In the second of my semi-occasional series where caution is thrown to the wind when it comes to naming names, we are here today to discuss the two finest detective novelists of all time at their popular peak. Christie aficionado, good friend, and best teacher ever Brad of AhSweetMysteryBlog kindly agreed to go head-to-head over our favourite authors and then exchange some thoughts on aspects of the precise details and workings of the books, and the results of our efforts are below. Suffice to say, if you click to read more of this, there are guaranteed massive spoilers from this point on; don’t say I didn’t warn you.
In keeping with our personalities, my demure, apologetic Englishness will be communicated in normal font such as this, whereas Brad’s strident, confident Americanisms will be in bold. So, without further ado, here are our findings…
…on the books
This is the hand we’ve been dealt, but it’s inherently unfair to have to compare Death on the Nile — pure 1930s Golden Age stuff — with He Who Whispers, which is mid-1940s, a time when more attention was paid to character development. It would be much easier to compare Nile with, say, The Three Coffins (1935), while Whispers compares more easily to Five Little Pigs (1942) or even The Hollow (1946), which came out in the same year.
What we have here is at least thematically similar: two stories of wronged women in Linnet Ridgeway — who is more than a little complicit in her own downfall — and Fay Seton, who ends up being accidentally complicit in her own downfall, too.
And they both share — and this is to Carr’s credit — beautifully rendered female characters. Though I would argue that there are two wronged women in Nile: Linnet, the “poor little rich girl”, is a victim of her father’s dominant personality and of the isolation that great wealth brings. She knows she has done wrong by stealing Simon, and her insolence clearly masks a guilty conscience. Jackie de Bellefort is also tragic figure. She loves her man enough to overlook his moral weakness and kill for him.
Of the two, the scheme around Linnet in DotN feels more complete to me — I’m not convinced by the brevity of the vampirism thread of HWW, and the convenience of Harry Brooke spreading rumours that just happen to be exactly spot on feels a convenience too far — even if HWW is a better book overall…
Both books handle reversals of expectation, the hallmark of a good mystery, with panache. The reversal is singular in Nile: Jackie does not have a bone to pick with Simon; rather, they remain lovers out to get Linnet’s money. Having that first chapter (that JJ dislikes) allows Christie to create the illusion of Jackie as woman scorned right away. Christie builds on the obfuscation by placing this love triangle in an exotic setting and surrounding them with fake suspects. True, there are far too many of these — the red herrings are jumping out of the Nile waters!
The thread of Johnny Race searching for his spy highlights what I think is a key weakness of DotN. It’s very shallow in terms of its plotting: everyone has precisely one role — they are the spy, or the kleptomaniac, or the alcoholic…no-one is allowed to be that and the murderer…once Race identifies Richetti as his spy, Richetti is immediately out of the running for killing Linnet, for instance, with no real reason given.
This is illustrated perfectly by the case Poirot outlines against Tim Allerton towards the end, following the killing of Mrs. Otterbourne (which is never really explored or convincingly dismissed despite, I can’t help but feel, being very valid — the clue of the gloves is astonishingly subtle, and Christie through and through) only for Poirot to go “Well, but you’re the thief, so therefore you’re not the killer”. What we have is three people involved in the killing, and everyone else is more or less just there as an accidental smokescreen. Fine, but not difficult to construct.
The other passengers are (mostly) strangers and, by necessity, have only a passing relationship to Linnet. There are actually only a few motives to consider: Jackie’s thirst for revenge (which turns out to be a false motive), Pennington’s self-preservation, the theft of the pearls (the most wide-ranging one as anybody could be the thief), a disdain for rich heiresses, (Jim Ferguson and Rosalie Otterbourne), and that admittedly unfortunate motive — the spy whose message Linnet intercepted. Simon and Jackie are playing with the cards they’ve been dealt, and their plan evolves from there. Christie uses all her savvy to distract us from the real motive — Simon’s inheritance — and I think she does that quite well.
Yeah, Christie has the upper hand in at least acknowledging possible alternatives and working in more of a traditional GAD tapestry, which is more than Carr does, and possibly a large part of DotN’s popularity. I wonder if part of Carr’s falling from public awareness was due to his turning in so very few traditional whodunits, and the way he was always driving plots with a singular aim in mind.
To wit: I always feel Carr requires us to put too much faith in Rigaud’s version of events here. There’s a perfectly valid case — Rigaud sends Harry away from the top of the tower, stabs Harold, throws the briefcase into the trees to salvage later (motive: money), wipes the sword off, and then follows Harry with excuses of talking to his father, only to misrepresent this timeline in his telling later on (there’s no-one else to contradict him, after all…) — that’s never acknowledged or confronted. Rigaud is, in his first and only appearance, cast iron, beyond reproach, even though we have no reason to think him so (had it been Fell, that would be a different matter).
