In which Hercule Poirot is enjoying a quiet holiday in a discreet island off the coast of Devon, when one of his fellow holidaymakers is found strangled on a beach. Naturally the local police ask Poirot to assist – and just before they call in Scotland Yard his little grey cells come to the rescue. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book is dedicated to “John in memory of our last season in Syria.” This was John Rose, who befriended Agatha and her husband Max at an archaeological dig at Ur, in 1928. She would also dedicate her later book, A Caribbean Mystery, to him. Evil Under the Sun was first serialised in the US in Colliers’ Weekly from December 1940 to February 1941. The full book was first published in the UK in June 1941 by Collins Crime Club and then subsequently in the US in October the same year. The title is a quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 6, Verses 1-2: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men. A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease.” My guess is that the observation is that the character of Arlena has everything that money could buy, but is she happy?
I could only remember a few hints of the story as I was re-reading this book, which meant that the denouement at the end came as a thoroughly enjoyable surprise. I have fond memories of the film; primarily because it had such a brilliant soundtrack of songs by Cole Porter, and the soundtrack album was perfect fodder for whenever you needed a little nostalgic easy listening. The film, however, did take many liberties with the book, and I couldn’t recommend it if you are a Christie purist.
This is a very enjoyable book but it has a few downsides for me. A few of the characters are deliberately dull and boring people, incessantly jabbering on about nothing in particular (like Mrs Gardener) or constantly referring back to India of old (Major Barry). And the trouble with reading conversations of police-style investigations with these people is that it becomes a boring read. Every time Mrs Gardener started yet again droning on about nothing in particular, my attention wandered. I have a sense it was meant to be funny; no, it’s just boring.
One is also used to a reasonable amount of sexism in a Christie book; she was never going to be the type to burn her bra, for example, but this book has such an extraordinarily sexist ending that I gasped out loud. I can’t really go into detail too much without giving the game away but, believe me, it really takes the biscuit. It actually ruined (for me, at least) what was otherwise a really exciting conclusion to the book.
Where Evil Under the Sun truly excels is introducing us to the world of early 20th century British seaside holidays. In the first chapter, when explaining how the Jolly Roger hotel came into being, Christie refers to the “great cult of the Seaside for Holidays” when “the coast of Devon and Cornwall was no longer thought too hot in the summer”. Christie paints a lively picture of this quaint, exclusive resort, with its well-to-do holidaymakers who bathe before breakfast (by which she means go for a dip in the sea, not get washed) and discover secluded coves for sketching and sunbathing. Proprietress Mrs Castle is as refined as you can get, with Christie conveying her over-the-top strangulated vowel sounds and ridiculously upper-middle-class language. The one thing that unites all the tourists staying at the hotel is that they are monied; they may not have taste, or class, but they’ve got the wherewithal.
With this, her third Poirot book on the run, Christie really mastered her thriller-writer-style; longer chapters broken up by shorter, numbered scenes, each of which contained one vital piece of information. That could be an introduction to a character; an account of a detective/police interview with one particular suspect; the discovery of one individual clue, or even one significant observation. This style helps keep you reading; you know the next chapter section is only going to be brief, so there’s always time for just one more chapter – and before you know it, you’re almost at the end. It builds the pace and the suspense very nicely, and Christie even provides the reader with a map of the island, which may, or may not, aid our amateur sleuthing.
Poirot is once again on excellent form; persistent, unscrupulous, meddling, devious, even cruel – but always in the search for the truth. We first see Poirot disapproving of what he considers the impersonal and deplorable modern practice of lying out in the sun “in rows. What are they? They are not men and women. There is nothing personal about them. They are just – bodies! […] What appeal is there? What mystery? I, I am old, of the old school. When I was young, one saw barely the ankle. The glimpse of a foamy petticoat, how alluring! The gentle swelling of the calf – a knee – a beribboned garter…” Steady Poirot, you’ll have us breaking out in a sweat.
He is, as he says, old. Blatt says of him, “I thought he was dead…Dash it, he ought to be dead.” Rosamund remarks to Kenneth Marshall that “he’s pretty old. Probably more or less ga ga”. Blatt thinks that Devon would be a hostile environment to the poor old chap, “a man like you would be at Deauville or Le Touquet, or down at Juan les Pins”, and Poirot concedes that in wet weather those resorts would be more welcoming. Christie herself passes comment on one aspect of Poirot’s appearance and personality: “Poirot, in his turn, extracted his cigarette case and lit one of those tiny cigarettes which it was his affectation to smoke.” Affectation – interesting choice of word. Poirot is always concerned about how he looks to the outside world, whether it be a mark on his shoe, or a fleck of dust on a suit, or something not being entirely symmetrical.
