enjoyed life – just as he enjoyed life! It wasn’t the circumstances of life they enjoyed, it was life itself – the zest of existence. Curious, a thing one couldn’t explain.
This is the author talking! She certainly had her share of ups and downs during her life but never lost ‘the zest for life’, and was proud of it. Mrs Crabtree consents to Christow trying out different treatments for her incurable disease:
“‘Ad me ‘air permed, I did, when I was a kid. It wasn’t ‘alf a difficult business then. Looked like a n*****, I did. Couldn’t get a comb through it. But there – I enjoyed the fun. You can ‘ave your fun with me. I can stand it.”
Sir Henry describes Lucy Angkatell, who really does believe she can get away with murder (even if it was committed by someone else). She certainly ‘runs riot’ over every other question.
“She’s put deadly enemies next to each other at the dinner table, and run riot over the colour question … I’m damned if she hasn’t got away with it!”
Here, Lucy expresses her own unique take on the ramifications of the Beveridge Report: education for all and a future Welfare State throughout the UK. The Hollow was published between the publication of the report in 1944 and the establishment of the NHS in 1948:
“I must have a talk with you, David, and learn all the new ideas. As far as I can see, one must hate everybody, but at the same time give them free medical attention and a lot of extra education (poor things, all those helpless little children herded into schoolhouses every day) … “
Now she considers the man who has been murdered in her home:
“Why? Oh, you mean because he’s dead? Oh well, everyone has to die sometime. I never worry over people dying …”
He looked at her curiously. “I always thought you liked Christow, Lucy?”
“I found him amusing. And he had charm. But I never think one ought to attach too much importance to anybody.”
Lucy tells Inspector Grange that he is making far too much fuss over the murder, and considers the possible fate of one of his suspects (one that that suspect is allowed to avoid, because Poirot evidently shares Lucy’s opinion):
“And if you go and put her in prison and hang her, what on earth is going to happen to the children? If she did shoot John, she’s probably dreadfully sorry about it now. It’s bad enough for children to have a father who’s been murdered – but it will make it infinitely worse for them to have their mother hanged for it. Sometimes I don’t think you policemen think of these things.”
Finally, Lucy offers to tell Poirot who did it, and how, if he will drop the case:
“If you were to know the truth – if you were to be told the truth, I think – I think perhaps that might satisfy you? Would it satisfy you, M Poirot?”
Whatever all the others may think about John Christow, she is the dominant character in the book.
SWIGATHA RATING 6/10
The first half of the story is totally engaging – and then Poirot arrives, and it seems to tail off! All of the characters have more than one dimension to themselves on display, and the end is a surprise, but it feels to me like here was an author who had set out to write something different; for some reason, she felt obliged to introduce one or two incongruous elements (including Poirot) and so ends up turning out more of the same.
It’s still very clever, though.
WHERE IT LED
This had been the first ‘Poirot’ story for three years, but even so, when Agatha Christie adapted it as a play, his character was dropped. To satisfy her readers’ insatiable appetite for Poirot, The Labours of Hercules, a collection of short stories that had been published in The Strand magazine the previous decade was published the following year.
The ITV adaptation for their Poirot series had a very strong cast, with Edward Fox as Gudgeon and Sarah Miles in excellent form as Lucy. It is a pretty faithful version, although Poirot is given somewhat more prominence in it, unsurprisingly. It was directed by Margaret Mitchell, who was also responsible for the peerless Five Little Pigs episode for the same company.
1 The first copy of the book we had as children had an older, garish cover featuring Gerda Christow, gun in hand, standing over the body of her husband with the legend ‘She held the gun – but was she the killer?’
2 The quote is another one to be taken from Tennyson’s ‘Maud’:
I hate the dreadful hollow behind the little wood
Its lips in the field above are dappled with blood-red heath
The red-rib’ed ledges drip with a silent horror of blood
And Echo there, whatever is ask’d her, answers ‘Death’.
Different lines from the same poem were used in Sparkling Cyanide.