Agatha Christie’s ‘The Clocks’ or ‘Arabella Figg Meets Hercule Poirot’

I have been speed reading various Agatha Christie mysteries of late — the mysteries on my shelf, those Rowling has mentioned as favorites, those visible on her bookshelf, and one whose title suggested a connection with Galbraith’s Lethal White. It’s been a delightful exercise and rewarding; Christie is fun to read both because of her sense of humor and masterfully disarming plot twists and almost every one of her books seems to include a name or plot point that we find in Harry Potter’s adventures or Cormoran Strike’s murder investigations.

There is, for example, the Ginny/Ginevra red headed girl in Appointment with Death, the Mrs Lestrange in Murder at the Vicarage, and the anything-but-attractive-or-likeable Myrtle who dies as a teen girl in Dead Man’s Folly. In Rowling’s favorite ChristieThe Moving Finger, we meet the heroic disabled veteran who, while he re-learns how to walk, tries to figure out a murder that the police believe to have been a suicide. 

Crooked House, Christie’s favorite Christie, includes quite a few pieces from Cuckoo’s Calling, i.e., a bat-shit insane child-of-rich-parents murderer, a child murdered  by being thrown over a quarry’s edge, and the bizarre attempt by the murderer to write a murder mystery story to deceive the investigators, a story which if left unwritten would mean the killer-author’s never being suspected.

And then there are the passages in Miss Marple short stories that give us the Wizarding World’s currency, the Galleon, and the language of flowers Rowling employs so deftly in Harry Potter.

While I await the arrival of titles recently identified on Rowling’s 2000 bookshelf as Christie novels, I pulled down the last Dame Agatha adventure on my shelf that I hadn’t yet read, the Hercule Poirot murder mystery, The Clocks. It had three decent ‘finds’ I will share with you after the jump!

(1) The Parallel Plot Twist with Dead Man’s Folly

If you read enough Christie quickly enough and at random as I have been doing, it is perhaps inevitable that you will read a book whose ending’s twist is very much like one you’ve just finished or read in the last week. That was my experience with The Clocks and Dead Man’s Folly, both of which novels’ finale is the revelation that characters in the book are not who they seem — and both their deceit and the murder they committed will be revealed by the arrival of a stranger from afar who knows they are not the persons they are pretending to be.

Here’s the thing. While it is the same hidden premise being revealed and I had finished its non-identical twin only days previously, I didn’t see the the big reveal in The Clocks coming. Far from it. It was only after a night’s sleep and some reflection that I remembered the very similar twist. Christie is that good. Even when she recycles the story twists, they’re anything but mechanical or formulaic. I think of Rowling’s ten step ‘Harry’s Journey’ that the Terrible Trio follow in every book from Privet Drive to Hogwarts to King’s Cross Station.

(2) Arabella and the Cat Lady

In chapter 8 of The Clocks, our spy-paramour-investigator interviews Mrs Hemming, the cat lady who lives next door to the flat where the murder victim’s body was discovered. She has fourteen cats and seems more than a little mad with respect to her concern and care for her feline friends. The object of Mrs Hemming’s special concern in this chapter is Arabella, who had gone missing the day before, was found in a tree, could not be enticed down, but who leapt from her perch to re-enter the house with Mrs Figg, I mean ‘Hemming,’ when she gave up and went inside.

All the neighbors turn out to have their secrets. I’ll let you guess what Mrs Hemming’s is.

Is this the origin, though, of the Harry Potter cat lady’s name? Kinda sort of!

Remember this note about P. D. James in a previous HogwartsProfessor post?

Following Prof Groves’ suggestion, I have read all of P. D. James, a delightful marathon of reading, believe me. And it paid off. Rowling is a serious student of P. D. James; the names Arabella (a cat!), Remus (a dog!), McGonagall, Pettigrew, Peverell, Morag, Venetia, Wardle, and Orlando (a child who dies young), for instance, are all found in James’ novels. The name Hermione Granger, too, is likely a revisiting of James’ private investigator Cordelia Gray (Hat tip on this last again to Beatrice Groves). If there is a one-stop source for Rowling names it is P. D. James.

Arabella the cat plays an important role in James’ first novel, Cover Her Face, which was published in 1962 (you’ll remember that Christie had to change the title of Sleeping Murder which was originally titled Cover Her Face because of the James debut police procedural, both of which books turn on The Duchess of Malfi). Christie’s naming a troublesome cat Arabella in The Clocks could not have been James’ source for the name because that Poirot thriller was not published until 1963. If one or the other was making a literary allusion, Christie was the author hat tipping her soon to be successor as ‘Queen of Crime’ with the name — and perhaps Rowling noted that two of her favorite writers named cats treasured by hysterical cat ladies ‘Arabella.’

Which brings us to Christie as a writer writing about writing…

(3) The Spy Thriller Parody Updated

Probably the goofiest book I’ve read by Christie in this recent splurge has been The Seven Dials Mystery, a Christie thriller from 1929 that was one of the three ‘Lost Classics’ in the Murder at the Manor three text omnibus. I thought of it while reading The Clocks (1963) because of a shared plot-point and something Val McDermid wrote about Dame Agatha, Seven Dials, and literary critics.

