Evil Under the Sun

evil under the sunIt’s been years — no, decades — since I’ve read a mystery by Agatha Christie. I can remember quite vividly when I first discovered her: it was about the time I started to read adult fiction at all, when I was around eleven or twelve. I devoured her mysteries one after another, the world of 1930s Britain as mysterious and exotic to me as any historical novel about ancient Egypt or Genghis Khan’s Mongolia could possibly have been. (Why did everyone in the seaside mysteries bathe before lunch when they could have gone swimming? What exactly did a cruel mouth look like? Why did the Americans say “I guess” all the time?)

In any case, after I discovered Dorothy Sayers, I lost my taste (perhaps unfairly) for Agatha Christie. Her neatly-plotted mysteries seemed too tidy for me: a jigsaw puzzle with a difficult solution. I wanted some angst and some deeper characterization, and since then I’ve only encountered Christie in the superb ITV/PBS television series about Poirot and Miss Marple.

Recently, however, I found myself with an unexpected couple of hours I needed to fill, and nothing to read. (!!!) I browsed a small bookshelf in the room, and chose my first Agatha Christie novel in almost thirty years.

Evil Under the Sun is a perfect example of everything there is to like and to dislike about Agatha Christie. Hercule Poirot is on holiday at a select resort. One of the guests is a sort of incredibly gorgeous man-trap who is having an obvious affair with another guest, under the nose of her thin-lipped husband. It is to the surprise of precisely no one when this guest turns up strangled on the beach, but Poirot must investigate: was it the husband? The lover’s wife? The stepdaughter? The religious maniac, who called the woman Jezebel and Aholibah?

The pleasure of this novel is the beautifully-crafted plot. Christie never puts so much as a doily on the back of a chair that she doesn’t intend to use later, and every detail is wonderfully serviceable. If this is a jigsaw puzzle, it’s a very good one; following the line of Poirot’s detection is a joy.

But the cast of characters is much too large to get to know any of them very well. Almost all of them are types and caricatures rather than real people, even (and perhaps especially) the victim. The woman we get to know best is a lovely, successful fashion designer whom Poirot admires for her elegance and neatness. The resolution of her story is, I have to say, ultimately disappointing (if, I suppose, typical for the 1930s.) I did enjoy the company of Poirot himself, the great detective. Humility isn’t his first priority. Lovely man.

I think, in the end, that Christie is never going to be my favorite mystery author. Her plots cannot be bettered, but I need more. What about you? Where do you turn to while away a couple of hours?

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25 Responses to Evil Under the Sun

  1. But the movie version of this book is, in my opinion, by far the best film adaptation of a Christie novel. It’s camp of the highest order, with Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg trying to out-diva one another, while such luminaries as James Mason, Roddy McDowall, the bizarre Sylvia Miles and gorgeous (and gone) Nicholas Clay cavort along with Peter Ustinov in the Mediterranean set to lush Cole Porter music. Liberties have been taken with the book, but they ultimately improve and tighten the story. Others may quibble and say that “Death on the Nile” is the best Poirot movie, but I would strongly disagree. Ustinov is, of course, not David Suchet, but the star power and the lush production values make this movie a must-see for anyone who even remotely likes Christie. And it presents the denouement with all of the style and grace it can. I strongly recommend it…

    • Jenny says:

      That sounds wonderful! I’ve seen the David Suchet version quite recently, and it was terrific (I am very, very fond of him as Poirot, as is every right-thinking person), but the cast wasn’t as good as the one you describe here. I’ll have to see if I can find this version.

      • Deb says:

        I concur that the earlier (Peter Ustinov) versions of both EVIL UNDER THE SUN and DEATH ON THE NILE are better than the David Suchet versions, despite Suchet being, of course, the superior Poirot and the Suchet productions being more faithful to Christie’s books (although there are changes in both). I find the earlier versions–perhaps because of their all-star casts, bigger budgets, and bright, on-location sets–have more pep and spirit than the newer TV versions. I especially love Mia Farrow in NILE playing the sad, haunted Jackie whose rich and beautiful cousin has stolen her fiancé. Great stuff!

