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.