Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “The Clocks” by Agatha Christie


The ClocksAgatha Christie’s The Clocks opens with Colin Lamb’s strolling down Wilbraham Crescent when a young lady exits #19, screaming and running straight into his arms. Sheila Webb, an employee of a stenographic agency, earlier received a message to go to the house to work with Miss Pebmarsh, but if the lady had not returned home yet, she was to go in and wait in the sitting room, which is filled with clocks all set to 4:13. But while waiting, Sheila discovers the body of a man behind the sofa just as the blind Miss Pebmarsh enters and almost steps on the body, prompting the screaming episode that makes Colin fall head over heels in love for the first time in his life.

That night, Colin has dinner with Detective Inspector Hardcastle, his friend in charge of the case, which they had arranged prior to its occurrence. We learn that Colin is a member of Special Branch and has played the spy game all over Europe. Colin’s last name of Lamb is not even his own, since he is the son of a famous detective superintendent who goes unnamed in this book. He was at Wilbraham Crescent in search of #61 while trying to track down a clue, so Hardcastle takes him along in his interviews with the neighbors, who seem interesting but not very promising as either the murderer or the spy Colin is chasing.

In the meantime, the murder investigation is facing all sorts of roadblocks, as the dead man has no identification on him and just one business card, that of insurance agent Mr. Curry, whom the authorities soon learn doesn’t exist. Further, four of the five clocks in Miss Pebmarsh’s sitting room, all set to 4:13, do not belong to her, and when the police take the clocks back to their office, one has gone missing!

These added complications lead Colin to consult his father’s old friend, Hercule Poirot, both for help in the case and to give the old detective something to entertain him. When he arrives at Poirot’s house, he sees the detective surrounded by fictional mystery books and doing an analysis of the investigative techniques used in each book. Poirot’s ego leads Colin to challenge the older man to prove his numerous claims that he can solve a murder just by sitting back in his armchair and thinking. Thus Colin brings the evidence to Poirot, who never speaks to a single witness or examines any evidence in the book.

The Clocks is the second Christie book in a row, after Cat among the Pigeons, to intertwine a spy story and a murder. I enjoyed the combination in the previous book, but it did not come across as effectively in this book. There are a lot of strands that get confusing. In addition, a colleague of Sheila’s has held out in speaking her own concerns about the case until after the inquest, when she tries unsuccessfully to talk to someone in charge and is immediately murdered herself. It seems curious that she wouldn’t have spoken up earlier, and Christie seems to employ a common method in extending her book through the addition of another body, a trick that Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s alter-ego, discusses using in an earlier book.

Just as Hickory, Dickory, Dock brings Hercule Poirot fully into post-World War II England, this book is immersed fully in the Cold War, both with the lifestyles of the people in the book and with the international intrigue chased down by Colin.

The audio edition of this book is performed by Robin Bailey, a departure from the regular narrators of Hugh Fraser and David Suchet.  Bailey does a good job of reading books, but I am so used to the other two readers of the Poirot books that Bailey’s deep voice doesn’t seem to fit the books as well. I have really enjoyed Bailey’s performances in other books, but for this book I would have preferred to hear either Fraser or Suchet.

The Clocks is a fun book, but it is not as strong as many of Christie’s earlier Poirot books. It did have a creative element in having Poirot solve the mystery from his armchair, just telling Colin what details about the facts he requires. Poirot plays a smaller role here than in most of his books, causing scorn among the police when he announces that this must be a very simple crime since it looks so complicated. By this he means that the core case is so basic that the murderer is forced to decorate it with all sorts of extra details to try to throw everyone off the scent. With some interesting points even despite the points against it, I give this book four stars.

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