Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Murder on the Links (1923)

NB: contains major spoilers for this novel and minor spoilers for The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). Also, my apologies for the bombardment of slightly half-baked feminist ideas in this post. I’d been re-reading Mary Poovey’s wonderful Uneven Devlopments at the same time and got rather carried away.

Agatha Christie’s second Poirot novel begins with the detective receiving a letter from millionaire Paul Renauld, entreating the Belgian to investigate what Renauld perceives as serious threats to his life. When Poirot arrives at Renauld’s home in the French seaside town of Merlinville, however, he finds that his erstwhile client has been brutally murdered, apparently by a pair of masked South American burglars intent on discovering a mysterious ‘secret’.

Despite being one of Christie’s shortest novels, The Murder on the Links is also one of her most complicated and involved mystery plots, incorporating, among other things, an epileptic tramp, a lovelorn Captain Hastings, a pair of twin female acrobats, a piece of lead piping and no less than three identical bespoke daggers. For all its complications, however, and for all its sensationalism, one can only marvel at the plot’s fiendish cleverness. Apparently, Christie got the idea for the story when she read a newspaper report about a woman who had been found bound and gagged beside the body of her husband and who swore that the murder was the work of a couple of masked men who had invaded the house. Soon, however, suspicion began to fall on the woman herself, who was suspected of engineering the whole thing. Whilst the use of this tale as the basis for the Beroldy murder trial in The Murder on the Links is fairly obvious, what’s cleverer is the use of the same case as the basis for the far less straightforward affair of Paul Renauld’s death. Even though Poirot suspects from the first that Mrs Renauld is lying about the involvement of masked men, it soon transpires that it turns out not necessarily to follow that she herself murdered her husband. Rather than trusting to common sense, Poirot’s method (and Christie’s outlook) echo Sherlock Holmes’s dictum that once every possibility has been eliminated, the one that remains, however unlikely, must be the truth. Confronted with a common or garden newspaper sensation, Christie characteristically sets to work demonstrating how any number of apparently implausible solutions cannot, nevertheless, be ruled out. This may result in a convoluted and confusing narrative, but the ingenuity of her idea cannot be faulted.

A warning not to take anything at face value is fast becoming a theme in the Poirot stories. At the end of his letter, for example, Renauld has scrawled ‘For God’s sake, come!’ Hastings sees this as a sign of the man’s strenuously held reserve breaking at last. Poirot sees a more calculated brain at work:

‘Mr Renauld wrote his letter. Without blotting it, he re-read it carefully. Then, not on impulse, but deliberately, he added those last words, and blotted the sheet […] so that it should produce the effect upon me that it has upon you.’

This deftly foreshadows the ‘masked men’ fabrication, which similarly panders to sensational beliefs about what murder looks like. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot refuses to rule out anyone from suspicion, regardless of their age, race, nationality, gender or class. In this novel, he refuses to rule out any thing from suspicion. That the overdone tale of masked intruders and South American secrets that Renauld has used effectively to author the story of his own death according to the traditions of sensational fiction actually gives way to an even more ludicrous alternative simply accentuates the point – one should never assume anything unless all avenues have been explored and all the evidence, however anomalous and however trivial, is accounted for.

Agatha Christie’s response to the news story is echoed in Poirot’s refusal to apply common sense to the details of this case:

 ‘No one who knew would bury a body there – unless they wanted it to be discovered. And that is clearly absurd, is it not?’

Actually, as it turns out, it is not absurd at all – and woe betide the investigator who assumes, without considering all the alternatives, that anything is necessarily absurd.

This leads on to the main thing that struck me in re-reading the novel. Namely, the way in which it makes a sustained attempt to make a point about crime and gender – and the way in which this backfires in an unfortunate way. The theme of social expectations about murder and murderers being put to good use by murders themselves is, as I have noted before, characteristic of the self-aware quality that gives Christie’s plots their particular flavour. The murderer’s deceptions often depend on a pre-existing idea of what murder and murderers look like – on the false belief that there are certain pre-existing moulds from which both are inevitably cast. The masked men and the frantic call for help are part of this attempt to engineer a certain kind of narrative – one that everyone is already primed (by other narratives of this kind) to view as a plausible tale. The Renaulds play their parts to perfection, but that would be no good in itself if the audience weren’t so receptive. Deception, like the tango, requires two parties. In fact, Christie’s use of the murder story as a genre is underwritten by the knowing recognition of murder as something which, in real life, is often unfortunately held always to work according to pre-established rules – an idea which she draws attention to and constantly debunks.

In The Murder on the Links, her particular bugbear about the accepted understanding of ‘murder’ as a genre descriptor for real events seems to be the way in which that genre is formulated and maintained by men who (with the apparent exception of Poirot) unconsciously ascribe to women particular roles within it. All but one of the chief suspects in this novel is a woman and yet the French police, in the form of the arrogant detective Giraud, seem constantly to be searching for a male perpetrator. Granted, this is partly because the initial line of enquiry to be investigated involves a story about masked men. Yet Giraud’s inability to suspect what Poirot immediately considers (that the story is a blatant fabrication to hide the wife’s guilt) derives from his inability to see past Mrs Renauld’s status as a wife and mother. Even granted that she is lying, he reasons, she must be doing so to protect her son. That is what mothers do and that is why he is happy to arrest the son based on circumstantial evidence. Apart from Poirot, everyone in the novel refers to the unknown murderer as ‘he’.

