Monthly Archives: October 2015

Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party

Published in 1969 this seasonal novel features Hercule Poirot and his friend Mrs Ariadne Oliver. It was dedicated to P.G Wodehouse.

While staying with a new friend, Mrs Oliver is taken to a house called ‘Apple Trees’ where preparations for a Hallowe’en party are taking place. The house is full of assorted helpers, mostly mothers, spinsters, teenagers and children.
These were the days when Hallowe’en was still celebrated in the old way in Britain. A night of apple bobbing, folklore and ghost stories; much more atmospheric than today’s supermarket aisle of tacky costumes and plastic pumpkins. By tradition it was the night when girls might catch a fleeting glimpse of their future husband. No one toured the neighbours demanding treats. The party is a great success until at the end of the evening, the body of a thirteen year old girl is found murdered in the library.

Mrs Oliver asks Poirot to investigate. He enlists the help of ex- Superintendent Spence who appeared in Mrs McGinty’s Dead and has retired to the village to live with his sister. Poirot insists on staying at a ‘fifth class guest house’ and wincing round the village in his too-tight patent leather shoes as he talks to a variety of well-drawn characters. Agatha Christie skilfully conjures a sly, sinister atmosphere in the village of Woodleigh Common. A feeling that some know more than they’re prepared to tell Poirot. A sense that someone mad is hiding behind an ordinary face and further danger is impending.

Hallowe’en Party is one of the last novels, written when the author was in her late seventies. The thing that strikes me most on rereading is how frequently characters comment on the times, voicing what were surely her own thoughts. Although the village setting is vintage Christie, the novel reads as strangely modern compared to earlier works.

Characters discuss the changing nature of crime, its causes and solutions now capital punishment has been abolished. Poirot’s view puts justice before compassion because that would save the lives of future victims. Other characters argue that the ‘mentally disturbed’ are being sent home because ‘mental homes’ are too full. Are murderers ‘mentally defective’ or just ‘nasty bits of goods’?

One character remarks ‘there have been very many sad fatalities with children all over the countryside. They seem to be getting more and more frequent.’ The village doctor says ‘mind you, doing in a child isn’t anything to be startled about nowadays.’

Another comments: ‘It seems to me that crimes are so often associated nowadays with the young. People who don’t really know quite what they are doing, who want silly revenges, who have an instinct for destruction. Even the people who wreck telephone boxes, or who slash the tyres of cars, do all sorts of things just to hurt people, just because they hate – not anyone in particular, but the whole world. It’s a sort of symptom of this age.’

You can’t imagine those lines in a pre-war or fifties Christie novel and you can hear the author saddened by changing society.

For that reason Hallowe’en Party has a sad, elegiac air. Poirot seems old and tired. We first see him in his flat, disappointed when an old friend rings to cancel his visit. ‘Many of the evenings were dull now.’ He thinks back over the previous cases where Mrs Oliver involved him. It’s all a long time after the camaraderie of detecting with Hastings and Miss Lemon.

There are other modern touches which seem jarring in a Christie novel. Teenagers ‘necking’, youths with long hair and side-burns, mauve trousers, rose velvet coat and ‘a kind of frilled shirting.’ (Takes me back to my brother when he used to blow his wages in Carnaby Street). There’s mention of purple hemp and L.S.D. ‘which sounds like money but isn’t.’ Mrs Oliver accuses Poirot of sounding like a computer programming himself. And of course the murder of a child is a great departure from her usual victims.

This was still an extremely enjoyable read, character-driven with a real sense of creeping evil. Though I prefer her work up to about the fifties, late Agatha Christie is still better than umpteen others.

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The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

The Zig Zag Girl is one of those detective novels that linger in the mind. I enjoyed reading it so much that I was sorry to part company with the lead characters. Fortunately the second novel in this new series is out next month.

The setting is Brighton in 1950. A time when Britain was still exhausted by winning the war. Limping into a new world past bomb-sites and still clutching ration-books. I know Brighton and the other south coast resorts featured very well and Elly Griffiths captures them perfectly. This novel has a wonderful sense of time and place.

In fact it offers everything the reader of crime fiction desires, a terrific plot with a fascinating theme, an engaging pair of detectives – one is unofficial – and a dazzling conclusion.

Inspector Edgar Stephens is diffident, likable and has a very believable background. He also has an intriguing back-story from the war. One theme of The Zig Zag Girl is the world of variety and magic; backstage showbiz with its seedy, spurious glamour, all distraction, mis-direction and illusion. A wonderful setting for the twists and reveals of a detective novel.

When a girl is murdered in singular circumstances, Inspector Stephens turns to his old friend Max for advice. Max Mephisto is a famous stage magician, uniquely well-placed to help Edgar find someone who performs the deadliest of tricks.
Edgar and Max are brilliantly written, making you want to know what they do next. The most minor characters are vividly brought to life in a few lines. A tense, flowing plot makes it hard to put the book down and all sorts of small loose ends are satisfyingly revealed.