The shared plot point is that both The Clocks and Seven Dials Mystery, as you might guess from the titles, feature an assortment of clocks in places you wouldn’t expect around the room in which the corpse is found. It’s a big enough feature that I more than half expect that Christie wanted her careful and loyal readers to connect the dots between these two books written thirty-five years apart. I mean, multiple, exotic clocks lined up on a mantelpiece with references in the title?

I said Seven Dials was the goofiest Christie book I’ve read because it’s an intentional spoof or parody of the thrillers of that period. As Val McDermid wrote in her introduction to Murder at the Manor:

Why am I suggesting that anyone would want to read The Seven Dials Mystery? After all, it has all the ingredients of the classic 1920s thriller, as exemplified by A. E. W. Mason, Sapper and John Buchan. Secret plans, evil foreigners, marvellous cars with running boards and powerful engines, the joint threats of Germany and Communist Russia, house parties, young men wandering around with loaded revolvers and plucky young women — they’re all there by the bucketload…

[I’m encouraging you to read it] because The Seven Dials Mystery isn’t a thriller. It’s a pastiche of a thriller, an antidote to the gung-ho chest beating of the boys. It’s wry, it’s got its tongue planted firmly in its cheek and it subverts the whole genre it appears to be a part of., not least because as well as all of this, it also delivers cleverly dovetailed plotting with a typical Christie flourish at the end.

“Ah yes,” we sigh. “Fooled again.” If one of our Young Turks did something similar with the thriller now, we’d all nod sagely and go, “how very post-modern, how very self-referential, and knowing, how very meta-fictional.”

But that was then and this is now. So Christie gets no credit for poking her tongue out at the big boys who set the agenda for what a thriller should be. I mean, how can a nice middle-class wife and mother be considered a subversive? How embarrassing would that be for the leather-jacketed iconoclasts?

I highlighted “subverts the whole genre” because those are the exact words Rowling used in her 2005 interview with Lev Grossman to describe what she said she didn’t have the leisure to be doing (but later explained this was exactly her relationship with fantasy). I think Rowling picks this pastiche artistry up from Christie, Nabokov, Lewis, Colette, and Austen, the authors she “really loves” who all share this quality in their writing; she read them closely, and, as she advises wanna be writers, she imitated those aspects of her favorites that she knew worked.

McDermid goes on in the introduction to say Christie’s real genius in Seven Dials is that she simultaneously sends up contemporary thriller conventions while delivering a super-charged exemplar of the genre and writes a great little piece of Wodehouse Jeeves and Wooster comedy of aristocratic manners as well. That should sound familiar to readers of this weblog and of Beatrice Groves’ Literary Allusion in Harry Potter (see her chapter on Jane Austen). Rowling a la Austen in Northanger Abbey parodies the Gothic romance in Harry’s adventures, gives her readers an all-star representation of that genre mid-pastiche, and mixes it up beautifully with alchemical drama, School boy novels, and detective fiction.

Back to Christie’s The Clocks with that in mind.

Hercule Poirot in this 1963 mystery is retired and searching for ways to exercise his little grey cells. What has he stumbled upon? He can keep his detecting muscles in shape by reading mysteries and thrillers! Poirot shares at some length in chapter 14 the stories and authors he is reading, all transparencies for popular writers of the time (to include, of course, Ariadne Oliver for Agatha Christie). The novel itself, though, only includes Poirit as a far off-stage consultant; the action as narrated is performed by a spy of the James Bond school who is sucked into this mystery only because it touches tangentially on his counter-espionage operation for a dark ops branch of Her Majesty’s government.

Christie gives us the loud plot point marker connecting The Clocks and The Seven Dials Mystery in addition to Poirot’s all but saying, “Look, fools! I’m discussing the very genre, spy thrillers, the novel you are reading is, how do you say?, sending up!” to get us to the realization that this is her update, thirty years on, of what metafictional, self-referential, intertextual writing is all about.

And nobody, with the exception of Christie-lovers like Rowling and McDermid get it, because how do you take that year’s ‘Christie for Christmas’ by the detective fiction one woman factory seriously?

The Arabella find with the cat lady neighbor is fun but relatively meaningless, I think, except as a marker that, yes, Rowling read this book and made some notes in her names journal. That’s important, because like her “serial reading” of Jane Austen, we can connect the artistry typical of her favorite writers and what makes Rowling/Galbraith tick. And Christie is obviously a writer Rowling has read closely and in large quantity.

And Cormoran Strike (Tom Burke) starred in the 2009 BBC production of The Clocks. How cool is that? Ibsen and Christie… 

Hey, did somebody mention Beatrice Groves? Funny thing, she’ll be posting here for the first four days of the new school year at HogwartsProfessor. See you tomorrow on the Hogwarts Express for Prof Groves first post, ‘Rowling and Scotland’!

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