This immediately raises questions in a novel that is, right from outset, concerned with debunking ideas of what a woman should be – ideas, indeed, about what she ‘naturally’ is. Hastings, in this respect, is invaluable as a gauge of what the reader definitely shouldn’t think:

Now I am old-fashioned. A woman, I consider, should be womanly. I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!

Hastings has no qualms about the behaviour of a billingsgate fishwoman – it is specifically women of the middling or upper sort who concern him here. That is where the ‘womanly’ to be found. Dulcie Duveen, the object of this little speech, spots immediately that this unease about unwomanly women is based on his utter dependence upon a series of silly inherited traditions. She sees that his fear that inherent ‘womanliness’ might be exposed as nothing more than a cultural fabrication may eventually end in toppling other cherished beliefs about the (white, male, middle class, Western) world that he knows:

 Oh, your face! ‘Not one of us’, it said. And you were right there – though, mind you, it’s pretty hard to tell nowadays. It’s not everyone who can distinguish between a demi and a duchess.

The worry that Dulcie might be ‘unwomanly’ is bound up with a fear that she might not be of Hastings’s class – the working classes and the unwomanly woman support each other as figures of otherness against which the middle-class male defines himself. Indeed, when Dulcie asks Hastings later if she can be shown the murder weapon and the body, Hastings is sickened by such an unladylike request:

 ‘I’m a man. You’re a woman.’

‘Your idea of a woman is someone who gets on a chair and shrieks when she sees a mouse. That’s all prehistoric.’

What is shocking to a modern reader is not simply the way in which Dulcie is able to exploit this in order to steal the dagger which, she knows, will incriminate her sister, but also the fact that no one (apart from Poirot, of course) suspects her of being the thief – even though she’s the most obvious culprit, the ‘she’ appears to make it impossible. To believe women capable of such ghoulish pleasures and, indeed, to believe them capable of such calculating criminality, is disturbing to the male investigators – as evidenced by Hastings’s relief when Dulcie apparently confirms his stereotypical views of womanhood:

I felt this to be so feminine that I could not forbear a smile. Secretly, I was not dissatisfied with her collapse. It proved that she was not quite so callous as I had thought her.

Later on, Hastings is prepared to believe in Dulcie’s guilt (wrongly, as it turns out) but only insofar as her guilt rests on her having been cruelly wronged by her lover – that there exists no pre-meditation, no motive, in short no independent agency.

She stood there, the cloak she had wrapped around her stage dress slipping from her shoulders. I saw the whiteness of her cheeks under the rouge, and heard the terror in her voice. […] I had never pictured love coming back to me in such a guise.

Again, what is at stake here is that, whatever happens, the natural womanliness is still there underneath the make-up and the brave demeanour – the stereotype of man the natural protector of the naturally submissive woman is upheld.  Indeed, it is frequently suggested that this paternalism will be (and, in the case of Madame Beroldy, already has been) extended to female criminals at the bar, since the male judge and jury will be sure to take pity on young, beautiful females, simply refusing to believe them capable of consciously aspiring to such unwomanly deeds without extreme provocation. In this sense, Christie’s ultimate belief in inherent evil, absurd though it might in other ways be, is at least a redressing of the balance. For her, everyone is equally capable of horrific, pre-meditated atrocities because women are not only not inherently different to men, but also not naturally dependent upon (or subservient to) them.

And yet, one can only take the novel’s feminism so far. The case of Marthe Daubreuil is a funny one. It’s undeniably the case that it plays a role in making fun of Hastings’s unthinking chivalry – his idea not only that women should be womanly, but also his old-fashioned idea of what ‘womanliness’ definitely is. Unfortunately, it also has the effect of playing into Christie’s unfortunate tendency to make hereditary evil instantly detectable for those who know what to look for:

Mon ami, two people rarely see the same thing. You, for instance, saw a goddess. […] I saw only a girl with anxious eyes.’

Later, we learn the import of this detail, which becomes a little laboured (Christie obviously thinks that ‘the girl with the anxious eyes’ has a certain ring to it):

 ‘Why was she anxious? Not on Jack Renauld’s behalf, for she did not know then that he had been in Merlinville the previous evening.’

In fact, she is only anxious about her capacity to inherit the Renauld fortune. Like mother, like daughter. Ultimately, Poirot’s assertion that a man ‘is particular about his wife’s antecedents’ turns out not to be a criticism of male chauvinism, but a commendation of what turns out to be a wise course of action in Jack’s case:

 ‘Some of the greatest criminals I have known had the faces of angels,’ remarked Poirot cheerfully. ‘A malformation of the grey cells may coincide quite easily with the face of a Madonna. […] [T]he daughter of Jeanne Beroldy […] can simulate emotion but in reality she is of the same cold, calculating type as her mother.’

