Friday, October 12, 2012

Review of Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie (1935, Hamlyn)

Hercule Poirot is flying from Paris to London.  In the same section of the plane are ten fellow passengers - a Parisian lady, a countess and her friend, a businessman, a dentist, a hairdresser who has won the Irish sweepstakes, a Harley Street doctor, father and son archaeologists, and a detective author - who are served by two stewards.  As they near the airport at Croyden, one of the stewards tries to wake the Parisian lady, Madame Giselle, only to discover that she is dead.  At first it appears that she has died of a reaction to a wasp sting, but the ever observant Poirot finds at her feet a small blowpipe dart disguised as a wasp.  The puzzling questions are who killed her and how were they not observed doing it given that none of the passengers witnessed another using a blowpipe?  On landing Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard is on hand to investigate.  It soon transpires that Madame Giselle was a wealthy moneylender who profited from making loans to selected individuals and made sure they paid by holding damaging information about them, and her will leaves her fortune to the daughter she gave away at birth.  Whilst Japp flounders, Poirot uncovers some fairly clear links between some of the passengers and Madame Giselle, though others appear to have no connection or motive for her death.  Through careful deduction he slowly pieces together what happened on the plane before denouncing the culprit.

Death in the Clouds is a classic locked room mystery - a murder is committed in a space occupied by thirteen people, yet no-one witnesses the crime and all of them could conceivably have a motive for the death.  Christie excels at creating such puzzles and telling them in an engaging, often witty voice, that is all show and no tell.  The secret is clever plotting that slowly reveals how various elements of the murder were committed and why, but which keep as many suspects in the frame as possible until a final denouement whilst feeding the reader red herrings and leading them down false paths as they try to determine the killer’s identity.  Her telling is aided by well drawn characterization, especially Poirot and Japp, and some nice observational touches that keep matters plausible.  There are two weaknesses to her style of storytelling, however, both evident in Death in the Clouds.  First, the story is all about the puzzle and rarely do they open up wider reflective questions for the reader.  The effect is a tale that is intriguing but which lacks contemplative depth.  Second, it is almost impossible for the reader to deduce the identity of the murderer before the denouement as some crucial clues are held back and often they are quite outlandish.  Nevertheless, Death in the Clouds is an enjoyable read and Poirot is a delight.



10 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Rob - Funny you'd mention those clues that are held back. They do somewhat take away from this novel. But it is such a prime example of the 'locked room' type story. And I think I tend to be just a bit more forgiving because I am a dedicated Christie fan...

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

It's interesting that Christie should locate three of her novels on three modes of transport—air (DEATH IN THE CLOUDS), sea (DEATH ON THE NILE) and rail (MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS). I'm trying to think up one for the road.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I remember quite liking this one. I do like Christie and like everyone have read more than my share I suspect, but I never thought she played fair, especially compared with the likes of John Dickson Carr.

Richard R. said...

Christie didn't write her books in order to "open up wider reflective questions for the reader". That was never her intent, which was to entertain, pure and simple. Of course some clues are withheld, at least for a while, but they are all there before the denouement. It just takes some searching, often by going back to previous scenes, conversations or events. I believe it's always fair play and have never found an example when it was not, at least in the Poirot and Marple books.

Anonymous said...

Ironically, I am reading my very first Agatha Christie novel right now. (My wife is a huge fan and has finally convinced me to read some of her stuff). I'm reading Death on the Nile, one of the books mentioned above by Prashant. I'm still early in the book so it's hard to tell what I think so far.

Ray Kolb

Deb said...

I have to disagree about clues being held back in this book--without saying too much or spoiling the story for those who haven't read it, there is one huge clue as to the killer's identity that occurs relatively early Lin the book when Poirot is checking various items belonging to the passengers on the plane. Christie smoothly and unobtrusively inserts the clue. When you learn the identity if the killer and how Poirot identified that person, you go flipping back through the book to find the exact moment where Christie clearly points out the killer.

neer said...

This was one book of Christie that I didn't quite enjoy. Poirot was just a shade too pompous in it(compared to his usual standard). :)

Rob Kitchin said...

My feeling is that if all the clues were there early in the book, and I'll take your word for it Ray and Deb that they are, then the question becomes for me - why didn't Poirot reveal them to Japp or the French detective? There is no reason to hold them back other than as a plot device (the argument would be about establishing motive - but you don't have to establish motive to establish guilt, as detective will tell you). Author intent is only one basis to judge a book; regardless of intent, in my view the books could have been improved by being a little more reflective. For example, the fact that a Adam Sandler movie might fulfil his intent does not make it beyond critique.

Anonymous said...

Not me, Rob. I'm still reading my first Christie novel.

Ray Kolb

prats said...

Just finished reading death on clouds,i liked the book alright......very nice plot....only thing I could have asked for more is that,Poirot, during unraveling the mechanics of the murder, should have also explained when did the killer put the blowpipe under the seat...that would be a complete account of the murder plot.Didn't it strike to anyone how did it appear under one of the seats....might as well explain for it too that the killer put it while alighting the plane...or whenever he did. Sum might argue its understandable...but without a precise answer of occasion it seems nonspecific and unaccounted for....THIS IS MY HONEST OPINION.And the fact shouldn't have been missed.