Sunday, July 17, 2011

Review: The Clocks by Agatha Christie

The Clocks
By: Agatha Christie
Publisher: Berkley Mystery
ISBN: 0-425-17391-7

About the book:

As she waits in her new employer's living room, typist-for-hire Sheila Webb stumbles upon a strange scene: a well-dressed corpse surrounded by six clocks - clocks set to the wrong time. Even more mysterious is the fact that no one claims to have requested Miss Webb's services. One thing's for certain - it's time for Hercule Poirot to piece together a baffling mystery.


When Sheila Webb, a typist-for-hire, is particularly requested for her latest assignment, she expects a routine hour of work, not the discovery of a recently murdered elderly man behind the sitting room sofa, surrounded by clocks set to the wrong time. Horrified, she flees from the scene and straight into the arms of intelligence agent Colin Lamb, pursuing his own line of investigation, on the tail of a nest of spies. The victim has no identification on him, and both Sheila and her would-be-employer, a Miss Pebmarsh, claim to have no knowledge of the victim's identity. Even stranger, Miss Pebmarsh claims to never requested a typist's services. Colin feels an immediate kinship with Sheila, and determines to see the investigation through and the lovely stenographer cleared of all suspicion. But as the investigation progresses, and lead after lead fails to reveal motive or the victim's identity, Colin turns to his old friend Hercule Poirot for help in unraveling the tangled web of murder, lies, and deceit that have taken up residence in the seemingly genteel neighborhood of Wilbraham Crescent...

The Clocks is one of Christie's later Poirot novels, and I feel like it shows. Most obviously, Poirot barely appears in the novel, and the need for his investigative acumen feels a little forced as opposed to an organic part of the storyline. I also found the narrative style a bit cumbersome. Christie alternates between third-person narration and first-person narration, from Colin's point-of-view, and with the exception of the prologue, I would've preferred to read the entire novel from Colin's perspective. In many respects Colin is a classic Christie hero, a bright young thing, burdened with questions about the nature of his profession. Whether from his viewpoint or third-person, experiencing the entire story in one narrative style would have, I believe, tightened the narrative flow and raised the suspense factor.

In this adventure Christie employs an interesting mix of international espionage and neighborhood dynamics. The latter is more effective than the former, as Christie was a master at misdirection and an adept at slyly suggesting danger or subterfuge in that most genteel of locations - the proper English village or neighborhood. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Colin and Inspector Hardcastle attempted to glean clues about the murdered man from the odd assortment of neighbors surrounding Miss Pebmarsh's home. I wish Poirot had been given more "screentime," if you will, but I enjoyed the detective's lengthy discussion of contemporary crime fiction (including Christie creation Ariadne Oliver) and its reliance on coincidence and chance. In a novel perhaps over-populated with red herrings, Poirot's commentary is perhaps Christie's own sly comment on the conventions of a genre she largely helped define in the twentieth century. Ultimately while not one of my favorite Poirot novels, The Clocks benefits from a strong, unique opening while providing a showcase for Christie's trademark red herrings and carefully constructed, twisting plotlines.

Book vs. Film:

There are several substantial differences between the book and the recent Masterpiece Mystery film version of The Clocks, not the least of which is transferring the setting from the 1960s Cold War to pre-World War II. In many respects, including the time period change, I feel like the film improves a bit on the novel's storyline. While I felt that the film got a little crazy plot-wise, over-packed, if you will, with red herrings, it's not nothing on the book. *wink* I do wish that the script hadn't invented a previous love interest for Colin, and had instead let his burgeoning romance with typist Sheila Webb unfold as the investigation progressed. One of the reasons I loved Colin's interest in Sheila in the book is that almost from the first he recognizes Sheila as his girl, despite knowing nothing about her and her propensity for stretching the truth.

I am so thankful the script gave Poirot a greater role than he possesses in the novel. David Suchet gives one of his strongest performances in recent years as Poirot in The Clocks, brimming with the detective's trademark idiosyncrasises, warmth, understated wit, and intelligence. In the novel, Poirot is relegated to three or four scenes, while the film allows Poirot to develop a real rapport with Colin which is a lot of fun to watch. While both the novel and film have their merits, in this case I think I have to give the edge to the film adaptation for giving Poirot a greater role and tightening the narrative flow of the storyline.


Heidenkind said...

I loved The Clocks (film), too, so I'm glad you reviewed the book here. Do you think in general Christie's novels get worse later in her career?

Unknown said...

@heidenkind - You know, I don't know that I ever stopped to think about that. But now that you mention it, given my ambivalence towards The Clocks novel I'd say that's a distinct possibility. I'd have to peruse my bookshelves to see when the novels of hers that I've read and liked were published - I'm suspecting they were earlier to mid-career ones.

Alexandra said...

I would agree with heidenkind...I think her earlier novels were the best. "Postern of Fate" was her last novel, and I only read it to "get more of Tommy and Tuppence"...I've read it three times and still can't get heads or tails of what the whole mystery was about...the end "explanation" was so stinkin' vague and I honestly don't think it ever came out and said *who* was behind the whole shebang. I think I've finally found one AC story that Masterpiece could rewrite with my full blessing! :-)

Plus in the older ones she starts really recycling plots, and it's no fun to know who the murderer's going to be right off. :-)

Unknown said...

@Alexandra - Thanks for your perspective on this point! Maybe we'll luck out and Masterpiece will adapt Postern of Fate someday... :)