#125: A Sudden Flush of Youth (or Two) in Agatha Christie’s Endless Night (1967)

Although Agatha Christie’s later works put her out of era for this blog, I’m still keen to look at these books on account of the level of impact she had on the genre.  So The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962) was an early review when I was less rigid in my restrictions, but alas I had nothing to say about The Clocks (1963).  Then came the one-two punch of A Caribbean Mystery (1964) and At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) before Poirot once again got a short shrift with the rather forgettable Third Girl (1966), which Brad has analysed with typical adroitness here.  So, because I’m reading these chronologically, this brings me to Endless Night.

It’s interesting to reflect, now that I’ve read this, just how down Christie seemed to be on youth and modern times in those books listed above: Mirror Crack’d had its young families moving into The Development being built on the outskirts of St Mary Mead, and arguably rests entirely on misplaced youthful over-enthusiasm; Caribbean Mystery is as wholesale a celebration of old age as I think you’re ever likely to read in a non-Booker-baiting genre novel; Bertram’s Hotel is (I maintain, Your Honour!) at least partially an analysis of the dismissal Christie must have faced in her advancing years and brighter, younger things encroached on her territory; and Third Girl — all scuzzy cafés and concrete blocks divided into unappealing flats — made much of the mockery of Poirot’s age and perceived infirmity, both mental and physical.  The Clocks probably had…something, too, I dunno, it’s not really memorable; there are clocks in it, and a spy, and nineteen other kinds of thing…yeah, it’s not a good book.

Endless NightBut here, with Endless Night, we have a wholesale celebration of Youth, of twenty-two year-old Michael Rogers and his sudden, all-consuming romance with twenty year-old Fenella ‘Ellie’ Guteman.  “If this is a love story — and it is,” Rogers insists early in his narrative, “why not begin with when I first saw Ellie standing in the dark fir trees of Gipsy’s Acre.”  And, indeed, Gipsy’s Acre becomes the focus of the entire undertaking: the wild fancy of youth desiring, then achieving what it desires, and then living with what it has achieved.  “When youth begins to pass, fun isn’t fun any longer,” Rogers tells us, and so the two of them get caught up in the fun of making a life together in the face of adversity, and the sheer joy of being young and free of restrictions sings through everything they achieve together.

In many regards, this could easily have been written in Christie’s own youth.  A reference to the Korean War is the only factor that dates it, and since that started over a decade and a half before this was published there’s no reason this couldn’t be set in 1950 (to be fair, you’re never given the exact date).  Shorn of the references to Beatles, modern modes of dress, and the sexual mores of the younger generation that peppered her previous books, what we have here is Christie almost deliberately simplifying her narrative and her setting to echo those simpler times when publishing three novels in a year wasn’t such a big deal.  Yes, there’s some reference to international plane flights as undertaken by the absurdly wealthy, but Destination Unknown (1954) did that, too, so again we’re able to place these actions in an earlier time frame if we wish.  It has to be a deliberate choice — it lacks the emphasis on the contemporary modernness of the setting of her preceding books — and the isolation of these characters comes to mean something in the context of the plot, too, but they’re so removed from the world that Poirot and Aunt Jane have been negotiating that I can’t believe it’s accidental.

Only really the middle section gives it away as a novel with its roots in Christie’s Later Period: it’s…well, it’s slow, but I think the term deliberate is both more accurate and more kind.  Not a lot happens here where her younger self would have been stewing red herrings left, right, and just off-centre, and it’s partly this lack of dissemination that twigged me to what was going on since you have, as with all her later books, more of an opportunity to reflect on matters rather than being bamboozled with occurrences.  It’s youth as seen through an old head, and while it distills away some of the infectious enthusiasm of that opening section it also helps ground these two before they float of the page in front of us.

Endless Night 2It is also this middle section that gives us much of the adversity I mentioned above, and it is the provenance of most of that adversity that again supports this as a young person’s book: old gypsies, old lawyers, old and possibly untrustworthy businessmen, old and grasping nearly-relations…everyone over a certain age (Ellie’s stepmother is forty, and is well beyond this boundary) is against them.  Even the elderly characters not involved directly in the plot have a part to play in their negativity: witness the couple Michael drives to Hamburg early on, only to become sick of them and ditch the job, only find his way back to Gipsy’s Acre and meet Ellie… without a shadow of a doubt, the older generations herein are being viewed with the same hesitation that has been poured onto the younger generation in the books leading up to this.

By comparison, the youthful Greta Andersen is the one running interference in the early stages of Michael and Ellie’s relationship to enable them to live out their lives as they choose, and young Claudia Hardcastle welcomes Ellie to the community and encourages her various enthusiasms.  Even in their absence, the young provide support: witness “man-mad half-wit” oil heiress Minnie Thompson, whose first potential husband was bought off to the tune of $200,000 and so enables out young lovers to at least go into this with their eyes open: Ellie, for all her youth, is aware of the risk of swindlers and gold-diggers that will come chasing after her wealth, and  it is a salutary lesson for the working-class Michael when Uncle Frank comes round begging poor.

Now if you’ve read this you’re thinking “Ahh, but what about the ending, huh?  How is the ending a celebration of youth?”.  And it’s true that — this is a crime novel, after all,  in spite of also being a love story — things do go wrong for our youthful lovers.  The hand of providence (well, our elderly author, really) reaches out and touches the lives of the characters involved in a way that isn’t going to be completely happy for all of them, and so this of course may be seen as a criticism of the decisions made in youthful ignorance and bliss.

