How you should all know, “The Hollow” is our Book of the Month, and very kindly our friend and maximum expert of everything Christie, Dr John Curran, has gifted us with a very pretty jewel, an exclusive only for the Dumb Witnesses. Without hesitation, let’s start diving in the first part of Dr Curran’s article!
The Hollow, published in November 1946, was the first Poirot novel for three years. Described in somewhat bland terms on the original jacket as ‘a human story about human people’, The Hollow resembles a ‘straight’ novel more than a detective story and, indeed, has less in the way of clues and detection than almost any other Poirot title. Christie herself admits this in An Autobiography: ‘The Hollow was, of course, in some ways rather more of a novel than a detective story’. This approach is reflected in an article for the Ministry of Information that Christie wrote towards the end of the War when she commented on her changing methods and admitted becoming ‘more interested as the years go by in the preliminaries of crime. The interplay of character upon character, the deep smouldering resentments and dissatisfactions that do not always come to the surface but which may suddenly explode into violence.’ This is the template of The Hollow – a weekend of smouldering and complicated emotions erupting into murder.
The earliest reference to the plot is to be found in a single line in one of the Christie notebooks – ‘Poirot asks to go down to country – finds a house and various fantastic details’ – hidden among an A–Z list of other ideas. The fact of Poirot going ‘down to country’ is the first clue but the fantastic details are the elements of the tableau that greets him when he calls to The Hollow: a dying man sprawled by the swimming pool, his blood dripping into the pool itself, a woman standing over him holding a revolver, and the other onlookers in the drama, one holding a basket of eggs and another a basket of dahlia heads.
The country house setting is very much Christie territory although the era of the country house weekend – the butler, cocktails, dressing for dinner – was, in the wake of the Second World War, fast disappearing. A telling conversation between the butler and the housemaid in Act I underlines this fact when Gudgeon observes; ’Ah well, it seems those days are gone forever.’ Although many previous Poirot cases had used the country-house background – The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Three Act Tragedy, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas – this scenario would become less of a feature, and future Poirot cases would involve the murder of a young woman in a student hostel, the death of a school-mistress at an exclusive boarding-school, and the murder of a cleaning woman.
The setting of this particular country house, with the swimming pool in the garden, was inspired by a visit to the home of Francis L. Sullivan and his wife Danae, to whom the book is dedicated. Sullivan was the actor who had appeared as Poirot in Christie’s first original stage play, Black Coffee in 1930. He reprised the role in Peril at End House in 1940 and on Broadway he was the original Sir Wilfrid in Witness for the Prosecution. Thanks to this long professional relationship Christie and Sullivan became friends. She describes in An Autobiography how, during one of her visits to his home, Sullivan came down one morning to find her walking distractedly round their swimming pool and talking to herself. He was baffled until the following year when a copy of The Hollow, with its significant dedication, was delivered to him.
Poirot, having bought a nearby house, makes an unconvincing appearance as the Angkatell’s new next-door neighbour. Those of us who know Poirot well are perfectly certain that he would never have done anything so remotely daring as buying a house in the country – damp, smells, open fields, animals – and, not surprisingly, this house is never mentioned again. When next we meet him two years later in Taken at the Flood (The Labours of Hercules was published in 1947 but the stories that comprise that volume had been written many years earlier) he is back in London and remains there for the rest of his career. Visits to the country are just that – visits. As we shall see, when Christie came to adapt the play she, very wisely, dropped him.
Comparisons between Greenway House, Agatha Christie’s house, and Ainswick, the house which dominates the lives and memories of many of the characters in The Hollow, are inevitable. Agatha Christie bought Greenway House in Devon, her home county in South-West England, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. She had known of the house since her childhood and had always admired it, so when it came on the market she bought it without delay. She had to abandon it, however, for most of the War when it was requisitioned for the US Navy, which stationed personnel there. She regained possession after the War and possibly during the writing of The Hollow. The description of Ainswick in Chapter 18 of the novel is very reminiscent of Greenway: ‘the white graceful house, the big magnolia growing up it, the whole set in an amphitheatre of wooded hills’; and in Chapter 6: ‘the final turn in through the gate and up through the woods till you came out into the open and there the house was – big and white and welcoming’. In the opening Act I the picture of Ainswick over the mantelpiece is described as ‘the dominating note of this house’ and Midge refers to Ainswick as ‘the most beautiful place in the world’. This sentiment is echoed in An Autobiography when she writes about Greenway: a ‘very beautiful house and grounds…the ideal house, a dream house’ and when she re-claimed it as the end of the War she thought it ‘beautiful when we went down there again’. In both the novel and the play possible motives for murder are supplied by happy memories of the house and concerns for its possible future.
The butler is the stock cliché figure of detective fiction, almost a standard player on the pages of many detective stories from the 1930s and 40s. The phrase ‘The Butler Did It’ is a standard cliché, although devotees would be hard-pressed to name any books of which this is true. (There are some but not many). Christie herself has created butlers who all play significant parts in the books in which they appear – Parker in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Ellis in Three Act Tragedy, Tressilian in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas – and Gudgeon in The Hollow is no exception. He is no mere stock character but an important member of the Angkatell household and a vital participant in the events of the fatal weekend. In many ways he is the perfect butler whose aim in life is, as he explains in Act I, ‘to see that everything possible is done to spare her Ladyship trouble and annoyance’. During the course of the fatal weekend he takes this to its logical conclusion.
The character drawing in this novel is the most searching Christie had done to date. Two earlier Poirot novels Sad Cypress (1940) and Five Little Pigs (1943) paved the way but in The Hollow, her powers of characterisation reached full flower – somewhat to the detriment of the detective plot. Five Little Pigs is the most perfect example of the combination of the two, Sad Cypress still has a distinct detective plot with clues and alibis; but in The Hollow, the detection is minimal and Poirot is almost surplus to requirements. In all three novels the characterisation is intense and the emotional entanglements convincing but the balance between detective novel and straight novel, perfectly maintained in Five Little Pig, is tilted in favour of people over plot in The Hollow. There is the usual clever mis-direction and a daring double-bluff but there is far less discussion of clues and alibis here than in many other Poirot cases.
Dr John Curran acted as consultant to the National Trust during the renovation of Agatha Christie’s former home, Greenway House. His Edgar-nominated Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks (2009) won the 2011 Agatha, Anthony and Macavity Awards and he published Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, also nominated for the same awards, in September 2011. He completed his PhD, on The Golden Age of Detection, at Trinity College, Dublin where he lives. His most recent publication, Tom Adams Uncovered: The Art of Agatha Christie, was co-authored with the artist Tom Adams who painted over a hundred Christie book covers.