There are some Agatha Christie novels I know word for word, by heart. For nearly all of them, I can give you a pretty good summary of the plot, name all the characters, and discuss key themes and quotes without doing any prep. This isn’t a boast: if anything, it’s a confession of severe social ineptitude and an unhealthy obsession. But, until now, my definite stumbling block has been The Clocks. I just read it for the third time (to give an indication, I’ve probably read And Then There Were None 20+ times).
During the Coronavirus lockdown, it felt like everyone was asking me to recommend Agatha Christies to them. Everyone seems to be reading Christie and/or writing a novel – both of these are very good things, and I’m normally doing one or more of these on a given day, but for the first two weeks of lockdown, I did neither. I wanted absolute distraction for a bit and so read a lot of new-to-me books, mostly from new-to-me authors. In the crime sphere, these included Dennis Wheatley & J.G. Links’ murder dossiers, Magdalen Nabb’s Death of an Englishman, Edward Marston’s The Railway Detective, Vera Casparay’s Laura, Peter Swanson’s Rules for Perfect Murders, and others I can’t remember off the cuff, and a load of non-crime stuff. It mostly hit the spot but not quite and I realised that to truly escape I needed the master.
So, I looked at my bookshelf and picked the one Christie I can’t really remember. All I could remember from having read it at 13 and again at 18 was that it was a bit boring, the plot didn’t tie up, there was a really silly visual clue, and the narrator was a spy pretending to be a marine biologist. But, I reasoned: come on, I’m the one person alive who likes Christie’s generally-acknowledged worst novels, Passenger to Frankfurt and The Big Four. And even people who hate those books always acknowledge that Christie at her worst is better than most writers on a good day. I also figured that this couldn't be as bad as I remembered, because Christie wrote it before some of her strongest work including At Bertram's Hotel (1965), Endless Night (1967), and Hallowe'en Party (1969) - which means she can't have lost her marbles at this point. So, with some trepidation, I pulled out The Clocks and gave it a whirl.
And – I loved it. God knows what was wrong with me before but now I think it’s brilliant. Not her best, no, but miles better than so many other crime novels. The Clocks, published in 1963, is an interesting departure from the whodunit formula. Then again, most late Christie departs from the Golden Age format. If you’ve heard or read my academic work, you’ll know that I think she reinvented the genre throughout the 1960s. It’s a mystery novel combining the spy thriller format, the self-referential detective narrative, and a small-c conservative comedy of social change.
Sheila Webb, a bang-average stenographer, receives a command to visit a house on Wilbraham Crescent, which is owned by the elderly Millicent Pebmarsh. She arrives at the allotted hour and, because Miss Pebmarsh is blind and not at home, lets herself in. In the room, she finds a strange scene: seven clocks, with five of them displaying the wrong time, and a dead man. She screams and runs out into the street, and into the arms of our narrator, who calls himself Colin Lamb.
Colin is – although he scrupulously never tells anyone, not even us his readers – a spy. He’s also the son of a senior policeman, and I’m not sure if this is Superintendent Spence or Superintendent Battle from the Christie back-catalogue. He was looking for another house on the same road where he believes a communist agent is hiding out. And because Sheila is very pretty he decides to solve this murder on the side.
It’s fourteen chapters before Hercule Poirot gets involved, very much in the background. Perhaps this is evidence that Christie was growing tired of Poirot as is commonly supposed. But I wonder if it actually represents Christie’s negotiation of a trope from spy fiction: the all-seeing deus-ex-machina, the M figure, who swoops in and sorts it out.
If so, Poirot’s presentation this time is a masterstroke. He’s mostly squirreled away in Whitehaven Mansions, but when he talks it’s in full Golden Age manner: he quotes childish riddles in lieu of actually explaining things and he’s going through a phase of reading all around the crime genre. So, he sees everything – including this murder plot – through the eyes of fictional detectives (the creations of real authors like John Dickson Carr, Anna Katherine Greene, and A.A. Milne and of authors like Ariadne Oliver and Gary Gregson, who exist only in the Christieverse).
The solution to the crime utterly bamboozled me and I could not be happier because I thought that feeling of getting hoodwinked by Christie was lost forever. It’s a brilliant blend of intricacy and extreme simplicity. I do remember hearing from other readers that the relevance of the clocks fizzles out but I don’t think that’s true. Their relevance is simply not what we expect it to be. And there’s a really nice twist at the end.
Thematically, the novel is ahead of its time in its treatment of disability. My friend Tina Hodgkinson gave an excellent paper on ableism in The Clocks at last year’s Agatha Christie conference, and I’d like to thank her for drawing our attention to this important theme.
Another key theme in the book is change: most of the characters, especially the unsympathetic ones, are afraid of change. They talk of atomic bombs, the EEC, and supermarkets with equal disdain. And they tie themselves up in knots trying to explain what they mean. Nobody challenged nostalgia while fuelling it with quite such brilliance as Agatha Christie.
If you want some fun, absorbing lockdown reading, you can’t go wrong with Agatha Christie. And I recommend The Clocks without hesitation.