Sunday, September 20, 2015

Dark Elegy: Endless Night (1967) by Agatha Christie (Christie in the Sixties)

Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are born.
Every Morn and every Night
Some are born to Sweet Delight.
Some are born to Sweet Delight,
Some are born to Endless Night.

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Some are born to
Sweet Delight,
Some are born to
Endless Night
When Endless Night was published in 1967 it was honored, like Ross Macdonald's The Goodbye Look more famously would be a couple of years later, with a long notice in the New York Times Book Review, in which Christie's latest crime novel was heralded as a "genuine literary event."

Christie, it was pronounced

has thrown down the gauntlet as never before and produced a surpassing mystery that is almost as fine as a novel.  In fact were not the Christie name on Endless Night, no reader would suspect it of being a mystery.

Looking past the unintended back-handedness of this praise ("almost as fine as a novel"; no one would think of it as "being a mystery"), I think the reviewer hits on something here. Endless Night is fundamentally different from many of Christie's mysteries.

No doubt this was why, when I first read Endless Night at around the age of twelve or thirteen, I was distinctly unimpressed with it (though the ending did make me perk up). Where was Poirot (or, less interesting to me at that time, Miss Marple)?  Where was the murder in the first few chapters and the long list of quirky suspects?  What was with all this lovey-dovey stuff and personal introspection?

When I reread Endless Night as an adult, with a much more comprehensive knowledge of mystery and crime fiction behind me, I realized that the novel was a vastly more intriguing piece of work than I had credited it with being, back when I had read it many years previously.

Just as her rather grim dysfunctional family mystery, Ordeal by Innocence (1958), presaged the mysteries of the late P. D. James, Christie's Endless Night is more at home with the psychological crime novels of the late Ruth Rendell than it is with much of the classic country house mystery fiction of the Twenties and Thirties (though it does have a country house), being more preoccupied with character delineation than with crime detection.

Most people who read this blog are probably familiar with the plot of Endless Night.  In a daring move on the part of Christie, then in her late seventies, the novel is told retrospectively in the first person by Michael Rogers, a restless young Briton of "respectable" working-class origins.

In a story line that could have come from one of Christie's Mary Westmacott novels, Mike, a chauffeur for wealthy clients, meets Ellie, a "poor little rich girl" from the United States beset with an assortment of sponging relatives and attendants. They soon marry and build an enchanting country house, on a wooded property known as "Gipsy's Acre.

As may not be a surprise, given this appellation, there is a curse on the property, to the effect that anyone living there will meet with most ill fortune in life. (Here we in Gothic territory, then a subgenre enjoying a great resurgence in popularity.)  Over the novel hangs, like some menacing storm cloud, an effectively-conveyed sense of impending disaster, which is fulfilled in the final third of the tale.  It is only then that we get the crime and detection that characterizes classic Christie.

This part of the novel is drawn from an earlier Miss Marple short story, "The Case of the Caretaker," originally published in The Strand Magazine in 1941. A longer draft version of this story, "The Case of the Caretaker's Wife," appeared in 2011, in John Curran's book Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making.

This newly-discovered first version of the story is quite good, indeed certainly one of the best Miss Marple short stories, but it is put to definitive use in Endless Night.

In the end what impresses me so much about Endless Night is how Christie is able so powerfully to illustrate the melancholy thesis of her perfectly chosen epigraph from William Blake.

Christie's appropriation of the narrative voice of a young man in his twenties (born, one presumes, in the early 1940s), is not, I will concede, always word perfect, but in my view it is on the whole a most impressive character portrait, gracing a most impressive crime novel, one of the best in mystery literature's night gallery.

9 comments:

  1. I re-read this not that long ago and remained impressed. Thanks too for the info about the longer version of the short story, I didn't know about that.

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    1. It's much superior to the published version.

      Third time with me for Endless Night and my view has definitely evolved since the first reading.

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  2. I remember being very impressed by ENDLESS NIGHT many years ago. I really should read it again. The 1972 movie version with Hayley MIlls is not too bad for a 1970s movie.

    I'm sure Christie was delighted to be told that her book was almost good enough to qualify as a novel! When in fact it's considerably better than most of what passes for modern "literary" fiction.

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    1. I've never seen the film, though I believe Sergio reviewed it at his blog. Recently British television had to go and Marplelize the book, ugh.

      Yes, I was always under the impression that all Christie's book were novels. ;)

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    2. I've never seen the film

      The movie is worth a look if only for the remarkable house (if you're a connoisseur of such things).

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    3. I'd like to see that. The "modern" house is emphasized so much in the book.

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  3. I don't know, I just don't like this book. The plot doesn't hold an ounce of water. In order for the ending to be a surprise, one of the characters has to turn into a temporary idiot-lunatic hybrid.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, I recall you didn't like it Patrick. I suppose when reading Endless Night, to put it in the old-time manner:

      Some are born to feel Delight
      Some are born to think it S---e.

      I'm in the Delight category!

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    2. I, too, remember enjoying this book as well as Patrick's commentary on the JDCarr forum. Good days, good days! :)

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