Thursday, November 07, 2013

Killing Time

Agatha Christie's "The Clocks" was published 50 years ago today, and it was distinguished by several often unrelated themes.

I guess the title gives away the main theme. In the very first chapter, a stranger was found dead in a room filled with clocks, each with its own significance. All but one were set more than an hour ahead.

Clocks continued to play a rather important role in the story (although I thought it was rather clumsily woven into the resolution of the mystery), so much so that I recall wondering, as I read it for the first time, if Christie had been influenced by the classic movie "High Noon," in which clocks in every home and every place of business ratcheted up the tension.

That would go a long way toward explaining some things, like the presence of a rather obvious homage to Hitchcock's "Rear Window" late in the book — in the course of the investigation, a young girl was questioned. She had a broken leg, which kept her confined inside where she watched the neighbors from a window. Not knowing who they were, she gave them names based on her observations.

The detective of record was Hercule Poirot, and his work on this case was noteworthy because he never went to any of the crime scenes nor did he question any of the witnesses. It was entirely an intellectual exercise for Poirot, who was old and retired (although he appeared in three more Christie novels before his celebrated final case, "Curtain," was published more than a decade later) but eager to assume the role of armchair detective.

Poirot shared the story's spotlight with a British intelligence agent who did much of the actual legwork — including interviewing the girl with the broken leg — but he shared all his notes with Poirot.

There was another interesting angle to the story. Poirot actually discussed his opinions of other fictional detectives and their authors, about many of whom modern readers know little or nothing — other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Christie was careful, I noticed, not to mention her contemporaries.

There were two somewhat interlocking stories being told — the murder mystery and a spy story — and both originated in the same house although they had precious little to do with each other beyond that.

There were other times when Christie tried to merge a murder mystery with an espionage thriller, and the end result usually didn't completely succeed as she probably hoped it would. "The Clocks" did not prove to be an exception to that.

In general, though, "The Clocks" was successful as a murder mystery, and the reviews, while mixed, were pretty good. Not bad for a 73–year–old writer.