Listening to The Hollow by Agatha Christie or Mourning in Caramel Custard

The Hollow never seems to show up on Christie themed best-of or favourites lists, which is unfortunate, because it’s one of her best books.

The Ensemble is Key

The Hollow is different from Christie’s usual fare. It’s often the crime itself and its investigation that play the leading parts in her books. The characters – some of them certainly well-rounded and memorable – are there, of course, but tend to be rather a part of  the scenery or support structure of the story than individual entities whose actions shape the plot.

Surprisingly, Christie gives this a wide berth in The Hollow. The first half especially reads (or sounds, in my case) more like a highly entertaining collection of character studies than a murder mystery intro. The murder doesn’t occur until two and a half hours in (out of 7 hours and 15 minutes in total). Spending so much time on setting the stage should be boring in a crime novel, but it’s the opposite of that. It’s due in large part to this extended setup that makes the book so superbly observed, elegantly composed, and just really well put together.

Christie delves deeply into the psychology of her characters, creating an intricate tableau of relationships that are just plain fun to engage with. The tightly woven net of emotional, financial and social dependencies between the characters and their changing constellations to each other do an excellent job of distracting from what would typically be the point of the whole story.

There is hardly a chance to miss Poirot, who is mostly absent in the first part, because The Hollow‘s ensemble is fascinating, especially Henrietta, Gerda, John, Lucy and Midge. Even John and Gerda’s children, although making only short appearances, leave distinct impressions. I enjoyed observing and spending time with them so much, that the investigation of the crime and Poirot himself became almost an afterthought. Poirot is his usual delightful if somewhat ruthless, fussy self, but the other characters are the ones that shine.

Christie takes the time to examine all the main character’s perspectives, motivations and backgrounds without losing pace or entertainment value to the point that the ultimate violent culmination feels organic, rather than like one more mental exercise for Poirot.

The situation Christie creates is complex, and so are the reader’s reactions. Although murder is, of course, never the nice thing to do, I couldn’t help feeling a considerable amount of schadenfreude (because John is such a self-absorbed dickwad, albeit an intriguing one) when it happened. But there is loss, too. John, who wants to go home so badly without knowing where home is even supposed to be, gets killed shortly after we actually get to see some minuscule cracks in his general douchiness.

One minor thing that irks me about The Hollow is that the usually pale and quiet, at times almost ghostlike character Edward has this ill-fitting, unnecessary and from a narrative viewpoint downright stupid melodramatic moment that sticks out like a sore thumb out of the otherwise so finely composed novel. Even worse is that the only discernible purpose of this plot point seems to be that it serves as a setup for another one of Lucy’s bon mots. I’m not saying that I didn’t grin about it. I did. But if you have to put your characters through unlikely acrobatics to keep a joke, that joke has no place in your story.

And no, I don’t count the relationship conversation between the two characters involved as an adequate purpose, because that conversation could have been held in a dozen better and more suitable ways.

The first half of the novel is definitely stronger than the second, which is understandably more concerned with catching the culprit than the characters and their relationships, but never so far that the story as a whole falls apart. That is to say, the second half is not weak per se, it’s simply not as strong as the first.

Poirot’s last scene in particular is quiet and haunting, and his “Your  place  is  with  the  living.  I  will  stay  here  with  the dead…” is a neat line of dialogue.

Another noteworthy thing, she really had fun with class conflict in this one. Moments of having to stop the recording due to laughter happened more than once.

Putting the Audio in Audiobook

The audiobook is read by Hugh Fraser, a fact that prompted a little head scratching for me, because the name seemed kind of familiar. Putting it on only intensified that impression, because I thought I had heard that voice somewhere before. It took a few minutes, but then it hit me. Hugh Fraser plays Captain Hastings in the Poirot TV series.

To be fair, I tend to be picky, when it comes to audiobooks, specifically about reading styles. And it took some time to get into his interpretation. I usually prefer a more subdued ‘performance’, letting the text speak for itself, but Fraser does a good job overall and finds a tone that fits Christie at least. I doubt I would like other books read by him though.

Speaking of the TV series, some of the ITV adaptations are much stronger than their source material (Five Little Pigs comes to mind), but I have to say that the adaptation of The Hollow, though beautifully shot, is only a bloodless and woefully undercomplex imitation of the richness of the novel. It gets the plot mostly right, but misses the point of what makes the book stand out.

Loving Lucy

I want to go back to one character in particular. Lucy is a strange creature (not only because she knows which culinary actions to take, if you’re plagued with a murder in the house). Elusive, privileged, scatterbrained and the closest thing to a comic relief character in the whole novel – at least on the surface. Yet there is more to her than that. Just like Gerda for example, she is more insightful and has a deeper and darker side to her than people give her credit for. You only have to pay attention to what she says and does to expand that first impression. It’s no wonder that Henrietta describes her early on as gracious but certainly not kind. The strange thing about her though is that, at least for me, she seems to be like an embodiment of Christie’s writing itself.

Her books may appear nice from the outside, but when you take the time to actually look, it becomes clear that they are not really nice at all. They have an appealing, cosy, pretty, even a slighty dotty front, but the good ones are more than that. The good ones have a kind of hushed complexity. There’s something a little deeper and darker lurking behind the obvious, something that surprises me again and again. Even though maybe it shouldn’t. Would I keep reading her books, if there was nothing more to them than the hunt for the murderer? I honestly can’t tell. I’m really fond of light entertainment after all.

In Pursuit of Better Death

Unlike the procedure of many of Christie’s other novels this extra time spend on the characters means something crucial, namely that the death has more than a passing impact on the reader. Normally, the bodies pile up and it doesn’t matter all that much who they were as persons before becoming the dead thing that moves the plot along. I don’t blame Christie for doing something that’s pretty much a defining trait of her genre, but it’s a welcome change of pace all the same. I usually don’t read Christie, because I care much about her characters or because I find them particularly interesting. Rather, because I have a soft spot for her detectives, because she is an excellent observer of certain social situations, and the simple pleasure of trying to guess the murderer before Poirot et al. do so (which I’m sadly really bad at). But if a crime story actually takes the time to get to know the dead thing before it exists, the before and after become a lot more meaningful. The stakes are higher. Death becomes a waste.

There is a certain callousness towards violent (fictional) death in both readers and writers of crime fiction, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, I do wonder, if perhaps taking a step back and questioning that callousness and the accompanying practice of irrelevant throw-away characters might have a positive influence on the overall quality of such works. I don’t want less death in crime fiction, I want better death. Death that has a little more significance.

I certainly see something of that in The Hollow. Compared to the other close to 30 books of her that I’ve read so far, I think leaving her sometimes quite rigid formula does a world of good to her writing. And she is so clearly able to do some splendid work outside out of it.

The Hollow is not just good for a Christie novel. It’s just plain good.