Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie, plus Murder, She Said

Evil Under the Sun

Beware! Poirot on holiday!

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The Jolly Roger Hotel sits secluded on Smuggler’s Island, a promontory off the Devon coast that can be reached only by boat or over the paved causeway from the mainland. Here the well-to-do come for a peaceful holiday in luxurious surroundings. Imagine their horror, then, on discovering that Hercule Poirot has booked in as a fellow guest! The man is a walking pestilence – wherever he goes, murder is sure to follow. There ought to be a special clause about him in travel insurance policies!

As beautiful actress Arlena Stuart comes out of the hotel and walks to the beach, all eyes are drawn to her; the men in admiration, the women in disapproval. Arlena has a reputation – gossip about her relationships with various men is whispered whenever her name is mentioned. Her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, seems to be either unaware or uncaring of his wife’s indiscretions, but he’s the only one. Here on Smuggler’s Island, Arlena is carrying on a heady flirtation with a fellow guest – a young man by the name of Patrick Redfern – careless of the effect on Patrick’s young wife, Christine. Patrick seems trapped in Arlena’s web, unable to escape, as so many other men are rumoured to have been before. Fanatical minister Stephen Lane sees her as the embodiment of evil; Rosamond Darnley hates seeing how she treats Rosamond’s childhood friend, Kenneth; Kenneth’s daughter from an earlier marriage resents this woman who has come into their home and brought no happiness with her. There are rumours that Arlena is being blackmailed, and any of the other guests could be the blackmailer. So when Arlena’s body is found in a lonely cove, everyone on the island finds themselves suspect…

I know I sound like a broken record with these Christie novels but this is another one I love. The plotting is great – both the how and the why. The isolated island gives it the feel of a closed circle mystery – while it’s possible that someone came from the mainland to murder Arlena it’s soon shown to have been unlikely. So Poirot, with the full co-operation of the police, sets out to talk to the various guests, to try to uncover the truth from beneath all the alibis and motives and lies. It’s another one of the ones where, shortly before the end, Poirot kindly lists all the clues giving the reader one last chance to work it out before all is revealed. Good luck with that! It’s entirely fair-play but your little grey cells will have to be in excellent working order to spot the solution.

For once I think I prefer the Ustinov adaptation to the Suchet, because the wonderful and beautiful Diana Rigg is so well cast as Arlena…

I love the characterisation in this one even more than the plotting, though. Patrick’s infatuation and Christine’s jealousy are well done, and young Linda’s teenage resentment of her step-mother feels very realistic. Two American guests, the voluble Mrs Gardiner and her complaisant husband, provide a touch of warmth and comedy amid the atmosphere of overhanging evil. Mr Blatt lets us see how money doesn’t provide automatic entry to the rarefied heights of social snobbery, while Major Barry is one of Christie’s always excellent retired colonials, willing to bore anyone polite enough to listen to his interminable stories of days gone by. Arlena herself is seen only through the eyes of others, leaving her rather ambiguous, while Rosamond’s protectiveness of Kenneth suggests she may feel something deeper than friendship for him.

Excellent! If you haven’t read it before, do; and if you have, read it again! Another one that I highly recommend.

NB This book was provided for review in a new edition with great new covers by the publisher, HarperCollins.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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Murder, She Said

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HarperCollins also sent me another treat – a little book of Miss Marple quotes. It’s beautifully produced in hardback and the quotes are divided up into sections, such as The Art of Conversation, Human Nature, Men and Women, etc.

“If people do not choose to lower their voices, one must assume that they are prepared to be overheard.”

It has an introduction by Tony Medawar, partly about Christie’s inspirations for the character and partly a biography of what can be gleaned of Miss Marple’s life. The book also includes a brief article called “Does a Woman’s Instinct Make Her a Good Detective?”, written by Christie for a British newspaper in 1928 to publicise a set of short stories she was issuing at that time. And at the back it has a complete bibliography of all the Miss Marple novels and short stories. Apparently there’s a companion volume in the same style for Poirot fans, called Little Grey Cells.

“I’ve never been an advocate of teetotalism. A little strong drink is always advisable on the premises in case there is a shock or an accident. Invaluable at such times. Or, of course, if a gentleman should arrive suddenly.”

It’s the kind of book that would be a fun little gift for a Miss Marple fan –  not substantial enough to be a main gift; it didn’t take long for me to flick through the pages – but a good idea for a stocking filler. There are days when we could all do with a bit of Miss Marple’s clear-eyed wisdom…

“Most people – and I don’t exclude policemen – are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself.”

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Film of the Book: Murder, She Said (4.50 from Paddington)

Directed by George Pollock (1961)

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From the book review of 4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie:

When Elspeth McGillicuddy glances out of the window of her train carriage, she can see straight into another train that is running parallel to her own. As a blind flies up on the carriage opposite her, she is horrified to see a woman being strangled by a tall, dark man. Unable to do anything to prevent it, she reports it to the conductor. He suspects she’s just been napping and has dreamt the whole thing, but he’s a conscientious man so he reports the matter at the next station. However, no body is found on the train, and there the matter would probably have rested, but for the fact that Mrs McGillicuddy was on her way to St Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Jane Marple…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

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As soon as the delightful title music of Ron Goodwin starts up, it’s clear this is going to be a fun romping version of Agatha Christie’s story. Apparently Christie disliked these Margaret Rutherford adaptations, and I can see why. They are not what you would call faithful to the originals and Miss Marple is not the sedentary observer of human nature we all know and love. But for once I don’t care – the films are brilliant and just as entertaining as the books, if in a different way. Murder, She Said was the first of the four Miss Marple movies in which Rutherford starred and, despite some major changes, actually sticks fairly closely to the basic plot of the book. As the series went on the divergences from the books grew ever wider and the final movie, Murder Ahoy!, wasn’t even based on any of the books at all.

