Hercule Poirot 41:
By: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery, British Mystery
Publication Date: November 1969 (reissued in October 2006)
When a Halloween party turns deadly, it falls to Hercule Poirot to unmask a murderer in Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery, Hallowe’en Party.
At a Halloween party, Joyce – a hostile thirteen year old – boasts that she once witnessed a murder. When no one believes her, she storms off home. But within hours her body is found, still in the house, drowned in an apple-bobbing tub. That night, Hercule Poirot is called in to find the “evil presence.” But first he must establish whether he is looking for a murderer or a double-murderer…
Child’s Play or Child’s Murder? Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party
Mrs. Ariadne Oliver is a kind, if somewhat scatterbrained lady, who loves apples and writes bestselling murder mysteries. Though a delightful person, unfortunately, she has never existed. Mrs. Ariadne Oliver is a literary character, a creation of Dame Agatha Christie who introduced her in her later books as a wry alter ego.
In 1969, Mrs. Oliver is about to celebrate Halloween at her friends’ house in Kent, UK. As the hostess is bustling around, trying to get everything in order, Mrs. Oliver ponders the difference between squash and zucchini, between Halloween and Thanksgiving, and between life and death:
“It was rather remarkable, seeing so many pumpkins or vegetable marrows, whatever they are… The last time I saw one of these…was in the United States last year – hundreds of them. All over the house. I’ve never seen so many pumpkins…They were everywhere in the shops, and in people’s houses, with candles or nightlights inside them or strung up. Very interesting, really. But it wasn’t for Hallowe’en party, it was Thanksgiving. Now I’ve always associated pumpkins with Hallowe’en, and that’s the end of October. Thanksgiving comes much later, doesn’t it? Isn’t it November, about the third week in November? Anyway, here, Hallowe’en is definitely the 31st of October, isn’t it? First Hallowe’en and then, what comes next? All Souls’ Day? That’s when in Paris you go to cemeteries and put flowers on graves. Not a sad sort of feast. I mean, all the children go too and enjoy themselves”.
The jarring transition from grief in cemeteries to kids having fun captures the essence of Halloween. It is a holiday of candy and ghost stories; of pumpkins and ghouls; of good cheer and deep fear. And in her own inimitable way, Ariadne Oliver – or rather, her creator, Agatha Christie – has captured the deep duality of this strangest of all feasts.
Hallowe’en Party is not as well-known as Christie’s earlier novels, but it is just as accomplished, while considerably darker. Published in 1969, it features indefatigable Hercule Poirot who, by this time, would be around 120 years old. But he is still capable of solving a murder mystery. Poirot is invited by Mrs. Oliver to investigate a series of crimes around the Quarry Garden in Kent. The crimes are atrocious: four murders, two of them involving children, and an attempted murder of yet another child. The ambience is brooding and ominous: a party ending with a corpse; a mysterious sunken garden; a contested country estate.
We could easily imagine the setup as the beginning of a slasher movie. And indeed, the novel generates a sense of dread by constantly hinting at some unspecified demonic forces at play. There are so many references to serial killers, insanity, witches, and ghouls, you would expect the knife-wielding Michael Myers to pop up from behind the bushes and go on a rampage. After all, the first Halloween movie that crystallized the connection between the holiday and slasher aesthetics came out less than ten years after Christie’s novel, in 1978.
But this is not Christie. Though some of her other novels verge on supernatural horror (especially the superb And Then There Were None, 1939), in her Poirot books, the solution is always rational and logical, the horror of violence defused by reducing it to a bloodless puzzle. At the end, there is a logical explanation, justice is done, and the cozy mystery solved. Poirot, the voice of reason, dismisses out of hand any talk of madness, possession, or ghosts. In Poirot’s world, mayhem is only a pretext for ratiocination, a game with set rules, a game even a child can play. And so, despite the gruesome nature of the murders in Hallowe’en Party, the motive for them is neither sexual nor supernatural but a good old-fashioned desire for profit and fear of discovery (spoilers alert!). Poirot’s reasonable explanation for the deaths of 13-year-old Joyce and her little brother is supposed to dispel the horror of their violent end.
But does it? By the time the murderers finally get their just comeuppances (spoilers alert again!), we have been inundated with so many disturbing references to madness, sexual depravity, possession, demonic forces, and the Devil that the tidy ending rings hollow. As a cleaning lady who is reputed to be a witch ominously suggests, the smug upper-middle-class suburb of Woodleigh Common is infested with evil: “the devil’s always got some of his own. Born and bred to it.” When the children of Woodleigh Common are having a Halloween party, is it a child’s play or a child’s sacrifice?
