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The Clocks - Agatha Christie

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Author: Agatha Christie / Genre: Crime / Thriller

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    2 Reviews
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      12.06.2009 23:33
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      An average plot

      As an employee of the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau, Sheila Webb's usual working day was rather mundane and thus she had no reason to suspect that the afternoon of September 9th would be any different. Summoned to number 19, Wilbraham Crescent, by a Miss Pebmarsh, Sheila first noticed the plethora of clocks in the room she had been told to wait in, observing as well that a number of them were set over an hour faster than the actual time. Yet this slight oddity was to pale into insignificance as she stepped further and walked behind the sofa. Lying upon the carpet, the blood evident upon him, was the body of a stabbed man. When Miss Pebmarsh then returned to the house from her shopping trip, Sheila was only able to call out the briefest of details before rushing screaming out of the place and straight into the arms of a man. That man turned out to be Colin Lamb, a man who not only had more than ample investigative qualities himself, but who was closely affiliated with the police. Whilst Lamb needed to concentrate on an unrelated case which he was working on at the time, he maintained an interest in the stabbed man and, whilst the official detection was to be undertaken by the redoubtable Inspector Hardcastle, Lamb felt that somebody else deserved the chance to exercise their little grey cells. Consequently he approached Hercule Poirot, who listened to the information provided and declared it must be a very simple case. With so much complicated matter at hand and with so little information to go on - since there was not even a positive identification of the corpse - Poirot's assertions seemed ludicrous. Moreover, suspicion had, by necessity, to fall upon everyone with even the slightest link to number 19, including the seemingly innocent Sheila Webb. Was she a deliberate pawn in a killer's twisted game, an accidental witness to a crime or an unscrupulous participant in a violent act? As Poirot, Lamb and Hardcastle examined the information available to them, the truth of the situation was to gradually become clear.

      First published in 1963, "The Clocks" is an interesting narration by Christie that manages to combine suspense with methodical planning in order to provide the reader with more than one enigma. Whilst the main case in the story is, of course, the death of the man discovered by Sheila, we are also witness to the separate investigations undertaken by Colin Lamb as he searches for the final pieces of information regarding various spies and defectors who have gone behind the Iron Curtain. The two halves of the crescent are thus linked together throughout the plot, the higher numbers ostensibly holding the clues to Lamb's original investigation and the lower ones centred on the murder at number 19. As the separate sections of the area are, despite some confusion, nevertheless connected with each other, Christie has also ensured that the differing investigations in the novel also manage to interlock quite adequately, revealing a powerful twist at the end which ensures the previously separate paths of the two cases meet up. Christie is able to keep the relevant events apart when necessary without causing confusion and, by the use of either first hand narrative through Lamb or by third hand reporting, maintains an intriguing build up, primarily with the murder yet, to a lesser extent, with the espionage as well.

      The story draws upon a number of familiar patterns, the apparently accidental discovery of the body reminding us of "Why Didn't They Ask Evans" and the surfeit of clocks in the room reminiscent of "The Seven Dials Mystery". Furthermore, the increasing feelings which Lamb holds towards Sheila Webb, a potential suspect in the murder case, is akin to those felt by Hastings towards Ms Duveen in "Murder on the Links". Yet, regardless of these similarities, there remains enough originality about this work to enable it to be, on the whole, an interesting plot. If there is an overall theme running throughout it, it must surely be the ways in which assumptions impact significantly upon the lives of so many of the characters. As the narrative progresses we are able to observe how the differing perceptions of various characters influence not only how others see them, but also how this affects the cases. It is made intentionally difficult to gain any clear idea of who may be trusted and which of the people have any secrets. This focus on suppositions is carried onwards to the unmasking of the killer. Whilst an initial reading may not pick up on who the perpetrator is, when the story is read a second time - and therefore with the benefit of hindsight - the clues towards the person are all readily available. Christie, perhaps for her own amusement, hints at this ease of identification when a reference is made probably to Superintendent Battle, the likely father of Colin Lamb:
      "He was so straightforward. He used the obvious as no man has used it before. He would set the trap, the very obvious trap and people he wished to catch would say 'it is too obvious that, it cannot be true' and so they fell into it!".
      Because the reader assumes that the case must be more complicated than it is, when the information concerning the murderer is placed before them, it is all too easy to discount it upon first impressions. This also applies to the lesser case of espionage which Lamb is focused on. At one part of the story the solution to that is laid clearly before the reader, yet it seems so apparent that many will dismiss it, seeking for a more secluded solution.

