If I hadn’t visited Agatha Christie’s home in Devon, I may never bought the novel whose setting bears more than a passing resemblance to her own treasured home. The book might have stayed unread in my bookcase for years if it hadn’t been for the #1956Club reading week hosted by Karen at kaggsysbookishrambings and Simon at stuckinabook.
Christie’ s career as a writer was firmly established by the time Dead Man’s Folly was published in 1956. Since 1920 when her first book, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, was issued she’d published 47 novels as Agatha Christie, five more under the pseudonym of Mary Westamacott plus numerous short stories.
Dead Man’s Folly is a long way off being one of her best; certainly not in the same league as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (published 30 years earlier) or And Then There Were None (published 1939). Even so it’s still an entertaining read, rattling along at a good lick with Christie’s standard recipe of red herrings, large cast of characters, several potential murderers and an insightful detective.
The sleuth in this case is Christie’s most famous creation, the dapper Belgian private detective, Hercule Poirot. One summer he takes a phone call from his friend, the crime novelist Ariadne Oliver. She is staying at Nasse House, the Devonshire manor owned by Sir George Stubbs and his beautiful young wife Hattie. They’ve asked her to concoct a murder hunt as an entertainment for their summer fête.
Mrs Oliver is a highly imaginative woman who frequently gets into a muddle about her plots. But her instincts about people and situations often prove accurate. In this case, her instinct tells her that there is something not quite right about Nasse House. She wouldn’t be surprised, she tells Poirot, if a real murder were to take place. She needs his help.
A murder does occur. A woman disappears. And an old boatman falls into the river and drowns. It’s down to Poirot to figure out how these events are connected and, above all, who is the culprit. Is it Sir George himself? Or the disgruntled architect Michael Weyman who’s aghast at the monstrosity of a folly built on the estate? Perhaps the housekeeper-cum-secretary Miss Brewis is just too efficient to be believable. And what’s with those guests at the youth hostel who keep trespassing on the grounds?
As so often in a crime novel from this period, many of these people have secrets. Nobody is what they seem to be and the past casts a long shadow on the present. Poirot finds the answer (of course) and identifies the murderer although we don’t get to see the arrest. It’s not a very convincing solution because it relies on our belief that no-one in the close-knit community around Nasse House, has seen through a fairly thin disguise adopted by one character.
I sense that Christie enjoyed having fun at the expense of her characters in this book, sending up the locals in their insularity and their suspicions of all foreigners.
“You never know where you are with foreigners,” one local mother tells Poirot. “Nice spoken as most of them are, some of the shirts they wear you wouldn’t believe. Shirts with girls on them with these bikinis as they call them.”
I wonder how that representation went down with Christie’s neighbours near her home at Greenway on the River Dart. For Nasse House is really Greenway and the “big white Georgian house looking out over the river’ is the property Christie and her husband bought in 1939. She pressed her boathouse into service as the murder scene and has characters frequently comment on the gardens with their meandering paths lined with rare shrubs and rhododendrons. Though the descriptions are slight, they still made me want to pay another visit to Greenway House.
If you’re looking for a book to keep you company on a wet and wild Autumn evening, Dead Man’s Folly would be a good choice. It’s not too demanding (even I could work out the solution), entertaining rather than outstanding. When you’ve finished you might want to take a look at the photographs of the house in the post I wrote after my visit to the house that is now owned and managed by The National Trust.