"Well, one of us must have killed him!"- Mrs. White (Clue, 1985)
Last year, the first officially sanctioned Agatha Christie pastiche, The Monogram Murders (2014) by Sophie Hannah, was released and garnered criticism for its implausible, convoluted plotting and inaccurate portrayal of Hercule Poirot.
The estate has always been protective of Agatha Christie's intellectual property and never allowed an author to pen a continuation or a previously unrecorded case in one of her series before, which is probably why this one fell short of the mark.
For over ninety years, the only standard for an Agatha Christie novel was set by the Queen of (Golden Age) Mysteries herself, which is a tough bill to fill for any contemporary crime novelist. It would be like asking Napoleon III to equal Napoleon I on the battlefield. Sure, you could expect the same results, but disappointment probably won't be trotting far behind those expectations.
How different was the situation at the beginning of this millennium: there was still entire stack of Hercule Poirot mysteries to be filmed, Miss Marple eagerly awaited a return to the small screen and a handful of stage plays were being novelized by Charles Osborne – a journalist and author of The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie (1982).
During the late 1990s, early 2000s, HarperCollins were reissuing all of Christie's book in hardback in the order they were originally published, which included new material such as Black Coffee (1998), The Unexpected Guest (1999) and Spider's Web (2000) – novelisations of stage plays that didn't endure the same, long-running success of The Mousetrap (1952-present). Well, in my time away from this blog, I serendipitously came across a beautiful, hardcover edition of Spider's Web and finally got around to reading it. You know you're reading a previously unexplored minefield by Christie, when you find out you have been eyeing the wrong suspect the entire time.
Christie wrote Spider's Web in 1954 for "the British film star, Margeret Lockwood, who wanted a role that would exploit her talent for comedy" and "stayed for 774 performances" at the Savoy Theatre in London.
The story opens at Copplestone Court, eighteenth-century country home of Henry Hailsham-Brown, Foreign Office diplomat, and his wife, Clarissa, who's entertaining friends and waiting for her husband to return home from work. It's a warm, homely picture that's disturbed when a man named Oliver Costello is announced by the butler. Costello was the man who probably introduced Henry's first wife, Miranda, to the drugs that destroyed their marriage, but Costello has married Miranda and now she wants their daughter, "Pippa," back from Henry – who's scared to death of her mother and Costello.
|Agatha Christie: The Last True Queen of Great Britain|
There's one particular aspect of that plot strand that's rather dark and atypical for Christie (Costello sexually abused Pippa), which could be something Osborne added to make the story more appealing to readers of modern, psychological-and character driven novels of crime. After all, the dark cover of Spider's Web is stamped with "A Novel" instead of such vulgar terms as "A Mystery" or "A Thriller," but at least it's less pretentious than "A Literary Thriller." Anyway, moving on.
Clarissa doesn't breath a word of the visit to her husband, because he has returned with the rather important tasking of hosting a (secret) meeting at their home between the premier of the Soviet Union and the British Prime-Minister. The only thing Clarissa has to do is leave ham sandwiches and hot coffee in the library, while he's going to fetch the "guests," but in that very same library she stumbles over the lifeless body of Costello – clobbered over the head with something sharp. Luckily, Clarissa has the clarity of mind to do what everyone would do in such a situation: call a couple of friends to hide the body.
The three friends are her godfather, Sir Rowland Delaheye, Hugo Birch and a young man, named Jeremy Warrander, who's in love with Clarissa and after some convincing (including setting up a bridge-alibi), they decide to help. To quote Warrander, "what's a dead body or two among friends?" Unfortunately, an anonymous phone call was made to the police telling them there has been a murder at Copplestone Court and they send Constable Jones and Inspector Lord, who doesn't believe there hasn't been a murder and makes things very difficult for them – especially after he's been proven to be correct.
Clarissa has to draw from her rich well of imagination, which often wondered what she would do if she ever found a dead body in the library, to find explanations for the ever-expanding web of lies she's weaving to keep everyone out of trouble. Even going as far as drawing up a dummy case against herself, claiming self-defense, to protect Pippa. The living quarters setting and group of friends, having each others back, recalled London Particular (1952) by Christianna Brand, but done in the light-hearted, good natured humor reminiscent of Kelley Roos and the Tommy and Tuppence stories in Partners in Crime (1929).
Throw-in a dead antique dealer, a hidden drawer containing an envelope and autograph of Queen Victoria and a good use for that hoary, 19th century plot-device known as the secret passage and you have a fun, fast-paced comedy thriller in which the reader is in the pleasant position of knowing more than Inspector Lord, but not enough to know who's hand is actually behind it all. Not in my case, anyway.
I'll return presently with a new review/blog-post.