There may be murderers, but no riff raff


Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

published 1941




She was tall and slender. She wore a simple backless white bathing dress and every inch of her exposed body was tanned a beautiful even shade of bronze. She was as perfect as a statue. Her hair was a rich flaming auburn curling richly and intimately into her neck. Her face had that slight hardness which is seen when thirty years have come and gone, but the whole effect of her was one of youth—of superb and triumphant vitality….On her head she wore a fantastic Chinese hat of jade green cardboard.




Christine Redfern came down the stairs. She was wearing beach pyjamas of a loose floppy pattern with long sleeves and wide legs. They were made of some green material with a yellow design. Rosamund’s tongue itched to tell her that yellow and green were the most unbecoming colours possible for her fair, slightly anaemic complexion. It always annoyed Rosamund when people had no clothes sense.






comments: I re-read Evil Under the Sun because of remembering that Charlotte M Yonge is mentioned in it – see my blogpost here. I am always uncertain where it lies in my personal Christie canon. It contains a lot of enjoyable features: the holiday setting, the varied group of people in the hotel (I described in a post earlier this week why I like books set in hotels), a collection of clues, and an extremely clever plot. Not, mind, one that you can imagine anyone ever carrying out in real life, but what does that matter? Christie had thought up her method and she executed it to perfection.

There are familiar tropes – the successful designer businesswoman, the memories of a very English childhood, an unhappy teenager, a siren-esque actress. The clothes are sumptuously good, and important. There is one of Christie’s signature moves – we are told what to think about the siren, gently but persuasively. But are we wrong? (This is not a spoiler.) Christie did that kind of thing very well: people claim she wrote in stereotypes, but what she wanted was for the reader to provide the stereotype. Then she would turn it round, and show you how she did it. Very clever. The clue-ing in this one is particularly smart, from start to finish.

But for me, it does not quite make it into her top 5: It is very similar to Death On The Nile (the group of holidaymakers, the triangle of lovers), but it doesn’t have the seriousness, the melodrama, the effectiveness, the memorable characters. I actually care about the people in Nile – this one, not so much. But still, a stylish and clever book.

And I suppose it is significant that I thought I MUST have done a post on it, but in fact have never got round to it. Although – in this post, which I am rather proud of, I Iisted Christie holiday tours in order of desirability, and put this book joint first as the best holiday to go on. (ie – let’s make this clear – they were being judged not the best book, or crime, or plot, but for the 'best holiday a keen Christie fan would wish to go on'). I said ‘the classic Christie holiday mystery, with an identifiable location based on the hotel at Burgh Island in Devon, which is to this day a lovely place to stay. There may be murderers, but no riff raff.’

Incidentally, there has been a big-screen film (Peter Ustinov) and a TV production (David Suchet) of this one, but nothing since 2001: surely ripe for filming again, with all the opportunities for star cameos, sunshine, swimsuits and beach pyjamas, and the white Art Deco buildings of the Island.

The setting is given as The Jolly Roger Hotel, Smugglers’ Island, Leathercombe Bay. But as I said in that other post, it is plainly Burgh Island, off the coast of Devon – also the model of the island in And then They Were None.




I have actually visited Burgh Island, and stayed in its extremely fancy hotel. I was celebrating a big birthday, and I absolutely loved it except for one slight issue. The hotel was a known hangout for all kinds of famous people in the 1930s, including of course Agatha, and the hotel called each room after a famous guest. They then thought it was a good idea to have identifying pictures on the room doors (rather than a number or a name) which resulted in our walking up and down the corridor wondering what on earth Jessie Matthews looked like, trying to find our room without disturbing too many other guests. ‘Well it’s not this one, this is Noel Coward.’ ‘Who is this, do you think this is her?’ (Jessie Matthews was a big English star in the 1930s, nearly had an important Hollywood career, and ended up as Mrs Dale in the radio serial Mrs Dale’s Diary.)

I would have gone back (anytime) but soon afterwards, Agatha Christie’s own Devon home, Greenway became available to stay in, and I took my family there instead for many years running. The first time we went, they said ‘Where is it? Is it nice?’ and I said ‘No idea to either, we’re just going because it’s Agatha’s house. Shut up and enjoy.’ But we all did, and we loved going back there.

Bodies on a beach are a major feature of the book: so the fashion photo by Serge Balkin with fake beach seemed appropriate.

Hollywood actress Olivia de Havilland died recently: the branded pattern in her name comes from her heyday in the 1940s.

Picture of Burgh Island posted to Flickr Creative Commons by didbygraham.

Comments

  1. Did not know it was published 1941. I do remember the American couple, one of Christie's many explorations of power in relationships.

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    1. I think it is quite timeless - not clearly set at any particular era. When I first read it as a teenager I was convinced it was set abroad on some holiday island, I was surprised when I re-read it.

