“Crooked House” is the first Agatha Christie standalone novel I’ve read. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how fresh and simple the humour in this book is. The writing feels relaxed and confident as if Agatha Christie is enjoying the people she’s writing about rather than working to set up a plot.
Although there is a murder driving the plot of “Crooked House” the book is really an examination of how a rather strange, very rich Leonides family live together and how they see themselves and each other.
The Leonides family is of mixed Greek/English origins, the Greek patriarch being the charismatic self-made man who has become very wealthy by always finding a crooked, but just about legal, angle in a deal and the English matriarch coming from a good family with old money.
The family live in the crooked house of the title, purpose-built for them, it aspires to an English Country Cottage style but succeeds only in being too large to be a cottage and too eccentric to be authentically English. Three generations of the family live under one roof but in physically separate domains. The house is a metaphor for the family, the wealth, their integration or lack of it into Society and their relationships with each other.
“Crooked House” is set in 1949 and a, perhaps unconscious, benefit of the book is to give an insight into the behaviour and assumptions of the English Establishment in the years after the war, faced with nationalisation of major industries, the creation of the National Health Service and a dramatic increase in inheritance tax at home, the collapse of Sterling and the start of the slow unravelling of the British Empire abroad.
We gain the Establishment view by having the family and the mystery explored by Charles Hayward, a man so deeply embedded into the English Establishment that it is invisible to him. He’s included in the investigation not because he is a policeman but because he’s included he’s the right sort (English Gentlemen with a senior post in the Foreign Office), is connected to the right people (his father is a Police Commissioner) and is connected to the family (having proposed marriage to the eldest daughter).
Charles is a man whose most distinguishing characteristic is his unrelenting blandness. a facet of his personality he seems completely unaware of. He makes Watson look charismatic and insightful. He is SO bland, I struggled to remember his name.
“Crooked House” opens in Cairo with Charles proposing marriage to Sophia Leonides where they both have Foreign Office postings. The proposal is so tentative, so painfully polite and so completely passionless type that could only have been made by an upper-class Englishman in the nineteen forties. I couldn’t figure out whether Charles had finally spotted something that would nicely accessorise his post-war life or if there was genuine passion there. There’s so much repression of emotion that I wonder if either Charles or Sophia were any clearer on the answer than I was.
Throughout the book, I found myself wondering if Charles would survive becoming a member of the Leonides family, even if no murder had occurred. Early in the investigation, Sophia gives a frank explanation of how various members of the family see the world and each other and I wondered whether, after letting that point of view sink in for a while, Charles would still be quite so keen to marry into this family. They reminded me of one of the collective nouns for cats: “a pounce of cats”. Charles would have to establish very early on that he was not prey. Charles, however, remained blissfully unaware of any threat.
Charles is very much a man of his time. His feelings of comfort on meeting the Leonides nanny made me sorry for him and all the others in his generation who lived with this kind of surrogacy.
The storytelling is suffering from that fact that Charles has no side-kick to bounce things off, hide things from or make witty remarks to. We have to suffer through his interior monologue, which mostly reveals that he is too close to the family and too conventional in his thinking to uncover the murderer.
The most fascinating character in the book is young Josephine, granddaughter of the patriarch. Josephine’s a little chilling, quite believable and impossible to look away from. She is a girl who is determined to take control of her own life. She doesn’t suffer fools at all and she is constantly telling Charles, as I would like to have done, that he has no idea what is really going on.
“Crooked House” was an environment so rich in potential killers that, like Charles, I had no idea who the murderer was, but I was given a thorough education in the ways in which those who have always been wealthy exercise an instinctive ruthlessness that allows them to stay that way and to continue to feel completely entitled to do so.
I was also given an insight into the unique suffering of the rich. Imagine the pain of a rich man’s son who, after having driven a successful business into the ground through a refusal tell his father that he had no talent for business, now has of “to live simply” on the small estate his wife has just inherited in Barbados. How is anyone supposed to cope with such trauma?
Although the focus is on the family rather than the murder, I did enjoy the plot. The identity of the murderer came as a complete surprise to me but left me feeling foolish rather than cheated as, in retrospect, it all made sense. I blame my lack of insight on Charles’ lack of investigative talent.
This book was such an unexpected pleasure that I shall be looking for other standalone Christie books of this period.
Hugh Fraser did his usual good job of narrating “Crooked House”. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.