You make a good point about posterity, though I would argue (and you would agree) that Carr’s originality is what makes him so brilliant, and the fact that he can work from such a small canvas and still surprise us is part of that brilliance. (I’m thinking of She Died a Lady, which I recently finished! What an ending!)
Still, it’s odd that Whispers has virtually no suspects. Most of the characters here exist in the past; only Fay Seton seems to bridge the two eras. Like you, I resisted accepting Rigaud on face value. But we’re forced to do so since the basis of the whole mystery springs from the story Rigaud tells at the start. It’s hard to credibly include Miles Hammond or his sister as suspects . . . suspects in what?!? That leaves Barbara Morell and Stephen Curtis — but he disappears after one brief scene, and the murderer should be someone we see throughout the book. (Them’s the rules; I didn’t make ‘em up!) So really, it all becomes a tale about Fay and her true moral nature.
It’s difficult to disagree. Though I honestly feel that Carr does a better job with the plotting than Christie does, I’m not convinced this would make it into my top 10 Carrs any more; but it’s fascinating to get to the end and realise how nested and dense — how much depth, to use my terminology from the other week — there’s been throughout. It doesn’t have the chapter-after-chapter revelations of proper masterworks like Till Death Do Us Part (1944) or The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) — the chapter on the London Underground where Miles and Barbara follow Fay and fail to get off at the correct stop is…interminable — but once you realise how tightly everything is wound you can forgive this sort of apparent looseness.
Conversely, I think this might be why HWW has emerged at the most popular Carr book: it feels very traditional, and turns out to be anything but, which I think surprised a lot of people when the first read it.
I plumped on Stephen as the killer immediately because I know that Carr cares not a whit for the rule I named above. His reaction to the news that Miles was bringing Fay down to the family estate was odd enough for me to figure that something was up. I never guessed Stephen would turn out to be Harry Brooke, and in a way I guess this eliminates the breaking of the rule.
This is sort of what I mean about the depth of it all — Stephen does stand out a mile as trying to avoid Fay, which is a weird piece of clumsy writing from Carr, especially given how well he usually hides his guilty parties — but that scene when he’s about to go into his room only to be told Rigaud is sleeping in there and so spins away apparently in irritation but in fact fear is a moment that plays over and over in my head when I think of this book. It’s one of those tiny moments with huge implications that Carr does so well, and in retrospect gives the whole thing a much more dangerous atmosphere. On which note…
Carr wins here in terms of the sheer number of stunning reversals he gives us. Rigaud manages to tell a completely honest story and be totally wrong about key characters and relationships. We all know that Fay cannot really be a vampire, and yet it turns out that she is! The vamp, the nymphomaniac, the femme fatale . . . they are all sisters under the skin. Everything about Fay’s character works for me. I love Marion Hammond as well, enough to feel true loss when she is attacked. Only Barbara never comes to life, and her connection through her brother is the most tenuous aspect of the plot for me.
Oh, god, when the nature of the attack on Marion is revealed, I just felt sick with the horror of it…
Reading these two has really helped me compare just how wonderful Carr’s use of atmosphere is, and has brought out the simplicity of language that makes Christie so popular. Consider the end of chapter 3 of DotN, when Jacqueline comes out onto the veranda and Christie says — apropos of almost nothing — “There was a feeling in the air of hush, of expectancy…like the moment on the stage when one is waiting for the entrance of the leading lady”. Or chapter seven when Poirot is talking to Rosalie Otterbourne and Christie says “The whole scene had a melancholy, almost sinister charm” — we’re just told that this is the atmosphere, there’s nothing to build up to it.
Conversely, I think Carr — while a little muted here — does more to establish the sense of sadness or panic or malice without having to simply tell you: I love the opening of chapter nine: “Even more white, very white, glimmered Rigaud’s face under the rising moon, whose light now touched the water beneath them”, or the horrible callback in chapter 11 after the discussion of the vampirism for the first time of seeing Fay again when “in the uncertain light it seemed to Miles that she had put on a great deal of lipstick, which she did not ordinarily use”. I feel Carr does a lot more to chip away at a sense of unease, where Christie simply says that you should now feel uneasy.
Points to Carr for atmosphere. This is something he does well, yet it isn’t what Christie is about, so we’re talking apples to oranges! Yes, the vampire stuff is ultimately nonsense, but that second attack on Marion totally scared me. I also appreciate that Carr is willing to go to sexually frank places in his books, but Christie has done that too, only in a more genteel way as befits her style and the time in which she began to write. Christie’s popularity springs from her ability to paint a picture for the average reader . . . of the aristocracy, of the common man, of lunacy. Rarely is someone suspected of being a monster — that atmospheric story in The Thirteen Problems set at an altar springs to mind — but for Christie, horror springs out of the everyday, and her style reflects that.
On that note, I think one of the most affecting images from this is the discovery of the body of the maid Louise Bourget under her bed, made by the sight of the shoes not quite properly lined up…easily the most chilling moment in the entire book for me.
For all the masterful planning of Linnet’s killing, the plan itself is full of ineptitude. For one thing, the red ink is kept in a bottle of the wrong colour — which is stupid and lazy — and then put among Linnet’s things rather than kept by Simon to pass onto Jacqueline later. Better yet, why not throw the bottle away or throw it in the ship’s furnace at some point, since no-one would know to look for it? And since Simon replaces one bullet in the gun to disguise the extra fake shot, why not have two spare bullets to put in the gun and then place the gun back under the settee after shooting himself in the leg? That way, the gun never goes ‘missing’ and has only been fired once when discovered, so Linnet must have been shot by a different gun. Thus, when the partner gun turns up later, that could be used as a bluff against someone else…especially if that had been fired beforehand. I know it’s nit-picking, but the actions Simon undertakes with the gun seems to exist solely to cast suspicion on himself.
The lovers’ plan in Nile is hardly foolproof, and the schemes in Whispers rely too much on coincidence and luck. Simon and Jackie had incredible bad luck in having Poirot on the same cruise — I’m not sure a typical Egyptian detective would have made much of the nail polish, and the gun had to be Jackie’s to build the case that she was being framed. What is less credible is having two people witness their crimes, leading to two more deaths. That is pure GAD hogwash!
Still, a reader can follow along as Poirot jumps step by step to the solution. Dr. Fell’s understanding of the Seton case is almost supernatural, but then this series of reversals that make us jump with delight are all fairly unrealistic.
And then I really feel that Carr undersells the impossibility here. Rigaud more-or-less says “I left him at the top of the tower and then later he was found stabbed and the briefcase had disappeared” and that’s it; this section — the impossible crime part of a John Dickson Carr novel — lacks for atmosphere for me. It turns out to be ingenious (see my comments about depth above) but at the time I wasn’t convinced and there are cases not even confronted (the kids who discover him, for instance, are never considered, though this might be my ghoulish imagination getting away from me).
You are the impossibility expert here — sometimes in a locked room puzzle, I feel totally lost! But the last line of He Who Whispers contains a final reversal that destroyed me — in a good way — when Miles ignores the perfectly respectable Barbara and rushes to Fay in the end. Given the chances of these two messed up people living happily ever after, I found his choice breathtaking.
And of course Poirot lets Jackie become executioner at the end of Nile. His feelings for her are akin to fatherhood. He feels he has failed her by not leading her away from sin, and so he lets her take control of her fate. It’s his gift to her.
In a way, this comes back to the idea of the wronged women I mentioned up top. Fay Seton’s own moral lassitude is considered by far the least of her failings and she’s rewarded for her persecution with the love of a (possibly fanatically unbalanced) man. I’ve never quite bought this, but then I think the vampirism/persecution thread is more something readers talk about from this book than experience in it.
Linnet Ridgeway is in many ways very culpable for what happened — she wasn’t in the relationship with Simon entirely against her own will — but the ending of DotN breaks my heart in so many ways. The hopelessness of Jackie’s murder-suicide, the loss of everything they’d planned and schemed and murdered multiple times for, is actually kind of overwhelming, especially given the stark simplicity of Poirot’s reaction to it all.
As Brad says up top, these books are really too different to make a direct comparison, but I can see how their popularity comes from how they represent a microcosm of their authors’ work. On their own, they give a great overview of Carr and Christie, their faults, their strengths, and their approaches to the business of writing, but for my money they’ve each done better books than these…
I really do think He Who Whispers is one of my favorite Carrs because of the sheer humanity of it which, I’ll admit, transcends what may be a less technically accomplished puzzle than others he’s written. And I believe Death on the Nile is a classic of its time, although JJ makes a strong case that its strengths lie not in the puzzle but in those human elements surrounding the two women at the heart of the case. Without a doubt, these are two rare mystery authors who could make us both think and feel.
Well, that was disappointingly free of controversy, eh? It’s almost like we’re grown-ups or something. And in fact, we’ve enjoyed doing this so much that Brad has an idea for a follow-up…which I shall allow him to mention or not as he chooses. Consider yourselves intrigued…
But, more importantly for the time being, what do you think (about the books, not the maturity Brad and I have displayed here — though feel free to commend us on that, too)? We get so few chances to really cut loose with spoilers — the comments are a spoiler-encouraged zone, let’s pick these apart even more — go for it!
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