While some of Agatha Christie’s mysteries remain immensely satisfying, there are a few that just don’t work, whether from cultural shift or a more experimental approach. I was worried when I picked up Hallowe’en Party; I had been operating with a suspicion that her best work was earlier in her extensive career. However, it wasn’t long before my concern was dismissed as I settled into an engrossing tale of Hercule Poirot investigating a murder at a Halloween party.
Poor Joyce; thirteen and a bit desperate for attention, she’s become known for telling tales. Perhaps hoping to impress Mrs. Oliver during the preparations for a Halloween party, she claims to have seen a murder. When the Halloween party is over, Joyce is discovered dead, but only Mrs. Oliver connects the earlier boast to the death–the rest of the village is prefers to blame an anonymous unstable person. She calls on dear, aging Hercule. He concurs with her fine instincts and arranges to stay with retired Inspector Spence, coincidentally living in the same village.
Hercule focuses on Jane’s tall tale, convinced the solution lies in the past. He digs into the history of the village; a disappearing au pair girl, a wealthy widow who died unexpectedly, a forger who was stabbed, a man killed in a hit-and-run, a strangled girl in a gravel pit. As he talks with the villagers, the ominous atmosphere increases.
Almost everything about the book is lovely. The writing shines, the characters are complex. Christie can paint a portrait in only a few sentences: “His friend, Mrs. Oliver, sounded in a highly excitable condition. Whatever was the matter with her, she would no doubt spend a very long time pouring out her grievances, her woes, her frustrations or whatever was ailing her…The things that excited Mrs. Oliver were so numerous and frequently so unexpected that one had to be careful how one embarked upon a discussion of them.”
The atmosphere is sinister, and the setting feels fully realized, although I still don’t understand why snap-dragon would be the capstone to a children’s party. Once again Mrs. Oliver serves as a authorial voice, particularly when Hercule notes how an author tends to co-opt characters from real people. Her bits calling out Hercule are particularly amusing:
“The trouble with you is,” said Mrs. Oliver…”the trouble with you is that you insist on being smart. You mind more about your clothes and your moustaches and how you look and what you wear than comfort. Now comfort is really the great thing. Once you’ve passed, say, fifty, comfort is the only thing that matters.”
Straight from the mouth of a seventy-nine year old.
An excellent read, and well worth re-reading.