Evil Under the Sun marks an important milestone in my re-readathon – if Wikipedia is to be believed, I’m now precisely halfway through Christie’s back catalogue of detective novels with the book review no. 33! Since I officially committed to this challenge back in August 2018, I should probably complete it by August 2022. Let’s hope that the world is in a decent shape by then, or at least limping back to normality.
I’m happy to mark the halfway point with this Poirot novel, one of my personal favourites. This is yet another instance where a murder spoils Poirot’s plan to have a nice relaxing holiday, this time a seaside getaway on the Devon coast, in a romantically named Jolly Roger Hotel on the Smugglers’ Island. The victim is Arlena Marshall, a former actress and a sun-bronzed goddess with the reputation of a man-eater. Before her lifeless body is found in an isolated cove one morning, Arlena causes quite a commotion among the resort crowd, hanging around with a married man who is clearly smitten with her.
Though she was detested by women, the nature of the murder – strangulation – points to a man, and there’s no shortage of theories as to how Arlena came to this unfortunate end. Was this a crime of passion committed by her outwardly stoic and emotionless husband? Was she a victim of an unstable religious fanatic out to punish a sinful Jezebel? Did she unwittingly stumble on the local drug trade? And what’s up with the weird little details that Poirot’s fastidious mind can’t help but latch on, like scissors found on the beach and a bottle that somebody chucks out of the window?
Christie’s novels aren’t exactly short on elaborately planned and impeccably timed murder schemes, but this crime has an extra dash of psychology to it that made it particularly memorable to me. The fact that it’s probably a tad too far-fetched and audacious for real life does nothing to lessen my enjoyment. There’s also a lot to like about the vividly realised island resort setting and Poirot’s fellow holidayers, overall one of Christie’s strongest ensembles.
Christie often deals in stereotypes, but here she seems to take an extra pleasure in subverting them and challenging the reader’s own preconceived notions and snap judgements. The American couple (chatterbox wife and her patient “yes dear” husband”) provide a nice touch of comedy amid the tense atmosphere. I also chortled out loud at some self-aware humour from Poirot who, when quizzed for information, explains that he reveals nothing until the last chapter. I see what you did there!
P.S. The story and characters in Evil Under the Sun have some strong similarities to an earlier Christie short story named Triangle at Rhodes. I wonder if she consciously reworked it into a full novel.
P.P.S. I would so love a seaside holiday right now, minus the murder of course.