Sunday, March 30, 2014

There Was a Crooked House ...

"There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house."

English nursery rhyme (published in 1846)

On at least a couple of occasions, Agatha Christie said "Crooked House," which was published in March 1949, was her favorite work.

She said it was her most satisfying book, an opportunity to examine the dynamics of family relationships — and, as she so often did, she took her title from a nursery rhyme, but it was only symbolic. Really had little to do with the plot. The story wasn't built around the content of the rhyme, only around the idea, as expressed by one of the characters, that "we hadn't been able to grow up independent ... twisted and twining." The occupants of the house were controlled and manipulated by the elderly patriarch.

It was an interesting household that Christie created in "Crooked House," which was inspired by a nursery rhyme that was about 100 years old when the story took place. It was centered around an affluent patriarch, whose first wife died and whose sister–in–law looked after his house and children from that time.

The patriarch married a younger woman — the difference in their ages could be measured not in years alone but in decades. That, of course, was an issue for others in the household, which the old boy also shared with his sons, their wives and three grandchildren.

One of the grandchildren was engaged to be married, and the story was told by her fiance. His father, a Scotland Yard inspector, was brought in to investigate, and the fiance assisted him.

The patriach suffered from diabetes and required regular insulin injections. On the fateful day, someone apparently switched the insulin with eserine, an eye medication, and it poisoned him.

As in most good murder mysteries, there was no shortage of suspects. Just about everyone in the house had a reason to want him dead. The patriarch's much younger wife was in love with another man, the tutor for the two youngest grandchildren. There had been rampant rumors about the relationship between those two, and the rest of the household hoped it would turn out that they were guilty. The second wife wasn't liked, and there would be a public scandal if someone else was responsible.

She wasn't the only one who had motive and opportunity but no alibi — and everyone stood to gain since the old man's will left generous chunks of his fortune to each family member. Beyond that, however, the family members shared little except a common bloodline.

Christie told an interviewer in the mid–1960s that she "had difficulty" with the ending of the book because her publisher believed the resolution of the crime could not be how she had written it — presumably because her readers wouldn't accept it.

As she almost always did, Dame Agatha prevailed in spite of the book's unforeseen and controversial conclusion. I won't reveal it — although, after 65 years, it is probably pretty well known to readers of mystery novels — but I would like to point out an important difference between this kind of Christie book and the ones that featured her usual detectives — Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, or even her lesser detectives.

In this kind of book, Christie's detective made his only appearance, and that is significant. With her usual detectives, Christie would allow them to maintain their detachment from the crime and observe from a distance. In a book like "Crooked House," Christie let her detective (actually, as I say, there were two in this case, the Scotland Yard inspector and his son) get his hands dirty.

It occurs to me that it might not have been possible for one of Christie's regular detectives to resolve the case from afar. From a distance, one can miss too much. Perhaps it was necessary for the detective to be close to the family. That intimacy allows the detective to pick up on subtle things that the detached detective would be likely to miss.

Distance can distort details — especially in a crooked house.