He’s clearly missing his old pal, Hastings, although, as we discover in a nice little aside, Christie confirms that Poirot updates him on all his escapades sometime in the future. But Poirot always needs someone off whom to bounce an idea or two. In One, Two, Buckle my Shoe it was George, his manservant. In this latest case, Poirot enjoys a good working relationship with both Chief Constable Colonel Weston, with whom he worked in Peril at End House, and on a day-to-day basis with Inspector Colgate. When we first meet them, Christie normally describes her police officers with a few bleak adjectives, but we’re left to make our own mind up about Colgate. He seems dogged but polite, very deferential towards both Weston and Poirot; he speaks “soothingly” to witnesses, and is perfectly happy to sit quietly and listen to everything everyone else says before offering a comment. He’s clearly one who employs his own little grey cells; and this wins Poirot’s trust and friendship. A long way into the case, Christie tells us: “To Hercule Poirot, sitting on the ledge overlooking the sea, came Inspector Colgate. Poirot liked Inspector Colgate. He liked his rugged face, his shrewd eyes, and his slow unhurried manner.” And that’s as near as Poirot gets to finding a replacement for Hastings in this book.
Poirot shows his lack of scruples by listening in to private conversations; he doesn’t absent himself when Christine and Patrick Redfern are talking about Patrick’s infatuation with Arlena (even Hastings disapproves). He doesn’t flinch from brutally confronting 16-year-old Linda Marshall with a visceral description of her stepmother’s death, the inappropriateness of which shocked even the Chief Constable.
Poirot gives us an insight into why he questions brutally and relentlessly – and the reason why Poirot admonishes Kenneth Marshall through frustration with the responses he is getting: “there is no such thing as a plain fact of murder. Murder springs, nine times out of ten, out of the character and circumstances of the murdered person. Because the victim was the kind of person he or she was, therefore was he or she murdered! Until we can understand fully and completely exactly what kind of person Arlena Marshall was, we shall not be able to see clearly the kind of person who murdered her.” It’s always the character analysis that most interests Poirot and, of course, that makes it more interesting for the reader.
There’s a further insight into Poirot’s methodology when Mrs Gardener asks him to explain how he goes about solving a crime, whilst she’s wrestling with a jigsaw puzzle. “It is a little like your puzzle, Madame. One assembles the pieces. It is like a mosaic – many colours and patterns – and every strange-shaped little piece must be fitted into its own place. […] And sometimes it is like that piece of your puzzle just now. One arranges very methodically the pieces of the puzzle – one sorts the colours – and then perhaps a piece of one colour that should fit in with – say, the fur rug, fits instead in a black cat’s tail. […] Almost every one here in this hotel has given me a piece for my puzzle. You amongst them.” And when Mrs Gardener is thrilled to find out what she has said to influence his thoughts, he refuses with the ironically amusing response: “I reserve the explanations for the last chapter.”
As if to make life easier for the reader, Christie lists for us, as she is recounting Poirot’s thoughts, all the clues (for want of a better word) that he accumulates during the course of the investigation, as a challenge to see if we can crack the case before he does: “Gabrielle No 8. A pair of scissors. A broken pipe stem. A bottle thrown from a window. A green calendar. A packet of candles. A mirror and a typewriter. A skein of magenta wool. A girl’s wrist-watch. Bathwater rushing down the waste-pipe. Each of these unrelated facts must fit into its appointed place. There must be no loose ends.” This is the jigsaw puzzle relating to Evil Under the Sun.
Regular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. We know from the start that Leathercombe Bay, where the island is located, is in the West Country; although this isn’t firmly stated; it’s an assumption we make after she has already mentioned Devon and Cornwall. There is no such place of course; but, like And Then There Were None, it was based on Burgh Island just by Bigbury-on-Sea. Mr Lane goes for a country walk to Harford; there is a village of that name in the Dartmoor National Park but it would be an awfully long round walk – a good 15 miles each way. Shipley, Sheepstor and Tintagel are mentioned – these are real places; however, St Petrock-in-the-Combe is made up, although there are many churches and roads in the area with St Petroc (no “k”) in the title. Whiteridge, Mr Lane’s Surrey address, doesn’t exist; and although Rosamund’s business address of 622 Brook Street, London, sounds convincing, the numbers in this Mayfair street don’t go anywhere near that high.
