Michael meets Ellie and they enjoy a whirlwind romance and are soon happily married. Yet as this is an Agatha Christie this won’t last as whilst “Some are born to Sweet Delight, Some are born to Endless Night”.
I can’t say too much more about the plot as most of the action takes place in the second half. On first reading I was actually angry with the solution but a re-read has given me a new perspective and I would now agree with what seems to be the general opinion that is one of the better late-period Christie’s.
Signs of the Times
Andrew Lippincott travelled on the Queen Mary. This was near the end of her life as she was retired in 1967 after 31 years of service during which she twice broke the record for crossing the Atlantic and served as a troopship during WWII.
Re-reading a book with an unreliable narrator gives the reader the fun of finding where they have incorrectly interpreted ambiguous statements.
At the start of the second page Michael writes:
“Or if this is a love story – and it is a love story, I swear – then why not begin where I first caught sight of Ellie standing in the dark fir tree of Gipsy’s Acre?”
Why not begin there? Well because that’s not the start of the love story – but the reader understandably believes that this is the story of Michael and Ellie when all the time it is that of Michael and Greta.
I feel that Christie gets just the right voice for Michael. On the surface, at least, he comes across as a bit of a jack-the-lad 60s chancer and put me in mind of Michael Caine as “Alfie” from the film version of Bill Naughton’s play. Caine would have been perfect for the rôle of Michael: initially as the working class young man trying to better himself in life, then as the charmer sweeping Ellie off her feet before being revealed as ruthless as Jack from “Get Carter” (breaks off to bring the opening credits up on YouTube: what a theme, the music mixing with the sound of the train as Jack sits reading “Farewell, My Lovely”).
The description of the episode in Hamburg, which we later learn is where he met Greta is cleverly done:
“It was when I was in Hamburg that things came to a crisis. For one thing. I took a violent dislike to the man and his wife I was driving…So I telephoned up the hotel, said I was ill and wired London saying the same thing…That rebellion in my life was an important turning-point in my life. Because of that and of other things, I turned up at the auction rooms on the appointed date.”
What were the other things alluded to by the bold type above? We know at the end that he met Greta – but it would be a rare reader who thought more about them at the time.
When she tells him her real name is Fenella he writes “I almost thought that she might have made it up! But of course I knew that was impossible.” How could he have known that for sure unless he had prior knowledge?
Whilst staying in London after the honeymoon and before moving into the house we have this passage:
“Of course I didn’t look and sound right yet. But that didn’t matter much. I’d got the hang of it, enough so that I could pass muster with people like old Lippincott, and shortly, presumably when Ellie’s stepmother and uncles were around, but actually it wasn’t going to matter in the future at all. When the house was finished and we’d moved in, we were going to be far away everybody. It could be our kingdom. I looked at Greta sitting opposite me. I wondered what she’d really thought of our house. Anyway, it was what I wanted.”
The italics are mine and highlight which “we” Michael is thinking of but also the fact that come the end it didn’t matter which woman he was with – everything ultimately about what he personally wanted and never mind any one else.
When I first read this I was disappointed due to similarities to one of my favourite Christie’s. I felt that some things you could repeat and others you should not. However on re-reading I found that actually what we are reading here is the inside story of a different classic Christie, although with a different outcome, and this pleased me very much.