One of my best finds this year. The next novel Smoke And Mirrors is out next month.

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Jekyll and Hyde – Victorian Secrets And A Text

Last time I looked at the genesis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Now I would like to examine something of what Stevenson intended in this published version, in effect a fresh draft of his original idea. And I’d like to suggest that Stevenson, in a mischievous Hyde-ian mood, plays with the reader throughout the text, deliberately manipulating reactions and assumptions in a very clever way. Touching the nerve of an audience who were mostly very well aware of just what he was getting at.

Now this latter point has been undervalued for much of the novel’s published life, because we lack the ability to see the story in the way its first readers did. They did not know that Jekyll and Hyde were the same person. We do know and it’s hard to put that thought out of our minds. But let’s try to do so.

The novel is presented through the eyes of several characters, all of them – except one – unreliable narrators, because they only know a part of what is happening and are bringing their own social assumptions to what they see.

The principal narrator is Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and lawyer. Then there is Richard Enfield, a friend of Utterson’s who reveals a tiny bit of the tale to him. There is a second-hand account from a housemaid who may, because of her romantic leanings, be the most unreliable narrator of all. There is Dr Lanyon, who finds out the truth too late though he imparts it in a letter to Utterson. And there is Dr Jekyll himself, who knows the whole truth – but how he presents it is questionable.

Rather skilfully, Stevenson shows us that a first-person account may be loaded to produce a certain interpretation. His Jekyll wants, through his confession, to present himself in the best possible light. Though given what has happened that’s not too easy for him to do. Stevenson presents those difficulties in the sub-text.

I posit the thought that here is how the first readers might have perceived the story from its opening. Dr Jekyll, a respectable scientist of around fifty, has somehow come into acquaintanceship with a much younger man, Edward Hyde. Hyde is given the run of Jekyll’s house, is obviously being kept by him, has been provided with a home of his own in Soho, and become the legatee in Jekyll’s will – which Jekyll has lodged with Utterson with the instructions that Hyde should have the full rein of Jekyll’s property if the latter should disappear.

We are told that in his youth Jekyll was wild and had ‘certain appetites’. Stevenson doesn’t actually say what these appetites were. The reader is left to make up his or her own mind, though once again Stevenson loads the dice. I suggest that, in the mind of the Victorian reader, there would be only two possibilities strong enough to shock – sexual appetites or drugs. And given that many Victorians took substances that are now illegal, and quite regularly at that, probably the former.

It is quite clear, and not just from some sub-textual reading, that Hyde appears to have Jekyll in thrall to him. Utterson, in his narration, believes that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll. But why?

The suggestion has been made that early readers might have thought this to be a homosexual relationship, where a rent boy is blackmailing a client. A not unusual scenario in the London of this period, as Oscar Wilde found to his cost.

This gay theory receives a boost from the incident in the tale where Hyde murders the supposedly respectable Member of Parliament Sir Danvers Carew.

This scene is worth looking at in some detail, though we have to bear in mind that we are seeing it through what is effectively the witness statement of a housemaid, who only observes it from a distant window. She witnesses the encounter between Carew and Hyde. It is eleven o’clock at night. She reports that:

‘an aged and beautiful gentleman with white hair, drawing near along the lane; and advancing to meet him, another and very small gentleman (Hyde)… When they had come within speech…the old man bowed and accosted the other with a very pretty manner of politeness. It did not seem as if the subject of his address were of great importance; indeed, from his pointing, it sometimes appeared as if he were only inquiring his way; but the moon shone on his face as he spoke, and the girl was please to watch it, it seemed to breathe such an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something too, of a well-founded self-content.’ (My italics)

Notice those qualifications: Why only ‘seemed to breathe such an old-world kindness of disposition’?

The maid then sees Hyde become enraged and beat Carew to death with a heavy walking cane.

What were the first readers of Jekyll and Hyde meant to make of this? Here is a wealthy gentleman, supposedly respectable, though down by the river late at night, accosting a young man of what was then considered to be the lower classes in a very pretty manner of politeness?

Stevenson, of course, given the time of publication, couldn’t be more specific. But I would suggest that he knew perfectly well what he was implying. Every man about town, and Stevenson had certainly been one of them in his time, would have understood the principles of homosexual pick-ups, even if – like Stevenson – they were heterosexual themselves.

The other time we see Hyde using violence is earlier in the novel where he knocks down and tramples a little girl. This is shown to us as an impatient act of violence only. Yet even some of the novel’s first readers put a different construction upon it, drawing upon the time they were living in.

In a letter to his friend Robert Bridges, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suggested that ‘The trampling scene perhaps a convention: he was talking of something unsuitable for fiction.’