The hotel register lists the addresses of its guests: The Cowans live at Rydal’s Mount, Leatherhead (Leatherhead is real, of course, and Rydal Mount is a house in the Lake District, the home of William Wordsworth, but the two don’t go together). The Mastermans live in Marlborough Avenue, London, NW (there is a Marlborough Avenue in London but it’s in Hackney). The Redferns live at Crossgates, Seldon, Princes Risborough (there’s no such village near Princes Risborough). Major Barry lives in Cardon Street, St James, London (no such street). Rosamund Darnley lives in Cardigan Court, W1 (it doesn’t exist). Emily Brewster lives at Southgates, in Sunbury on Thames (I can’t trace a Southgates there) and the Marshalls live in Upcott Mansions London SW7 (no such place). Poirot’s own address of Whitehaven Mansions London W1 is also a Christie fabrication. Shame.
Let’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. Do you know what a duck suit is? I didn’t. Our first sight of Poirot is “resplendent in a white duck suit”. It’s nothing to do with ducks. Duck is a heavy, plain woven cotton fabric. The name comes from the Dutch doek, meaning linen canvas. I guessed what was meant by the term “earth closet” (the Gardeners describe the facilities in a guesthouse on the moors in that way) and it is of course the opposite of a water closet.
Arlena Marshall was in a revue called Come and Go – that’s another of Christie’s inventions. However, there’s nothing fictional about the characters of Mussolini or Princess Elizabeth (now the Queen) mentioned by Rosamund Darnley when discussing her childhood game of If not yourself, who would you be. Nor are A. E. W. Mason’s The Four Feathers or Mary Augusta Ward’s The Marriage of William Ashe, and the many other distinguished tomes that appear on Linda Marshall’s bookshelves.
Mrs Gardener wants to make a visit to the “convict prison” at Princetown. That’s what we now call HM Dartmoor Prison, built in 1809. And, talking of convicts, the Wallace to whom Colgate refers when reflecting on the cool reaction from Marshall to the fact that his wife has been murdered, was William Herbert Wallace of Anfield, Liverpool, who was found guilty of the murder of his wife but then later had the conviction quashed by the Court of Criminal Appeal. Whilst reflecting on the facts of the case, Colonel Weston concludes that the murderer is “some monomaniac who happened to be in the neighbourhood”. Monomania was the term used to describe a partial insanity, conceived as single pathological preoccupation in an otherwise sound mind. The term fell from favour in the mid-19th century, so Weston’s use of it approximately a hundred years later is very archaic.
If you know your Bible (and I confess I am a little weak on parts of it) then you probably know about Aholibah. Reverend Lane compares Arlena to Jezebel and Aholibah in his insistence that she was evil. If you check Ezekiel Chapter 23 you’ll find that Aholibah is from Jerusalem and lusts after Egyptian men whose genitals resemble donkeys’ and whose emission is like that of horses. Funnily enough that passage was excised from my Children’s Bible! And what about Gabrielle No 8 perfume? Gabrielle was the real name of Coco Chanel, whose No 5 was taking the world by storm. I think we can see what Christie was getting up to here.
Christie also makes a few references to her own books. We’ve already seen that Colonel Weston originally appeared in Peril at End House, which in this book he refers to as “that affair at St. Loo”. Mr and Mrs Gardener are friends with Cornelia Robson who appeared in Death on the Nile. There are also some similarities with the plot of Triangle at Rhodes, which forms part of the Murder in the Mews collection. I’ll say no more, lest I give the game away.
I’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book: £50,000, which is the amount left to Arlena in the will of her old friend Sir Robert Erskine, and which is still assumed to be untouched in her bank accounts. Colgate concludes that Arlena was a rich woman. That £50,000 in today’s terms would be £1.7 million. So, yes, fairly wealthy and worth murdering for!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Evil Under the Sun:
Publication Details: 1941. Fontana paperback, 4th impression, published in November 1967. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a voodoo doll of a woman in a bikini, surrounded by shells and seaweed, with pins stuck in her body. That certainly captures one aspect of the story, at least. There’s also some magenta wool, which refers us back to Poirot’s list of clue anomalies that has to be explained before the truth is revealed.
