The door opened so suddenly that he nearly fell backwards. A woman stood on the doorstep. At first sight Tommy’s first impression was that this was one of the plainest women he had ever seen. She had a large expanse of flat, pancake-like face, two enormous eyes which seemed impossibly different colours, one green and one brown, a noble forehead with a quantity of wild hair rising up from it in a kind of thicket. She wore a purple overall with blotches of clay on it, and Tommy noticed that the hand that held the door open was one of exceeding beauty of structure…
She led him through the doorway, up a narrow staircase and into a large studio. In a corner of it there was a figure and various implements standing by it. Hammer sand chisels. There was also a clay head. The whole place looked as though it had recently been savaged by a gang of hooligans.
observations: Various people led me to re-read this book: when I wrote about The Secret Adversary recently, with my routine complaints about Tommy and Tuppence, respected blogfriends Sergio and Daniel both recommended this one as being a better book featuring the pair.
Meanwhile Lucy Fisher made the valuable point that Tuppence (in the photo on the entry) should really have her cloche pulled down over her eyes, for reasons of tension, disguise, secrecy and of course fashion. She has demonstrated this for us:
And so I was delighted to come across this in Thumbs, an elderly General reminiscing:
I feel he would have liked Lucy.Cloche hats, they used to wear at one time… Had to look right down underneath the brim before you could see the girl’s face. Tantalising it was, and they knew it!
The book is annoying for this reason: it’s got some great ideas, great characters, and some surprises. It creates a very sinister atmosphere, and a real sense of fear. But it keeps losing its way and degenerating into long rambling pointless conversations. Tuppence talks at length to a character called Mrs Copleigh:
‘there was no chronological sequence which occasionally made things difficult. Mrs Copleigh jumped from 15 years ago to 2 years ago to last month, and then back to somewhere in the 1920s…. Mrs Copleigh just put in a lot of things which have made everything more difficult. I think she’s got all her times and dates mixed up too.’You wonder is she a subconscious substitute for Mrs Christie: this is a fair description of the book and everyone in it. And, as Robert Barnard points out in his excellent book on Christie, A Talent to Deceive, when you look back you find that 90% of the information Tuppence gathers is completely pointless, never explained, and serves no purpose in the book. And ‘mixing up times and dates’ – let’s look at the bizarre fact that Albert – who cannot be less than 60, and has lived with T&T all his adult life - is suddenly given a wife and small children.
It’s a shame because this could have been one of the greats: even with these shortcomings, it is a very entertaining and mysterious read. The house at the centre reminded me of the one in Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair – and Christie describes it very well. The scene with the jackdaw down the chimney was memorably discomfiting, as was the old lady saying ‘Was it your poor child behind the fireplace?’ The book is about old people, which makes an interesting change. The sudden jacking up of tension and creation of atmosphere comes and goes, and suddenly there’ll be something irritating: eg Tuppence is knocked out and suffers from concussion and amnesia, and thinks she is 18 again. But then suddenly she’s all right and normal, with no mention of the incident.
In the excerpt above, ‘At first sight Tommy’s first impression’ is surely a phrase that should have been edited. I can’t decide if ‘the hand… was one of exceeding beauty of structure’ is a really terrible phrase or a good one….
The top picture is of American sculptor Betti Richard: it’s from the Smithsonian, which has a fascinating collection of photos of sculptors, artists and writers.