The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Murder on the Links (1923)

The Murder on the LinksIn which Hercule Poirot receives a desperate plea for help from M. Paul Renauld in France, but by the time he and Hastings rush to his aid, he has been murdered. Poirot works with the local magistrate to discover precisely what happened whilst engaging in duels of wit with the local officer of the Sûreté. Oh, and Hastings finds love. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I won’t spill the beans on whodunit!

GolfI’m not sure how old I was when I first read this book but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t know that the links in question was a golf course. I expect I was trying to work out how someone could commit a murder whilst balancing precariously on a pair of cufflinks – I’ve never been quite as intelligent as I ought to be. In fairness, it’s not a very good title. OK, the murder does take place adjacent to a golf course, but it doesn’t play that major a part in the story. Mind you, the Turkish title translates as “Our Lesson is Murder” – and there aren’t any lessons in it.

Shocked faceIt’s easy to forget that back in 1923 Christie was still a fledgling writer, and although she had enjoyed great success with her first two books, she still had the need to capture the imagination of editors and readers alike in the hope that they would continue publishing, and buying, her work. You can see this in the rather self-conscious way in which she begins this book: “I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence: “Hell!” said the Duchess.” Strangely enough, this tale of mine opens in much the same fashion. Only the lady who gave utterance to the exclamation was not a duchess.” And so it goes on. It reminded me of a story I remembered from when I was at school. One of our English teachers was the, then unknown, now very well known, writer A. N. Wilson. Whilst he was teaching A-level English Lit, he had his first book published – The Sweets of Pimlico. The book opens with the three words: “That affected shit”. We schoolkids all thought that was a hoot. But Andy Wilson (as we affectionately knew him) was doing precisely the same thing – getting the editor and the reader hooked as early as possible. It didn’t serve him badly. In a rather nice twist, Christie re-uses her phrase at the end of the book, with a completely different effect – a symmetry of which Poirot would give the highest approval.

Lost temperRe-reading The Murder on the Links now, I’m really impressed with this book. After the almost maniacal hectic pace of The Secret Adversary and the clue-a-paragraph nature of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, with this book Christie settled down to a much more comfortable speed, and gave her characters some space to develop. In fact, in addition to working out who killed Paul Renauld, the most enjoyable part of this book is its observations about its characters’ relationships. You see a much more human side to Poirot, most clearly portrayed in a scene near the end of the book when he severely loses his temper when a vulnerable character nearly gets killed because no one had told him she had changed bedrooms.

CInderellaSo what of our friend Captain Hastings? In one brief sentence early in the book, he describes himself as a “private secretary to an MP”. Well, he must be a very understanding MP, because Hastings never does a stroke of work for him during the next few weeks. I can’t recollect if this job of his will be referred to again in any of the later books – we will have to wait and see! You also see a gently teasing relationship develop between Poirot and Hastings, largely based on Hastings’ predilection for falling head-over-heels in love with the next pretty girl to come along. “Yesterday it was Mademoiselle Daubreuil, today it is Mademoiselle – Cinderella! Decidedly you have the heart of a Turk, Hastings! You should establish a harem!” However, Hastings considers their friendship is seriously put to the test with his willingness to perjure himself for the sake of his Cinderella. “Poirot would not take defeat lying down. Somehow or other, he would endeavour to turn the tables on me, and that in the way, and at the moment, when I least expected it.” Poirot, on the other hand, seems to take it in his stride. “I studied him attentively. He was wearing his most innocent air, and staring meditatively into the far distance. He looked altogether too placid and supine to give me reassurance, I had learned, with Poirot, that the less dangerous he looked, the more dangerous he was.” That’s a very insightful observation. Amusingly, the temporary stress on their friendship brings out all Hastings’ naturally British sense of doing the right thing: “It’s only fair to warn you” [he says to Poirot, who replies] “I know – I know all. You are my enemy! Be my enemy, then. It does not worry me at all.” “So long as it’s all fair and above-board, I don’t mind.” “You have to the full the English passion for “fair play!” And of course, Hastings will propound preposterous theories, barking completely up the wrong tree, where Poirot lets him sit in blissful ignorance for a while until he reveals the truth to Hastings’ total astonishment.

PoliceThere are also some very vivid encounters between Poirot and Giraud of the Sûreté, full of professional and personal rivalry, point-scoring, and competitive clue-hunting. Their first meeting doesn’t go down too well. ““I know you by name, Monsieur Poirot,” [said M. Giraud]. “You cut quite a figure in the old days, didn’t you? But methods are very different now.” “Crimes, though, are very much the same,” remarked Poirot gently.” Giraud’s patronising attitude irritates Poirot profoundly (“not a word to Giraud…he treats me as an old one of no importance!”) but Poirot is determined to show him that his old-fashioned tried and tested methods will come to fruition in the end. Nowhere is his age more advantageous than when he recognises one of the suspects from a case he investigated twenty years before. There’s also an excellent passage where Poirot talks, in general, about the repetitive nature of crimes and recidivism of their perpetrators, borne out of his long experience. When he takes this general observation and relates it directly to this case, so much of the crime becomes instantly clear; detecting like painting by numbers.

