Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Many people think of Agatha Christie as a Golden Age writer, and so she was. But Christie wrote until the early 1970’s, and had a keen eye for the way her society developed after World War II. Several of her novels are set in the decades that followed that war, and it’s interesting to see how she portrays life in England during the mid-20th Century. Today, let’s take a closer look at one of those novels, Hallowe’en Party (seems appropriate for the time of year, doesn’t it?).
Hallowe’en Party begins during the preparations for a young people’s party to be held at Apple Trees, the home of Rowena Drake. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective story novelist, is staying nearby at the home of her friend Judith Butler. She’s persuaded to take part in the preparations and the party, and soon finds herself the object of a lot of interest. Since she’s somewhat of a celebrity, several of the young people there ask her questions. One of them is thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds. During her conversation with Oliver, Joyce says that she saw a murder once. No-one believes her; in fact, just about everyone thinks she’s making up a story to impress Oliver. The party comes off as planned and everything is going smoothly. Then, just before the end of the party, Joyce Reynolds is drowned in a bucket of water that was used for the partygoers to bob for apples. Oliver is distraught and immediately seeks out Hercule Poirot.
Oliver tells Poirot about Joyce Reynolds’ murder and adds that she thinks Joyce must have been telling the truth about having seen a murder. Someone overheard what Joyce said and was afraid she would say too much. Poirot agrees that that’s a good possibility and travels to Woodleigh Common to investigate. Poirot’s friend Superintendent Albert “Bert” Spence (whom Christie fans will remember from Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…) and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead) has retired to Woodleigh Common, so Poirot seeks out Spence’s help. Poirot asks Spence about any murders or possible murders in the area that Joyce could have seen. Armed with some possible leads to a few murders, Poirot begins to look into the town’s history. As he does so, he unearths a knifing at a pub, forgery, an old lady who seems to have died a natural death (but did she?), a very controversial will and a missing au pair girl. As it turns out, all of these incidents are related, and bit by bit Poirot finds out how they fit together. In the end, and after another death, Poirot figures out what Joyce Reynolds saw and who was frightened enough about it to commit murder.
Christie’s hallmark is interesting puzzles, and this story is no different. The motive for Joyce Reynolds’ murder is clear enough – fear. But as the story moves on, we see that the motive behind all of the other events – and therefore, ultimately, behind Joyce’s murder – is more psychological. Of special note here is that right from the start, there is a very simple clue to Joyce Reynolds’ murderer. However, Christie was talented enough at “red herrings” that it’s easy to overlook that clue. I know I did at first. Still, you can’t argue in this case that Christie doesn’t “play fair” with readers.
Another element running through this novel is the set of characters in the village of Woodleigh Common. For instance, two of the characters are Nicholas Ransom and Desmond Holland, students who live in a nearby rooming house. They dress in “mod” fashion, know a bit about “book psychology” and affect a would-be-adult air. It’s through them that you could say Christie explores the generation of the mid-1960’s. There’s also the very enigmatic Judith Butler and her unusual twelve-year-old daughter Miranda. And then there’s the very down-to-earth and pragmatic Reynolds family. Christie was not as famous for in-depth character development as she was for other things, so we don’t see the character evolution here that we see in other crime novels. That said, though, some of the characters do add interest to the story and when we learn who the murderer is and what the motive is, we see how Christie can explore the psychology of her characters.
Perhaps the most important character in this novel, though, is Ariadne Oliver. We see her genuine distress at the death of Joyce Reynolds and her strong sense of guilt as well. Oliver believes that if it hadn’t been for her presence at the party, Joyce wouldn’t have boasted about having seen a murder and would not therefore have been killed. Although Poirot tries to reassure her that she had nothing to do with the murder, she never quite loses that sense of responsibility. In fact, she’s so upset about the murder that she stops eating apples – a trademark of hers. Although Oliver is usually portrayed as somewhat scatty and is known to add comic relief to Christie’s novels, we can see here that she is also an intelligent, compassionate person. Through Oliver, we also get a look at how a writer sees the world. There’s an interesting discussion between her and Poirot about how writers are inspired. Here’s just a snippet of it:
“‘I don’t put people in books. People I meet. People I know.’
‘Is it perhaps not true to say, Madame, that that you do put people in books sometimes? People that you meet, but not, I agree, people that you know. There would be no fun in that.’”
The action takes place in and around Woodleigh Common, and it’s interesting to see how Christie describes the changing face of the English small town. Woodleigh is a community of commuters; the focus of life is no longer the local shops and churches. Here’s how Spence describes Woodleigh Common:
“It’s not a big community. It’s not a particularly settled one either. People come and go. The husband has a job in either Medchester or Great Canning, or one of the other places round about. Their children go to school here. Then perhaps the husband changes his job and they go somewhere else. It’s not a fixed community.”
The “hook” in this novel is the murder of Joyce Reynolds which takes place at a Hallowe’en party. So there is also a dose of Hallowe’en traditions, old Hallowe’en games and superstitions. There’s bobbing for apples, cutting a flour cake and looking through a mirror to see your true love’s face. There’s a balloon-stamping game, too, as well as a decorated broomstick competition. The rest of the novel also has a touch of old legend and superstition about it, too. There’s a discussion of a wishing well, a legendary tree round which one walks backwards to make wishes, and there’s even a local witch of sorts. But those who prefer prosaic solutions to mysteries need not worry. There’s nothing paranormal about the characters, the mystery or its solution. It is interesting, though, to get a sense of some of the old stories and legends about Hallowe’en.
Hallowe’en Party isn’t always regarded as among Christie’s best work. That said, though, it shows clearly Christie’s ability to hold up a mirror to her society and its changes. It also shows her ability to use “red herrings” to lead readers directly along – down the wrong path. And then there’s the delightful character of Ariadne Oliver. But what’s your view? Have you read Hallowe’en Party? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
In Hallowe’en Party, Poirot has several conversations with Superintendent Spence. During one of them, he and Spence discus several characters from Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, in which Poirot solves the murder of an elderly charwoman. Spence comments on what’s happened to two of those characters and he and Poirot mention a few others. There are no spoilers, though.
In Hallowe’en Party, Joyce Reynolds suggests that Ariadne Oliver should create a murder game at the party, and make people solve it. Oliver says, “Never again.” That’s a reference to Dead Man’s Folly, in which she creates a “murder hunt” rather like a scavenger hunt. That “murder hunt” turns out to be all too real when the “victim” is actually killed. Again, there no spoilers.
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 31 October/Tuesday 1 November – Double Barrel – Nicolas Freeling
Monday 7 November/Tuesday 8 November – Mermaid – Margaret Millar
Monday 14 November/Tuesday 15 November – The Bushman Who Came Back – Arthur W. Upfield