Stevenson presents us with an image of Hyde paying off the father of the little girl with a cheque from Jekyll’s cheque book. We are perhaps meant to be reminded of W.T.Stead’s journalistic purchase of a young girl in his famous expose of child prostitution, which was the scandal celebre of London at the time. It happened in the same year that Stevenson wrote his book.

Sometimes, when I read of Hyde out on the streets in that way I’m reminded of those other supposedly respectable Victorian gentlemen who created a different persona so that they might be able to indulge in pleasures of which their families and friends might disapprove. If you read the pages of the sexual diarist known as Walter, though he lived during the earlier Victorian period, you get a feeling that this was another Hyde, though without his more violent instincts.

And, as people remarked not long after the novel’s publication, perhaps Jack the Ripper was Jekyll by day and Hyde by night. The belief that the serial killer was a doctor was prevalent almost from the start of the murders.

Another possibility that might have come into the mind of an early reader is that Hyde is Jekyll’s illegitimate son. This suggested by the remark that Jekyll had gone slumming in his youth to satisfy those ‘certain appetites’. And that Jekyll is concealing the relationship because Hyde is either insane or, as Stevenson notes, malformed.

In his confession, which ends the book, Jekyll writes that as a young man he had ‘a certain gaiety of disposition…Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures.’ He tells us that he turned away from all of that as he aged, until the point of the story where the now respectable Dr Jekyll yearns to explore these feelings once again; transforming himself into Hyde to avoid compromising his reputation. Unfortunately, his creation loses control, going, presumably, far beyond Jekyll’s original and youthful vices. Jekyll confesses to the reader:

‘The pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified; I would scarce use a harder term. But in the hands of Edward Hyde, they soon began to turn towards the monstrous…’

And in quite an early conversation in the narrative, Stevenson has Jekyll tell Utterson – and perhaps issue the more salacious reader with a caveat against assuming too much – that ‘it isn’t what you fancy; it is not as bad as that…’
Perhaps not as Jekyll but what about his indulgences as Hyde?

The conclusion of the story, Jekyll’s written confession, is a masterpiece of narration, as Hyde and Jekyll battle each other to present a point of view. The first revelation of the truth about the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde has driven Dr Lanyon to his death. Here we are given a detailed reason why.

The novel succeeds or fails here. The fictional narrator, supposedly Jekyll, hardly, at this point, knows who he is. At one point he seems to be looking and considering whether to let either Jekyll or Hyde triumph. He has become some third-person standing outside them both, unsure of which way to lean:

‘To cast in my lot with Jekyll, was to die to those appetites which I had long secretly indulged and had of late begun to pamper. To cast it in with Hyde, was to die to a thousand interests and aspirations, and to become, at a blow and forever, despised and friendless.’

There is no answer, only death. The desires of Dr Jekyll can only be subdued that way.

There is no doubt that the first readers were shocked at the conclusion. It inspired a huge amount of comment in society at the time. Not just in the newspapers and reviews, but as the subject of church sermons and philosophical debates. The Victorian readership were forced to confront the reality of the nature of man. That there is light and darkness within all of us.

But they may well have breathed a sigh of relief that the solution to the “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” was not much worse. Not any of the other socially unacceptable possibilities that a very clever writer had planted in their minds.

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Jekyll and Hyde

I was interested to see that a new British television series of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde airs in a week or two. The story has been perennially popular since Robert Louis Stevenson first wrote it in 1885 while enjoying a seaside recuperation at Bournemouth. It was published a year later.

It is one of those rare works of fiction where you can just say the title and everyone will know what you mean. Although, the majority, I suspect, have never read the original tale, taking their knowledge of the story from films and television. Many will not even know that the correct title is actually “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.

We can, of course, never read it in quite the same way as its first readers. By now surely everyone knows that Jekyll transforms into the malignant Hyde? The original shock value of that transformation can never be recaptured. But how often today do we read or hear of someone having a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality?

I’ll deal with a few of the films and the new television version – set not in Victorian times but in the 1930s – in a few weeks. But now I want to go back to Stevenson’s original story

Why does the story still hold such power 130 years after it was written? To start with, it was an instant bestseller. The book sold over 40,000 copies in its first six months. It was read with interest by Queen Victoria herself, the prime minister and had an influence on writers and artists. The story and its moral implications became the subject of newspaper editorials and church sermons. It almost instantly inspired stage-plays, with members of audiences reportedly fainting during the transformation scenes – well, that was the spin put out by theatre managements anyway!

Richard Mansfield’s acting performance in the role in the London of 1888 just happened to come along at the same time as the Whitechapel Murders. Indeed, some audience members thought that Mansfield might even be Jack the Ripper. Or that the story and play might have inspired the killings. The kind of publicity that modern-day authors would kill for (pun intended!) The gentler Stevenson would probably have been less sure.