Mrs. Oliver’s stream of consciousness quoted above is, in fact, a pretty accurate summary of the history of Halloween. It started as the pagan feast of Samhain and later merged with the Catholic All Saints’ Day, designated as such by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century. The night before November 1 was known as All Souls, or All Hallows, Eve, which is the origin of the word Halloween, still spelled in Christie’s novel in the old-fashioned way with an apostrophe. Neither Samhain nor All Hallows Eve were innocent entertainment. Samhain may have involved human sacrifices, while All Hallows Eve was believed to be the time when the dead walk among the living. In the Middle Ages, the fear of ghosts and witches was absolutely real, and neither were a laughing matter. Even the carnival elements – dressing up, masking, drinking, and dancing – were linked to fertility cults that warded off death by engaging in sexual magic.
The reason why Halloween mutated from a pagan ritual to a kiddies’ night out had to do with the rise of science and rationalism in the Industrial Age. Folklore and superstition became an embarrassing reminder of the more “primitive” stages of cultural development. The Victorians saw themselves as the adults of history; everything that went on before was childish, immature; in short, a child’s play.
Only it did not quite work out this way. Nightmares turned out to be impervious to the light of reason; science did not dispel the fog of superstition; and irrational evil came back in force during the massacres of the last century. And Halloween persisted in its duality: both a whimsical entertainment and a night of terror; both a child’s play and adult horror; both trick-or-treating and serial murder.
Hallowe’en Party reflects this duality. Some of the customs in the novel will strike the American reader as quaint. There is no trick-or-treating but there is bobbing for apples (lifting apples from a bucket of water with your teeth). No face-painting or masks but mirrors are handed out, so girls can see faces of their future husbands (a practice widespread in medieval Europe and reflected in some spooky German and Russian ballads about a dead bridegroom coming to fetch the incautious bride). No candy but there is the Snapdragon – a dish of raisins set on fire. All these customs descend from ancient pagan rituals: apples are linked to fertility cults; mirrors trap souls; and the Snapdragon recalls the Viking funeral pyre. Surrounded by echoes of the Druidic ceremonies, the murder of a young girl is initially presented as some sort of demonic sacrifice, or perhaps a sex crime perpetrated by a madman.
But at the end it turns out to have been just a game. Christie’s novels seldom leave you with unanswered questions about the nature of evil or the origins of criminality. They are soothing puzzles to occupy your mind; cozy mysteries; precursors to Midsomer Murders. And yet, even as all the loose ends are tied up, there is something darker left unspoken. Next time you want to attend a Hallowe’en Party, remember that at All Souls’ Eve, evil walks, and evil is not a child’s play. Dame Agatha Christie who was knighted by the Queen for her contribution to British culture knows how to have her cake and to eat it; to reassure her readers and to disturb them; to have fun and to teach a lesson. So. let’s have Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s ironic self-portrait, have the last word, as she does in Hallowe’en Party:
“’That’s right,’ said Mrs. Oliver in an exaggerated voice, ‘blame it all on me as usual’”
Elana Gomel was born in a country that no longer exists and has lived in many others that may, or may not, be on the road to extinction. She currently resides in California. She is an academic with a long list of books and articles, specializing in science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. She is also a fiction writer who has published more than ninety short stories, several novellas, and three novels. Her story “Where the Streets Have No Name” was the winner of the 2020 Gravity Award, and her story “Mine Seven” is included in The Best Horror of the Year 13 edited by Ellen Datlow. She is a member of HWA.
Little Sister —
A schoolgirl steps between a soldier and a ravening monster…
1943. Soviet Union is under attack as WW2 is raging. Fighting in the doomed battle of Kursk, Andrei finds himself in a strange city where Svetlana, a girl he has never seen but who looks eerily familiar, saves him from a fist-faced creature. When Svetlana’s family is lost, the two embark on a harrowing odyssey across the snow-covered plain, battling deformed former humans and taken prisoners by the army of black stars. Against impossible odds, they reach their destination where they discover a secret that will change history.
Little Sister is a dystopian historical fantasy set in the Soviet Era. Presenting a richly imagined alternative history world, this is a tale of friendship, survival, and heartbreak. Fans of The Book Thief and The Wolfhound Century will enjoy this striking fantasy rooted in Russian fiction.