Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

We’re now on the fifth week – “E” – of the alphabet in crime fiction meme under the skilled leadership of Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’ve chosen an Agatha Christie novel for my contribution. This one is Evil Under the Sun, published in 1941 in both the U.K. and the U.S.

The novel begins with a short history and description of the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay in Devon. With the setting established, we meet some of the characters who figure in this novel. There’s Odell and Carrie Gardner, American tourists who are relaxing after sightseeing all over England. There’s also Major Barry, a retired military officer; Horace Blatt, a rather obvious and obnoxious businessman; Reverend Stephen Lane, an almost fanatic cleric; Rosamund Darnley, an extremely successful and accomplished fashion designer; Patrick and Christine Redfern, a young couple on holiday; and Captain Kenneth Marshall, his wife Arlena, and Kenneth’s daughter Linda.

The action in the novel really begins when Arlena (Stuart) Marshall makes her appearance on the beach late one morning. She’s a stunningly beautiful actress who’s got a reputation for notoriety. For instance, she’s been cited as the cause of at least one divorce, and another infatuated man left her his entire fortune when he died. As some of the other guests watch her make her very obvious entrance, their reactions range from admiration to disgust at her reputation, and she immediately becomes the topic of gossip.

The gossip only gets more lurid when Arlena takes up with Patrick Redfern. Everyone feels sorry for his wife, Christine, who has little of Arlena’s magnetism and charisma. The suspense builds as the characters discuss the budding relationship, and the reader gets the feeling very quickly that “something’s got to give.” When Poirot remonstrates with Redfern about his behavior, Redfern quickly denies any wrongdoing, as does Arlena Marshall when her husband brings up her behavior. These denials, although they’re to be expected, add to the suspense. So does the character of Linda Marshall, Arlena’s awkward sixteen-year-old stepdaughter, who feels things very passionately. She hates her stepmother and soon decides to act on her feelings.

One morning, Arlena leaves the hotel unusually early and takes a float towards Pixy’s Cove, a quiet cove not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot assumes that she’s heading for a rendez-vous with Patrick Redfern, but is proved wrong when Redfern himself appears on the beach, obviously looking for Arlena. Poirot has promised not to mention that he saw Arlena, so he says nothing, but is now curious about where she’s gone and why. About an hour later, Redfern and Emily Brewster, who both enjoy rowing, take a boat around Pixy’s Cove, only to find Arlena Marshall’s body lying on the beach at the cove. When the police are called in, Poirot works with them to find out who killed Arlena Marshall.

The obvious suspects are, of course, Kenneth Marshall and Christine Redfern. Both of them have alibis, though, and it doesn’t seem possible for either of them to have been responsible. There are other suspects, anyway. For example, Linda Marshall hates her stepmother and Poirot discovers that she’s been dabbling in witchcraft to try to find a spell that will rid her of Arlena. The Reverand Stephen Lane has an obsession with good and evil, and considers Arlena Marshall the epitome of evil; he also has no really reliable alibi for the time of the murder. It turns out that Rosamund Darnley and Kenneth Marshall are old friends, and that Rosamund has feelings for Kenneth. And, as the police investigate Pixy’s Cove, they uncover a drug smuggling operation. If Arlena stumbled on it as well, whoever’s responsible for the smuggling also has a motive for murder. As Poirot puts the pieces of the puzzle together, he finds out that Arlena’s murder was not the crime passionel that everyone thinks it was.

One of the most interesting things about Evil Under the Sun is Christie’s treatment of the alibi. Everyone concerned has an alibi, or seems to, for the time of the murder. Some characters provide alibis for others, and at first, it seems that Arlena must have been killed by an outsider. However, as Christie fans know, things are rarely what they seem and, as Poirot himself has said more than once, everyone has something to hide. Christie keeps the reader engaged and guessing as Poirot sifts through everyone’s alibi and finds out who’s protecting whom, who’s hiding something relatively innocuous, and whose “mask” is hiding a killer. It’s especially fascinating to find out how the killer’s alibi serves as a good “cover” – at first. Of course, murderers don’t want to be caught, and most of them take pains to provide an alibi for themselves. But the way in which Arlena Marshall’s murderer uses the timing of the crime to avoid being found out is particularly clever, and adds an intriguing twist to the story.