      The characters within "The Clocks" are, for the most part, fairly two dimensional in the way in which they are portrayed, with only a small handful having any sufficient depth to them. It is likely that this is a deliberate ploy, we are not meant to consider the personalities of most of the people within the story, and instead we must look at the small but relevant details which they present to us. In the same way that each individual brick makes up the houses of Wilbraham Crescent, so too do the apparently random comments uttered by the residents of that place and other characters build up the case against the murderer. Edna Brent's disinterested and scatterbrained nature is as integral to the plot as the stronger character of Sheila Webb, a woman who bears a strong comparison in many ways to Norma Restarick of "Third Girl." The brief appearances of the harassed mother Mrs Ramsey and the bluff builder Mr Bland also serve to establish the realities of the situation. We gain little insight into the lives or emotions of much of the people within this story, though of course numerous relevant or irrelevant secrets are revealed as it progresses. However, since the focus is on solving the murder and - as a sideline - the case which Lamb is initially investigating, there is little need to learn much about the deeper lives of the people within the narrative. Thus the information we are given regarding them is somewhat scant. We know, for example, that Miss Martindale, the proprietor of Cavendish's is an efficient manager, yet we know almost nothing of her private life and the short conversations with her are restricted primarily to her business and the investigation of the killing. Sheila Webb is afforded greater depth, partly due to her role as one of the least likely (and therefore a strong contender for actually committing the deed) killers and partly due to her growing relationship with Colin Lamb. Lamb himself is probably the most rounded personality within the novel, his thoughts and actions laid before the reader in almost equal amounts and, therefore, we gain a greater understanding of him than we do of any other person within the story. Poirot's role within it is, of course, pivotal, yet nothing is revealed of him that we do not already know and his appearances are infrequent and brief. He is forcefully operational in the background, yet it is all too easy to forget that this is, essentially, a Poirot mystery as Lamb's detective work dominates a large part of the proceedings. Inspector Hardcastle reminds us a little of Superintendent Battle, a stolid and perhaps underestimated investigator who nevertheless manages to pick up on some minor, but relevant facts which have a significant bearing on the case. As the resident of number 19, Miss Pebmarsh might be expected to be given a greater position within the narrative, yet her role is, for most of it, as minor as many of the other residents within the Crescent. Her calm and practical spirit is evident throughout the passages in which she appears and is a little akin to Emily Arundell from "Dumb Witness".

      Christie has written what could be a promising psychological thriller, one which maintains the reader's interest for much of the plot. It is regrettable, therefore, that the solution should turn out to be somewhat disappointing and illogical. When the final strands of the mystery are woven together, the reasons for the intriguing scenario at the commencement of the novel are revealed to be far less interesting than they promised to be. It is as though she imagined the scene of a young woman rushing screaming from a house upon discovering a body, wished to build up a plot based around that brief description and then, realising that she had perhaps made it too complicated, came up with a conclusion that is weak to say the least. It is an irritating flaw in what would otherwise be a strong storyline and whilst we may take the view of believing this was intentional on Christie's part, that she intended the case to be, in the end, far more simple than it initially appeared to be, nonetheless there is a feeling that too much rigmarole has been undertaken by the murderer for no real need. Yet perhaps this is a deliberately ironic move, the killer deliberately sets out to make the case as complicated as possible in order to remove suspicion from them, but by doing so they ensure that Poirot is thus able to draw his attention towards them. Without the exaggerated trappings that are suggested, with only a few minor changes to the schemes of the murderer, it is highly likely that their crime would have remained if not undetected, then almost certainly unsolved. Here, then, Christie is making it evident that, in the end, the simplest solution is always the best one for those instigating it. Moreover, Christie may have felt that had she not taken the course she had, the plot would have become too unfathomable and perhaps too unbelievable. Had she been able to achieve a good balance between the rather lacklustre denouement of the murder that she does, or a more fantastical one, then this would have been better.

      In conclusion, whilst "The Clocks" is promising, it fails to live up to its early expectations and what might have been a powerful narrative falls somewhat flat at the end. The solution is sound, yet it seems to have been concocted together fairly haphazardly and ensuring that the reader has to believe a quite implausible explanation. However, if this negative aspect can be discounted, then the plot as a whole reads quite well and Christie does set forth a number of twists which maintain our interest. Although it can not be considered to be amongst the strongest of her works, it is interesting enough to lift it above a poor rating.

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      • More +
        02.09.2000 19:46
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        The Clocks is an atypical Christie book. Although the blurb suggests that Hercule Poirot features heavily, he doesn't turn up till nearly halfway through the book! And even then he appears sporadically throughout, staying at his home while Colin Lamb (the main character) reports everything he sees and hears to the Belgian detective. The murder occurs at the very start of the book and takes place in the cosy little street Wilbraham Crescent. Its certainly one of Christie's oddest murders: the body is surrounded by clocks, all reading 4:13,in the house of a blind woman who doesn't know the victim. In fact, no one claims to know the victim and all the leads seem to go nowhere. So Lamb (who was on the spot at the time) enlists his old friend Poirot. The book doesn't suffer from Poirot's only fleeting appearances; its more fun without him, as he'd probably solve the murder with ease. Of course there are further murders as the book goes on, which make the whole thing more intriguing. This book was published in 1963, in Christie's later years, when her books were being criticised for not being up to the standard of earlier ones. This one doesn't follow that pattern. Its a very clever mystery, as usual you're lead to suspect every character in the book, and you'll be kept guessing until the very end. One of Christie's best.

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