THE CLOCKS isn’t one of the classic Christie’s books that takes its time to set the scene by introducing us to all the players and only then murdering one or three of the people we’ve come to know something about. Instead the murder has already occurred when the book opens and the time is taken for us to learn anything much about the victim. The whole thing opens when Shelia Webb, who works for a secretarial agency, is sent to a particular address at a particular time and when she arrives she stumbles across a dead man. She then meets the owner of the house, a blind woman called Miss Pebmarsh, before stumbling out onto the street into the arms of Colin Lamb who is fortuitously passing by. The peculiarities of the incident and what follows are too many to discuss here but these do, collectively, provide the sort of classic element a reader expects of a Christie novel.
Perhaps less expected is a sense of humour. It’s not exactly raucous but the book does display some wry humour and some of it is ever so slightly racy, including this passage near the very opening of the book featuring one of Sheila’s fellow typists
Edna restored the toffee to the centre of her tongue and, sucking pleasurably, resumed her typing of Naked Love by Armand Levine. Its painstaking eroticism left her uninterested as indeed it did most of Mr Levine’s readers in spite of his efforts. He was a notable example of the fact that nothing can be duller than dull pornography. In spite of lurid jackets and provocative titles, his sales went down every year and his last typing bill had already been sent in three times.
Perhaps this is a sign of how Christie changed with the times? Surely a well-bread young lady in a 1930′s Christie novel wouldn’t have known what pornography was let alone have humorous thoughts about the subject. It’s not just the (very) mildly risqué elements that set the novel noticeably in the 1960′s. There’s quite a post-war/cold war sensibility to proceedings as Colin Lamb soon emerges as some sort of shadowy covert operative and there seemed to me to be more than the usual number of female characters in charge of their own destinies here. Mrs Pebmarsh is a particular standout.
I have some vague recollection of another Christie story in which Hercule Poirot does most of his investigating remotely (due to an illness on that occasion I think) but THE CLOCKS is reportedly the only one in which he is deliberately physically distanced from the investigation. It comes about because Colin Lamb, who becomes more embroiled in matters than most passersby would do, is an old friend of the great detective’s and challenges Poirot…calls his bluff really… to solve the baffling mystery from his home saying “I’ve always understood from you that that it was perfectly possible to lie back in one’s chair, just think about it all and come up with the answer.” Frankly this feels like an experimental plot device and I don’t think it works particularly well. The great man doesn’t show up until well into the story and really plays a minor role in comparison to Lamb and the police inspector assigned to the case so when Poirot appears for the inevitable dénouement it seems a bit more unrealistic than usual.
Another thing that struck me was Poirot’s new (and fleeting?) obsession with crime fiction. There’s a long passage in which Poirot talks about mystery novels he has been reading (some of them real books and some not) and his solution to the case is bound up with his intimate knowledge of a range of writers and their styles. I know these days it is common for fictional detectives to have copies of crime novels on their bedside tables but Poirot has previously been a bit dismissive of fictional detectives if he has mentioned them at all. He never even seems that impressed with the work of his novelist friend Ariadne Oliver. So his sudden love for these novels seems like another experiment on Christie’s behalf and it didn’t ring particularly true for me. Or perhaps she felt the need to follow a new trend?
So…not my favourite Christie tale but an enjoyable enough puzzle and a bit of unexpected humour made the past week’s bus rides pass very satisfactorily. Hugh Fraser is a great narrator.