The clocks have gone back, Hallowe'en and Bonfire Night are almost upon us. Winter isn't far behind. 'Something spooky?' Islay suggested.
I do love lit up pumpkin lanterns with toothy grins and angular eyes, the scarier the better. It was quite different in the 1950s. The turnip lantern era. 'Tumshies' some call them, though we never did. My father, armed with a sharp knife, did the honours. First, the swede was scalped for the lid. Then he scooped out the insides. That was for mashed neeps with mince and tatties the following day. Then he carved the face. A bit more rough hewn and wobbly than a pumpkin, but what you didn't know you didn't miss. Finally, in went the candle. None of your dinky tea lights of today, but a Wee Willie Winkie style candle, the sort we lit in metal holders when there was a blackout, as often happened then. We always had a stock of thick white ones for emergencies. I can’t remember the smell, but I like to think we put the lantern in a front window to scare away the ghoulies and the guisers.
I wasn't allowed to go guising. A schoolmaster's daughter? Too infra dig. My two brothers were too wee to have developed much pester power and our parents were quite strict. We dooked for apples, kneeling on a chair, leaning over a basin full of the fruit swirled in the water, dropping forks into them from our teeth. Later, I went places where you had to kneel on the floor and put your face into the water to get your teeth into one, trying not to drown or get drookit in the process. We also scooped up peanuts in their shells, standing backwards, dipping a ladle into another basin awash with the nuts.
I'm not a great horror fan. But I like a scary ghost story and an atmospheric crime novel. There's been a bit of a buzz around Agatha Christie lately. This October is the centenary of the US publication of her first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles
. The British publication appeared the following February. The online daily Lit Hub published an essay recently showing a diverse series of book covers for it through the years, from a strait-laced, brylcreemed Poirot scrutinising the dregs of a coffee-cup to the outer reaches of soft porn, presumably to attract the more macho market who might not otherwise read a novel, let alone one by a woman.
She did well, Agatha. Over 70 novels, never out of print, and I forget how many years The Mousetrap
ran in London's West End. I chose a sample of six to read over the past week: three Poirots, two Miss Marples and one standalone. I was intrigued by how she plays with traditional nursery rhymes, and how she tends to enter the mind of male narrators. And those plot twists. She usually wrong-foots you, even when you think you've sussed the most unlikely character. Some defy logic, but there's often a twist you hadn't thought of, making it plausible. I had only read one from the sample before, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
. You may forget all her other murderers, but this one you never do. I got so impatient with her twists and turns and delaying tactics, I said, 'Oh, cut to the chase, woman. Stop the faff for once!'
Five Little Pigs
is about a cold case, a 16-year-old possible miscarriage of justice. Poirot solves it entirely by interviewing the survivors, police, lawyers and suspects. No forensic scrutiny of coffee cups or footprints outside the vicar's study. Curtain
was her last Poirot novel, written during the war and kept in storage to be published after she died. In the end, she was persuaded to bring it out for Christmas 1975, just weeks before her death. It's not one of her best. The premise, a paradox, comes from Othello
. How can someone be a murderer without actually murdering anyone? That's a facer for you.
Poirot travels widely to solve his cases. Mesopotamia, the Orient Express and the Nile come to mind. Miss Marple does reach the Caribbean, but mostly she's at home in some douce Cotswold village between the wars, inhabited by nosy, gossipy spinsters of a certain age, Anglo-Indian colonels, a vicar, a doctor, some naughty nephews with an eye on large inheritances and young parlourmaids hiding dodgy secrets. She sits there, quietly knitting, although her declared hobby is 'studying human nature', much as Agatha herself probably did, and, like Poirot, although less pompously, makes good use of those 'little grey cells', with which she is amply endowed.
The standalone I read was And Then There Were None
, published in 1939. The title comes from another nursery rhyme describing the fate of '10 little soldier boys'. Ten apparently random individuals are invited on various pretexts to an uninhabited island off the Cornish coast, allegedly by its mysterious owner. Once there, a gramophone recording announces that each of them has been responsible for a murder, which most of them deny. After the first deaths, as there is no-one else there, nowhere to hide and no means of escape, the atmosphere turns spookier as they realise the perpetrator must be one of them. It's a bleak tale set in a barren landscape against a background of stormy weather. Appropriate for the eve of war.
She was clever, Agatha, cleverer than you might think. She was well read and references it. Her main tools are character, atmosphere and plot. Her characters aren't deep, but nailed succinctly and memorably, often in just a sentence or two. There is plenty of tense interplay between them and psychological acuteness in unfolding their motivations. Her locations are likewise well evoked. And, of course, her puzzles are brilliantly complex, engineered with a watchmaker's precision. Absorbing reads as the nights draw in during this tragic pandemic.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh