“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Edgar Degas
Today, I’m going to attempt something I (*koff koff*) never do: I’m going to try and change people’s minds. To do that, I will assume that if you are here, you have already read The Hollow and have formed an opinion. If you have not read it yet, please do so. (We’ll wait . . . . . ) Just know that I am prepared to discuss everything about this one, and the uninitiated must beware: there will be SPOILERS, not only for this novel but for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, and Dumb Witness. You have been warned!
One of the reasons I became a blogger was to create the opportunity to engage in an in-depth study of, and conversation about, Agatha Christie’s writing. How fortunate that I have met so many insightful folks here who have strong, often differing opinions of her work. Whether you see Christie as top drawer (that’s me) or find her overrated (What the – ?!), the magnitude and scope of her work makes her presence felt in any study of classic mystery fiction. Her ability to plot crime stories is beyond dispute; I could argue that it is unsurpassable.
An intriguing aspect of our discussions involves the huge difference in opinion as to what constitutes “top-drawer” Christie. I know much of this is a matter of taste, and who am I to argue with someone who praises At Bertram’s Hotel to the skies? There are some wonderful elements in that book, especially at the beginning, and the hook might be just enough to carry certain readers toward an inclusion of this title on their favorites lists. Recently, my buddy Kate at Cross Examining Crime looked anew at 1937’s Dumb Witness and found much to love. I imagine that few people would place this one at the top of the list, but then again I may be wrong. Maybe they love the village setting, or the spinster victim, or the way Poirot and Hastings investigate this one. Maybe they just love that little dog! I personally think Dumb Witness falls down at the end due to the inclusion of one of the clumsiest clues ever. And there’s the timing: this novel falls in the midst of Christie’s golden period, where comparison to titles like The A.B.C. Murders, Death on the Nile and And Then There Were None makes the assets of Dumb Witness pale in comparison.
Even when we are dealing with a much stronger piece of writing, I’m surprised by the wide range of the reactions to it. Take The Hollow, Christie’s sole offering for 1946. To my mind, The Hollow is magnificent Christie, yet many people don’t see it. It isn’t my all-time favorite Christie, and it isn’t perfect. Few works of art are, and I am prepared to discuss its flaws as well as its merits. But it is magnificent for many reasons, and here they are.
To start us off, let me just say a word about Mary Westmacott.
The 1920’s saw Christie’s rise as a successful writer of detective stories. But even as her first decade as an author wound to a close, she began to chafe at the limitations of her chosen genre. She wanted to create characters of psychological depth and let her plots serve larger themes. She felt – mistakenly, as it turns out – that she couldn’t accomplish this by writing mysteries; thus, the alias of Mary Westmacott was born.
Christie and her family have expressed great fondness for the half dozen novels she wrote under this nom de plume. Her publishers and readers were less generous in their praise, and I would venture to guess the popularity of these novels rose after the author’s true identity was revealed. Christie’s daughter Rosalind’s opinion suggests that there was mass confusion over how these books were advertised and how they have been perceived:
“The Mary Westmacott books have been described as romantic novels but I don’t think that is really a fair assessment. They are not ‘love stories’ in the general sense of the term, and they certainly have no happy endings. They are, I believe, about love in some of its most powerful and destructive forms.”
When I look at that description, a lot of personal things click into place. I always dismissed the Westmacotts as romance fiction, and in all fairness, the covers and the marketing supported this idea. It’s not for me to say whether or not Christie succeeded as Westmacott in her goal of writing “about love in some of its most powerful and destructive forms.” At her best, Christie achieved this very thing in the mysteries themselves. I believe that The Hollow ranks as one of the best novels Christie ever wrote. It is a novel with murder in it, and while the crime plot is quite good, as a novel, it works even better. And that, perhaps, rankles those of her mystery fans who view Christie’s work – first, last and always – as crime fiction.
Let’s start then by looking at The Hollow as a mystery. It is her first post-WWII novel and a return to the “traditional country house” mystery after six years of relative experimentation. (Whether this was an effect of the war on the author, a coincidence, or just a product of my own imagination, the titles we find from 1939 to 1945 make up some pretty subversive material for Christie.)
Seven people are arranged to gather together at the Hollow for what promises to be a respite from the stresses on their lives. Sir Henry and Lucy Angkatell value family more than anything else. Midge Hardcastle, their poor relation, chafes at the grubby demands of her working life. David Angkatell is a student at Oxford (“or is it Cambridge?” Lucy wonders.) The university doesn’t matter, for David represents every upper-class post-war young adult with no certain future or dream; it’s reflected in his sulky nature and sharp but ineffectual tongue. The three remaining invited guests should provide fodder for real emotional combustion: Dr. John Christow is an old family friend, a brilliant but prickly doctor obsessed with his work. He brings his wife, Gerda, who seems unable to do anything right as wife, mother or weekend guest. Rounding out the party is Henrietta Angkatell, a promising modern artist and John’s mistress. Yet John, Henrietta and Gerda seem to have struck a peace in their lives. John enjoys the riches of a respectable existence thanks to Gerda, while in Henrietta he finds an intellectual equal. In John, Gerda has a provider for her children, someone to disentangle her from those almost daily household crises, and in Henrietta she has found a sympathetic friend. It’s telling that at the start of the novel, Lucy is not worried about the romantic feelings of this trio but of Gerda’s inability to carry on a conversation or to succeed at party games. Amongst the family, there seems to be an implicit understanding and acceptance of this arrangement.
Yet into every novel – mystery or otherwise – complications must fall, and here they take on the form of Three Unwanted Guests. The first is rich cousin Edward Angkatell who has invited himself down for the weekend in order to corner Henrietta and propose to her. Not only does this confound the artist and bring up tension between Edward and John, it stirs up passion in the normally stalwart Midge, who has loved Edward all her life.
The second intruder is a movie star named Veronica Craye, who has rented a bungalow near the Hollow for a rest. The idea of Veronica, who reeks of Hollywood glamour and fakery, seeking peace and quiet in this part of the countryside would seem ridiculous – except Veronica is John’s old love, and, in the mercurial way of all of Christie’s actors, she has decided she wants him back. Veronica selfish ego sows seeds of dissension in an amicable romantic triangle? She sees John as a prize, and she’s not willing to share him with anyone. Also, their past relationship seems mainly carnal, (although Christie is always reticent when delving into her character’s sex lives.) We know that John has fathered children with Gerda and that he comes home to her at night. We imagine that John and Henrietta have sex, but all we see of their affair are meaningful, mutually affirming conversations. But Veronica makes her first entrance flaunting her sexuality in front of everyone, and the usually in-control John becomes tongue-tied. She exerts her power with her body, ironically reducing John’s power as a man and causing deep resentment in both Gerda and Henrietta.
The third inconvenient guest happens to be Hercule Poirot, who is renting yet another bungalow for some rest. One of the biggest arguments that rages over The Hollow is Poirot’s presence. He feels almost tacked on for marketing purposes, and it would seem that Christie agreed with this sentiment. In the theatrical version of the novel (the first Christie play I ever directed), Poirot is absent. (So, by the way, is David Angkatell, who, as a suspect, is pretty extraneous.) I have gone back and forth on this issue, but I would argue for Poirot’s presence. We’ll get to the reasons why in a moment, but here I acknowledge that, in terms of his character, it makes no sense for Poirot, the man who has traveled extensively through the Middle East and vacationed at St. Loo to choose this spot for a rest. The muddy grounds soil his patent leather shoes, and there is simply not enough to do nor enough people around through whom Poirot can bask in his fame. But we’ll let that go for now.
Christie carefully builds relationships and sets the stage for the murder, which doesn’t occur until just over a third of the way through the book. There are no second or third deaths to goose us along, no would-be blackmailer to be silenced. The focus is on John Christow’s death and, as it turns out, the hastily assembled plot by the Angkatell family to protect his killer from exposure. This plan reflects a highly unusual aspect of the murder in The Hollow: it is one of the few deaths in a Christie novel that is pretty much unpremeditated. Yet don’t readers love Christie for the labyrinthine murder plots her killers dream up? Even a “spur of the moment” crime like that found in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is committed by someone who had entertained the possibility that murder might be necessary, at least enough to stage an elaborate ruse to provide themselves with an alibi. (Really, folks, how long do you think it took that murderer to dream up that plan?)
Could some readers’ dissatisfaction with The Hollow stem from its murder’s status as a crime of passion? Christie doesn’t try to hide the fact. We see the crime take place. (It was one of my favorite moments when staging the play.) The tableau at the pool immediately suggests to Poirot a crime of passion: a man’s wife, aware of his multiple infidelities, is found standing over the body with a gun. Yet the one crimp in that scenario is that the gun she is holding is not the murder weapon. This does imply premeditation. But exactly what is being planned? What purpose does switching the guns serve, except to exonerate Gerda? And Christie seems to have established that Gerda, of all the characters placed on the scene, is the least capable of concocting a complex alibi.
And yet, this is exactly what has happened. Could Gerda’s newfound mental abilities be a flaw in plotting or characterization? Or has everyone, the reader included, underestimated Mrs. Christow? Christie’s murderers are normally very clever people; the main exception that comes to mind is in Lord Edgware Dies, where Poirot himself comments on how hard it was to battle “the simple cunning of a vacuous mind.” We also find similarities between Gerda and Bella Tanios from Dumb Witness. Bella certainly makes some dumb mistakes, but her plan is far more calculated and cruel than Gerda’s, and Bella’s motive is more purely selfish while Gerda’s stems from a broken heart.
I suppose that, facing this murderer’s native cunning, any inspector or amateur sleuth would have come around to the truth. What gives The Hollow a special twist and supports the inclusion of Poirot in the story is what it shares with Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Once again, Poirot is challenged by a conspiracy, but one that seeks to conceal a murderer rather than punish one. And what adds to the novel’s humanity is that this conspiracy is created by the victim himself through his dying message: “Henrietta!” His mistress knows John well enough to understand that at the moment of death he is not going to single her out over his wife. He is sending Henrietta a signal: “I provoked Gerda to this act – if you love me, you must protect her!” And that is what Henrietta does, with the aid of the Angkatells. Poirot’s keen instincts sense the existence of a plot almost immediately – his first impression when he comes upon the murder scene is that he is bearing witness to a stage set – yet the family ends up leading Poirot on a merry chase.
If The Hollow were just about its murder, I would place it at the top of the “B” list, but its grade rises when characterization is taken into account. Critics regular accuse Christie of populating her novels with “types”; the counter-argument generally consists of spitefully tossing a handful of titles and/or characters in the critics’ faces: Death on the Nile (at least the central triangle), Sad Cypress, Five Little Pigs, Towards Zero, Taken at the Flood and Ordeal by Innocence . . . and The Hollow. The romantic sextet at the heart of this novel illustrates love as a messy, complicated and frequently unsatisfying emotion. If Gerda reminds us of Bella Tanios, John Christow and Henrietta Angkatell both call to mind Amyas Crale of Five Little Pigs, and they provide the forum for the author to tackle some of her favorite themes: the price of ambition and the folly of the artist.
Christie talks very little about her writing process in her Autobiography, as if she either placed little importance on it or simply didn’t see it as very interesting. She describes her entry into the mystery-writing field as more of a lark, the result of a dare from her sister. Christie read mysteries, she liked them, and she felt she understood what made them tick. Reading how she was inspired to write The Mysterious Affair at Styles proves this, as she chose what was popular with the public: an intimate family murder, death by poison, an eccentric detective. One of the most telling statements in her description of this process was this (the italics are hers, the underlined word mine):
“I could, of course, have a very unusual kind of murder for a very unusual motive, but that did not appeal to me artistically. The whole point of a good detective story was that it must be somebody obvious but at the same time, for some reason, you would then find that it was not obvious, that he could not possibly have done it. Though really, of course, he had done it.”
Interestingly, this description of her very first murder plot exactly matches The Hollow! Yet one of her most brilliant skills was the way she could vary a scenario and render it unrecognizable to a previously used, virtually identical plot. Let’s acknowledge the similarity so that we can see, in comparing Styles to The Hollow, how twenty-six years of writing have honed Christie’s skill as a portraitist and how her works are becoming richer in theme when she chooses them to be.
As becomingly modest as she was regarding her own skill, Christie was fascinated with the artistic process. She took great pleasure in hanging around the theatre types who produced and performed in her plays. She was strongly – and mostly negatively – opinionated over the way her work was handled in films and on television. Part of this last was motivated by financial concerns, but she also complained mightily about casting decisions and about changes to the plots and tone of her books. When she herself changed one of her own plots, she made sure she was not wreaking havoc with the essential truth of the original. Compare the stage ending of Appointment with Death to the novel. They are startlingly different, and yet the psychological veracity of the characters is unchanged. One could argue that the new ending creates a stronger indictment of the central character than the first one and might have even created another Christie classic.
In one of my earliest posts, I discussed Christie’s utilization of various professions in her work. Two of her most frequently used – doctors and artists/actors – are present here. Veronica Craye represents the type of actor found in early Christie. She’s a sensualist and an egoist. Her acknowledged talent, her depth of feeling onscreen, is balanced by a shallow, self-centered personality. Veronical is a clear descendant of Jane Wilkinson from Lord Edgware Dies, published thirteen years previously, and so for the longest time I maintained that she did not belong in The Hollow. And yet, it is important for the plot’s sake that she not fit in. Veronica exists to upset the delicate balance that has existed between John, Gerda and Henrietta. She emasculates John by causing him to lose control of his feelings, and even though he finally comes to grips with his passion and rejects Veronica, the damage is done, the balance spoiled.
Henrietta and John are perfectly matched in their mutual admiration for each other’s talent. Unlike Gerda, who offers blind worship, Henrietta supplies respect and understanding. In Christie’s artists, the passion to create predominates. The negative effect of this shows up in their relationships. A spouse’s need comes second. Christie’s artists don’t know whether they want to be loved for themselves or for their art. We see this in simpler guise in Five Little Pigs: Amyas Crale is presented as a man of overweaning ego, lust and talent; the latter is so great that everyone puts up with the rest. Yet Christie cleverly buries the crucial clue that, above all else, Amyas adores his wife. Elsa, his model/mistress, is like Veronica, declaring that her passion for Amyas is the most important element in this triangle, something that demands a redirection of his loyalties that he is not about to give. She inspires him, but she doesn’t understand him. And more than anything, Amyas needs to be understood and accepted for who he is.
Both John and Henrietta possess some of these artistic qualities, although in more refined doses. John is not a doctor like we usually see in Christie – bluff, genial, dangerous! His goal to end Ridgeway’s Disease is treated as an artistic passion. Only Henrietta understands this, he thinks! Only Henrietta gets him. She feels the same way about John, who seems to understand why she must retreat to her sculpture at the most inopportune moments. On every level but the domestic, Henrietta and John are perfectly matched. Their loss is that the domestic matters to John: even if in every other way Gerda dissatisfies him, she has provided a home and children, the respectable trappings of a doctor. What prevents this from becoming an insurmountable problem is that Henrietta understands and accepts this aspect of her lover. Veronica is incapable of that degree of selflessness, and her resulting ultimatum leads to tragedy.
Christie weaves the needs and flaws of the artist through this novel in rich, subtle ways. The final confrontation between Veronica and John, leading up to the murder resembles a scene of a 30’s melodrama; the tableau at the swimming pool; Henrietta’s method of disposing of the murder weapon; the statue she carves of Gerda (“The Worshipper”) which provides Poirot with his confirmation of Gerda’s guilt. Richest of all is the scene at the end where Henrietta gives way to her grief – and then channels it into an act of creation as John had warned her she would do:
“If I were dead, the first thing you’d do, with the tears streaming down your face, would be to start modeling some damned mourning woman or some figure of grief.”
As Henrietta begins that very statue, she mourns her inability to love like “normal” people – like Midge and Edward, who have found their way each other in the end. One can note here that Christie’s first marriage died as she became a success in her art and her husband’s fortunes waned. She took greater care when she married Max Mallowan, often assisting him in his own archeological endeavors even as this work gave her inspiration for plot ideas. I don’t want to belabor this – it’s possible that her crime novels are more purely autobiographical than her treacly autobiography was, that she recreated Archie as a victim and a murderer many times, that her renditions of artists contained more of herself than she would have us believe (not just Mrs. Oliver but all her artists). And it’s possible that I’m talking nonsense! At the very least, The Hollow deserves your attention, not only for its solid mystery elements, but for Christie’s profound thematic treatment of the artist’s soul.
36 thoughts on “DEFENDING THE HOLLOW”
Brad, your analysis of “The Hollow” and it’s parallels to other characters and themes shows that there’s more to Christie’s books then meets the eye. The critics view her works as great pieces of misdirection and for their good use of clues and red herrings and while that is certainly true, Christie was able to go in far greater depths when she wanted to. She was capable of it and she accomplished it. And you can see that in “The Hollow”, for instance, the characters reach a far greater depth than in some of her other books. While her critics say that her characters are often flat and one-dimensional, they so misunderstand the nature of her characters. Her characters play off of stereotypes until the mask falls off revealing their true nature and it’s anything but flat. But in The Hollow, these characters go beyond this. There is more complexity in these characters, in Five Little Pigs, and even Sad Cypress. The interplay with John and how he relates to Gerda, Henrietta and Veronica are beautifully portrayed, revealing John to be a three-dimensional character. We get a sense of his feelings and his desires throughout his relationships with these 3 women. John Christow is not just a man having affairs who isn’t faithful to his wife Gerda. It’s about that but there’s more than just that. There is a deeper layer beneath the obvious.
I’m so glad you’re highlighting The Hollow here, Brad. I think it shows a number of things, including, as you say, a good look at the artist’s way of looking at life. I like the way the characters evolve, too, over the course of the novel (I’m thinking of how Midge and Edward both do some changing, for instance). And I do like the personality of Lucy Angkatell – a very unusual sort of person.
A very insightful piece of analysis, Brad, thanks for bringing it to us. No need to convince me, I think The Hollow is brilliant. Christie always understands the reader’s expectations and not only frustrates them but reverses them. Here, she plays on our expectation of the meaning of “least likely suspect”; when I first read this one I roared with laughter at how neatly I’d been fooled. She also did an excellent job of characterization (this is what Dorothy L. Sayers was talking about when she wanted a literature with bowels) and kept her focus tight, on a small scale with great detail; for me this is one where Christie was at the top of her game in every respect.
We should totally form a Hollow Defense Coalition! 😉
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And Christie certainly delivered a piece of literature with bowels . . . and MORE! She proved that she can write a mystery with depth. Eat your heart out you critics who say her characters are flat and lacking.
“it’s possible that her crime novels are more purely autobiographical than her treacly autobiography was, that she recreated Archie as a victim and a murderer many times..”
I’ll look out for him. But I don’t find her autobiography at all “treacly”! Citations needed! Though Unfinished Portrait may be a truer portrait of their marriage. And yes, of course he had an affair when SHE became successful, and HER money paid for their unsuitable house in Sunningdale.
Who were all those beautiful women who attracted men and couldn’t hold them? And those rabbity men married to strong women?
This is a wonderfully detailed and fine article, that reheats my interest in Christie. Your knowledge and passion are impressive and your voice is balanced and compelling.
The Danser Novels
I have a question. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, though Poirot retires and decides to reside in the village of King’s Abbott, would Poirot have wanted others to bask in his fame or did he wanted to get away from all that and live a normal life away from crime, away from others recognizing him? I know that Dr. Sheppard deemed him to be a hairdresser! His sister Caroline knew who Poirot was. But I wonder if other residents in that village knew who he was. If so they probably weren’t the kind that would run up to Poirot and praise him for who he was. In the case of “The Hollow”, maybe Poirot wanted to get away in the country and remain to himself. Poirot is conceited when it comes to his reputation and wants others to recognize him but even he, I assume, are times even he needs a breather every now and then.
Well, we all know what a success retirement was for Poirot. The situation in The Hollow was different: Poirot was on vacation. And in every other vacation I ever saw Poirot on, he basked in his fame. Thus, I find it difficult to believe he was looking for a secluded spot where he could relax incognito!
When I did a favorite Christie poll on my blog, this finished in the top ten, behind A Murder Is Announced and before Curtain and tied with Evil Under the Sun. I never had the impression this one isn’t well-liked, though I know our friend Scott deems the puzzle weak, in contrast with Five Little Pigs, another more character-driven novel.
teeny point Henrietta was a Savernake. But I agree The Hollow Shines as a murder mystery that works because Christie was a master of diversion. Here, her colourful characters and quirky goings-on, not to mention her treatment of rich vs. poor and “foreigners” … When Lucy takes H.P. to task for failing to agree to go along… classic classism. Christie pulled out all the stops to make this one of the best character studies she created.
I found myself saying, “oh, I know someone just like that,” or “so-and-so would have done exactly the same…” throughout the read.
Another ball hit well out of the park, Brad.
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I remembered a few days ago that Henrietta was a Savernake. I’ve just been too lazy to change it. Let it stand as a testimony to my imperfections, which are a large enough body to deserve some testimony! 🙂
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HAHA it should be your only flaw 🙂
A detailed, enjoyable and impassioned defense, Brad and one that has made me consider reading it again regardless the small, reproachful mountain of books that sits waiting to be read. And this, despite the fact that, unlike most people here and perhaps – as thepassingtramp suggests – a majority of fans, I wasn’t particularly fond of this one. I seem to recall generally disliking everyone, seeing Veronica as more of a plot-device than a character and feeling that Henrietta’s ‘artiness’ felt a little fake and overdone.
But, now I’m wondering what a fresh glance might reveal…
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I disagree with you about Henrietta, but I can imagine that if you re-read The Hollow, you still wouldn’t think much of Veronica. For all the admiration Christie professed for actors and theatre people, she took a one-note approach with them, endowing them all with larger-than-life personalities and overweening egos that made them prime candidates to be the killer. I frankly think she overused the concept of an actor’s ability to disguise themselves. That said, when I wrote this I saw a purpose to Veronica being such a surface character because she acts as a catalyst for a group of “real”people. She plays on John’s sexual fantasies the way movie stars do, and it contrasts with the more mature feelings John has for Henrietta and for Gerda. Veronica’s tragedy is that she hasn’t really grown up while John has; thus, he rejects her. Christie tends to view actors as large children who won’t stop until they get what they want.
There’s one huge exception: The only time I think Christie created an actor who really moved me as a character was in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side.
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Also Christie seemed to view actors as those who never stop acting. Veronica sure put up a performance at The Hollow when she went to get a box of matches when she really came to see John Christow.
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Yet, Veronica’s “performance” was a ham one, as Lucy pointed out. She was almost a caricature of herself.
I know many don’t like Veronica but I find her a pretty amusing character. Very dramatic and loud –that’s what I see her as. We don’t see too much of Veronica and that’s probably why I don’t dislike her. Too much of her would probably alter my opinion.
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She was an intervenor. John had no intention of being with her. He had a fulfilling career and purposeful life and Veronica treated him like a toy. Although he was impatient with Gerda it was obvious he loved her for what she was to him.
The Hollow is one of the best character studies Christe ever wrote.
I recently ran into a review from a blogger who said that Christie tried to portray Dr. Christow, the philandering doctor, as some kind of hero, making a man who committed an act of ignoble behavior noble. I don’t see her doing that at all with this character. Christie wasn’t portraying Christow as a hero, an ignoble or a noble man. She portrayed a man with many facets, a 3-dimensional character if you will — a man who is realistic, human and has done some wrong things but has done some good and beneficial things for others. Just because a man cheats on his wife doesn’t invalidate the good things he might have done for others. With John’s marriage to Gerda, he’s seriously in error, he’s wrong, but it doesn’t make him an ignoble man as a whole, though that’s an area of his life that will surely taint him, regardless of any good he committed. But what he’s doing in the area of finding a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease and his passion behind it is very noble and good. Regardless of his unfaithfulness to his wife, you can’t deny the good he’s doing in the area of finding a cure for those in the depths of Ridgeway’s. Labeling Christow with this one word answer is not that simple. It’s not all in black and white. I’ve read reviews from readers who disliked and despised John Christow but saw him as a man who has a few good qualities. Is John noble? Is he a hero? Is he ignoble? Christie allows the reader to make his/her judgment.
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I agree that Christie’s depiction of Christow is multi-faceted. Clearly, he did enough bad things that he got murdered for it, and several people had reason to be suspected. I don’t think his work with Ridgeway’s excuses or balances out his thoughtlessness over sex and relationships. Like many brilliant men, Christow wasn’t nearly as capable in his dealings with people. But I do think that he, Gerda and Henrietta had struck a balance of sorts that basically worked for them. I think Christow felt he had risen to a higher plane in his dealings with these two women. That is the mark of an egoist. Veronica touched on his “baser” instincts and brought him down as a result. I’m just rambling here, but I essentially agree with you.
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Quote: “Regardless of his unfaithfulness to his wife, you can’t deny the good he’s doing in the area of finding a cure for those in the depths of Ridgeway’s.”
Yes. But this almost seems to be an afterthought for him. This becomes clear in a conversation with Henrietta in the beginning of the book. For John Christow it’s all about the scientific success. That a few lives might be saved is a nice addition but ultimately not of importance for Christow.
I like the Hollow a lot and always thought it was one of the generally liked Christies. Didn’t know, that it’s controversial.
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I do think there’s an uncharacteristic sweetness found in John when he’s talking to the woman with Ridgeway’s. Other than that, I agree that he’s in it for the personal satisfaction of winning just as much as, if not more than, the idea of doing good in the world. I don’t think he wants glory. He wants to beat the disease. It’s a natural aspect of many scientists and an interesting character trait because it’s not something you can easily label a “flaw” or a “strength.”
late to this, but just wanted to say I really enjoyed your analysis, a great piece on this book. It’s one of my favourites, and I always reckon it’s the Christie-aficionados’ Christie…
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“The Christie aficionado’s Christie!” I love that phrase, Moira! It makes those of us who love the book seem so . . . superior!
And we are. 🙂
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As mentioned by several other commenters, I’m surprised that The Hollow would need any defending at all. Is this a title that many look down on? I’m about to commit heresy, but I think that I may have liked it better than Crooked House. Of course, The Hollow surprised me, while I sadly missed out on being tricked by Crooked House.
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Excellent post Brad. As a non-artist I don’t understand the passion that Christie is trying to describe either in Henrietta or Amyas Crale. And I find both John Christow and Amyas Crale thoroughly selfish swine and yet so many of the other characters like them or excuse their very serious shortcomings.
I am much more about the puzzle than the characters, so I think the double-bluff here is a little thin, although I like how Gerda’s own plan is just sufficiently clever for a stupid person to come up with.
In my re-reading so far the only significant change in my opinions that I have noted are finding Dumb Witness much better than I remembered – I think I saw the TV adaptation first followed shortly after by the book, which this time was reversed – and appreciated the structure and how Poirot worms his way into a case that doesn’t even exist, and that somehow Appointment with Death was not as good as I thought, though I can’t quite explain why.
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John, we can discuss this the next time we see each other in a whole lot more detail than i want to type, but in short: I think Christie gives away a lot about her own relationship to her art in both stories. She lost the biggest love of her life, her husband Archie, to another woman. He was jealous of her success as an artist and felt degraded by her. After she married Max, the story goes that she became enamored of one of his associates. Nothing serious came of it . . . except that he became a character in her books, one John Christow! The difficult relationships she had – with her daughter, with friends, with those who served her – all became fodder for her books! This is what artists do, and it separates them from the rest of the human pack.
I agree with you that Amyas and John are selfish brutes, yet one creates gorgeous paintings and the other saves lives. Both of them love their women with deep, though flawed, passion. When they die, the women they loved suffer greatly, including their murderers! The painting of Elsa provides a clue to Poirot because of the genius Amyas had of capturing her expression. And while Henrietta adored John and would do anything for him, including protect his killer, in the end she pours all her feelings into a new sculpture.
So, yeah, I think Christie is saying something very profound in both books about art, and in doing so is being revelatory about herself.
Thanks for the additional info on the possible model for John Christow. I’m sure I will do some reading around Christie herself someday but have wanted to make this series of re-reading as much about the books themselves, although I have occasionally looked the odd thing up.
I know Agatha Christie receives much criticism of her characters, perceived as one-dimensional or stereotypical, though on that subject alone, Christie uses this to her strength furthering the deception to her advantage. But with her two male characters, Amyas Crale and John Christow, here we have to men who both portray good and bad qualities of character, flaws and noteworthy aspects. Christie could’ve easily did what any amateurish or badly written writer would have done, depicting both characters as all good or all bad, merely selfish or all good and praiseworthy. Instead, Christie paints both men with different shades and colors.
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