As the Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme continues on its murderous journey through the alphabet, we’re now at the letter “D.” Thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for being our guide. For this letter, I’ve chosen Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly. Dead Man’s Folly was published in both the U.K. and the U.S. in 1956, and is one of seven Christie novels in which her fictional mystery novelist, Ariadne Oliver, appears.
The novel begins with an urgent and cryptic phone call from Oliver to her friend, Hercule Poirot. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt for an upcoming fête at Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, and she suspects that there’s more going on than just the fête. Curiosity leads Poirot to the Devon countryside where the home is located (incidentally, the site for this novel was based upon Christie’s own Devon home, Greenways). When Poirot arrives, Oliver tells him that she was engaged to design a variation on the scavenger hunt theme: she’s been asked to create a murder mystery, complete with scenario, clues and a victim. Competitors in the Murder Hunt are given the first clue and a booklet outlining the scenario and describing the suspects. They’re then expected to hunt for the clues, find the victim and name the murderer, weapon and motive. Oliver then says that she thinks she’s being subtly manipulated, and that there may be something more sinister going on, although she’s not sure what it might be. An intrigued Poirot agrees to pretend he’s there to award the Murder Hunt prize to the winner, and is soon introduced to the other key players in the fête. They include Sir George Stubbs, a slightly vulgar but very wealthy businessman-made-good, his beautiful but vapid wife, Lady Hattie Stubbs, the housekeeper, Miss Brewis, and the former owner of the estate, Mrs. Amy Folliat. Several local people also come in to help with the preparations for the fête.
The day of the fête arrives, and everything seems to be a huge success – until Marlene Tucker, the young village girl who’s playing the role of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. At first, it seems that there is no reason why anyone would want to kill Marlene. She’s a local girl from a perfectly normal village family, who doesn’t seem to have made any enemies. The puzzle gets even more complex when Lady Hattie Stubbs mysteriously disappears at about the same time that Marlene is murdered. As they look into the events at Nasse House, Hercule Poirot and the Devon police soon find that Ariadne Oliver was right; there was a lot more going on “behind the scenes” of the fête than simply a Murder Hunt. As Poirot investigates, he uncovers old secrets from the past that have everything to do with what’s happened at the fête.
Dead Man’s Folly catches the reader’s attention fairly quickly, mostly because of the likeable character of Ariadne Oliver, who was said to be Christie’s way of poking fun at herself. When Poirot senses Oliver’s distress and agrees to go to Devon, we get even more intrigued, especially because Poirot usually eschews traveling around looking for clues. This time, he senses danger, too, and that’s compelling.
There’s also some humor in the book, mostly provided by Ariadne Oliver. For instance, at one point in the novel, Oliver and Poirot are sitting on a bench, watching the progress of the Murder Hunt. One competitor, who doesn’t recognize Oliver, asks if they’re competing, too. When they say, “no,” he mentions that he’s heard that Ariadne Oliver secretly drinks, “like a fish.” After he leaves, Oliver splutters with indignation, saying that she never takes anything stronger than lemonade. Later, when Oliver is asked if she can imagine who might have wanted to kill Marlene Tucker, she lists a comical number of likely and unlikely scenarios for the murder, explaining that she can “imagine anything.” Her entire interview with the Inspector in charge of the case makes the reader want to laugh as the beleaguered Inspector tries to make logical sense of Oliver’s disjointed explanation of the Murder Hunt. Those moments provide welcome comic relief. They also make Oliver’s character even more human and likeable. We can sympathize with her distress when her carefully-concocted Murder Hunt ends so tragically – we feel for her.
What’s perhaps most interesting about Dead Man’s Folly is that at first, many of the characters seem almost flat; they’re not nearly as “real” as Christie’s usual characters are. However, it’s not long before we realize that Christie does that on purpose in this novel. The characters are simply “disguises” used to manipulate Oliver (and the reader!) and provide a cover for what’s really going on at Nasse House. Christie does a brilliant job here of staging an almost-convincing, but in the end, artificial scene. It’s a fascinating example of a “story within a story,” too; the scenario of Ariadne Oliver’s Murder Hunt seems to mirror the people of Nasse House. In fact, Poirot uses Oliver’s scenario to help him uncover some of the secrets behind the events of the fête. As Poirot finds out the truth about the murder of Marlene Tucker and the disappearance of Hattie Stubbs, he also finds that nearly nothing at Nasse House is really what it seems to be.
I recommend Dead Man’s Folly as a suspenseful look at the way in which “old sins cast long shadows.” It’s also a really interesting study in minor characters, as it’s from two minor characters in this novel that we get the most telling clues. In fact, towards the end of the novel, Poirot says that he should have paid attention to those characters, and that
______ [one of the minor characters] practically told me [the story behind Nasse House].
A few interesting things about Dead Man’s Folly
Unlike some of Christie’s other Hercule Poirot novels, this one doesn’t end with Poirot explaining everything to a roomful of suspects. Instead, he holds a quiet conversation with the one character in the novel who knows exactly why and by whom Marlene Tucker was murdered, and always has known. In its way, that dénouement is even more compelling than the classic, dramatic revelation. Poirot’s explanation provides a stark contrast to the quiet atmosphere in which he gives it.
Dead Man’s Folly is referred to later in Hallowe’en Party, in which Ariadne Oliver appears again. In Hallowe’en Party, Oliver is invited to help plan a children’s party. At that party, Joyce Reynolds, a young teenager who attends the party, is drowned. When Oliver comes to Poirot to ask for his help in finding out who killed Joyce, Poirot asked if Oliver had prepared another Murder Hunt for the party. Oliver’s emphatic response is Never again!
Dead Man’s Folly is definitely worth a read, whether or not you’re a Christie fan. However, I recommend that if you haven’t read Cards on the Table, which introduces Ariadne Oliver, you should read that before reading Dead Man’s Folly. Otherwise, it’s easy to miss the shrewd judgment and sharp wits that Oliver often hides behind her slightly “scatty” exterior.