Twists and turnsBut don’t let this give you the impression that this is an easy case for Poirot to solve. In The Murder on the Links, Christie created a story that develops, episodically, with so many twists and turns, that you’re constantly being wrong-footed by it – and it’s a complete delight. So many chapters end with something of a bombshell, that it’s like waiting for the drum beats at the end of an episode of Eastenders. Sadly I can’t tell you too much about those bombshells because it will give the game away – but if you take, say, Chapter 10 (Gabriel Stonor), there are half a dozen or so twists in that one short chapter alone. Suffice to say, I found this book a genuinely exciting and page-turning read.

HeartAs an aside, if I were personal friends with Captain Hastings (and I don’t think I ever would be), I’ve got some concerns about his romance. Having married off Tommy and Tuppence at the end of The Secret Adversary, Christie decides to tie up Hastings’ love life too – she confesses in her autobiography that, although she had envisaged Poirot and Hastings as a kind of Holmes and Watson combination, in fact she had already got rather bored of Hastings and was hoping to tie up his loose ends and despatch him to South America for good. Maybe that need to neatly despatch him is the reason for some inconsistencies with his fondness for the gentler sex. Consider his reflection about women on the first page of the book: “Now I am old fashioned. A woman, I consider, should be womanly. I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!” Hot on the heels of The Secret Adversary, this description fairly well encapsulates some aspects of the character of Tuppence – so we could assume he wouldn’t like her. However, this very character turns out to be none other than his beloved Cinderella. When she re-enters his life, at the scene of the crime, she acts just like the female detective of the previous book, with clever small talk, and a desire to poke her nose where it’s not needed. When Hastings reprimands her for what he calls her “ghoulish excitement”, she’s not having any of it. “Your idea of a woman is someone who gets on a chair and shrieks if she sees a mouse. That’s all prehistoric”. Yet this is the girl with whom he becomes besotted. “I strolled down to the beach and watched the bathers, without feeling energetic enough to join them. I rather fancied that Cinderella might be disporting herself among them in some wonderful costume, but I saw no signs of her.” Fantasising about her in a bathing costume? That’s probably soft porn for 1923. In the end, Cinderella turns out to be a girl of terrific bravery, who (in part) saves the day at the end of the book – so, again, very Tuppence-like. I trust Hastings will come to terms with his reappraisal of the kind of girl he likes.

MeesAs in the other early Christies, I again came across a few words, phrases and references that frankly had me bamboozled, so in case they do the same to you, let’s have a look at them. At the start of the book, Hastings is making his way back home from Paris by train: “I had made a somewhat hurried departure from the hotel and was busy assuring myself that I had duly collected all my traps, when the train started”. All my what? Was he expecting a mouse-infestation at his destination? I’ve scoured “trap” in my OED very thoroughly and can’t find a definition that fits. I presume he means “suitcases” but it’s just an assumption. If you know better, please let me know! When discussing the fact that the murderer wore gloves: “Of course he did” said Poirot contemptuously. “…the veriest amateur of an English Mees knows it – thanks to the publicity the Bertillon system has been given in the press.” Woh, hold on there. Veriest? Well apparently that was a superlative form of very back in the 17th century but even in 1923 its use would have been severely archaic. An English Mees? Again the OED doesn’t help. But someone else has asked about this on a website and the response was that a mees – in Belgium, no less – is the name of a tit (bird variety). So I guess today we might say “even a tiny bird would know it”. But the Bertillon system? Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) was the French criminologist who invented the system of identification of criminals by anthropometric measurements, fingerprints, and so on. So now you know.

AtalantaMlle Daubreuil catches Hastings’ attention in many ways, not all of them of the purest. After a conversation with her, he says “she turned and ran back up the road, looking like a modern Atalanta”. Who? Obviously I’m not that well versed in Z-list Greek mythology celebrities. When Atalanta was born, her father wanted a son, so she was left on a mountain top to die. But she was raised by a family of bears, so ended up a fierce hunter who fought like bears, and who took an oath of virginity to the Goddess Artemis. So in all honesty she probably wouldn’t have been a lot of fun.

Buster BrownAt one stage, Poirot and Hastings return to England to visit the Palace Theatre Coventry (I shan’t tell you why – if you’ve read the book you’ll know why, and if you haven’t, it will spoil it for you.) But there is no Palace Theatre in Coventry. In the early 1920s, Coventry boasted the Hippodrome Theatre and the Opera House. There was also the Alexandra, but that was primarily a cinema. So I guess this is just a bit of Christie whimsy. Hastings hates the show, because he’s too much of a snob for Music Hall, noting that there was a comedian trying to be George Robey and failing. Well I do know who George Robey was – Google it if you don’t. But he also describes an act called the Dulcibella Kids as having short fluffy skirts and immense Buster Brown bows. I’m afraid that reference passed me by. Buster Brown was an American comic strip character (who wore a smart suit with huge bows) whose adventures were published from 1902 until about 1921. But after that he lived on, in film, radio and even TV until the 1950s. Never heard of him. Anyway, when they’d finished, the Dulcibella Kids received “a full meed of applause”. A meed? Again, that’s a new one on me. It was mainly used in the 16th century to mean a reward, but according to the OED it came back into fashion in the early 20th century to mean “a fair share of”. Who says you don’t learn stuff from this blog? So educational. Finally, a character under stress is described – by a doctor – as being in danger of suffering from brain fever. Medically, this wouldn’t pass muster nowadays, but it’s interesting to see how much more knowledge we have of neurology over the past 90 years.

