28 October 2011
Book Review: Hallowe'en Party, by Agatha Christie
The setting, as the title indicates, is a Hallowe'en party, given by a Mrs Rowena Drake in the town/village of Woodleigh Common. A number of local children are in attendance as their mothers help Mrs Drake in setting up the party earlier in the day, and during the course of the afternoon young Joyce announces that she's seen a murder -- that it happened a while back, that she didn't know at the time she had witnessed a murder, but that she realized later on what she had seen. Of course, no one believes her.
There are several good reasons for this. For one, Joyce is known for being an inveterate liar. She has a history of making up the most absurdly embellished stories, so it is hardly surprising that everyone assumes this to be the case once again. Additionally, the well-known mystery writer Ariadne Oliver is also attending the party, and everyone else believes that Joyce is trying to impress Mrs Oliver with her outrageous tale. Joyce's announcement thus becomes a mere blip on everyone's radar, and it is quickly forgotten. Until Joyce is discovered with her head in the pail of bobbing apples. It seems that someone has held her down until the poor child drowned.
The rather overly dramatic Mrs Oliver is shocked, horrified, and completely at her wits' end, so she phones her friend Hercule Poirot to take a look at the case. The party goers seem to think the most likely scenario is that someone broke into the house during the party and murdered Joyce, or that there is some bizarre sexual twist in the case. There's no evidence of either being true, however, so Poirot has to assume that one of the people at the party killed Joyce. As there were something like 30 people there, the list of possible suspects isn't exactly short. What's more, Joyce's claim to have seen a murderer now seems strangely relevant, and Poirot must consider the possibility that the child who cried wolf might, in fact, have been telling the truth for once. Not only this, but Poirot must assume that someone at the party was responsible for an earlier murder and wanted very much for Joyce to be silenced.
So Poirot sets about his task as methodically as always, asking questions, digging into the past, putting pieces together. The immediate problem is that no one in Woodleigh Common can remember a murder in recent years, or at least something that would not have looked like a murder to a young child. There was the knifing of a legal clerk -- ostensibly after he started seeing another man's wife -- but it's difficult for someone to see a knifing and doubt what has been seen. But Poirot's on the scent, and he beings to nose out other events in the past that seem less fragrant when considered more closely. The result is one of those great English mysteries that fuses the events of the past with the present and once more brings truth to the idea that even old sins cannot be concealed forever.
This isn't Christie's best mystery by any means, but it's also not her worst. It feels tired in a few places, but I suspect that's partially on purpose as Poirot is aging and is presented as a man who no longer has the vigor of youth and is also losing touch with the younger generations.
In terms of the differences between the book and the film version, I'll add a couple of notes. The book was published in 1969. Christie makes broad references to cultural influences of the day, so I'm assuming the book is intended to be set around 1969. The film version, for whatever reason, is almost certainly set well before this -- perhaps in the late 40s or early 50s. In terms of ambience, it makes sense. The style of the clothes, the mood, all of it works a little better (for me, at least) in the film setting. There are also a few other peripheral moments in the book that are given mini-story lines in the film version. I can't blame the filmmakers for this. The book has a rather massive cast of characters -- far too many, I think -- and it would be ridiculous to include all of these people in the film. What is more, in order to make the characters who are in the film stand out, it doesn't hurt to add a bit to their characters. I didn't feel like any of it was out of place, and it made for a richer story. It does, however, explain why I was a little confused in a few places while watching the film (i.e., Agatha Christie included that in her story?). There are hints and suggestions in the book that become full-blown plot devices in the film. Again, I don't have a huge objection to what was done, as none of it dishonored Christie in intent, and I certainly understand why. (I would go so far as to say that in some ways the filmmakers did a better job of weaving things together and creating a tighter plot. From a story telling perspective, there was a bit more coherence in places.) Just be forewarned that the book is a bit different in places.
Year of publication: 1969
Number of pages: 259