First of all, poor Elspeth McGillicuddy has been cut completely, as has housekeeper and assistant sleuth, Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Now it’s Miss Marple herself who sees the murder through the train windows. When the police fail to find a body, Inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell) tries to persuade Miss Marple that she must have seen a couple… ahem… honeymooning, as he so delicately puts it. On Miss Marple pointing out in no uncertain terms that, spinster she may be, but she can still tell the difference between a bit of “honeymooning” and strangulation, Inspector Craddock subtly suggests that she must be dotty.

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So Miss Marple, after consulting her close friend Mr Stringer (who is played by Margaret Rutherford’s real-life husband Stringer Davis), decides that they should investigate themselves. After a lovely scene of these two rather, shall we say, mature people searching the railway tracks, Miss Marple gets herself employed as the new housemaid at Ackenthorpe Hall – Rutherford Hall in the book, and changed to prevent confusion over the coincidence of the house sharing the same name as the star of the film. Why they changed Crackenthorpe to Ackenthorpe defeats me though, as does the fact that Miss Marple apparently now lives in Milchester rather than St Mary Mead…

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While the purist in me is shaking her head disapprovingly about these wholesale changes, I do understand them. Unlike Poirot, often Miss Marple doesn’t have a huge role in the books, tending to perform her miracles somewhat in the background of the action. She doesn’t really investigate as such – she merely listens and applies her knowledge of human nature to get to the truth. In this book, Lucy Eyelesbarrow is the central character with only occasional appearances from Miss Marple herself. But if you’ve booked the wonderful Margaret Rutherford to star in your movie, you want her pretty much in every scene, or else you might find yourself lynched by an angry mob of disgruntled Rutherford fans… including me! So this version of Miss Marple carries out all the investigative work herself, helped only a little by Inspector Craddock and the ever-faithful Mr Stringer.

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The cast is a nice line-up of British character actors of the period, plus a few up-and-coming stars of the future in bit parts. James Robertson Justice guest-stars as grumpy old Mr Ackenthorpe, and his exchanges with new housemaid Jane are total comic joy. Muriel Pavlow is excellent as poor put-upon Emma, Mr Ackenthorpe’s daughter. The various Ackenthorpe brothers are an unpleasant bunch, as they are in the book too, and all played by well-known faces even if the names are less familiar to me – Thorley Walters, Conrad Phillips and Gerald Cross, with Ronald Howard as brother-in-law Brian Eastley. For reasons unknown (to me), an American actor, Arthur Kennedy, plays Dr Quimper and I must say I find his American accent a bit discombobulating amongst all these Brits. A youngish Richard Briers appears in a tiny role, and who should pop up as the daily cleaner at Ackenthorpe Hall but the woman who would later in her career become the definitive Miss Marple – our very own Joan Hickson! There’s a lovely bit where she gets chased by a goat…

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In the book, I loved the interplay between the two boys, Alexander and his friend Stodders, and the various adults. Stodders has been ruthlessly done away with in the same mass culling that took Elspeth and Lucy. But Alexander is delightfully played by Ronnie Raymond. (Wondering whatever happened to him, I checked it out and IMDb informs me he quit acting and became an undertaker! I kinda wish I hadn’t checked now…) In the film, he’s an arrogant, cheeky little so-and-so who quite frankly would benefit from a swift kick up the pants, but Jane soon gets him onside and he becomes a kind of assistant sleuth. He and Rutherford work beautifully together and provide much of the film’s humour.

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Just to add to the general jollity, the film throws in some light-hearted mild horror elements – people hiding behind curtains, storms and thunder, lights going out at unfortunate moments, and a gardener of the scowling sinister variety. Because of the disappearance of Mrs McGillicuddy, the ending is changed (though the solution is not), and builds up to a tense face-off between Miss Marple and the murderer. As Inspector Craddock points out, she’s a very brave lady!

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OK, OK, I know Christie fans are probably gnashing their teeth right now, but honestly, it’s so much fun! Try to forget that the real Miss Marple is unlikely to disguise herself in dungarees! Ignore the unlikeliness of her possibly having romantic inclinations towards dear Mr Stringer! Go along with the idea of her creeping about the grounds in the middle of the night with a torch, searching for corpses! In fact, just try to put out of your mind that it’s got anything to do with the book at all and enjoy it for what it is – a great British comedy thriller starring one of the finest comedy character actresses of all time. You surely won’t regret it…

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

It kinda breaks my heart to choose from these, so…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

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THE BOOK!

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AND THE FILM!

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This post is part of the Agatha Christie Blogathon being hosted by Christina Werner and Little Bits of Classics. Do pop through to find links to all the great Poirot posts from yesterday, and check back with them over the next couple of days for links to today’s Miss Marple posts, and tomorrow’s posts on anything else Agatha Christie related.

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