PoundIn my blog about The Secret Adversary I did a little financial analysis on the present day values of the sums Tommy and Tuppence were being paid. In this book, Poirot notes that Mme Daubreuil has paid in to her bank account a sum of 200,000 francs over the previous six weeks – I’ll leave you to deduce whether it was legally or otherwise acquired. But if you were curious, that translates to about £170,000 in today’s money. You could buy an awful lot of baguettes and onions with that.

As usual, I offer you my at-a-glance summary for The Murder on the Links:

Publication Details: 1923. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1971. According to Wikipedia, so it must be right, Christie dedicated it thus: “TO MY HUSBAND. A fellow enthusiast for detective stories and to whom I am indebted for much helpful advice and criticism”. In 1923 she was still happily married to Archie Christie. Interestingly, that dedication doesn’t appear in my copy.

How many pages until the first death: 12. Great that you get stuck in nice and early. There are two more deaths too, but are they murders…?

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly few:
“Jumping up…let down the window and stuck her head out, withdrawing it a moment later with the brief and forcible ejaculation…”
“”My only aunt!” She exclaimed”.
“”I would hardly have credited it,“ said Poirot thoughtfully, “but women are very unexpected”.

Memorable characters:
This is probably the book’s weakest aspect. I don’t think any of the major characters are particularly memorable – maybe Cinderella, because she’s different from the other rather stuffy people in it. Oh and M. Giraud from the Sûreté. Anyone trying to patronise Poirot has got to be interesting.

Christie the Poison expert:
Poisons don’t really play a part in this book, although there is an interesting observation about the properties of Primula. “The gardening gloves Auguste admitted to be his. He wore them when handling a certain species of primula plant which was poisonous to some people.” I wonder if the people behind the cheese spread know this?

Class/social issues of the time:

The book was published just five years after the end of the First World War, so wartime memories were still vivid for many people. Hastings reminds us that he was invalided out of the army after the Somme, and it’s interesting to see his instantly patriotic reaction when faced with any implied criticism of his homeland, even in a throwaway line. When the servant Françoise is answering M. Hautet’s questions she says: ““One could see that he was on the brink of a crisis of the nerves. And who could wonder, with an affair conducted in such a fashion? No reticence, no discretion. Style anglais, without doubt!” I bounded indignantly in my seat, but the examining magistrate was continuing his questions, undistracted by side issues.”

The book contains some of the classic Christie distrust of foreigners but not as much as in others – maybe the fact that it is set in France made it less appropriate. Nevertheless there is still a lot of suspicious mutterings about interlopers from Santiago and obvious-looking foreigners in railway stations.

Perhaps more interestingly – and I have to be careful here not to give away too much of the plot – there is a lot of moralising about the sins of the fathers; with specific reference to choosing a suitable person to marry, and avoiding an unsuitable one. “”A truly beautiful young girl – modest, devout, all that she should be. One pities her, for, though she may know nothing of the past, a man who wants to ask for her hand in marriage must necessarily inform himself, and then –“ The commissary shrugged his shoulders cynically. “But it would not be her fault!” I cried, with rising indignation. “No. But what will you? A man is particular about his wife’s antecedents”.

Classic denouement:
Christie has been dropping so many plot twists all along that it’s a little hard to identify quite where the denouement begins. The explanation for the second death starts over fifty pages from the end, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as solving the crime is concerned. The final eight pages explain all. If you’re hoping for Poirot to call all the suspects in to a big room where he slowly identifies the murderer, you’ll be disappointed.

Happy ending? Certainly. Hastings has met his Cinderella, and although we don’t know what will happen next, the augurs look good. And Poirot does his marriage counselling act on another character, with the implication that another couple will live happy ever after.

Did the story ring true? There are of course coincidences in the story as a whole, but at no point did I question the general credibility of the book – and I found the rivalry between Giraud and Poirot extremely believable.

Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. The constant twists and turns lead you up and down garden paths and everywhere but the truth, and are really entertaining. Plus I had the added excitement of having completely forgotten whodunit – and I didn’t get it right on this re-read. An undervalued little gem of a book.

Poirot InvestigatesThanks for reading my blog of The Murder on the Links, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell us whodunit! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we are still in 1923, but a few months later with Christie’s first published selection of short stories under the title Poirot Investigates. Once again, we will meet Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings setting their combined minds to solve a number of devious crimes. It will be interesting to compare short stories with a full length novel. I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s