Monday, 7 March 2016

dead man's folly

On Thursday I finished Dead Man's Folly by Agatha Christie. It was fairly good, though, as is regularly the case, I found the ending unsatisfactory, being pretty preposterous and with a solution containing elements which would have been I think unreasonable for the reader to deduce from the story as recounted (and unsatisfactory in that I think several other solutions could have been equally (im)plausibly presented, which I always think is an admission of failure - you want at the end to think yes, I see now, that's what happened and that makes sense, and I see how that's evident from what I've been told and shown). The journey is enjoyable, but the destination/explanation/resolution/denouement is unsatisfactory. That this is true so often in all kinds of fiction demonstrates how hard it can be to write a good ending, even when your book is full of good ideas.

First line: It was Miss Lemon, Poirot's efficient secretary, who took the telephone call.
Last line: 'There are some things that one has to face quite alone...'

Dedication: To Humphrey & Peggy Trevelyan [Cornish surname, so perhaps someone local to the setting of the book]

One oddity, which struck me after finishing, was that the title of the book is odd, in that the folly in the book is not a 'dead man's folly'; and if there is a non-physical folly of a dead man (and I'm not sure there is) then it is not worthy of being given the title place.

The cover of the 1975 edition which I read was one of the great Fontana series of covers from the 60s and 70s by Tom Adams, distinctively painterly, atmospheric, picking up on visual elements and atmosphere from the novel (although, as here, not depicting things 'accurately'). They set a standard for memorable and distinctive book covers which really connected with the contents, to an extent that could almost have become definitive, if 'the way of things' in publishing wasn't always to change the cover of a book all the time. It's interesting, in a way, that book covers change across editions and publishers but albums don't. (This is the first cover I Instagrammed, because that's the book I was reading when I decided to start. The white marks are damage.)

It is notable for being set quite clearly - if you've visited it - in Agatha Christie's actual home in Dartmouth, which added a level of interest since I have been there.

It is also one which features the lady detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, who is shamelessly self-referential, having saddled herself with a Finnish detective. Of course Agatha Christie often features references to detective fiction in a way which in more critically respected authors would be considered almost post-modern, but Ariadne Oliver gives the opportunity for even more reflection on the life and art of a detective novelist, in a way which I don't see any reason to believe is wholly fictional or unrelated to Agatha Christie's own views or experience.

There was a particularly good para near the end of the book (here it is on Instagram) when Hercule Poirot phones her up for a further conversation (it is noticeable that having had Ariadne in at the start to kick things off, she drops out of the story for much of it, even when still on the scene, as if keeping writing he in was a hassle, which is a shame in my view):

"It's splendid that you've rung me up," she said. "I was just going out to give a talk on How I Write My Books. Now I can get my secretary to ring up and say I am unavoidably detained."
"But, Madame, you must not let me prevent-"
"It's not a case of preventing," said Mrs. Oliver joyfully. "I'd have made the most awful fool of myself. I mean, what can you say about how you write books? What I mean is, first you've got to think of something, and when you've thought of it you've got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That's all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up. I can't imagine why everybody is always so keen for authors to talk about writing. I should have thought it was an author's business to write, not talk."