I recently re-read Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder On The Links. It is the second of her novels featuring Hercule Poirot. I will, at some point, write a full analysis of it, but I wanted to share a few thoughts while they were fresh. (There are spoilers ahead, but you’ve had up to 99 years to read it, depending on your age.)
The first is that I must say that I like the love story in it featuring Captain Hastings. It is by no means the greatest love story ever told, but the character of Dulcie Duveen was a good fit for Hastings. She was an interesting character whose fondness for Hastings was developed in a natural and believable way, strengthened throughout the story by his devotion to her. She was given natural virtues beyond beauty, and, though clever enough, beyond intelligence, too. Hastings was no genius, and a brilliant woman would not fall in love with him.
Their love story was well paced and given twists and turns to develop in a way that felt natural. Initial attraction leading nowhere, to a second chance meeting where that attraction could strengthen, difficult circumstances, the opportunity for self-sacrifice, and the demonstration on the part of each of virtue (more natural virtue than moral virtue, but still, something).
It was also interesting how this romance was tangled up with the romantic lives of several other couples; of Jack Renaud and Bella Duveen, of M. Renaud and Mrs. Renaud, and of Jack Renaud and Marthe Daubreuil. Each pair, in the devotion of at least one to the other, got in the way of the other pairs. This tangle was fundamentally realistic, though of course compressed in time as novels will tend to do. Life is kind of like that; everyone acting at cross-purposes.
Detective stories are unrealistic, in the sense that real life rarely has crimes that were carefully plotted out by a highly intelligent criminal. They also tend to be unrealistic in that life rarely has so many clues which can actually be figured out. That said, where they are very realistic indeed is in their red herrings. Life is complicated. Life is not the story of just one person; life is not just one story. Life is many stories running simultaneously, intertwining to make each story complicated.
Shifting subjects, I find the main idea of the plot—an old crime coming back to haunt the present—very interesting. There’s something especially appealing in a detective needing to learn the distant past as well as the present. I also find interesting the idea of trying a clever crime a second time, this time fixing the one thing that went wrong the first time. On this point Poirot was, I think, a little unsatisfactory in his explanation—he claimed that human beings are fundamentally unoriginal. There may be some truth to this, but I think it would be a much better explanation to say that he learned from his past mistakes and re-used this scheme because it came so close to working the first time except for a few small problems. Briefly, all that went wrong the first time was that he tied the ropes too loosely, and Jeanne Beroldy had an ordinary past and no connection with Russians. In this case, both of those would be fixed. M. Renauld had a past that was unquestionably connected with Chile and South America more generally, for he really did live there for years. And he tied the ropes very tightly on Mrs. Renauld. This is the more interesting aspect, rather than speculations about the unoriginality of human beings.
The one problem here—and it applies no matter which explanation you use for the selection of M. Renauld’s plot—is that he was using it to escape the one person he could be sure would recognize it. In any context other than escaping his former accomplice, re-trying an old plot that nearly worked would make sense. What could Jeanne Beroldy think happened to M Renauld when the plot was nearly identical to the one she went through with the same man, except that this was another scam? And what could the object of that scam be other than to fake his death to escape her?
On a related note, the fundamental underlying coincidence—that in all of France Georges Conneau happened to buy the villa neighboring the one in which Jeanne Beroldy lived—is a bit far fetched. This isn’t a critical flaw because it is a inaugural coincidence. Coincidences are only a problem when they help the detective; they are not intrinsically objectionable when they are why the murder happened. Coincidences do happen, and properly looked at all of life rests on coincidences. No one ever married a person with whom they did not have the coincidence of coming into contact with. Everyone who interacts must, ultimately, be thrown into contact with the people with whom they interact by some sort of coincidence.
Still, that a wanted man who lived abroad for more than two decades should happen, by chance, to buy a villa that is literally adjoining the villa in which his accomplice lived for many years is… bordering on too much of a coincidence. It would have been easier on the imagination had he returned to France, and she somehow seen him, found out where he lived, and bought the villa next to his. This would have accomplished everything the plot required without quite as much of a stretch. Still, this is a very minor thing, especially since it could be changed with no impact on the rest of the plot.
Shifting subjects again, something I really appreciated—given my fondness for Captain Hastings at his better moments—was that there was a moment in the story where he wasn’t an idiot.
“Think, my friend,” said Poirot’s voice encouragingly. “Arrange your ideas. Be methodical. Be orderly. There is the secret of success.”
I endeavoured to obey him, casting my mind back over all the details of the case. And reluctantly it seemed to me that the only clear and possible solution was that of Giraud—which Poirot despised. I reflected anew. If there was daylight anywhere it was in the direction of Madame Daubreuil. Giraud was ignorant of her connection with the Beroldy Case. Poirot had declared the Beroldy Case to be all important. It was there I must seek. I was on the right track now. And suddenly I started as an idea of bewildering luminosity shot into my brain. Trembling I built up my hypothesis.
“You have a little idea, I see, mon ami! Capital. We progress.”
I sat up, and lit a pipe.
“Poirot,” I said, “it seems to me we have been strangely remiss. I say we—although I dare say I would be nearer the mark. But you must pay the penalty of your determined secrecy. So I say again we have been strangely remiss. There is some one we have forgotten.”
“And who is that?” inquired Poirot, with twinkling eyes.
The next moment Poirot embraced me warmly. “Enfin! You have arrived. And all by yourself. It is superb! Continue your reasoning. You are right. Decidedly we have done wrong to forget Georges Conneau.”
I was so flattered by the little man’s approval that I could hardly continue. But at last I collected my thoughts and went on.
“Georges Conneau disappeared twenty years ago, but we have no reason to believe that he is dead.”
“Aucunement,” agreed Poirot. “Proceed.”
“Therefore we will assume that he is alive.”
“Or that he was alive until recently.”
“De mieux en mieux!”
Hasting ran off the rail after this, but for a few moments he was able to think. That was a very nice piece of character development, even if it was mostly ignored afterwards. If only Mrs. Christie had followed this up, turning Hastings into more of a real character!