Legend has it that Stevenson wrote and corrected the story more or less in three days. Legend has it wrong, I’m afraid. The actual work covered about six weeks in time, though that’s not bad going for a 64,000 word book. And it was not originally envisaged as a moral parable. Stevenson was hard up and needed the money, as authors tend to do. It certainly fulfilled that purpose.

In fact it was written and intended to be published as a “crawler” – one of those Christmas stories so beloved of Dickens, slightly scary, designed to appeal for the mass-market, something with a slight gothic edge. Rather like his previous yarns “The Body Snatcher” and “Olalla”. Stevenson meant it to be published for the Christmas of 1885. In fact it appeared a month later.

Interestingly, given the nature of the plot, his publisher Longmans issued it in two separate editions; a cloth binding for the wealthier reader of literature at 1s 6d and a cheaper paper covered edition for mass readership at 1 shilling. Almost as soon as a copy had crossed the Atlantic it was massively pirated, robbing Stevenson of much needed royalties.

The story goes that Stevenson gained the germ of the story during a nightmare – worth pointing out that he was, like many a Victorian, taking drugs at the time for poor health – being woken by his wife Fanny as he cried out in his sleep. He told her it was a pity that he’d been wakened as he was dreaming “a fine boguey tale.”

Inspired, he wrote a version of it down at white heat and presented it to his spouse to read. Famously, she tore his tale to shreds, saying that he’d missed an opportunity to present the morality of the plot. To her horror he threw the manuscript into the fire, and began again.

But what was that original draft like, and why did Fanny object so much? It’s possible that it resembled far more some of the film versions, with the sexual overtones of Hyde as a man about town, depicting Victorian London in all its grimmest aspects. Suggestions have been made that this was what scared Fanny so much. She was, after all, trying to nurture a literary genius towards deserved and widespread fame. And these were prudish times. At least for works that were to find an audience in print.

On the other hand, Stevenson himself, in a letter to a friend, decried a stage production that included more sexual connotations to the story, though his own argument in that letter makes little logical sense.

It is quite likely that in the earlier version, Jekyll created Hyde as a cover and alibi so that he might carry out his own unpleasant yearnings. When we think back on the story, memory might play us false. Readers tend to remember Jekyll as all good and Hyde as all bad. But that’s not what Stevenson actually says in the text.

While Hyde is irredeemably evil, Stevenson quite clearly suggests a side of Jekyll that is at best louche and at worst, well?

One of the characters remembers that Jekyll was ‘wild when he was young; a long while ago to be sure; but in the law of God, there is no statute of limitations. Ay, it must be that; a ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace, pede claudo, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condemned the fault.’

Now what is all that about? I believe it to be a trace of the character of Jekyll left behind from the original draft. After all, and it’s the question that the reader should always be asking, why has Jekyll created the ability of becoming Hyde in the first place? Scientific curiosity or something more prurient?

Was Stevenson recalling something of his own youth? He was brought up with a respectable Edinburgh background. His first real influence was his very Calvinistic nurse. And yet Stevenson went wild in his youth, roaming the streets and brothels of his native city, almost with an alternative identity as ‘Velvet Coat’, as the dwellers in its underworld nicknamed him. It’s known that he fell in love with a young prostitute, even considering the prospect of marriage to her – to the horror of his family. Word had got around. Edinburgh is quite a small place.

And for all that the book is set in London, there are surely elements of Edinburgh there too. We see the respectable squares of the city and the rookeries that are really not so far away. The duality of the city landscape, something like Edinburgh’s old and new towns, where there is the past and poverty on one side and enlightenment and wealth on the other.

The city that Stevenson describes, London, is shown to the reader in a nightmarish way, with its citizens almost morally drowning under a sea of fog, which clings to the streets and buildings like the corruption and depravity that are not so very far away.

Jekyll’s own house is shown to have two sides, like its owner. It remains a fashionable home in a slightly run down but respectable square. But to its rear is the block where Jekyll carries out his experiments.

We are told that they were once the dissecting rooms of a respectable surgeon – bringing forward suggestions of body snatching and doubtful acts of anatomy. The block has its own door leading to a more dubious area of the town – the suggestion is that this is the door through which stolen bodies were smuggled. The street beyond is not quite a rookery but a poor place, where the denizens of the underworld might linger. Respectable gentlemen only seem to walk it armed with a heavy cane – or perhaps a swordstick.

And it is quite clear that it is those elements that Jekyll wishes to explore, behind the alias of his sinister alter ego. And though Stevenson destroyed his original draft, written at such speed, the writer within him took over, presenting a series of assumptions and challenges for the careful reader.

Next week I shall look at how Stevenson suggests secrets in his book, how he plays – I think quite deliberately – with his readers’ imaginings. And I shall try to recapture the feelings the first readers of the story might have had, trying to put to one side the now well-known solution to the “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.

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