Endless Night 1stBut consider that ending if you know it, and you’ll know that Agatha Christie is, in many ways, the only author who could get away with it: for anyone else, it isn’t really an option.  And in this regard it makes the entire novel about youth as it’s a celebration of — and a wink towards, if you will — Christie’s own youth, those happier, younger days when she was free to get away with what she liked without all the attention upon her…not (ahem) unlike Ellie here.  Now Ellie is far less and author-insert character than Aunt Jane at this stage, and I’ll stop short of my always-questionable meta-analysis of the events herein as a comment on Christie’s own feelings about this stage of her career (it’s not something I fully believe in this time, anyway…), but it’s wonderful to see the old girl enjoying herself one last time.

Or, hey, maybe there’s more to come…

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20 thoughts on “#125: A Sudden Flush of Youth (or Two) in Agatha Christie’s Endless Night (1967)

    • Totally agree. There’s a big wink there at the end, no doubt, and it’s a fascinating combination of both sides of her writing — it could almost be a Mary Westmacott book but for the crime and then the obvious need for a solution to that crime.

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  1. Glad you liked this one, though unlike you I was fooled – you’ll know what I mean. Think you’re right in that this book feel like it is from an earlier writing period in some ways. Not having one of her serial sleuths in the book probably helped to make this so, as I’m not sure whether it would have been as good if they were in. Definitely wouldn’t have worked with Poirot in it.

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  2. Thanks for your review, and your comment about the slow-moving, even deliberate, middle section resonated with my reading experience. For some reason the ending didn’t catch me by surprise… I can’t quite remember why, but I think ever since I read something else I’ve been on a lookout! I still think it’s a good novel, even if not one of Christie’s strongest. 🙂

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  3. I like “The Case of the Caretaker” more. This feels stretched out for a novel, and your comments on the middle section justify that feeling for me. Although it’s odd: the TV version installs Miss Marple into the mix, having her befriend Michael and helping him sort out the terrible events happening around him. Her presence is intrusive, and the film is unwatchable. The Hayley Mills movie is just odd, with the worst Bernard Herrman score I’ve ever heard.

    What really stands out for me is the complete change in tone for a Christie novel. There is always a certain emotional remove in her standard mysteries so that she can present her characters as pleasant, interesting and/or eccentric people without giving away that one of these sets of qualities masks a murderer. If you think about it, (SPOILERS OF A SORT) the solution to this book bears striking similarities to those of A Caribbean Mystery, Evil Under the Sun, Death on the Nile, even stretching as far back as Styles. But this book feels like no other because Christie is more interested here in the emotional and psychological shenanigans going on. I can understand why you would thus equate it with a Mary Westmacott novel.

    I think the whole thing is supposed to be haunting and dreamlike (“In the end is my beginning”); unfortunately, I just find it dreary and, worse, sometimes dull. It’s interesting that in most Christies you have an odious victim surrounded by people who wished him or her dead. Here, the only character I found likable was the victim. Still, I applaud Christie being experimental here. If you truly haven’t read past this one, you have some rough going ahead, although the path isn’t entirely barren and you do get those two little jewels of Curtain and Sleeping Murder as a prize at the end.

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    • The ‘drawn out middle section’ brought Five Little Pigs to mind, though thankfully without the agonisingly needless repetition of every single piece of evidence from the first part that renders that book so hideous for me. Here it just felt rather more like verisimilitude….she wanted you to by into this young couple being happy and in love, with the occasional threat hanging around them nebulously and occasionally made real. That sense of youth and the establishment of Michael and Ellie as a couple in it together is obviously very key to the workings of this, and here she’s very much playing that up in the second part.

      I did really appreciate the experimental element of it – it’s not “who was where exactly when and what this means” once you get to the solution, it’s much more “Aaah, well, this is waht was going on nad how these things happened” — she’s much more relaxed about it, deliberately constructing something looser and so something that feels more real (to me, at least). Possibly it gets a little bogged down in this at times, but you can’t fault her for trying.

      And even if it is hard going ahead, I’ve got Ellery Queen to get me through, right? And I found some Carrs I hadn’t read today, and I’ve got plenty still to get through on my TBR. I guess I’m saying that there’s plenty of support available, which seems fair given how many duff books I’ve read in the past and then gone “Geez, I really need to read something spry and entertaining after that….” and reached for the next Christie… 🙂

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        • By my reckoning I’ve read about half of Carr. I was keeping a check on it, but lost interest a couple of years ago when I couldn’t find much by him, so now I don’t know exactly where I am. At a guess, I’d say….42 books. That feels about right. Should probably sit down and work it out for certain at some point, though.

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  4. Like Brad, I like the original short story better. The trouble with this book for me is that I can’t engage with any of the characters – I find them all unlikeable in different ways. Ellie is a poor little rich girl and (SPOILER) Michael never gets beyond being a young man on the make. I guessed the ending before I reached it – no kudos to me; I’d already read the earlier short story.
    I think it was Mike Grost who said that his favourite dream is being in a library and finding some Christies that he has not yet read. Mine too; and no, Sophie Hannah’s attempts do not cut it for me. I think the trick is not to try to write like Christie, but rather, to be as good as Christie was at her best. And IMHO, no-one has achieved that yet, although others will probably disagree. It’s perfectly OK to take classic characters in new directions – there’s a wealth of new Sherlock Holmes stories out there which do exactly that – but the storytelling voice should be the author’s own, not an attempt to write like somebody else.

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