Christie’s characterization is also fascinating in this novel. Many mystery novels try to evoke sympathy for the victim, but in Evil Under the Sun, Arlena Marshall is practically the least interesting character. We don’t even really hate her; in the end, she just doesn’t matter. Far more compelling are the characters of the other guests at the hotel, even the ones who don’t figure much in the story. We find out by the end of the novel that Christie’s very purposeful in that decision. As it turns out, Arlena really is just as “flat” a character as she seems. It’s a brilliant decision in terms of understanding how and why she dies. Christie is at her best here in the way she describes the other characters, helps the reader get to know them, and keeps the reader interested in them.

Here are a few interesting tidbits about Evil Under the Sun:

It was made into a very forgettable 1982 movie featuring Peter Ustinov in the role of Poirot. Everyone’s taste is different, but I don’t recommend the film at all. It has little to do with the novel, and most of the characters aren’t much like the ones Christie intended. And, while I respect Ustinov’s acting, he’s not a good fit for the character of Poirot.

In Evil Under the Sun, one of the minor characters, Carrie Gardner, refers to another Christie novel, Death on the Nile. It turns out that she’s acquainted with one of the characters in Death on the Nile and mentions that character to Poirot, so in order to get that reference, you may want to read Death on the Nile before you read Evil Under the Sun.

Evil Under the Sun has some similarities to a 1936 Christie short story, Triangle at Rhodes, which is included among the collection Dead Man’s Mirror as well as the collection Murder in the Mews. In both Evil Under the Sun and Triangle at Rhodes, Poirot is on holiday at a resort when a beautiful actress is murdered, In both stories, too, there’s a romantic triangle. And in both stories, there’s a similar brilliant twist of plot at the end.

I recommend Evil Under the Sun, especially for those who are already Poirot fans. It’s got brilliant characterization, interesting plot twists and Poirot’s famous “little grey cells.”

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for this Margot. I've also added it to the Agatha Christie Blog Carnival so you should get an email acknowledging that.

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  2. Until I read this book very many years ago I had linked it with Death on The Nile and Murder in Mesopotamia as the title seemed to infer it was set in a hot climate. Of course it is set at Burgh Island near Bigbury on Sea in Devon and this summer we have had a few days with beautiful weather, although when we moved to Devon in 1987 we were told it rains 363 days a year. Not true it is only about 330 days!

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  3. Kerrie - Thanks - I did get that Email, and I appreciate your adding this to the blog carnival : ).

    Norman - Ah, the truth about the Devon climate! It's never the same as it is in fiction, is it? Funny, I'd always linked Evil Under the Sun with Death on the Nile, too, but not because of the climate. I linked them because of the reference Christie makes in Evil Under the SUn to Death on the Nile. Also, as it just happened, I read them one after the other, so they just "stuck together" in my mind.

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  4. I have a much loved tattered copy of Evil Under the Sun. Another one of great poirot books.

    Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: E post!

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  5. Gautami - Isn't it a great example of Poirot at his best? My first copy got so battered I had to replace it : ).

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  6. I love "Evil Under the Sun". Classic Christie and classic Poirot. Can it GET any better? I'm going to pull out my copy and wallow.

    Elspeth

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  7. Elspeth - I agree completely! Evil Under the Sun is, indeed, classic Christie/Poirot. In fact, as soon as I decided to join the alphabet in crime fiction meme, I knew this would be my choice for "E."

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  8. This is a great book. There is some overlap in plot terms with Death on the Nile, and many people prefer the earlier book, but I think the island setting is wonderful and the puzzle is brilliantly done. It's one of my favourite Christies.

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  9. Martin - I agree completely that it's one of Christie's best! Thanks for bringing up the plot overlaps with Death on the Nile, too. Christie does that with several of her books, I think. And I couldn't agree with you more about the setting - it's definitely part of the book's appeal for me.

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  10. I do enjoy this one too and it seems another one of Christie's works that is often 'copied' by plots of made for TV movies such as Midsomer Murders and that sort of thing.

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  11. Bernadette - I hadn't thought about that, but you're right, of course. The plot just lends itself to being done for TV. It would make a great full-length feature, too, if it were well-done by someone who stayed faithful to the book.

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