Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bullets, Runaway Boulders, Busted Brakes and a Box of Poisoned Chocolates: Agatha Christie's Peril at End House

Every year for the past seven years (except for one, overbusy instance), I've made it a habit to begin my reading calendar with an Agatha Christie mystery.  The New Year's Eve champagne is still tingling through my blood when I visit the "Ch" bookcase of my library (yes, my library is so large, an entire bookcase is devoted to just "Ch") and choose a whodunit I haven't yet read.  Reading Agatha Christie is a sublime way of getting my "little grey cells" humming and buzzing--shaking off their winter torpor--as I start another twelve months of often heavy literary fiction.

This year, I chose Peril at End House, published early in Christie's career (1932).  It was relatively short and the setup intrigued me.  A young carefree woman named Nick Buckley (there's also a girl named Freddie--but no boy named Sue) has had a run of bad luck lately.  The brakes on her car went out as she was going downhill, a large oil painting over her bed came crashing down minutes after she'd left it, and a boulder rolling off a cliff narrowly missed her when she was sunbathing.  Then, just as she's on her way to meet friends at a resort hotel, someone fires a bullet at her.  Again, it passes harmlessly through her sun hat, but by this point it seems pretty obvious that someone is out to kill Nick Buckley.  Even so, the happy doesn't go out of her happy-go-lucky.  Her joie de vivre is irrepressible, even in the face of all this near-tragedy.

Hercule Poirot, however, is concerned.  After a chance encounter with Nick at the Hotel Majestic (where the errant bullet went through the brim of her hat), he is determined to find out who's behind all these "accidents" in the girl's life.  Along with Captain Hastings (the Watson to Poirot's Holmes), he begins investigating the perils of End House, the gloomy house overlooking the ocean.  Nick is the last of the Buckleys, a centuries-old family, living in the place which, Hastings says, "looks rather eerie and imposing standing there by itself far from anything."

A typical cast of Christie suspects gradually comes on the scene: Nick's beautiful-but-listless friend Frederica, art dealer Jim Lazarus, a would-be suitor named George Challenger, and cousin Maggie who comes to End House to be by Nick's side during Poirot's investigation.  There's also a dim-witted gardener, a maid who seems to know more than she lets on, a shady lawyer, and an overly-friendly Australian couple renting the lodge at End House.  Eventually, they'll assemble in the dining room for Poirot's Big Reveal.  But that's at the end of the book, mon ami.

Before that climax, there are many more perils at End House: gunshots, fireworks, and poisoned chocolates--not to mention the omnipresent perils of human relationships.  End House is full of deceit and betrayal, as befits any good Christie plot.  It's up to Poirot to figure it out with "the correct employment of the little grey cells."

I suppose it sounds like boasting to say that I figured out the villain about halfway through the book.  BUT, as always, even though I could figure out whodunit, I couldn't unravel the howdunit.  I have never ever been able to be even one half-step ahead of the author in any of her books.  This was no exception.  It's in the complicated tangle of character, misdirection, and tightly-wound action where I find the most pleasure in these books.

In addition to some brisk, clever plotting, Peril at End House gave Christie a chance to highlight the Belgian detective's ego and fastidiousness to a comic degree.  He goes through half the book saying to people, "But surely you have heard of me?" and beaming a bloated smile when they respond, "Of course, you're the famous detective!"  Those who haven't heard of Poirot are given a withering dismissal.

There's also an amusing interlude when Nick asks Hercule, "Are you very tidy, M. Poirot?"
      "Ask my friend Hastings here."
      The girl turned an inquiring gaze on me.
      I detailed some of Poirot's minor peculiarities--toast that had to made from a square loaf--eggs matching in size--his objection to golf as a game "shapeless and haphazard" whose only redeeming feature was the tee boxes!  I ended by telling her the famous case which Poirot had solved by his habit of straightening ornaments on the mantelpiece.

I really enjoyed Peril at End House and thought it was one of Agatha Christie's best--right up there with Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile and The Body in the Library.  That's why I was a little surprised to read this in Christie's Autobiography:  "Peril at End House was another of my books which left so little impression on my mind that I cannot even remember writing it."


I'll excuse dotty Dame Agatha because she was writing her memoir--at various intervals--between 1950 and 1965.  By that time, I suspect many of her plots and characters were starting to swirl together in one bloody whirlpool of guns, knives, and bottles of arsenic.  For me, however, Peril at End House was an impressionable way to start out a new year!

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