From time to time, in discussing my preference for classic mysteries from authors such as Agatha Christie, I run into people who shrug and say, "Well, I've never really liked Agatha Christie - she's far too cozy for me." Leaving aside, for the moment, the notion that "cozy" is a pejorative when used against an author, I find it particularly galling when it is applied to Agatha Christie. I think that people who consider Christie "cozy" have never really read that much of what she has written - including what I still think is her masterpiece, And Then There Were None. But it also applies to the genuinely disturbing - and remarkable - Poirot mystery called Hallowe'en Party. Here's what I had to say a decade ago on the Classic Mysteries podcast about that book - as usual, I've edited it slightly.
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"I saw a murder once."
Chilling words from a thirteen-year-old girl, made to a group of friends and adults preparing for a Halloween party. Before the party is over, the girl is dead – drowned while bobbing for apples. A horrifying story – but what would you expect from Halloween Party, by Agatha Christie?
To me, Halloween Party is one of Agatha Christie’s more harrowing mysteries. She rarely dealt with crimes as emotional as the murder of a child – which, of course, is what we have in this story.
Halloween Party begins as preparations are being made for just such a party in a suburban home. There is the usual chaos – children and adults working together, trying to get everything set up in time for the party. One of the adults, a guest in the house, is a woman named Ariadne Oliver, who writes mystery stories. One of the children, a not particularly attractive thirteen-year-old girl, talking to the group in general, claims that she once saw a murder. The others laugh – why didn’t you go to the police, they ask. Because, she says, “I didn’t know it was a murder when I saw it. It wasn’t really till a long time afterwards, I mean, that I began to know that it was a murder. Something that somebody said only about a month or two ago suddenly made me think, ‘Of course, that was a murder I saw.”
It appears that nobody believes her. She’s making it up, they say. But during the party, she is murdered. Could she have been telling the truth? Was she murdered because of what she said? Did an already-successful murderer decide to eliminate her?
Fortunately, Ariadne Oliver is a friend of Hercule Poirot. And she soon brings Poirot down to the village to help the police investigate. And Poirot realizes that in order to solve this murder, he must first determine whether what the child had claimed about having witnessed a murder could be true.
This is fairly late Christie – it was published in 1969. But she is still at the top of her form. Poirot is ageless, of course; by rights, he must be well over 100 years old when he becomes involved. But that’s one of the beauties of detective fiction – your audience is likely to let you get away with fudging how rapidly your character ages.
Poirot solves the case, as usual, by talking to people – to witnesses, to other guests at the party, to a nearby landscape artist and designer, to some schoolteachers, and to his good friend, Inspector Spence, who has retired from the police force but is still quite active in helping his former colleagues. Gradually, Poirot pieces together the solution to the murder – and discovers the events that led up to it. For, as you might anticipate, this murder did indeed have its roots in past events – although the nature of those events might not be exactly as advertised.
As I’ve said before, I’m quite fond of Agatha Christie’s mysteries in general. She normally does play fair with her readers, providing the same clues that Poirot is given. If you interpret the clues correctly, you may be able to foresee the ending. But be warned. Christie was quite brilliant at devising enormous red herrings to drag across your path. She does so quite effectively in Halloween Party.
Poirot’s friend Ariadne Oliver is an interesting character who appears in several of Christie's novels. There are a number of critics who see in the character Agatha Christie herself – after all, we’re talking about a successful female mystery novelist. You can keep that in mind as you read Halloween Party for any insights it might offer into the real author’s craft.
There’s also a wonderful observation that I wanted to share with you. Remember, this book appeared in 1969, well before the computer had become a part of daily life. Only serious engineers and technicians really understood computers, which were mostly giant mainframe machines. So it’s worth taking note of this dialogue fairly early in the book, when Mrs. Oliver is talking to Poirot:
Do you know what you sound like? said Mrs. Oliver. “A computer. You know. You’re programming yourself. That’s what they call it, isn’t it? I mean, you’re feeding all these things into yourself all day and then you’re going to see what comes out.”
“It is certainly an idea you have there,” said Poirot, with some interest. “Yes, yes, I play the part of the computer. One feeds in the information –“
“And supposing you come up with all the wrong answers?” said Mrs. Oliver.
“That would be impossible,” said Hercule Poirot. “Computers do not do that sort of thing.”
Points to Agatha Christie for that exchange – although Mrs. Oliver does say, “a human error is nothing to what a computer can do if it tries.”
Here we are nearly fifty years later…and she’s right, isn’t she?
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If you would like to listen to the original podcast, please click here.
Next week: The Chinese Lake Murders, by Robert Van Gulik