  2. Victoria says:

    This is why I really struggle to love Agatha Christie too. The juice is all in the plot, and so it rips along but ultimately you don’t feel as though it’s the characters who are doing the leg work, they are so obviously pieces in the author’s play. The plot isn’t emanating from them.

    At the moment my go-to while-away a couple of hours reading is romance. I never thought I would say that, but there is so much good stuff out there and I never realised: totally character driven, empowering, sexy, in almost any flavour you could ask for. The writing isn’t always the best, and of course they’re mostly predictable but that’s what I want sometimes. :)

    • Jenny says:

      “…the plot doesn’t emanate from them” — exactly, that’s so well-put. I always think Harriet is writing an Agatha Christie sort of book in Gaudy Night until Lord Peter encourages her to put some more of herself into it.

      I’ve read so little romance! Just some Georgette Heyer, which I like quite a bit. Any recommendations?

  3. Lisa says:

    I had the same experience of diving into Agatha Christie. My parents had quite a few of her books on their shelves, book club editions and ancient paperbacks. But once I found Dorothy Sayers, I lost my taste for Christie. I do still have the Tommy and Tuppence books, and a couple of the others. From Sayers I went on to read other Golden Age authors.

    I don’t know that I have a particular author for whiling. I think I tend to trawl the bookshelves and see what appeals.

    • Jenny says:

      I like almost all the other Golden Age authors better than Christie (Michael Innes, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth, and of course Sayers best of all.) If I’m at home and I have time to kill, it’s no trouble — lots of things appeal. But if I’m away from home, I’ll almost always choose a mystery if I can!

  4. Kailana says:

    I am not sure if I have even read Christie before. I remember books by her being around when I was younger, but would have to refresh my memory if I ever actually read them. I still haven’t read Sayers either… So many authors, so little time!

    • Jenny says:

      I’ll encourage you to read Dorothy Sayers! Her books are still some of my very favorites — good mysteries, good characters, often funny, often poignant. But you’re right that there is so much to read!

  5. Deb says:

    Christie is my go-to for both the complicated puzzle plots and the ease of reading. I like EVIL UNDER THE SUN more than you do, but I agree the number of characters makes it hard even for Christie to manage them effectively. I think DEATH ON THE NILE is the best “classic” Christie. In addition to one of her neatest plots, it also has a vein of melancholy foreboding running through it. If you want to read the most atypical Christie ever, try ENDLESS NIGHT. It’s the closest thing to noir she ever wrote.

    When I’m between “big” books and looking for a palette cleanser, nothing beats Simenon (either his Inspector Maigret books or his stand-alones). They’re concise, atmospheric, and usually include a twist or two. My only regret is my French is way too poor to read the books in their original language, I always read translations.

    • Jenny says:

      I love Simenon, too — I taught one of his books last semester in a French crime fiction class, and it was such a pleasure to point out exactly what you’ve said here: the atmosphere, the plot, the concise evocation of suspense. I am very fond of Maigret, but his thrillers are also excellent. I should put one on my list so I remember to read one soon!

  6. Alex says:

    I read Christie in my early twenties and like you have never gone back to her. I loved her work so much then that I am scared to discover that time and greater reading experience has diluted my pleasure. I keep saying ‘one day’ but perhaps it is better that that day never comes.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t know — as long as your expectation is that it will be an enjoyable puzzle rather than a high-flown work of literary fiction, I think you’ll enjoy it just fine! I’ve done this same thing, been frightened to go back to a book I adored, thinking perhaps it was just the moment of my life that made me love it so much, but usually I did really like it again. And Christie only takes a couple of hours to read. Not a big investment.

  7. jeannewriter says:

    Sayers is my all-time favorite mystery author, perhaps my all-time favorite author, period. But late in my life I’ve begun to have a new appreciation of Christie. For one thing, no one ever, ever created plots as good as hers. Then her settings, while simple, are unforgettable. I have read that sociologists study her books for their spot-on accuracy with details about upper-middle class life in England between the wars. Her characters? Well, yes, they are stock characters. But one remembers them. Who can forget Miss Bulstrode, schoolmistress extraordinaire in Cat Among the Pigeons? Or Miss Blacklock in Appointment with Death? True, I’ve read the books so often I can quote whole paragraphs from memory, but they stick with me. Okay, some of her work is less than stellar. But no one ever surpassed her for sheer prolificity, either. (Is that a word?) It is no mean trick to turn out so many books and stories; one is entitled to write one or two that aren’t terrific. As for her prose, it isn’t nearly as interesting as Sayers’s, but it’s far more easily readable and has a far wider appeal. So, while Sayers is my patron saint, Christie has a place among my icons, too.

    • Jenny says:

      This is a wonderful comment! Your point about her settings is well taken; she was vivid, detailed, and efficient. I’ll argue with you that she may be easier to read than Sayers but that it isn’t a point in her favor. Her prose is sometimes simplistic rather than elegantly simple. But there’s no doubt that she influenced the entire field — quite an amazing woman!

  8. Kristen M. says:

    I finally picked up a book of Christie plays recently because I had never read or seen The Mousetrap. (I enjoyed it.) I own dozens of her novels but rarely find myself going back to them. Perhaps it’s time to think about why that is!

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t think I own any Christie at all, isn’t that funny? I can remember the sheer shock of the solution of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the audacity of it. But once read, do you want to re-read it? Interesting questions…

  9. lailaarch says:

    Christie was among my first forays into the world of books written for adults as well. My aunt had (has) a great love for her and introduced me to them. I consider them almost comfort reads now, and indulge again every few years, if I’m in a reading slump especially. I wonder if you’ve read any of Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford mysteries? I am a huge fan, and also of her much more psychologically dark standalone novels. Wexford is a bit more humble than Poirot but still very entertaining.

    • Jenny says:

      I have read lots and lots of Ruth Rendell, and especially love her Barbara Vine novels. I have read a few Inspector Wexford novels, but not all of them. I love Rendell — the worst of her novels is still worth reading, in my opinion.

  10. Oh, how I love Agatha Christie. She is my go-to for comfort reading. Even though I read hardly any mysteries. I discovered her when I was young, too, so I have all those good early reading memories, and as a total Anglophile, I feel I am but doing my patriotic (to the UK) duty.
    Never read Sayers. Might have to start.

    • Jenny says:

      Sayers is not just one of my favorite mystery authors, but one of my favorite authors, period. Time does not wither, nor custom stale her infinite variety, don’t you know. I especially recommend the books that feature Harriet Vane, but Murder Must Advertise is a very good non-Harriet place to start.

  11. I’m curious to find out what I’ll think of Agatha Christie when I finally get a chance to go back and revisit her books. It’s been years and years since I read one of her books; but for me, she was one of the first mystery authors I *ever* read, so she kind of introduced me to the way mystery novels are supposed to function. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel about this on a reread — because even looking back through the years, I know you’re right that the characters were flat.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s true, though, that some of the books are great fun just for the plot. They just tear along, and they’re so neatly put together. The settings can be a lot of fun, too. For a couple of hours’ read (not a big investment), it’s good fun.

  12. Christy says:

    I didn’t read Agatha Christie at all when I was young and so it’s been only in the last few years that I’ve read her books or really any Golden Age mystery author. The plotting is indeed fantastic – the most recent (audio) read was The Body in the Library which proved an excellent diversion on a long road trip with my sister and her husband. I wouldn’t binge on them, but they do hit the spot sometimes. I also really liked the Margery Allingham novels I have read. I’ve read Sayers before but as an assigned reading years and years and all out of order, so it’s as if I never read her at all, really.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, try Sayers again if you have time! And Josephine Tey is great, too, especially Brat Farrar and The Daughter of Time. Those Golden Age novelists knew what they were doing!

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