‘The Murder On The Links’ was light and clever but rested a little too heavily on coincidence and on hoof beats signalling zebras rather than horses. It was rescued by being delivered at a relatively fast pace and with relatively little time spent on laboured exposition.
I struggled a bit with Hastings at first. He was even more of an idiot in this book than he was in the later ones. When I reached the point where he left a girl, (whose name he did not know and who had told him that she was interested in selling the story of the murder to the newspapers), alone with the body and the murder weapon, I was ready to give up on him. It made me wonder at Poirot’s motives for keeping around a young man who has all the appeal of an exceptionally stupid Beagle.
Then I realised that I was asking the wrong question. Poirot keeps Hastings around partly so he can have an unchallenging audience and partly out of a sort of misguided paternal instinct. The more interesting question was why Christie not only kept him around but made us see the world only through his eyes.
I think Hastings is a game Christie plays with her readers. A game called ‘spot the blind spot’. The most important things in this story are all things that Hastings is blind to. Of course, the main thing Hastings is blind to is women. He seems pathologically incapable of seeing the woman who is standing in front of him. His vision is obscured and distorted by his expectations of the women. When he first meets the girl who calls herself ‘Cinderella’ for most of the book, he perceives her only dimly, through a fog of disapproval that her use of bad language was evoked. The next girl that he sees, as he enters the village where the action of the novel takes place, he declares to be a goddess and he continues to see her that way, even when Poirot repeatedly refers to her as ‘the girl with the anxious eyes’. Hastings is equally but differently blind to the older women. He attributes roles to them as if they were characters in a Greek play – the noble and selfless mother – the untrustworthy seductress but he does not really see them as people.
In a novel where it is the actions of women, not men, that drive the plot, having a woman-blind narrator is a stroke of genius. Those who share his blindness will never notice it and will find themselves constantly surprised and astonished at events. Those who spot his conceptual cataracts and try to squint past them will be amused at his stupidity and or pleased at their own astuteness. Playing an undeclared game of ‘spot the blind spot’ with your readers is much more fun for everyone involved than having to add barely-credible red herrings.
Christie lubricates her plot with humour, some it at Hasting’s expense. I thought that giving the great Hercule Poirot a younger rival from the Sûreté added a lot of fun to the plot. It allowed Poirot to show some passion for a change, albeit in defence of his own ego and it played nicely on the tension between Belgian and French ways of working and between ‘modern’ detectives and ‘old school’ ones like Poirot. It also establishes Poirot’s method as being baed mostly in psychological insight rather than the erudite interpretation of physical evidence à la Sherlock Holmes.
The final thing that struck me about this novel is how well Christie writes. She gives Hastings as narrator a distinctive voice and yet brings out the characters of others, often through the use of dialogue. She moves the mechanics of the plot along with such a light hand that it’s easy to miss the skill that that requires. From time to time she also leaves a little surprise in her prose This time it was an untypically lyrical comment from Poirot to Hastings which I rather liked.
‘It is love that has come, not as you imagined it, all cock-a-hoop with fine feathers, but sadly, with bleeding feet.’
I started reading this novel as an ebook. I imagine there must be good ebook copies out there. The one I picked wasn’t one of them.
I STRONGLY RECOMMEND THAT YOU DON’T BUY THE Aegitas, Kindle Edition ASIN B07MXLZ25Z.
By the time I was 7% through the book, there had already been three publishing errors. It looks like they are simple OCR failures that have not been found or corrected. Here they are:
‘The letter was written on a foreign type of paper, in a bold characteristic hand: [Unreadable]’
‘I do not know. But I have a premonition-a [unreadable].’
‘the body was lying face downwards, in an [unclear].’
When I finally gave up and moved to the audiobook version, l learned that that last quote should have read:
‘the body was lying face downwards, in an open grave.’
That’s not the kind of detail you want to have to guess at in a murder mystery.
The good news is that Hugh Fraser has done his usual splendid job as a narrator of the audiobook version. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.