How many pages until the first death: 49. That gives us plenty of time to examine the situation and anticipate a crime before anything actually happens. Maybe if the crime were to have been discovered just a little earlier the book might have felt more punchy?
Funny lines out of context: Perhaps not an accidentally funny line out of context but I loved this early observation from Mrs Gardener, together with Christie’s own icy reaction:
“”These girls that lie out like that in the sun will grow hair on their legs and arms. I’ve said so to Irene – that’s my daughter, M. Poirot. Irene, I said to her, if you lie out like that in the sun, you’ll have hair all over you, hair on your arms and hair on your legs and hair on your bosom, and what will you look like then? I said to her. DIdn’t I, Odell?” “Yes, darling,” said Mr Gardener. Every one was silent, perhaps making a mental picture of Irene when the worst had happened.”
Effective use of language: “Mr Lane was a tall vigorous clergyman of fifty odd. His face was tanned and his dark grey flannel trousers were holidayfied and disreputable.”
“The Reverend Stephen Lane drew in his breath with a little hiss and his figure stiffened.”
Arlena Marshall is an enigma; someone who is so beautiful, so charismatic, but yet so thoroughly empty and self-centred at the same time. Kenneth Marshall is also an enigma; his completely passionless response to the murder is hard to comprehend, even if he didn’t like her very much. Emily Brewster, with her gruff voice and her athletic prowess is, I guess, an early attempt by Christie to portray a very manly woman. Mrs Castle’s over-refined speech patterns and voice are quite amusing. But, despite these minor fascinations, as is often the case, the characters don’t stand out in the same way that the story itself does.
Christie the Poison expert:
Kenneth Marshall’s first wife was acquitted of the murder of her husband, who “was proved to have been an arsenic eater”. That’s the only reference to poison I can find. However, an intricate sub-plot in this story involves dealing in heroin, or Diamorphine Hydrochloride, as Dr Neasdon carefully explains. Interestingly, Christie talks of drugs like heroin in terms of their chemical compounds, in the same clinical way in which she views poison.
Class/social issues of the time:
This book is very unusual for its almost complete lack of typical Christie-like observations on class and social issues. Because everyone staying at the Jolly Roger is wealthy, the only working-class character in the book is Gladys the chambermaid, but it’s a very small part. True, Christie condescends a little towards Horace Blatt, who, although rich, has neither taste nor the awareness of personal boundaries of the upper middle-class.
There’s only one area of contention in this book – and that’s Christie’s innate sexism when it comes to equal opportunities for men and women. Rosamund Darnley is depicted as a successful businesswoman; unmarried through choice, although Poirot pussyfoots around the subject with: “Mademoiselle, if you are not married, it is because none of my sex have been sufficiently eloquent.” Poirot, perhaps surprisingly, approves of the way she has carved out her own independent living: “to marry and have children, that is the common lot of women. Only one woman in a hundred – more, in a thousand, can make for herself a name and a position as you have done.” That’s why the appallingly sexist ending – you’ll have to read it for yourself – stands out like the sorest thumb in A&E.
Classic denouement: Yes! This is one of those occasions where the majority of the suspects are gathered around to hear what Poirot has concluded, although it’s actually even more exciting as you don’t realise the denouement is taking place until it’s thoroughly progressed; it sneaks up on you as you actually think you’re there to find out something else. It even has one of those extremely satisfying moments when the accused party loses the plot and goes to attack Poirot.
Happy ending? In a sense. A couple are clearly going to get it together and live happily ever after. However, the terms on which this happens are pretty repulsive from today’s perspective.
Did the story ring true? It’s all very convoluted and highly unlikely; but I can imagine how, with chutzpah and some lucky breaks, the crime was committed.
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a very good read, and the crime is very satisfactory, from the reader’s point of view. But as I said earlier, some of the characters are rather boring, and that ending is a killer (and not in a good sense.) So I don’t think I can go higher than 8/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Evil Under the Sun and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is N or M?, and we leave Hercule Poirot behind to catch up with what Tommy and Tuppence are doing to help the war effort. As usual, 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!