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  2. Insightful commentary as always, Moira. I agree with you that it doesn't have the depth of characters that Death on the Nile does, but I did really enjoy the plotting in this one. And the hotel itself is just absolutely full of atmosphere. There's such a sense of time and place, or at least, I felt that. I thought the character of Linda Marshall was very interesting, too - Christie explores the teenage psyche here, and I find her treatment of it interesting.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words Margot, and yes: I think I would like it more if it wasn't in the shadow of Death on the Nile, which is one of my all-time favourites. You too I think - are you going to see the new film when it's out?

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    2. I probably will, Moira - we'll see. I'm cursed with being an - ahem - observant purist, so I'll have to find out just how faithful it really is to the original story.

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    3. I know what you mean, but sometimes I can decide 'I'm going to enjoy this on its own terms, not think too much about the book' - and the Nile should make for such a good setting, it will surely be splendid to look at.

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  3. The Ustinov version starred two great Dames, Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg (recently lost to us) as Rosamund and Arlena. They were fun, but it was a little sad to see such talent wasted on the stereotypical cattiness added by the filmmakers Arlena especially could've been less cardboard-y, as you hinted. In the book I was disappointed that Rosamund gave up her career for dull old whatsisname, especially since she seemed a born fashionista! The guy just didn't seem worth it. In the Suchet version, Linda Marshall was changed to a boy. I didn't see any reason for that and it changed the whole stepmother relationship.

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    1. Yes, you have listed the slightly odd changes very well. And yes, fashion ladies are expected to stop working no matter how successful! Same in Margery Allingham's Fashion in Shrouds. (Your comment appeared twice so I have deleted the duplicate)

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  4. "That child needs very, very sympathetic treatment!" "Yes, dear."

    Great plot, lots of red herrings, wonderful clothes. It's an expansion of an earlier story, Triangle at Rhodes.

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    1. Yes, a lot to love, and it's not one I rush to pick up, but when I do I remember that I DO like it!

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  5. I love this comment you make: People claim she wrote in stereotypes, but what she wanted was for the reader to provide the stereotype.
    It's so true! We need to have it put on a mug and have them given out to anyone who repeats the notion that her characters are two dimensional and cardboard thin! It is one which often gets on my wick!
    Also found her hotel anecdote brilliant with the faces on the doors - I don't think I would have ever found my room if it had been me lol

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    1. Thanks Kate, that's a lovely compliment from you!

      I think we literally found our room by process of elimination - it isn't any of these, so it must be this one... But it was ridiculous!

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  6. What I did love about the Ustinov adaptation were the outfits - oh my, quite, quite memorable! My parents had recorded it on video when I was a child (and Death on the Nile with Ustinov and Mia Farrow) and I watched them till the tapes broke almost. I will always rewatch it (both of them, in fact) whenever it pops up on TV.

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    1. Now you're making me want to watch it again! I will say, Christie adapters do always make the most of the clothes, and of course I strongly approve. They do give great opportunities to designers...

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  7. One of my favourites, in part because my husband and I stayed at the hotel before we were married, so it is a special place for me. Nice to know that you've been there, too, Moira! Yes, spot on about the stereotypes. It is the same in 'Triangle at Rhodes' which I have recently reread.

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    1. Oh that's so nice that we have that in common. I want to go back again now... I like the way she played with plot ideas, improving them via a short story to a full-length novel. She was a craftsperson, she worked hard.

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  8. There was a fairly decent video game version of this which used both the Burgh Island Hotel design and the weird device in the picture you included for travelling to the mainland when it was not walkable.
    It does jar both in this and in a late 1930s Allingham book that in books written by women, a woman seems to regard being required to give up a career as a price worth paying for matrimony or indeed as a release - particularly as in both books it seemed clear that they were not easily replaceable and plenty of people were relying on the characters for the jobs existing.
    Perhaps this fits in with a quote from C.H.B. Kitchin in Death of his Uncle that a "good detective story ... is often a clearer mirror of ordinary life than many a novel written specially to portray it ..... A historian of the future will probably turn, not to blue books or statistics, but to detective stories if he wishes to study the manners of our age"

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    1. A video game! I would never have known. The sea tractor is an exciting vehicle - you don't hear of any casualties, but it doesn't seem 100% safe.

      I hadn't come across the Kitchin quote, but completely agree - it's exactly my thesis about detective stories. And yes - others above in the comments are bothered about those career women's choices.

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  9. I'm feeling the need for a bit of a Christie binge at some point, especially as I haven't read very many of her books since the days of my youth. A little like Marina, my overriding memories of the Ustinov version centre on Diana Rigg's glamourous clothes - and Ustinov's performance itself, of course!

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    1. Oh this would be a good one to go for, a good read. And I find you get completely different things out of her books at different ages.

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  10. Still not read her yet, though I will go and see the film, assuming the cinema remains open!

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    1. I think it will actually be the kind of entertainment we will all need - so let's hope....

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