Indeed, a serious point of evidence that Poirot offers for Marthe Daubreuil’s guilt is:

[She] was the daughter of the notorious Madame Beroldy who in my opinion was morally and virtually the murderess of her husband

Did these kinds of evidences actually get presented in courts of law at that time I wonder? The point here is that to reveal the apparently arch-feminine Marthe Daubreuil (allegedly devoted daughter and, potentially, devoted wife) to be, in reality, a cold, calculating killer is, on the one hand, the logical culmination of the novel’s debunking of the naturally ‘womanly’ woman, and carries through the novel’s trope of women using male assumptions of natural womanliness against them. But it also succeeds in making the capacity to murder itself something that is beyond the pale of the (feminine) natural. By making murder the product of a diseased brain, it undercuts the idea that anyone could be a murderer. In doing so, of course, it undercuts any attempt to show that not only any man but also any woman is capable of murder. This changes in later novels, but in having Poirot offer the ‘face of a Madonna’ as the diametric opposite of the ‘abnormal’ here, the novel undermines the very project it seems intent on carrying out elsewhere. This is a shame, as the novel works hard elsewhere, and almost succeeds, in blending an interesting point about patriarchal assumptions with an intricate, ingenious and compelling murder plot.

The other thing that struck me about this novel is the way in which it makes a definite attempt to pin down Poirot’s distinctive methods. At the end, Poirot enumerates to Hastings not only the evidence against Marthe Daubreuil but also, more importantly, the reasons why he himself became certain that Marthe was the murderer. Poirot’s method is, in short, to approach the crime as a logic puzzle, every single loose end of which must be tied up before even the most apparently obvious solution can be proven with tangible proofs that would stand in a court of law. It is not the weight of the evidence that convinces, rather it is the plausibility of the only solution that explains every anomaly. Thus, the authorities have their doubts about Marthe Daubreuil, but ‘Poirot  explained things in so plausible a fashion that all query about them was gradually stilled’. Poirot’s attitude to crime is, therefore, formalist, even structuralist, in nature. Detective methods might change with time, but crimes stay ‘very much the same’, to be tackled with the similarly ageless capacity of the ‘grey cells’.

Another striking point here is the a lack of faith in the modern for its own sake, which distinguishes the Poirot stories from the Sherlock Holmes stories they so often resemble. Giraud’s modern forensic methods resemble Holmes’s:

‘You haven’t made a study of these things. That’s not an ordinary match – not in this country at least.’

Giraud is, however, so obsessed with these little details that he fails to notice the obvious – the two-foot long piece of lead pipe which, Poirot correctly discerns, has been used to disfigure the face of the second body (in Giraud’s defence this is very clumsily handled by Christie herself, leading to an unforgivable plot hole in which the body’s features are, on first discovery, thoroughly legible). Similarly, the Holmes stories (still appearing on a fairly regular basis at this point) make use of all manner of modern communications – in them, that is, communication seems incredibly efficient, fast and modern, as does Holmes’s use of scientific research and obscure knowledge to solve crimes. In this Poirot story, however, the slower communications that pervade in this pre-internet world are striking in a manner that they aren’t in the Holmes stories. So, Poirot cannot be made aware of the discovery of a second body until he returns from Paris. Similarly, on rushing to England near the denouement, Poirot comments:

‘The news of the arrest [of Jack Renauld] will not be in the English papers until the day after tomorrow, but still we must lose no time.’

While Holmes uses all sorts of modern methods (like the protagonists in Dracula, a novel contemporaneous with Holmes’s most famous cases) Poirot remains an elderly man who proves that crimes are ‘essentially the same’ and can only be combated with the one thing that has remained constant since ancient times – the ability to sit and think rationally. Holmes enlists the help of modernity. Poirot’s brain outruns it. Thus, if you were to update Holmes to the present day, as in the TV series Sherlock, you’d be right to enlist social media and state-of-the-art communication methods. A modern version of Poirot is unthinkable, however, since, in his case, Twitter would simply get in the way of a good story.

I’ll conclude this long and (I fear) slightly incoherent post, by saying that, in plot terms, this seems to me to be one of Agatha Christie’s best. The conceit of two lovers mutually confessing to the crime, each in order to protect the other, turns up again (with a clever and malicious twist) in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). Admittedly, the way in which the device is used, in the later novel, as the main hinge on which the plot turns (as opposed to being one red herring amidst a bewildering slew) does point to the overcomplication that is this earlier novel’s main flaw. In particular, the need to devote so much time to exposition means that the characters have no room to breathe and are more cipher-like than ever – a real shame in the novel that introduces Hastings’s wife. Yet, somehow, and especially on re-reading, what should be convoluted and exasperating succeeds in being so clever that one can only marvel at the ingenuity of the mind that came up with such a plot. If it leaves a lot to be desired in other ways, the novel still presents a devastatingly ingenious puzzle that plays completely fair with the presentation of clues. Whatever else it may be, The Murder on the Links must rank as a very fine logic puzzle indeed.

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Filed under 1920s, Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, The Murder on the Links (1923)