We begin 2014 with a classic author trying something different. Many readers (myself included) regard this as among the most accomplished of Agatha Christie’s (admittedly variable) later novels. A clever variation on one of her best Golden Age gambits, this is none the less a book that definitely belongs to her later period. It was also one of her own favourites, a stand-alone story that certainly strives for something new and modern but that is unmistakably a work of its celebrated author.
““It’s rather different from anything I’ve done before, more serious – a tragedy really” - Agatha Christie
The novel is told in the first person by Michael, a drifter from a poor background with aspirations to something better. When he meets the heiress Ellie his deepest desires are fulfilled as they marry and build their own dream home at the beautiful if slightly sinister Gypsy’s Acre, a place that is said to be cursed but which seems to have a special hold on him. The house is designed for them by his friend Santonix, an unconventional architect as well as a peculiar and ailing man who seems to have a sense of foreboding about the house. And before long the man is dead, a riding accident occurs and tragedy strikes before a cunning plan is revealed and a major twist is sprung in the closing pages.
“Why not begin where I first caught sight of Ellie standing in the dark fir trees of Gypsy’s Acre?”
Endless Night has always been one of my favourite Christie books, and not just for its prominence among the often somewhat inferior work she produced in her final years. My fondness stems from its successful attempt to try something new with its emphasis on youth, psychology, dark characterisation and its twisted fairytale styling, all very well conveyed by the septuagenarian author. The dreamlike atmosphere is something it shares with another personal favourite, By the Pricking of my Thumbs, a book about old age in which we revisit Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in retirement. What is unusual about Endless Night is that it features very young protagonists and manages, to some degree at least, to avoid that somewhat clichéd negative depiction of youngsters in the swinging sixties and the usual tired remarks about the ‘younger generation’ that could be so common to traditional detective stories of the era. But then this is a book somewhat out of the norm for Christie - there is no real detective and was designed to feel more like a psychological mystery in the style of Margaret Millar rather than one of her traditional investigations. There are few physical clues and the clever solution is based entirely on the makeup of the characters. However, Christie did also write a more traditional Golden Age version of this story …
“Ah,” said Mrs Edge, “we haven’t forgotten you, Mr Harry. Seems like a fairy tale to think of you married and building up a new house instead of that ruined old Kingsdean House.” - from ‘The Case of the Caretaker‘
Christie in fact based the novel on a short story that featured Miss Marple published decades earlier in The Strand magazine during the war. The 1941 short story, The Case of the Caretaker, begins with the spinster laid up in bed with flu. To aid her recovery the doctor hands over the case history of a crime from his past but with the conclusion omitted to see if she can figure out who did it. In its outline the story she reads is in fact very close to Endless Night. Harry Laxton was a bit of a neer-do-well but he has now married the charming Louise and decided to settle down in their home (here called King’s Dean). As in the later novel, their appearance creates a disturbance in the village and once again an old woman seemingly places a curse on them. Louise is thrown from a horse and dies. This seeming tragedy is later revealed to be part of a cunning plot – and yes, the solution is in essence also the same as the one from Endless Night too. It is useful to compare the varying approaches of the two iterations and the novel is certainly more successful for its strong atmosphere and fascinating, often truly enigmatic protagonists.
It’s been adapted for film, radio and most recently television and I’ll be reviewing some of those in my next post …
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘Time / Day’ category; Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at her Doing Dewey blog (for links to the reviews, click here); and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which today is being hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog.